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A day of joy and tears in Boston

Editor's note: Marty Smith is ESPN NASCAR's lead reporter and writes regularly for ESPN.com. He ran this year's Boston Marathon and chronicled the experience for ESPN Boston.

BOSTON -- I have this saying about running, a concept converted into fuel by the unwavering belief in a grand plan to heal, buoyed by piercing moments of self-doubt and pressed to a diamond's gleam by hours of meditative solitude amid the pounding cadence of marathon training: The road looks different to the man who walked it.

It sounds simple, but it's not. It is applicable both literally and figuratively. You've heard before that you can't respect any man's journey unless you've walked in his shoes. This is unequivocally true.

Your opinion of another person's decisions or reactions might not be kind. But you don't have the right to judge, because you don't know what variables fostered those decisions or reactions. Our lives, and the manner in which our personal obstacles and passions and shortcomings and failures and triumphs affect who we are and mold who we will become, are ours only. And only we can know the context that provided the newest edge or emotion.

I thought a lot about this in the past five months. In the sun and the rain. On the beach and in the desert. On the pavement and the dirt. A road can't be fully respected in a car. Its quirks and character and hills and holes and wind and elements are all virtually anonymous in a car.

But not to the runner. The runner bears it all. What is flat to a rider can be Everest to a runner. A beautiful day in a car can be harsh to a runner. The road looks different to the man who walked it.

Boston looks different now. Because I walked it.

Because I ran it.

To folks outside of New England, Patriots' Day is just another Monday. It's coffee and rush hour and deadlines. To New Englanders, Patriots' Day is the year's greatest day. Because it's their day. It's First Beer at 9 and First Wave at 10 and First Pitch at 11.

It is Marathon Monday, 27 miles (counting the walk to the starting line) of pride, a rowdy block party before the starts in Hopkinton that included a group of guys handing out Bud Lights and Marlboro Menthols, screaming: "We have all the essentials," blends into the next party in Framingham, and then into Natick and Wellesley and Brookline and Newton, and then on to Boston, all to celebrate the region and the runners.

Because, to paraphrase Red Sox DH David Ortiz, it's their f---ing city.

Never before had their city been prouder than April 21, 2014. Not even when their Sox or their Celtics or their Bruins or their Patriots won world championships. Not ever. This was about more than pride. This was about closure.

Because on April 21, 2014, they ripped their city back from the clutches of cowardice. They showed up in droves -- an estimated 1 million of them. Don't back up. Don't back down.

They had already rallied. For an entire year, Boston bonded together in support of those injured and killed in the marathon bombings. But this was the anniversary of the event. This was the ultimate display of Boston Strong. This was rebirth.

And I still can't believe I was a participant.

I knew immediately I wanted to be. I almost had to be. I had a spiritual desire to run for those who couldn't. But I wasn't sure how to go about pursuing that. I went to the Boston Athletic Association website and searched its official charities.

At the very bottom on the page sat a link for Tenacity, a literacy-based nonprofit benefiting underserved youth in Boston. I clicked it. The group uses books and tennis to keep kids' minds fresh and bodies fit. It does wonderful things. Perfect, I thought. I'm a writer. I work for ESPN. It's a great match. Tenacity's lead Boston Marathon organizer, Caroline Lane, quickly got back to me. She was interested in my story and ultimately accepted me, and 20 others, onto the team. Together, we raised $180,000 for the kids in Boston.

The race was the most difficult athletic endeavor of my life.

The realization of the challenge became apparent on the bus ride from Boston Common to the starting line in Hopkinton. It took forever. As the miles crept by, my need to use the restroom grew to the point that I feared an accident was imminent.

I stopped talking to the people around me, including my seatmate, "SportsCenter" producer Andrea Pelkey, whom I'd roped into running the race, too. I had to concentrate on holding my pee. Race hydration is paramount, a delicate balance between fluid and salt that carries some to the finish line and renders others immobile. You must drink a lot. With that, you tend to pee a lot. Suddenly, the bus stopped alongside the road on Interstate 495 and a gentleman a few seats behind me came running by. I drafted him down the aisle and up a steep hill beside the road, dodging trees and trash in the name of prerace relief. All said, some 10 men made their way into the woods behind a neighborhood. I stood there hoping the folks making breakfast weren't looking out the kitchen window. If they were, they got a show.

The course was very tough. Managing emotion was a chore. I openly wept three times. The first was somewhere around Mile 7. I was cruising at this point -- an 8-minute-per-mile pace -- although, for reasons I still can't pinpoint, my heart rate was entirely too high. During training, I averaged around 145 beats per minute. At that time, I was in the 160s. Maybe it was emotion. Maybe it was the antibiotic I was taking for a sinus infection. Whatever it was, it would haunt me later.

A girl named Kaitlyn, decked out in neon yellow, flanked me to my left. Like most folks around me, she was running for charity. Suddenly a group of spectators to our right erupted in cheers, screaming her name. She darted directly in front of me to embrace them. It was wonderful to witness. I got really emotional about it, but said out loud to myself to let that go.

If I was to finish the race, I couldn't let those things affect me. I would see them all day.

I would need to remind myself of this more than once.

An amazing moment for every marathoner is finding family and friends along the course. It is a jolt of energy and clarity, a reminder why you're doing this. I got this. My wife, Lainie, and our friend Greg Morin, the pit crew coach for Jimmie Johnson's and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teams at Hendrick Motorsports, came to support me. Their experience was a comedy of errors.

The first moment came at Mile 10. They took a $50 cab ride from Boston to Natick and meandered their way to the course. They then received a text message update about my progress. According to the data, I was right beside them. Lainie turned around and there I was, cruising. I pointed in their direction, ran toward them and high-fived the 9-year-old standing 10 feet from them. I never saw them.

The signs along the course were poignant and proud and hilarious.

Chuck Norris Never Ran a Marathon!

Run Faster, I Just Farted.

Go Nads!

Today Is The Only Day It's Okay To Poop Your Pants.

I followed one guy for probably a mile. Then I looked up and realized his shirt read, in black Sharpie, "Sorry, I farted." I passed him before he could pass gas. My favorite, on an orange poster board held high in the air by a young girl, written in Sharpie in black, block capital letters: THIS IS OUR F---ING CITY.

In Framingham, I eased up a hill toward a left-hand curve. There was a group of 20-somethings perched on a roof. Blinking behind them was one of those road-construction warning signs, only there was no warning. There was a statement that read, in orange letters: Boston, One Year Stronger. That got me. The folks in Framingham were loud. It was awesome. The streets were electric.

Somewhere thereabouts, a young lady stood atop a perch, waving an American flag with all her might, screaming as loudly as she could: "AN AMERICAN WON THE BOSTON MARATHON!!!!" Every single runner, all of us, cheered and clapped. We were participants in the Boston Marathon when an American won for the first time since 1983. What an honor.

Equally moving to me was happening upon Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-son duo who have run 32 Boston Marathons together. Rick, 52, has cerebral palsy. Dick, 73, pushes him in a custom jogging stroller. I was running along and saw a group of five or six folks, decked out in red Team Hoyt shirts, surrounding this stroller. I had no idea about their story. But everyone lining the streets was losing their minds for these guys. I was moved. I ran over, grabbed Rick by the arm, pumped my fist in the air and told him he was a badass. Because he's a badass.

I got weepy in that moment, too. If you have a soul, seeing that moves you.

I kissed a girl in Wellesley. Her sign read: "Kiss Me I'm From Miami Beach!" That was good enough for me. She was half my age.

The crowd's passion is a towrope of emotion. It pulls you when you believe you can't go farther. It wraps itself around you in the refusal to let you quit. I wanted to quit at Mile 17. The tinge of cramping began just then. I knew I was in trouble. I pulled over to the side and clutched my right hamstring. It felt as if there was a baseball embedded beneath my skin. I tried to massage it out and reached down to stretch it. As I extended my leg, my quadriceps seized up. I was more than nine miles from the finish line, and my entire right leg was locked in a cramp.

This perplexed me. I felt like I hydrated well, prepared my body well through grueling distance runs in Daytona and Phoenix and Las Vegas and all over Charlotte. I felt like my nutrition was right.

At that point, fear set in. Will I finish what I started? Can I? Are all of my goals now impossible? No. I won't let them be. I decided to worry about potential injury later. Today I would manage the pain as best I could, pound Gatorade at every fluid station and simply work through it. I would finish, damn it, if it meant crawling home at midnight. This was bigger than any pain could suppress.

I managed to run through it, verbally prodding myself to put one foot in front of the next. But it hurt. (I would later find out while slamming Sam Adams beers that even some elite runners battled cramping that day. They get paid to know how to eat and drink.)

With Newton came more doubt. The Newton Hills are a series of middle fingers. You'll be running along on what, by comparison, is a flat plane, and as far up as you can see to the horizon line there are runners. Thousands of them. And all you can think is, 'Damn it. I have to run up that thing.'

Then comes Heartbreak. Heartbreak Hill is aptly named. After I missed Lainie and Greg at Mile 10, they jumped back in a cab and went to the top of Heartbreak, where they waited for me. They stationed themselves by the stoplight atop the hill, on the left side of the road, so I wouldn't miss them again, then texted me their whereabouts.

When that stoplight came into view, that towrope wrapped around me. I had the best-laid plan: Get to the top, embrace my wife and friend, take some photographs and chat a moment. When I reached them, I fell into Lainie, uttered, "My God this is so hard," then just kept running. Again, they were disappointed. I knew I had to keep moving.

I had to walk at times in the final stages. At Mile 23, I physically pushed a spectator away from the gate so I could stretch my right calf. I wasn't being rude. At that point, it's all you can do to keep going. I ran the final three miles virtually straight-legged. If I bent my knees, my quads or hamstrings would fire back up.

As I entered the city, I thought instantly about 2013. The famous Citgo sign outside of Fenway Park came into view. I knew I was getting close. I ran down a hill and under a tunnel that read 1K To Go. I tried like hell to do the math. I couldn't.

On I strode until I reached the final left turn at Boylston Street. When I took that left, it felt as if the seas parted. The street got very wide and the crowd very rowdy, as if it was the crowd's mission to guide you home on a wave of passion and resolve. I expected the finish line to be very close once I took that left. It wasn't. The closer I got to the finish line, the farther into view came the timing clock. It said 3:58:Something. I freaked out. If I didn't beat four hours in this race, I wouldn't come home. More than four hours, to me, was an unacceptable effort, given the training it took to get there. So I tried to sprint. My legs were a mess. I managed to get my left knee bent enough to run faster. At this point, I was at a 10-plus-minute pace.

I made it. As I crossed the line, the clock read 3:59:07. I can't describe the way my legs felt. I'd run marathons before. But this was harder. All I wanted to do was sit down, but I knew if I didn't keep walking the entire lower half of my body would lock up. So I walked. And as I walked, I heard my name.

I looked to my right, and there stood Boston police officer Brian Smigielski. My friend. He ran over to me. I didn't look too good. He wanted to put me in a wheelchair, but I'm hardheaded. I wouldn't have it. I was there for Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who was slain, allegedly by the bombers. Sean's brother, Andy, works at Hendrick Motorsports. He is my friend, and he is Greg's friend. I also ran for Chase Kowalski, the sweet little 8-year-old boy who was murdered at Sandy Hook, who loved to run. His parents, Rebecca and Steve, host triathlons in his memory.

I was there to run for those who couldn't, and I could damn sure walk for them.

But as we walked I cramped badly, so I sat on the curb to stretch. But all I could do was put my head between my knees and weep. I still don't know why, whether it was the emotion of the day, the accomplishment of the moment or the physical toll troubling me just then. Or maybe it was all of it.

I haven't gone deep enough into my soul yet to get that answer.

Smigielski -- "Smig," as we call him -- put his hands on my shoulders. He didn't know what to say to me. Finally a doctor came by and suggested that I should stand and move or I'd be in worse shape quickly. Lainie and Greg were several blocks down at Arlington Street. They couldn't get any closer, so I had to walk to them.

Smig helped me up, then looked at one of his brothers and barked, "Man this post. I'm taking my friend to his family."

I cry every time I think about that. He will never know what he did for me just then. Someday I hope I can articulate that to him.

As I hobbled down Boylston, a new respect washed over me for the runners in the 2013 Boston Marathon who felt just like I felt right then but who had the resolve and humanity to console the injured, to tear off their shirts and manufacturer tourniquets. To save lives and limbs.

The Boston Marathon is a spiritual experience. I will never view it the same way.

The road looks different to the man who walked it.