Platte County High School teacher/coach runs Boston Marathon and comes home with a deeper understanding of what mantra means
It was an emotional, exhilarating experience that Zach Keith will never forget.
Not many runners get to compete in the most famous marathon in the world and — given the horrific bombings that scarred the 2013 Boston Marathon — this year’s marathon became an even more iconic and historic event. Of all the things Keith — a 31-year-old Platte County High School history/economics teacher and tennis coach — saw and experienced when he traveled to Boston and competed in the April 21 marathon, a couple of things stood out above the others. More than the incredible crowds of spectators, which lined every inch of the 26-mile route. More than the record field of 36,000 runners, 32,000 of whom began the race. More than the pain Keith felt from a torn muscle that he injured weeks prior to the race that changed his goals. More than the pride and relief he felt when he crossed the finish line. And both came after the race was over. Keith said the “coolest thing I saw” came the day of the race, several hours after the official marathon had concluded. He and his wife, Amanda, returned downtown for dinner and when they got off the subway stop near the finish line at Boston’s famed Boylston Street, they heard a tremendous cheer. They hurried to a vantage point so they could see what the crowd was cheering about. “It was a double amputee, who was just finishing the race,” Keith said. “It was 7 p.m. and the race had been over for hours. Plus, all the mobility-impaired athletes had started the race hours earlier than everyone else; he had to have been out there for 10 hours or longer. It was a very inspirational moment.” Then, the day after the historic marathon was run; Keith said he and Amanda visited an exhibit dedicated to the marathon at the Boston Public Library that consisted of items taken from the memorials placed at the finish line last year after the bombings. Keith said one of the first things he noticed was a giant banner that read: “Lace up your shoes and run for those who can’t.” “I went to Boston with the mind-set that I had worked hard and trained hard and earned the right to run in the race and that this is for me,” he said. “But a lot of people were there to run for others and now I understand that.” The Boston Marathon was the culmination of a three-year journey that Keith said began at his first marathon, in St. Louis in April of 2011. He said he had taken up distance running after the birth of his second son led to his giving up – for now – weeknight adult tennis and basketball leagues. “I just couldn’t justify being out of the house and away from my family 2-3 nights a week, so I turned to running,” he said. “It was something I could do early in the morning and still be at home.” Keith trained and ran with another Platte County teacher, Zach Breitenstein, who “hooked me up with a training plan.” Keith said he “crashed and burned” at the first marathon in St. Louis, but said that he has gotten better with each race. Boston was his seventh marathon total – he has also run in marathons in Kansas City, Maryville, Lincoln, Neb. and Des Moines, Iowa. Keith qualified for the Boston Marathon by running a 26.2-mile time of 2-hours, 58-minutes at the Lincoln Marathon in May of 2013. His time was well under the Boston Marathon threshold of 3:05 that runners must eclipse. His efforts there and at a later race in KC made him optimistic he could top his personal best of 2:57, set last fall in Kansas City, at Boston. After he paid his $175 entry fee, he began an intense 12 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon. Then, six weeks ago, Keith tore the quadriceps muscle in his right leg. “That pretty much shot any kind of chance I had to run the race fast,” Keith said. Once Keith found out from doctors that he would not cause any permanent damage by running at Boston, he remained committed to doing it. But he said it changed his outlook. “Of course it was very disappointing, because the competitor and athlete in me wanted to do as well as possible, but I decided I would relax my pace a bit and enjoy it more,” he said. Keith and his wife and Breitenstein and his wife were supposed to make the trip together, but Breitenstein also suffered an injury and his was serious enough to keep him from running. So, Zach and Amanda traveled to Boston alone on the Friday before the Monday marathon. They enjoyed some sightseeing and met up with Keith’s cousin, Rachel, from Philadelphia. Keith said his nerves kept him from sleeping well the night before the race, but when the 5 a.m. alarm came Monday morning, he was ready to go. But, several hours of hurry-up-and-wait awaited him. First, he had to travel from Somersville, where they were staying, near Cambridge, to Boston, where they were bussed to the starting point. “Many marathons you start and finish at the same spot, but not Boston,” Keith said. “You start the race 26 miles away and finish at Boylston Street.” So, the runners had to be bussed to Hopkinton, Mass., where the race began. Then they had to wait….. and wait. And wait some more. “That was pretty tough,” Keith said. Finally the race began. Keith said the thousands of runners were packed on the two-lane road shoulder-to-shoulder. He said the route was “notoriously hilly.” And the suburban roadsides were lined with spectators, sometimes two or three or four people deep, cheering for the runners and interacting with them and even offering them cold beer at some spots. Keith ran on and was pleasantly surprised the first two-thirds of the race that while he felt some pain, his muscle injury did not bother him as much as he thought it would. “I was fairly comfortable the first 16 miles, but then legitimate pain hit and got worse each mile,” he said. His right leg throbbing, Keith came close at one point to slowing down to a walk, if only just for a little while. Then he came upon a disabled participant in a wheelchair, a member of the famed Team Hoyt Foundation, which helps young disabled persons compete in athletic events such as marathons and triathlons. “I was really hurting, then I saw this guy from Team Hoyt in this wheelchair giving it everything he had,” Keith said. “I knew I couldn’t slow down and walk then. And I never did the whole race.” But the pain became excruciating and when Keith got down to the final few miles, he didn’t hear the deafening roars of the by-now huge crowds. He was focused on one thing: crossing the finish line. “It was kind of surreal- here I was about to cross the finish line of the most famous marathon in the world, with all of the emotion from what had happened last year and the people screaming,” he said. “I crossed the line and all I was thinking was I’ve got to get off my feet. My adrenaline is not pumping anymore, my body is shutting down.” Keith said he somehow walked another three-fourths of a mile, where family and friends of runners had to wait. “I found my wife and then I sat down,” Keith said. Keith finished the 26.2 mile race in 3-hours, 9-minutes, 24-seconds, which of course was well short of winner Mob Keflezighi’s astonishing time of 2:08. But it was still good enough to place Keith about 4,015th out of 32,000 runners, torn muscle be damned. Keith said he didn’t really think back about what he had felt or what he had seen until the next day. And he said it dawned on him when he and Amanda visited the Boston Public Library exhibit that he wanted to come back in 2015. “ “I’m going back and that’s what it will be about: lace up my shoes and run for somebody who can’t,” he said. “I’m not sure yet who I’m going to be running for, but we will try to raise awareness about something. “I think that’s what the Boston Marathon is about and not just a bunch of fast people trying to beat each other across the finish line.” To read Keith’s complete online blog about his experience, go to: http://coachzkeith.blogspot.com/