Why and how I set out to finish what was left undone in my first Boston Marathon.
By Bob Socci
With every step, I counted.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Over and over. Mile after mile.
One (right). Two (left). Three (right). Four (left).
It was all I could do to keep a cadence, and part of a basic plan reliant on the simplest math and self-messaging to get through my first Boston Marathon.
Treat it like 26 one-mile runs.
Keep your feet underneath you.
Run your race.
Soak it all in.
“Are you a runner?”
It’s a question I’ve heard on doctor’s visits due to my low heart rate and one I’ve gotten because of the shoes I was wearing, namely the “Run Happy” pair I purchased less because of the message than sale price.
“I like running,” I say, defaulting to self-deprecation. “But I’m not really a runner.”
To start, I’m short and thick rather than long and lithe. My pace is plodding, my steps too choppy to call strides. Mileage and frequency vary. More one week, less another. I generally ignore splits, my time less essential than the surrounding scenery and podcast keeping me company.
Nevertheless, running is my favorite exercise. It can be liberating, even inspiring; decluttering preoccupying concerns or filling my mind with (hopefully) the right words to later write or say.
In a lifetime of travel, it’s the mode I’ve used most to explore new places. Quaint college towns and sprawling campuses. Small outposts on baseball’s minor league map. Big and vibrant cities of the NFL. The more to see, the longer I go. Frequently stopping, as you can see below, for picture-taking.
Once, while summering as voice of the Norfolk Tides, I decided to try more than logging miles in the International League. So, I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon.
I set out on the sloped pavement near my apartment in Chesapeake, Va. for a long training run. It was hot and my feet and ankles were inflamed. Mistakenly, I tried powering through the pain and ended up with Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and out of the running.
Thought of a marathon didn’t occur to me again until the spring of 2015.
That’s when, two years into my tenure calling Patriots broadcasts for WBZ-FM, I got a call from Bill Flaherty, assistant programmer at our AM sister station. Bill mentioned that Patriots predecessor Gil Santos was also long a part of their marathon coverage. He offered me the same opportunity.
Although my role would be limited to describing the end of the wheelchair and elite races, station news director Peter Casey suggested I drive the entire course to inform my broadcast prep. Peter’s a Lou Grant-like pro. If he said so, I was going to do so.
Without hesitation, I headed to Hopkinton, grabbed a coffee on East Main Street and returned to Boston by way of the Marathon route in my Honda CRV. Being a sports romantic with an appreciation for history in general, I thought it very cool. Of course, there was no medal at the end — only a media credential waiting to be picked up at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
That Patriot’s Day I rose at the crack of dawn and rode the T to Park Street in a car full of runners, walked to the Public Library, climbed the stairs to the finish-line photo bridge and watched the city awaken. Hours before air, I was awestruck.
The feeling remained well after sign-off, as waves of participants kept coming at me, increasing in numbers, turning off Hereford Street and rolling down Boylston. More than once, on that afternoon and subsequent others calling the race, I allowed myself to wonder.
The notion, however, was — unlike my own runs — fleeting.
Until spring of 2019.
‘I’ll think about it.’
I met Mike Palmer a few weeks after the 123rd Boston Marathon at an annual gala for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. Mike, who’s autistic, was an honoree, having just run the race on behalf of the organization.
Father to an autistic son, I first saw in Mike a role model determined to meet his own expectations instead of limitations imposed by others. He set his heart on a goal and achieved it. By the end of the night, he set his mind to convincing me to do the same.
“You should run with us next year,” Mike said, excitedly pitching the notion in front of others.
On the spot, I laughed, expecting nothing to come of it.
“I’ll think about it.”
“No, seriously, you should do it!”
“Like I said, I’ll think about it.”
Over the next several months, Mike’s suggestion was made an invitation from the Foundation. I really did think about it, ultimately deciding to go for it. In January after the Pats’ playoff elimination, I showed up in Back Bay for my first weekly run as part of ‘Dougie’s Team’ for the 124th Marathon.
To date, I’d considered marathoning a solitary pursuit. Saturday mornings with charity runners corrected my misconception.
Hundreds of us from dozens of organizations convened at the Prudential Center. Venturing out and back together, we encountered hundreds more running up and down the Newton Hills. All along the way, volunteers supported us at tables stocked with drinks and snacks.
More than striking, the spirit and sense of community was stirring. I began to understand. This is what Boston is about. This is why Boston is so special.
In early March, we bused to the Natick VFW Post and made it back to The Pru on foot. Totaling 17 miles, it was my longest run. And last, at least for a while.
Before the next, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) announced postponement of the Marathon due to COVID-19. When it was eventually held virtually in the fall, I couldn’t partake. Nor would I try to run No. 125 in Oct. 2021.
Regret over what was left undone two years earlier lingered into last December, when Mike touched base again. I told him I was thinking about the 126th; believing it possible but unsure if it was doable.
My thoughts, through Mike’s words, reached Nick Savarese, the Flutie Foundation’s executive director. A few days later, Nick texted.
“Hi Bob…Mike Palmer says you are considering Boston marathon?”
Although I allowed a week before verbally committing, I was back in training before I hit ‘send’ on my reply. I put the commitment in writing, paid the B.A.A. entry fee and launched fundraising.
With conviction in and a strong connection to the cause, use of social media and generous response of friends and strangers alike, I started fast. Both goals — 26.2 and $8K — seemed attainable.
But in early February, I stumbled into a pair of proverbial speed bumps en route to one of them. First, a flare-up of diverticulitis, and no solid foods or exercise for a few days. Next, literally and understatedly, a stubbed toe on the first full day of a family vacation.
We were in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where my daughter wanted me me join her in our resort’s pool. I started down the first few stairs, expecting the same drop-off from the last step. But the split-second I reached out with my right foot came with an alarming, mid-step realization: it was three times as steep.
My upper body splashed sideways into the water, as my left foot scraped the riser, cutting the “ring toe” and badly bruising the “pinky toe.” Both swelled to twice the size of their chubby counterparts on the right.
For the rest of the week I hobbled around the all-inclusive. As much as I hurt, it had to be far more painful for my wife and kids listening to my non-stop obsessing over the injury. Running gear I packed went unused and I worryingly supposed weeks ahead.
What if I can’t run soon?
Will I have enough time to build up my miles?
Turns out there was.
Walks on the soft, sandy beach and laps swum kept my cardio up. Indoor bike rides served the same purpose upon return to snowy Massachusetts. In March, I resumed running.
On the 19th of the month, I re-joined our group and ran farther than I’d ever gone before. Twenty miles, Kenmore Square to Wellesley and back. Through the Hills. Twice. Going and coming. I was stoked. And sore.
The next day, I was tight. Extremely tight. My heavy legs were like a wrung-out towel twisted into a rope. They loosened a little on a mid-week run, before a scheduled 12-to-14 miler over the weekend.
Skipping Saturday and opting to stay local on Sunday, I took off from home in Milton to Dorchester. A third of the way through, I felt a tug on my right calf. I stretched, then continued. Again it pulled, tighter. Again I stopped to stretch. Finally, at mile six, the cramping became intense.
Half complete, my run was over. I called my wife for a ride and, in panic mode, ripped off emails and text messages to teammates. To Mike. To Nick. To Terri. To Coach John. I called a friend who’d recently finished his first marathon despite a similar injury.
Patience, they preached. Encouragement, they provided.
One recommended an appointment with acupuncturist George Leung of East/West Sports in Brookline. George has a history of treating ex-Red Sox and Patriots familiar to me, as well as skaters, ballet dancers and classical musicians I’ve never heard of.
Forty-eight hours later, I arrived at the brownstone housing his office, near Mile 23 on the Marathon course. The door opened to walls of photographs signed by clients. I laid down on a training table under pictures of Dustin Pedroia, Mike Aviles et al, felt a few pricks, the heat of a lamp and electrical stimulation.
Another friend put me in touch with Dr. John Tierney at the Greater Boston Orthopedic Center. He diagnosed a strained plantaris muscle, which is a rope-like tendon that runs alongside the Achilles, and suggested physical therapy as an additional treatment.
For that, I visited Joint Ventures in Kenmore Square. I was paired with Kyle Mahoney, who listened intently to my history, patiently guided me through testing and prescribed an exercise program to get me up and running.
On a test run, I covered a couple of miles encouragingly. But on the next run, I likely overcompensated on an uphill climb and, a mile in, my improving calf injury had company. Pain shot through my right hip flexor. With less than two weeks to recover, Kyle added work for a second muscle group.
There was one more specialist to see, Dr. Adam Tenforde at Spaulding Rehab in Cambridge. Formerly an All-America long-distance runner at Stanford, Adam is now an expert in extracorporeal shockwave therapy. On the final Wednesday before race day, shock waves penetrated the soft tissue of the strained muscles, causing micro tears to stimulate healing.
Confidence increased with two short, pain-free jogs sandwiched around my last pre-marathon treatment. After three acupuncture sessions and the jolt of shockwaves, I left a fourth PT appointment, bumping fists with Kyle on the way out, and marched to Hynes Convention Center to pick up my bib for Monday.
Reaching the corner of Comm Ave and Hereford, I snapped a photo with my iPhone. I made the right turn and took two more. One, looking up Hereford, toward Hynes. One eying the finish line in front of the Public Library. I wanted images to refer to the next 72 hours that would help put my goals for Monday into focus.
The afternoon was awash in sunlight and Boylston Street was abuzz, 72 hours before the first Patriot’s Day Marathon in three years. About 30,000 participants were expected to start the race. At least a third seemed to be there on that Friday, creating a Back Bay hubbub of accents and languages from across the States and many of the 120 countries to be represented.
People poured out of the Convention Center, while an equal number, like myself, went in. Remarkably, once inside there was order to what easily could have been chaotic. Hundreds of volunteers in yellow jackets and signs posted throughout pointed us in the direction we needed to go.
Up an escalator, down a long hallway and a few turns later, I came to a long row of booths fixed with numbered and color-coded placards. I spotted the yellow “25200-25799” sign and stepped up as entrant No. 25270. Bib in hand, inside a clear plastic bag containing some swag, I wandered the Convention Center.
The Hynes was transformed into parts B.A.A. museum, runner’s world trade show and retail extravaganza for Adidas. After a few sips of Gatorade samples, I started on my way out, only to encounter a blue wall listing names of all of Monday’s competitors.
People squatted at its base, searching low, and stood on their tiptoes, pointing high. Some posed for photos. Some waited their turn, standing four rows deep.
I wriggled into the spaces between them, searching for surnames in small white print, all caps, starting in “SO-” until I spotted the one I was seeking. I found it between “SOCARRAS” and “SOCHAY,” next to my given first name: “ROBERT SOCCI.”
I now had my bib. My name was officially — and formally — in the field. And for the first time in weeks, my legs felt really good.
All that remained were a couple of Saturday team events, hopefully a couple of good nights of sleep and, by far, the most grueling undertaking of my life.
It was time to go home and load carbs.
‘Remember who you’re running for.’
This time of year, mainly because of what I do, which allows plenty of free time while others must work, I’m often asked about another sport.
“Do you play golf?”
“Rarely,” I’ll reply, in this case more self-aware than self-deprecating. “And terribly.”
I sold my last set of clubs in 2007; can’t center a fairway with a tee shot unless I bounce it there; and for every ball I hit onto a green, several others disappear into water and woods.
But lots of charities hold lots of tournaments requiring lots of celebrities. And around here, broadcasting Patriots games fits the definition of celebrity when a field of foursomes needs to be filled out for a mid-week round.
So, I get invited to play two, maybe three times a year. Including September 2018, when I attended my first Flutie Foundation event. It was held at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, whose course unfurls just off Commonwealth Avenue.
Those 18 holes introduced me to the Flutie Foundation. Who knew, fewer than four years later, I’d run past that same spot on the 18th mile of the Marathon course, climbing the first of four infamous Hills in the Foundation’s singlet.
During the intervening years and months, our relationship grew through various non-golf functions. I got to know folks like Nick, who operate it, and many they serve. Among them is aspiring sports journalist and teenage Flutie Fellow Andrew Roberts.
Andrew’s been blogging about Boston sports since his junior high days. Both an exemplary and eloquent advocate for his autism community, he was recently awarded a full ride to Ithaca College as one of its prestigious Park Scholars.
It was one of the many reasons to celebrate as the countdown to Hopkinton reached 48 hours and the Flutie Foundation staged its Saturday-morning “26.2 Can-Do Fest” at Castle Island Brewery in South Boston. More than a pep rally, it was a reminder of why we’d chosen to run for Dougie’s Team.
Besides Andrew, who spoke of what the Foundation’s support has meant in his life, a group of young singers shared the mic. There were the Spectrum of Sound choir, a solo performer up from Florida and a rising rapper out of St. Louis. They gave us the gift of music born from the right of inclusion.
Most of the nearly $300,000 raised by our 30 runners, as one of the 40-plus charity teams in this year’s Marathon, will provide basic home and school services unseen in such a public setting. What reverberated from these young practitioners of artistic passions, to and from the crowd, was the spirit behind it all.
A local craft brewer opening its doors to an organization it’s consistently supported. Good people, from the personally involved to the totally unaffiliated, enjoying a good time while supporting a good cause. Again, a moment of comm-unity. One of many that would mark this Marathon weekend.
None was more touching for me than when a father and son approached to say hello. The dad was in a navy quarter-zip with Pat Patriot stitched over his heart. His boy wore the ‘Flying Elvis’ on a cap bearing the message, “Forever New England.”
“Hello, Bob,” the father said. “I’m Eric Taylor and this is my son, Caleb.”
We’d never met. Yet I recognized their names instantly. What’s more, I knew Caleb’s age.
During the first days of March, I received a string of notifications from my on-line fundraising page. Contributions in various increments started showing up from donors named Taylor and/or mentioning Caleb in their messages.
For Caleb Taylor’s 10th Birthday, good luck Bob!
I’m donating this on behalf of my cousin’s son, Caleb. I hope it helps!
Happy birthday Caleb, and good luck Bob! Thank you both for raising awareness!
There were plenty more, and their back story stemmed from the selflessness of a child. I learned that Caleb, an obviously big Patriots fan, was an avid listener of our broadcasts. When he saw that I was raising money for the Flutie Foundation, he told family and friends of his birthday wish.
In lieu of presents for him, Caleb requested that they donate to my fundraiser.
I’ve read or heard — or probably both — that in the Marathon’s toughest stretches, you should remember who you’re running for.
With two days to go, I had a very good idea.
‘Slow and steady.’
My diet as a kid was pretty diverse. Spaghetti and shells. Linguine and lasagna. And my favorite, ziti.
On average, I ate one type of macaroni (always macaroni, never pasta in our home) per weeknight. Always soaked in the sauce my mother learned to make from her grandmother. Always showered with grated cheese. And almost always served with Italian bread.
For the latter, we’d often visit the Columbus Baking Co. in Syracuse, where I loved listening to the old Greek bakers as they loaded dough on long-handled wooden peels into ovens that had been fired up since 1895. Long before “buying in bulk” was part of our lexicon, my parents bought in bulk.
I couldn’t wait to rip off a fresh, hot piece to eat on the car ride home. We’d finish that loaf and mom would freeze the rest.
Did I mention that Saturdays were usually homemade pizza days?
Now you know why my buddy’s uncle used to call me “Lou Costello,” which was one of my kinder, gentler nicknames as a kid.
Carbohydrates. Loved them then. Love them now.
Unfortunately, I’ve always struggled for self control over them. So, in my more health-conscious years, I’ve generally avoided them.
Except for this year’s Marathon weekend. My menu featured two types of pasta dishes at Saturday night’s team dinner and a third, homemade by my brother-in-law, on Sunday. Yes, pasta for Easter dinner. That’s something not even the Socci family did in my youth.
Then again, none of us were ever about to run a marathon.
Sufficiently stuffed, I spent the final pre-race night laying out my gear and readying my morning fuel.
Blue shoes and black compression socks. New blue shorts to match the blue-and-gray Flutie Foundation singlet. My misshapen yet trusty 98.5 The Sports Hub Patriots Radio hat and a white compression shirt. Garmin watch and Apple ear pods. Energy gels. Banana. Almond-buttered bagel. More carbs for the road.
Lights went out by 9:30. Eyes opened by 5:30. Relieved, I sat up from an overnight of undisturbed sleep and thanked Obi the dog for making it so. I showered and poured a cup of coffee, chased it with Gatorade, got dressed and got a lift from my wife to the North Quincy T station.
With my bib No. 25270 pinned to my singlet under an old sweatshirt soon to be discarded, I stepped from the platform onto the Alewife-bound train. Between there and Beacon Hill, more and more runners hopped aboard.
One, in particular, had a bib in the 600s. A qualifier. A runner.
As we got off the car, I remember thinking to myself: “That’s the last time I’ll see him today.”
His race started at 10. My odyssey was set to begin at 11:15. Dozens of us hiked up the stairs and through the Park Street station doors opened to an idyllic sunny Monday.
I followed a huge crowd across the Common. Then, as later, I took note of the colorful arrangement of participants before me and the Boston skyline beneath a perfectly cloudless sky. Marching toward the Public Garden, I panned the park’s perimeter, left to right along Charles Street.
Foreground to background, there were four parallel lines. A chain of metal barricades. A sidewalk row of runners waiting for their rides. A cordon of blue portajohns. And a convoy of yellow school buses. Without a break, they extended from the baseball diamond’s left-field corner to the corner of Charles and Beacon.
Since our team agreed to meet at the Newbury Hotel, I had to walk all the way around the front of the lines and through the Public Garden. Doing so, I made way for the Ducklings, making special note of the B.A.A. medal draped around Mrs. Mallard’s neck and matching her flowery bonnet and the potted daffodils at her side.
Her medal was just like the one I was after, a few blocks and eight hours away.
Before the ending, however, I had to get to the beginning. Around 8 o’clock, we left the Newbury for one of those buses. The ride lasted about 40 minutes. The bus pulled up to to the B.A.A. Athletes’ Village, adjacent to Hopkinton High School and we all emptied out. I didn’t sit again until dinnertime.
From the moment we walked to the staging area behind the building, I entered an all-day state of amazement. There were thousands of runners changing out of sweats, stretching their legs and standing in lines for the hundreds more portajohns bordering the parking lot. Meanwhile, countless volunteers waited by endless cases of water.
Figuring I’d have plenty of time before Wave 4 was called to the starting line, I figured wrong. In a blur, I filled my pockets with running gel, applied sunscreen and anti-chafing ‘glide,’ posed for a team photo, tightened my laces and answered nature’s call. Though not necessarily in that order.
With the temperature rising from chilly to cool, we were summoned to start. Walking to the line covered more than a half mile. En route, I, like others, shed my outer layers. Winter hat, sweat pants and hoodie all went into the bags of clothing being collected for donation.
You couldn’t walk 20 steps without a cheerful volunteer to take your garments or trash and give you a smile and word of encouragement. Not yet on the course, I marveled at the magnitude of this annual undertaking. And the logistical efficiency with which the B.A.A. and cities and towns on the course pull it off.
I have no idea how close I got to the actual starting line before the ‘gun’ sounded. Once again, I was positioned to follow a big crowd. Coach John Furey emphasized the importance of resisting a speed trap on the initial descent — about 130 feet of lost elevation in the first mile.
It wouldn’t — frankly, it couldn’t — be a problem for me or anyone else on this day, amid the congestion in the last wave of runners in the 126th Boston Marathon.
Usually, as I mentioned, I run to podcasts. If needing a pick-me-up, I go with music. For this run, I eschewed the ear pods. I wanted to hear the crowds others promised would be like nothing I’ve heard before. We took our first steps — and would take our last — to sustained cheers.
Quickly approaching Ashland, I picked up on the pitter-patter of the hundreds of pairs of feet now beginning to separate a bit before me. From an adventure that filled the senses, it’s a sound that stays with me a week later.
Meanwhile, roadside spectators implored us with shouts and signs. Some danced, others dressed festively, like the Chris Kringle clone holding a giant candy cane. Fairly early, I caught a funny remark from a runner coming up on my left.
“That’s awesome,” I said.
“Hey, I know that voice,” he replied.
It was veteran Patriots reporter Chris Price, now with The Boston Globe. We laughed and jogged together until the next mile marker.
During pre-Marathon meetings, a teammate advised us to take water at every station. In my recently-injured state, I took it a few steps further to fit my overall plan of 26 separate runs. At every drink station, I would downshift to a walk from the first hand-off of Gatorade to the last water table.
With my last sip at each stop, I’d bend slightly at the waist, toss my crumpled cup aside and pick up my feet. Leaving the station, I strode toward the next marker, always striving to reach the next cluster in those familiar yellow jackets with their hands out.
Chris moved on and, solo again, I resumed my counting.
One. Two. Three. Four.
If I noticed another runner flailing, I re-focused, afraid to entertain the very idea of struggling myself. I knew it was bound to happen. I was determined to reach Boston — or, more realistically, Newton — before it did.
Colors continued to captivate throughout the first half. As the pavement moved beneath my feet, I watched the river of reds and blues and greens and golds flowing forward off in the distance.
Little more than a dozen miles down, right on cue, the crowd noise amped up to a steady roar. Past reading about race lore alerted to me to what awaited around the bend: Wellesley College. The students, yelling as they hung over the barriers, lived up to the hype.
I didn’t need to tell myself to smile. Not there, and certainly not when I entered the town’s center and came to the end of Rice Street. That’s where my family was ready to greet me. My wife and children, in-laws, aunts and uncles.
My son and daughter stepped out for hugs. Like their mom, they had put up with my three-hour training runs on weekends, incessant venting over my latest ailments and outward fretting as the race drew nearer.
And here they were, pushing and pulling me in this race. Uplifted, I left with plans to meet again, at the finish.
Now I had to get through the Hills.
The course was dotted throughout by municipal police, staties and national guardsman. At Mile 16, one of them, an M.P., nodded at my unhurried form.
“That’s it,” he smiled. “Slow and steady.”
Onward and upward, I pumped my arms and plodded along with a confidence derived from all the training we’d logged as a team. Still strolling through those drink stations, I ran with eyes out for landmarks.
The Johnny Kelley Statue. Boston College. The Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
Like at Wellesley, the screaming Eagles at B.C. helped us over the humps that followed the last of the Hills. Some were especially boisterous, belting out “Flutie!” at the sight of my singlet.
In Brookline, I looked for George Leung, owing him a big “thank you” as I passed East/West Sports on my right. I did the same in Kenmore Square, seeking out Kyle Mahoney in front of Joint Ventures to the left.
With a mile to go, I realized, well beyond wildest expectations, what I’d been told.
The crowd will carry you home.
I reached the street sign still on my camera roll from Friday’s snapshot and hung the right on Hereford. I took the left two blocks later, remembering something Doug Flutie told our team on Saturday.
“That finish line is a lot farther away than you think,” he cautioned. “Don’t start sprinting too soon.”
A relative term, I know, in my case. Still, I took his word for it. Besides, I was in no hurry anyway.
I’ve strained to be heard above the din of 100,000 fans in Columbus and State College and had to lift my voice in the climactic moments of countless Patriots games, including Super Bowls. But those fans were cheering for others.
Here, on the last leg of the 126th Boston Marathon, these fans were cheering for me. Well, me and about 25,000 others.
The running joke of the weekend in my family had to do with reports that identified me as a celebrity runner, grouping me with former contestants from shows like ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Survivor.’ Apparently, the race organizers saw me the same way.
Approaching the finish line, I looked up at the same photo bridge where I used to watch and wonder.
Suddenly, the video board affixed to it greeted me with my head shot, name and job title as radio-TV broadcaster. Wanting a photo, I reached for my iPhone tucked into my belt. By the time I found it, my celebrity had faded.
Oh well, I still had a medal to collect.
Volunteers directed me to keep walking. One handed me a bottle of water. Another gave me a bag of snacks. Finally, I reached a woman with the ribbons of five or six medals looped around her forearm. She grabbed hold of one, I lowered my head and she hung it over my neck.
Smiling throughout, I soaked it all in.
Minutes later, I met my wife and children for more hugs, walked to the Foundaton’s suite at the Newbury to shower and change and went to dinner nearby.
Before leaving, I checked for my official time. Five hours, 43 seconds.
The next day, I learned of my official results. I ended up in 23,036th place, behind 13,453 other men and 1,787 in my age group.
Not that I was counting any longer.