Monday, April 25, 2011

Race Report: The Boston Marathon, by Eileen O'Flaherty

DARTer Eileen O'Flaherty ran the Boston Marathon last week and offers these profound thoughts about the race.

I never understood the allure of traveling to a city to participate in a race. I simply couldn't wrap my head around ruining a vacation with pre-race anxiety and post-race muscle soreness.  But now I totally get it, running the Boston marathon was a phenomenal experience.

Eileen stops to pose for a picture with her family
As one of only two charity runners for Christopher's Haven (“a home for kids when cancer hits home”, where my son, Griffin and I stayed for two months last year while he underwent proton radiation therapy to destroy the 20% of his brain tumor which was not able to be surgically removed), I was invited to participate in all of the Mass General Hospital (MGH) Marathon Team’s pre-race activities. The MGH team was founded by Howard Weinstein, an MGH pediatric oncologist and chair of Christopher's Haven’s board.  Fourteen years ago, Howard started the MGH team with ten runners.  This year, the team has grown to include 113 runners and their honor patients.  My family along with my sister, Kathy, my high school friend, Lucy, and her husband, TJ, joined the MGH team on Sunday night for a pre-race pasta dinner.  It was a wonderful celebration, the highlight of which was when 19-year old, Kristin Santollo spoke.  Kristin's dad had been a member of the MGH team since its inception.  This year he passed the baton to Kristin, who was Howard’s patient as she fought leukemia beginning at the age of five. There were few dry eyes in the room as she described her feelings about moving from an honor patient to a cancer-free marathon runner.  She encouraged all of the honor patients to dream of the day when they too would be cancer-free and running marathons.

The next morning at 6 am I caught the MGH bus in front of the hospital and headed out to Hopkinton to join more than 27,000 other runners.  My wave was scheduled to start at 10:40 am. While I fully appreciated the logistics involved, the absurdity of needing to leave 4 hours and 40 minutes prior to the start of the race further convinced me that running large, out of town races was really not for me.

Fortunately, as an affiliate of the MGH team, I was treated like a VIP in the starting area. Howard and the team had set up a special area just down the road from the general waiting area replete with a large tent, chairs, space heaters, bagels, bananas, water, Gatorade, a DJ and our own port-o-potties. The early morning was windy and cold so it was quite a luxury to be in this refuge, rather than out with the masses waiting 4+ hours for the start.  I did my best to focus on meeting the other team members and not stressing about the upcoming race.  We passed the time decorating our shirts with our names and messages about our charity and honor patients. Finally a trainer came to warm us up and it was time to head to the starting corrals. The mass of people approaching the start reminded me of the New Year's Eve I spent in Times Square.  I had my first taste of what to expect from the spectators when we passed a family who set up a tent in their front yard offering all of the runners free coffee, water, safety pins, band-aids, Vaseline and the use of supplies to decorate their shirts.

At long last I was herded into Corral 7 and the race finally began. The streets were lined with enthusiastically cheering crowds for the entire 26.2 miles and camera crews in helicopters circled overhead.  The atmosphere reminded me of New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade where each year my siblings and I would march with my father, a native of County Kerry, Ireland, and the Kerryman's Association.  To me the Boston Marathon felt more like a 26.2 mile moving party, rather than a race.

Most folks who lived along the route were hosting marathon parties, complete with everything from BBQs to bounce houses to kegs, and many set up stations offering band-aids, Kleenex and Vaseline.  These amenities were in addition to the official water, Gatorade and medical emergency tables at every mile.  With my name and my cause featured prominently on the front of my shirt, I was greeted with cheers of "Go Eileen", "Go Christopher's Haven" and "Go Griffin." Sometimes I was even serenaded with the Dexy's Midnight Runners song, Come on Eileen.  I felt like a rock star.

As I understand it, the first wave of marathon runners was comprised of elite runners, the second those who qualified, and third wave was primarily filled with charity runners.  Most of the runners in my wave had the story of who and why they were running on their shirts.  I had the pleasure of running, chatting and sometimes even stopping for photos with the most interesting people, including:

  • A man who had run the London Marathon on Sunday morning and then flew in to run Boston on Monday.
  • Patrick and a few other contestants from The Biggest Loser.  Our Christopher’s Haven friends, Patty and Jessica Dresser are big fans of the show and we frequently watched it together last year.
  • The Liver Team, which included family members, medical staff and several organ recipients.
  • Three runners who, like my daughter, Fiona, were celebrating their April 18 birthdays.
  • Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-son team who were running their 85th marathon and have also completed six Ironman competitions.
  • Runners in costumes including, a hamburger and pack of fries, Elvis, two ballerinas in tutus, and a man wearing a football helmet.
  • Three blind runners and their guides.  

With ideal weather, the wind at my back, electric crowds and interesting runners to chat with, the miles flew by faster than I expected.  Once I realized that I would have no problem finishing within the 6-hour course closure window, I focused even more on simply enjoying the experience.  When I arrived at mile 20, the base of Heartbreak Hill, I was met by my family members, who were stationed at MGH team captain, Howard Weinstein's, house.  Each year the Weinsteins host a party for MGH honor patients and spectators on their front lawn. Over the past fourteen years his children have raised more than $10,000 for MGH pediatric cancer patient services by selling lemonade, brownies and popcorn. Christopher’s Haven founder, Dan Olsen, and Executive Director, Martha Welsh, were also there to greet me. After lots of hugs and photos, Fiona and my sister, Kathy, ran the next two miles with me, which included Heartbreak Hill.  Between the adrenaline rush from seeing my family, the cheering crowds and my planned walk break to eat my last Cliff bar, I barely noticed the ascent and was surprised and delighted to see the balloon arch proclaiming, The Heartbreak is Over – how apropos.

About a mile later, I passed a large group of spectators wearing Team Griffin's Friends t-shirts, so I stopped to learn more about their organization.  The Griffin’s Friends Foundation was established in 1994 in memory of Griffin Kelleher, who died at the age of 15 months after battling cancer.  Their foundation’s goal is “to bring moments of joy to courageous kids.”  After shedding a few more tears of gratitude for my son, Griffin’s recovery, I continued on towards the finish line.

About a ¼ mile from the finish line on Boylston Street, Katelyn Hinson, the family services manager at Christopher’s Haven and a group of current residents donning their specially made tie-dyed marathon t-shirts spotted me, so I ran over for more hugs and photos.  With a boost of energy from their well wishes, I was able to finish strong with a time of 5:13:55.  Thirty minutes slower than my Charlotte marathon run in 2002, but 1,000 times more fun, and well under the 6-hour cut off. After crossing the finish line runners were given mylar blankets and medals. Serendipitously, Sarah Carroll, a Christopher’s Haven volunteer, was the marathon volunteer who presented me with my marathon medal.

On behalf of Dan Olsen, Martha Welsh, Katelyn Hinson, my family, and all of the past and future residents of Christopher’s Haven, I want to thank you for making the 115th Boston Marathon a huge victory for me and Christopher’s Haven. I was carried to the finish line by your well wishes and support and am so grateful to have raised $10,722 to date.

With deep and heartfelt gratitude,


P.S.  April 18, 2011 was quite a day, in addition to the marathon and Fiona's birthday, The Charlotte Observer featured an article about Griffin's participation on the NCCSR crew team.


  1. This is so inspirational, energetic, and profound! Your spirit is truly on the move. Thanks for writing, Eileen!

  2. Your energy and spirit are inspirational and profound. Thank you for writing, Eileen!


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