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Behind-the-Scenes at the Boston Marathon

They say you’ll never forget your first marathon. And after Marathon Monday this past April 16, I can tell you that they—the proverbial, all-knowing truth tellers in the sky—were correct. I won’t.

But to be clear, I’ve never actually logged more than 13.1 miles in a race or in life. And even now, my longest runs typically cap out at around 10 miles. My first 26.2 experience included daily press conferences, one-on-one brand meetings, mugs upon mugs of coffee and hours of writing previews, features and recaps for the 2018 Boston Marathon.

This marathon was my first foray into covering a major sporting event. In the past 11 years, my career in the media industry has taken me from covering local news to discovering the inner workings of a national print publication and ultimately to exploring the world via online travel writing. Until this past February, the latter gig had been my home base for almost eight years, so jumping head first into the endurance sports industry was a major change.

Fast forward to Wednesday, April 11. Five days before the starting gun shot off for the first wave of runners at Hopkinton Street, I boarded a five-hour flight from San Diego to Boston. Arriving at night, I checked into my hotel, ate dinner and prepared for the following day. The next morning, my Women’s Running colleague and I headed to the Fairmont Copley Plaza to pick up our press credentials. The rest of the afternoon was spent typing up articles. What I didn’t realize then was that this would be the last time I’d get any rest for the next six days.

elite field preview
Photo Credit: Nicolle Monico

Friday morning arrived and with it, the Boston Athletic Association’s elite field press conference. After a quick briefing, the pros headed to tables scattered around the room with their respective sponsored teammates and we were unleashed upon them. It was immediately clear that the American runners had the attention of the press. Microphones, recorders and smartphones were pushed up against their faces as they spoke. We were all but foaming at the mouth to get any good sound bites out of the young men and women sitting before us.

But in the corner of the room, the Hansons-Brooks team was being somewhat overlooked as reporters huddled around elites Shalane Flanagan, Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay. Despite her 2nd-place finish in 2011 and two 4th-place finishes in Boston, it seemed that Desiree Linden wasn’t the shiniest object in the room for reporters. But we made our way to her early on. Cheerful and witty, the five-time-Boston-marathon competitor talked about feeling good and being mentally rejuvenated for the race. “I think last year the goal was to win and I think it’ll be the same on Monday,” she said. “The fitness is there, I don’t know if I’ve closed the gap, but I think the weather will play a big factor. It’s going to be very much a marathoner’s day.”

Looking back, I think it was that quick five-minute interaction that told me to keep an eye on her during the week. The other elites discussed their strategies and mostly shrugged off the weather; noting its interference but generally feeling unphased by what it could mean for their finishes. And although Linden seemed calm and collected, you could tell that she very much understood that the weather was not to be underestimated. After that, I jumped at any chance to speak with her before Monday’s race.

boston marathon adidas sneakers
Photo Credit: Nicolle Monico

In the next couple of days, we met with brands such as adidas, Nike, New Balance and Brooks to learn about new products debuting at Boston or shortly thereafter. In the middle of it all were more press conferences, one-on-one meetings, quick meals, back-and-forth Uber rides across town and hours of writing sessions in sweats. Sleep? That came rarely, and when it did, it was for only a handful of hours before my brain would wake up and worry about getting enough coverage for the next day.

But there was one thing that lingered in the air as I raced from place to place and spoke with industry experts and pro athletes—an American win. Everyone was focused on a female podium finish but there was also talk about Galen Rupp breaking the tape in the elite men’s race. Everywhere we went, we breathed it in, sweated it out on our evening runs and wore it on our faces like a fresh coat of makeup. Of course, until someone crossed the finish line on Boylston street, we weren’t going to say it out loud.

As a reporter (especially one covering an international event), you’re always “on.” Every whispered rumor, new headline or water-cooler conversation was something that could be used later or as a way to scoop a story. The day before the race, while hanging out in one of the media rooms, talk of Jordan Hasay’s withdrawal from the race began to surface. Without any formal statement, we couldn’t print anything, but I quickly switched on her Twitter notifications in case the murmurs were true.

Sure enough, at 6:02 p.m. EST, my phone buzzed—the Nike Oregon Project runner had tweeted what we all suspected earlier in the day. She was dropping out. Racing up to my room, I quickly typed up the article and posted it shortly after. Finally, Marathon Monday rolled around and our 7:30 a.m. call time meant waking up at 6 a.m. to make sure we had everything we needed, including warm clothing and rain-proof gear..

starting line
Photo Credit: Nicolle Monico

Dozens of reporters huddled into a media bus to be transported to the start in Hopkinton. When we arrived, we made our way to the starting line to get in position for prime photo ops. The rain was unrelenting and the wind came in like a bull, pushing us around and throwing the water back in our faces. This would not be an easy race for the runners or the bystanders.

But this city loves its marathon and people gathered in their heaviest rain gear to cheer on the over 27,000 runners who made it to the starting line that day. From where I was standing you could see the goosebumps on the runner’s bodies as they jumped up and down for warmth at the starting line and breathed heat into their already numbs hands. The first gun shots sounded, signifying the men and women’s wheelchair waves were off. Next came the elite women and then the elite men.

Once off, we ran back to the media bus drenched to the core and I switched on the live stream on my phone. “Don’t miss a minute,” I thought. Back inside the two ballroom-sized press rooms, huge TVs were on and times and stats started appear below the screens. Around me were writers from pubs like ESPN, NPR, The New York Times and the Boston Globe preparing their on-the-ground coverage of the race.

All morning, our eyes traveled from our laptops to the TV screens and back again as we waited for the final miles to give us better predictions of the podium finishers. If you followed the race at all, you know what happened that day. The infamous bathroom break by Shalane Flanagan, Linden’s slowing pace to bring her back up to the pack and then her moment at Heartbreak Hill that took her from third into second and then first.

Boston winners
Photo Credit: Rebecca Warren

The room cautiously cheered as Linden pushed forward. We were told, however, that this was a working environment and not a bar: any enthusiasm would be duly scolded. But this was a room mostly full of American publications, longtime running fans and eager writers looking to title their pieces with, “Americans Win!” As Linden crossed the finish line that morning, the press rooms erupted in applause; we’d all been waiting for this.

Minutes later, Japanese runner Yuki Kawauchi took his final steps across the finish line to be crowned the marathon’s newest men’s champion. Collectively, we all energetically put the finishing touches on our articles and hit publish as we let the world know that an American female had ended a 33-year drought and a Japanese runner had made his country proud. It was later, while in press conferences, that we found out about Kawauchi’s narrative and guy-next-door story. His win was just as magical as Linden’s, but for much different reasons.

Boarding the plane one week from entering it that next Wednesday evening, I knew that Boston would forever hold a special place in my sports coverage heart. And this would be my first marathon experience, the kind that you never forget and the one that reminds you of why you do what you do.