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Imagine running in snow, torrential rain, hail, strong winds and freezing temperatures along non-stop rolling hills for almost five hours straight. Crazy, right? Well that’s how I spent my Monday when I ran the Boston Marathon in some of the worst conditions in the history of the 121-year-old race.
I had signed up to run Boston to achieve a bucket list dream of running the most prestigious marathon in the world, and to support a charity to promote empowerment for women in sport. What I did not sign up for was near hypothermia and the toughest mental and physical challenge of my life through an epic battle with the elements. This was on top of suffering a severe calf tear and shin splints during training, so I was not in the best physical shape despite working hard with my physio and run coach to get me to the start line.
But even some elite athletes didn’t make it—the conditions were so bad several elite runners withdrew; the overall drop out was 50% higher than last year, the majority of injuries treated were hypothermia, and interestingly it became a women’s race: a higher percentage of men dropped out than women.
Anyone who completed it was hailed a superhero by Bostonians in awe of what we had pushed ourselves through, even though they are used to their notoriously fickle weather (last year’s marathon was unseasonably hot, while this year it was -1°C at the start line).
And I was one of them, running with Team 261 Fearless—a charity whose goal is to promote empowerment for women through running clubs and education. 261 Fearless was founded by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman in history to officially complete a marathon—in Boston in 1967 when women were not allowed to enter. Switzer, now 71, has gone on to become a pioneer for women in sport and a symbol of empowerment through running, and she was there in the commentary box on Monday cheering us all on (she chose not to run Boston this year to instead run London for the first time this weekend).
But at just over half way through the Boston Marathon I felt far from empowered, and I certainly wasn’t a Wonder Woman—I was broken, mentally and physically; my feet were frozen numb, my hands were so cold and wet I had to wring the water out of my gloves every five minutes (while still wearing them), and my lips were blue. My clothes were soaked to the bone, even though I had five layers on. And we ran in clear plastic ponchos—our team even wore shower caps in a makeshift attempt to protect our hats and keep our heads dry. Despite spending the days leading up debating what we were going wear, all sense of fashion was thrown out the window in place of trying to stay as warm as possible.
At 25km I felt on the verge of collapse. My legs started wobbling, I began to hyperventilate and couldn’t breathe properly. I knew I needed to stop, calm myself down and reset but I was still lucid enough to know if I stopped my legs would seize up, I would freeze and start to catch hypothermia. Then I looked up and saw my teammates Demi Clark and Rosie Spraker, Americans who I had only met two days earlier. Rosie, an eternally smiley and happy spirited woman who filmed the whole marathon with a GoPro stick, has run Boston 12 times. Demi survived the 2013 Boston marathon bombing—she was one of the last people to officially cross the finish line when one of the bombs went off metres behind her, right near where her husband and two daughters had been sitting. They all survived, but had been traumatised and Demi suffered PTSD. Yet she was back to run again. The day before, Demi had told me she wanted to run to empower her daughters and show them: “I am unsinkable, I will keep getting up no matter what people throw at me.” We had decided to run the marathon together, to forget any race time just to pace each other and help each other through the conditions to the finish line.
When my legs started to hurt badly and my mind started to give up I started looking for a medical tent, but was committed to the team and the people who had sponsored my run. Then something miraculous happened—Demi looked at me and said “You’ve got this, I’m not leaving you behind.” I started to cry, and Rosie grabbed my hand. Demi led us on. We slowed to a fast walk and I got my breath back, got into a better rhythm and calmed down to the point where I could run again. And we were still only two thirds of the way there! But these women got me through, they never left my side and showed me the power of true sportsmanship and female solidarity. I saw this many times on the course—people supporting each other, runners united by pain in the rain.
At the start I didn’t mind the rain so much—I spent the first 10km on a runner’s high, ignoring the conditions and high-fiving every kid I saw lined up—the Boston crowds are famously supportive, and I could not get over how many thousands of people came out in the hideous conditions to cheer us on. And the volunteers—fire fighters, police officers, service men and women, and ordinary Bostonians who encouraged us with smiles, nods, hugs, anything to help. The locals were phenomenal and propelled us forward—they had stalls set up with orange quarters, bananas, water, Gatorade, snacks, one woman even had a box of old socks handy for frozen hands (which I kindly took—ditching my sodden gloves and running half the race with mens woollen socks on my hands, but hey, I had a shower cap over my Vogue cap so it didn’t seem so ridiculous!)
Demi kept giving me little milestones to focus on to break down the race into sections: there was the first batch of hills, then there was Wellesley Girls College and the famous “scream tunnel” where hundreds of squealing girls line the route with “Kiss for miles” signs; then there was our 261 tent at mile 17 where I was so elated to see a friendly face I body slammed 261 CEO Edith Zuschmann deliriously demanding a wet hug before continuing on. “We’re almost at Heartbreak Hill! You’re doing amazing!” yelled Demi. Are you kidding me? I thought we had passed that miles ago.
I scrambled for some orange chunks from a volunteer. I tried more Gatorade. I had a sugary gel. Anything to give me more energy to keep moving. Then it started hailing. But by that point I could no longer feel my face. The rain was relentless. I felt like I was in a movie. I had shooting pains in my calfs and shins—my injuries starting to flare up, so I had to stop and walk up the hills. But Demi and Rosie were there every step. “I never leave my wingman” said Demi—she had transformed from my friend into a motivational coach! They patiently walked with me, forgoing their own faster times. No-one on the course was going for a personal best, we all just wanted to finish. Knowing these two women were determined to see it through with me gave me hope and reminded me what our charity is all about: being fearless. I tried to take in the crowd again and forced myself to smile through the pain. At 10km to go I started thinking of all the people who had sponsored me, their generosity motivating me. At 8km to go I started picturing my daily run around Sydney harbour, pretending the sun was shining and I was heading for home. At 5km it was the fearless women in my life—my strong and resilient friends and family: Renate, Louise, Danielle, Renee, Lisa, Alice and Jess who have all been through a lot recently but stayed strong; my ever supportive mother, my sisters, my gorgeous nieces Grace and Lucy who I hoped to inspire. Then I suddenly saw the famous three blue Adidas lines on the middle of the road that mark the last 1km. An instant wave of euphoria brought energy back to my legs. We turned right onto Hereford street where the crowds were dozens deep, and we ripped our ponchos and shower caps off like superheroes. We then turned left onto the famous final stretch along Boylston street. I took my earphones out so I could soak in the crowd. The roar through the rain was incredible. The view to the finish line suddenly reminded me of the Boston bombings and I looked at Demi, who had survived them five years ago, knowing this was might have been a triggering moment for her. “Are you ok?” I asked, hugging her shoulders. She just smiled and pointed to the finish line: “Look at that big unicorn, we’ve made it!”
I started fist pumping the air, waved at people who were screaming my name from my bib (or maybe it was someone else, but I didn’t care, I was owning it!) I saw an Australian flag and ran towards it, screaming “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” feeling enormous pride at being the only Australian on my team and on the verge of achieving my bucket list dream. Then suddenly we were at the unicorn and the girls grabbed my arms and held them in the air was we ran across the finish line, united together as sole sisters, huge grins on our faces.
I burst into tears and the three of us huddled in a heap, savouring the moment. A volunteer gave me a medal. We took a victory photo. A kind woman named Kasey put a thermal sheet over me. I hugged her tight, still shivering. Then I somehow bumped into my friend Sarah Dowland, a fellow Aussie marathoner who lives in New York. Sarah summed it up perfectly: “That was bloody brutal.” We laughed, still shivering. She was right. A few blocks further we collapsed into a gym that had kindly lent our team facilities to use and I got in the shower fully clothed until I began to warm up enough to have the strength to disrobe. It was the longest, hottest and best shower I’ve ever had. Later in the lift a couple stared at my medal in awe. “I can’t believe you did that, you are a Wonder Woman.”
Damn straight, I thought, I am now! We all were. Every single one of our team crossed that finish line, raising $350,000 for 261 Fearless and promoting empowerment for women in sport. We had endured the toughest conditions imaginable for almost five hours straight. My plane home out of Boston was full of hobbling runners (including me—my shin splints were so painful I had to be wheel-chaired onto the plane, but my medal was worth it) and when the pilot made an announcement congratulating us on the marathon, the whole plane cheered. Running the 2018 Boston Marathon was beyond brutal. But it was an extraordinarily empowering, life-changing experience that I will never forget.