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Hopeful for Spring in October

Boston, the runner's Brigadoon, is still sleeping. While we're stuck in Groundhog Day, we can still appreciate personal progress.

“I never want to move to Boston.”

I wrote those words 25 years ago in an essay called “Once Each Spring” that appeared in the Boston 100th anniversary special issue of Runner’s World. My sentiment hasn’t changed.

“It’s not that Boston isn’t a great town,” I wrote then. I was, and still am, confident that I could find a fine life in its friendly neighborhoods, walking and running its diverse streets. But I’ve never wanted those streets to become familiar, mundane. I never want to drive down Boylston on the way to work, visit friends in Natick, go to the dentist in Newton.

For me, those towns and streets are all reserved for one day, and one event. Natick means mile 10. Newton is forever an adjective, as in “the Newton Hills,” and Boylston is a half-mile stadium of cheering spectators viewed through a happy haze of honorable exhaustion. Boston was a legendary place I had dreamed of since high school and eventually earned the right to visit. A place which, in my mind, existed but once a year, “a runner’s Brigadoon appearing out of the Massachusetts woods.”

Brigadoon, you may recall, is a magical Scottish town that appears out of the mist once every 100 years for one day. In a 1950s musical, a pair of American hunters stumble on it, and one of them falls in love.

Boston felt like that to me then, as a young runner who had qualified a few times and run a PR there. Magical. Little did I know then that soon I would be back every year for 20 years, once each spring. My Boston experience changed from being one of the runners to covering the race, and, for many years, I fell into a tradition of running the 21 miles from Boston College out to Hopkinton, then hopping on the press truck to watch the race.

Desi leads Boston 2011
View from the press truck, 2011 / photo: 101 Degrees West

Boston remained no less special. “It is always spring in my Boston,” I wrote. “The air is fresh, the grass a bright, new green, the trees freshly budded. At noon, runners take over the road on Boston’s one-way, one-day marathon expressway, never stopping for cross streets or jousting with vehicular traffic.”

As we all know, that spring arrived in Boston last year, and again this year, but runners didn’t take over the road. The runner’s Brigadoon never woke up.

Instead of Brigadoon, we’re still in Groundhog Day. As in the classic Bill Murray movie, it seems there is no tomorrow. In fact, we’re not quite sure if there is a today. How do you live when every day is like the last?

In the movie, Phil, the lead character, learns through trial and error that joy comes not by trying to maintain his status before everything changed, not through indulging himself, not by trying to line up everything perfectly toward an objective—but by becoming the best he can be today in the circumstances he finds himself. In the end, he is able to say, “No matter what happens tomorrow, or the rest of my life, I’m happy now…”

As Patriots’ Day rolls past uncelebrated, and days flow into weeks without our usual markers, I’m forced to face the reality that I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and have to decide if I’m able to be happy now. It’s an opportunity to ask why I do what I do; if this is what I want to be doing.

If I wasn’t guaranteed of tomorrow would I still run today? Would I try to run my best? I’ve long argued that I appreciate running for its intrinsic value, that I run to run, not as a means to an end. That is being put to the test like never before.

What I’m finding is that, while I undoubtedly enjoy each run and believe I would run even if there were no tomorrow, seeing progress is central to my motivation. Never have daily metrics—accumulating miles, faster workout splits, improved HR zones and VO2 max estimates—been more important. And I’m not sure this is bad.

Even in Groundhog Day, Phil, while unable to alter anything around him, found joy in building skills and improving himself. Progress shows that my efforts are producing something—and there’s satisfaction in being better today, whether or not I can “use” that new skill anywhere. Plus, the promise of being better tomorrow keeps me future focused, keeps me hopeful.

I’m also hopeful that, even though my Boston didn’t emerge out of the mist yesterday, come October it will appear again, out of season, and even more unique and magical for that. I can imagine the ghost of Jock Semple stepping out of the New England woods and saying, “Ye mus’ really love her. Ye woke me up!”

Originally published April 2021. Very little needed updating.