Belonging: A Boston Marathon story

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Peter Bromka lines up with the elites for the first time

It was the water bottles that almost made me puke.

I’d been alright meeting Elite runners of the 2019 Boston Marathon in the gold encrusted lobby of the Fairmont Copley hotel. I was even fine while attending the Elite Runner technical meeting outlining the rules for Monday’s race. But when Patrick and I walked in to drop off the bottles to be put out for us every 5k along the course the next day, it hit me: this is business. These men run as a job. They stake their livelihood on the ability to maximize marathon performance. Finding ways to push their bodies beyond perceived limits as a profession.

And here I was.

I’d known all this. I understood it rationally. But being greeted as though the same was true for me was a lot. At 37 years old I hardly call these men “idols,” since I’m much too old to aspire to be them. But I was in awe. Overwhelmed, I steadied myself and swallowed slowly.

“Make the most of tomorrow.” I cautioned, well aware that the gravity of the event could spiral out of my fingertips. When the race official handed me my bib, with “BROMKA” stamped across the front, it was destined for framing. It was forgone to be hung on my wall for decades to come. But how would I remember the day? I was responsible for ensuring that years from now when it catches my eye my mind doesn’t wander back with disappointment. Sure, getting here was an honor, but what would I make of it?

“10 minutes till walk out!” The official yells, her voice echoing off the gymnasium walls. Some of the best marathoners in the world stuffed into a small recreation space. Agents, coaches and handlers mingling, translating, shuffling nervously. Ethiopians, Kenyans, Japanese and Americans.

And I’m fiddling with my shoe laces. Tying and retying. Already beginning to overheat, I strip off everything but my shorts, dropping them into a soggy pile on the linoleum floor. Only moments ago it seemed today would be cold, possibly stormy, and suddenly we’re managing the heat. The only certainty in Boston is surprise.

"RIIIIIIIIIP!!!!!” Military jets surprise us by whooshing above the gymnasium roof. Gulp. The national anthem has already been sung. We missed it. Turns out we’re the final reveal. Lined up by number, 1–60, Yuki Kawauchi the defending champion up front, back to men like me. Standing in disbelief at where I find myself, I attempt to remain calm. Breathing deeply, I stare downwards at the sinewy hamstrings of an Elite ahead of me. “Who are these creatures?” I wonder. “How did I get here?”

“You are elite. Now show the world you truly are.” A friend texted me the night before as I settled into bed. Speechless, I thanked her. But was I? Having broken 2:20 for the marathon, I was invited off the waitlist for the 2019 Boston Marathon Elite Start as an afterthought. That evening as I tried on my new singlet and straightened the “BROMKA” bib across the chest I noticed another protruding rib. Those are new.

Now standing among a lineup of stick men I reluctantly admitted, “I suppose I look as much the part as ever.”

“Time to go!!!” The official screams. My heart jamming inside my throat, we begin proceeding in line to the madness outside.

Jumping and jostling, we make our way out to the thousands of racers already anxiously penned into their corrals like cattle. “Keep it together! Lock in!!” I scold myself, snapping my sunglasses down for slight emotional protection. But here come the crowds. I’ve been on the other side of this fence many times, leaning to grab a glimpse of the pros.

I’m still holding it together, I’ll be fine. And then I spot a friend. Leaning across the fence a training partner’s arm is outstretched, his eyes wide with anticipation, “LET’S GO BROMKA!!!” He screams. Behind the opaque blue lenses my eyes begin to burst. Somehow seeing him suddenly makes it real that I’m actually here. “Let’s fucking DO THIS!” I scream back.

“Five minutes to the start of the 123rd Boston Marathon!” The race official’s announcement rolls calmly across the town green.


And we’re off.

Having planned to go out slowly, we are flying. Just rolling downhill. I’ve run Boston five times before, but never had such space to fall forward. Patrick and I are off to the right side, and there’s no need to look back, because we’re in last. Here comes the 1k.“3:01!” I holler. Equally amused and understanding. That’s 4:50 pace per mile. But we’ll be fine. It’s just gravity.

"When the race official handed me my bib, with “BROMKA” stamped across the front, it was destined for framing.

It was forgone to be hung on my wall for decades to come."

Peter Bromka

Mile 1 - 4 (5:09, 5:27, 5:20, 5:18)

Patrick and I are locked in side by side. Already gapped from the pros with a few other amateurs, this is likely to be a day of racing in space.

“Just like another day of training.” I mislead myself. After the quick start we’re settling in nicely. Although I’ve publicly stated my intent to chase an Olympic Trials Qualifier, Patrick and I had been in constant discussion the past 48 hours and decided that sub-2:19 will have to wait for December. The weather simply isn’t right today. We know Boston too well to disrespect it with reckless ambition.

The real focus is racing for a Team Title. An award scored by the lowest total time for a team’s top three runners, The Bowerman Track Club is aiming for several low 2:20s, about 5:20–5:25 per mile. Marathoning is about so much more than just the clock. Fast flat races like Chicago or CIM are for chasing barriers, Boston has grown through competition. We’re here to celebrate what may be the best fitness of our lives at the greatest race in the world. For a hundred and twenty two years so far the best have come here to compete, which is our aim today.

Early on we’re getting the suspicion that today will be a difficult day. Not oppressively hot from above, it feels as though we’re baking from below. When the breeze stops I’m shocked by a wave of nausea. Beginning to panic, I attempt to recollect and reassess.

“I’m running too hard.” I slide to Patrick.

“Me too. Let’s ease off. Again.” He reassures me.

Our pace, that had already been downgraded, is reduced again. Racing Boston requires the humility not to insist on a preconceived pace. Those who embark from Hopkinton with their eyes wide and ears closed often come crashing down nearing Newton. To race here you need to listen carefully, not to the crowds, to yourself. To maximize your day in the Bay State you have to block out all the madness and carefully consider the cards you’ve been dealt.

Sub-5:30s would have blown my mind just two years ago, but through constant incremental improvement it now feels reasonable, even reassuring, for us today.

An A+ run might only produce a B+ time in these conditions.

Mile 5, 6, (5:26, 5:22)

Patrick’s breathing is off.

Having trained in lockstep with him for years, we know each other’s tells all too well. When my shoulder begins to dip during practice he simply moves past without a word. And though it doesn’t occur often, I’ve heard this slight gasping from him before. Most often when it’s as humid as today. “Shit. I’m gonna need to do some work.” I consider. But that’s alright, because my stride feels right. Having trained at higher volume than ever before, my legs are here. Passing through Framingham town center the crowds are loving us loudly. “Let’s go Bromka!” “Come on Reaves!” “Let’s go Bowerman!” I can’t help but smile. Though it might feel absurd to me, to these people I’m an Elite runner racing the Boston Marathon. There’s so much work left to do, but I refuse to let this honor elude me. Having raced Boston 2017 under a cloud of self imposed pressure, hating nearly every step of it, I simply will not allow this day to drift to that dark place.

IMG 5870

Mile 7, 8 (5:20, 5:26)

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.” Desperately seeking mental calm, I find myself singing my son’s bedtime lullabies. Anything to get my mind away from here. Forcing it somewhere else, I’m imagining lying next to him in bed. The words I use to sooth him to sleep offer momentary reprieve from these miles of mental frustration. I hate this stretch of Boston the most. The physical discomfort isn’t horrible, but the mind is somersaulting. Deep breaths. Run with ease.

“Let’s catch those guys over 2 miles,” Patrick suggests a prudent plan for tracking down the racers ahead.

Mile 9 - 13 (5:23, 5:30, 5:31, 5:21, 5:29)

“Shit, I fucked up.” I scold myself. Having attempted to tuck in smoothly behind two other amateur Elites, I clipped one of their heels. The headwind is suddenly howling and I’d gotten excited about the mental and physical reprieve of drafting. But a sideways glance makes it clear, he’s not interested in offering a free ride. Peeking down at my watch it’s clear that we didn’t speed up, they’ve slowed down.

“Alright, fuck this.” In an instant Patrick and I have moved past. Having spent the past hour frantically attempting to find today’s pace, we’re not about to toss it out to run someone else’s race.

And here comes the Wellesley College “Scream Tunnel.” You can hear it from afar. Though I’ve sworn off high fives through here in the past, the young women are roaring in support. After hesitating for a moment, my smile cracks. High fiving to the crowd, blowing kisses broadly. I’ll need to be prudent in a moment, but in this instant the waves of cheers are amplifying how good I feel.

Halfway — 13.1 — (1:10:47)

Perfect, we’re on pace. But any intent for “accelerating into the second half” as planned is clearly fanciful. We’re not dying. We’re not thriving. For now we are surviving.

IMG 5938

Mile 14, 15, 16 (5:27, 5:24, 5:16)

Damnit, I’m hurting again. Having written online that “the marathon comes in chapters. Long enough for highs, and lows, and highs again.” I attempt to heed my own councel. I don’t feel great, and the Newton hills are almost here.

Driving our knees downhill through Mile 16, Patrick and I descend into gravity with ease. But wait, where’s Patrick? Glancing back I’m surprised to find him 30 feet back. Adjusting on the fly I continue to use the gravity, reaping an unwelcome 40 meter lead by the bottom as we approach 25 kilometers. Grabbing our fifth fluid bottle I chug my portion and allow Patrick to close the gap. It’s clear that our morning together is drawing to a close.

I’d dreamt of racing together in lockstep onto Boylston St, but such illusions rarely materialize at Boston. Our team had even fantasized about breaking 2:19 as a pack here together. Of skipping in stride to an OTQ. Such fantasies may pull you through the drudgery of training, but race day is rarely so simple.

Turning towards the first of the four vaunted Newton Hills, I know I must continue at my own pace. It’s implicit that Patrick would do the same. Ten miles to go, it’s time to race.

“You are elite. Now show the world you truly are.” Those words echo again, around from my mind into my heart. It’s time to go.

Our day together is done.

Mile 17 - 22 (5:31, 5:36, 5:26, 5:30, 5:45, 5:16)

Coming up on my friends from The November Project I point to them and they return my energy tenfold. Honestly, I’m about to vomit, but that won’t stop me from maximizing this moment.

And here comes Heartbreak. Many a racer can run to here, but can they top it with authority? Having yet to determine what it means to “be Elite,” I’m certain it demands not backing down now. “The hill isn’t that hard, it’s just where it comes in the course.” The common refrain about Heartbreak rattles in my mind. “Fuck those people, this is HORRIBLE.” I am angry. I am suffering.

Seeking a solution, I zoom in further. It feels as though I’m chained to a squat rack, rep after rep, stride after stride. All you can do is what you can do. JUST. KEEP. PUSHING. I’ve blocked out the crowds and am crashing around alone in my own world of hurt, when something snaps me back.

“T-U-X-C! T-U-X-C!” It’s our chant from college. The cry we used to holler across hill and dale as members of Tufts University Cross Country. When we competed for something beyond ourselves. Glancing over in search of the source amidst the masses I’m certain it’ll be impossible, but in an instant I lock eyes with Chrisco, my college roommate, leading the cheer all alone. His demeanor is deadpan. He isn’t interested in my suffering or sorrow. He’s demanding full effort in this instant.

A quick acknowledgement and I’m off, headed downhill with everything I’ll need to finish today. Smiling widely now that I can breathe, this is the closest thing to a home course advantage.

IMG 5944

23, 24, 25 (5:33, 5:24, 5:33)

Rolling downhill I remember what it’s like to be beat-up by Boston. Many runners look back on these miles with remorse, convinced that they should have been able to push harder. These final miles are like a killer litigator catching you in cross-examination. You may have prepared properly, but they’ll identify your greatest weakness and exploit it with cruelty.

“Oh yeah, it’s not the breathing that gets you here, it’s the legs.” I recall the most obvious fact about Boston. My stride cannot move a moment faster, trapped in a cascading succession of quasi-cramps, I attempt to feed off the roar of the crowd. Tipping my head back, my arms outstretched, I taunt them for more and incredulous, they respond with increased fervor. How dare I question their passion?!

Mile 26, .2  — The final mile (5:42)

Fighting, hurting, but also grinning. I come upon the famous Tommy Puzey underneath the Mass Ave tunnel, then he and I roll through the most famous “right turn, left turn” in running.

Onto Boylston where my moment in the Elite spotlight will come to a close. For the first time in Boston, I’m nearly sad to see it end. Nearly.

Standing at the finish, smiling, for once the emotion of Boston doesn’t bring me to tears.

IMG 5900


Moments later a man comes in, gasps and drops arms to his knees. Having clipped his heel over an hour ago, I’d followed Paula Radcliffe’s stern warning and never looked back. I’m impressed to see he fought so valiantly.

“Bromka. You talk a lot of shit, but you practice what you preach!” Laughing at his competitive audacity I congratulate him on a race well run. He must be a reader.

Here comes Patrick, he held on strong. Not dealt the highest cards on the day, he played them quite well. We embrace and pause together. Seconds feel like minutes at the finish while waiting for your third scorer…and here comes Maxwell! The young gun of our group has done well today. We have our three. Winning a team title sounds simple, but is rather complex. Coordinating 3–6 men to commit to Boston, qualify, register, train, and arrive healthy on the day is no small feat. And then you must race 26.2. We almost got it in 2016, came close. So we returned with more men, more fitness and more experience. Bowerman Track Club — Team Champions of the 123rd Boston Marathon.

“You gentlemen have got to go!” The finish line director demands. I move reluctantly. This speck of running real estate, the Boston Marathon finish line, is the best in the world.

“ELITE THIS WAY!” An official directs me. Startled, I look at him and pause, anxious about how to respond. Having been pulled up with the pros, ridden waves of fear, adrenaline and anxiety, today I held my own. Starting the day unsure of where I belonged — somewhere between my old self and the outline of the runner I want to be. I’ll look back at my “BROMKA” bib with pride. A five and a half minute Boston course best. 34th place. Team Champions.

I pause and push back. “Is it alright if I go this way? My friends are over here.” He nods, surprised, but unbothered. “It’s up to you.”


“Bromka?” A stranger asks approaching hand outstretched, seeing my name on my chest. Sweat stained and sunburnt, he continues.

“I really want to thank you for your essays. For your writing. They really inspired me.” I’m shocked. Honored. I thank him for saying hello.

I may have paraded out proudly with the Elites. I may have stood tall for the international cameras. And I may have raced well through these city streets. But I feel most at ease in this moment, wobbling slowly amidst the mass of aspiring amateur marathon dreamers. Squinting into the midday sun I smile and take a breath; fully at peace with where I belong.

Editor's Note: You can stay up to date with Bromka's writing by subscribing to his newsletter here.

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