Last summer I spent a weekend in Boston with my family, and during the trip I paid a visit the the Bill Rogers Running Center for the first time. While there, I admired the many Boston Marathon shirts that were for sale, but chose not to buy one since I had not yet qualified for the race. Instead, I bought a shirt that had on the back a quote by Rodgers that said “The marathon can humble you.” Turns out that the choice of shirt was quite appropriate, as my running of the 2011 Boston Marathon last Monday was about as humbling an experience as I have ever had.
To start, let me say that the entire weekend was truly amazing. Having lived within a few hours of Boston for much of my life, this was surprisingly my first ever trip to the city on marathon weekend, and it didn’t disappoint. I traveled down from NH on Saturday morning with my family, and we were joined by my parents and sister. I spent the afternoon on Saturday at a meet-up with some of my good friends from dailymile (see photo below), and then headed off to the expo for a few hours. For a gear junkie like me, the expo was like heaven, and I threw down quite a bit of money on race paraphernalia. I chatted for a bit with some folks from Altra and Saucony whom I’ve gotten to know through this blog. I also picked up a pair of the much anticipated Saucony Hattori (cool shoe!), which was available for the first time at the expo (it’s now available for pre-order at Running Warehouse). I’ve now run a few miles in them and they feel like socks with a thin, flat EVA sole.
On Sunday I went to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology with my family, and then walked around Harvard Square for a bit (no rest for me, which might have contributed to events that followed the next day…). Headed back to the hotel for a swim and then met my cousin for dinner. By a complete stroke of coincidence my friend Mark Cucuzzella happened to sit down two tables away from us at the hotel restaurant, and it was nice to chat for a bit (he ran a 2:37 on Monday!). Went to bed early and actually got a really good 7-8 hours of sleep on marathon eve.
I headed out early on race morning so that I could catch one of the early buses to Hopkinton, and ran into the husband of one of my fellow dailymile Team members (Blaise) - had a nice conversation on the bus ride over. The bus ride was longer than I had expected, and our driver seemed to be in a race of his own as he kept pulling out of the caravan of school buses to pass those that were in front of us. We arrived at the Athlete’s Village with a few hours to spare, and I managed to find my dailymile/Twitter friends hanging out near the backstop of the baseball field. We had some time to kill, and it was great to spend it with such a great group of people (that’s me in the orange jacket in the photo above). It was cold and windy in the village, and runners all over were wrapped in mylar blankets and trash bags in an effort to stay warm.
As race time approached, I made a decision to wear arm warmers and gloves to the starting line. In retrospect, this may have been one of the first mistakes of many that I made on the day. I walked to the start with my friends Andy and Steve, and we met up with a few other friends while waiting in a porta-potty line (naturally!).
Ross, Me, Andy, and Steve just prior to the start of the race
Waiting in the corral (#7 for me) was yet another memorable experience. Standing there, knowing that I had earned the right to be there at that moment through years of hard work, was one of the most satisfying things I have ever felt. There’s nothing quite like waiting for the start of the Boston Marathon – every runner should experience it at least once. It was also cool to be grouped with everyone who had qualified with a similar time to mine, but this also created a challenge. I knew going into the race that a 3:15 was not in the cards – I’d lost too much fitness over the winter due to a combination of lousy weather and an excessively busy life. I’d also put on a good 5-6 pounds since my BQ race. My realistic goal was a 3:30, give or take 10 minutes depending on how I felt. However, when the starting gun went off I found myself sucked into running at the same pace as everyone in my corral – this despite the fact that nearly everyone I had talked to about race strategy warned me not be tricked into going out too fast by the initial downhill grade.
I knew from very early on in the race that it wasn’t going to be my day. Even in the initial few downhill miles I could sense that my quads were not fresh, and I was fairly certain that they were going to give me serious trouble at some point (which they most certainly did). My suspicion is that they weren’t yet back to 100% after the beating they took at the HAT 50K with its insanely hilly course – one thing I have learned over the years is that it takes my body at least four full weeks to recover from a marathon, and the HAT Run sapped my quads far worse than any marathon ever has. I have no regrets about running HAT though – like Boston, it was an unforgettable experience.
The one thought that kept going through my mind over those early miles was “slow down!” I knew I was running too fast – in fact, my early pace was faster than I ran in my BQ marathon back in October. I think the fact that everyone around me was running the same pace made it hard for me to ease off, even if I knew it was the smart thing to do. Running those early miles the way I did was pure stupidity, and I paid badly for the mistake.
It also wasn’t long before I started to get hot. Unlike the cold and wind that made sitting in the Athlete’s Village uncomfortable, once we were running the wind was less noticeable and the sun was bright – I actually wound up with a bit of a sunburn on my shoulders. Having done all of my training in much colder temperatures, it actually felt downright hot to me, and began to regret the decision to wear my arm warmers. However, for some mystifying reason I never took them off – strange how you don’t always do what’s logical when running a race. The combination of pace and heat led me to drink water at most of the water stops, and this set the stage for events that would unfold later.
The crowd along the race route was just as everyone had described – large, loud and incredibly supportive. Every time we entered a town the noise level rose considerably, and this didn’t help me in my futile attempt to slow down my pace. Around mile 10 I passed Team Hoyt, and the noise from the spectators cheering them on was deafening – this was one of the most vivid memories I have from the entire race. I hit the half marathon mark on pace to run between a 3:15-3:20, which I knew was way too fast.
My pace began to slip a bit in miles 15 and 16 (see split chart above) – they were the first two splits that I ran in 8:00+. Then, in mile 17, the wheels fell completely off. It had been a long time since I’d bonked in a marathon, but I hit the wall hard. My quads were completely shot, and I knew I was done. I’d been in this spot many times before, and I knew what the next 9 miles were going to be like - it wasn’t going to be pretty or particularly enjoyable. Quite honestly, I don’t really remember the final 9 miles very well. It was a complete mental and physical struggle just to keep moving forward. I made a conscious decision to walk the uphills (including all of Heartbreak), as I knew that trying to run them would only put me deeper into the hole I had dug for myself. I ran the downs and flats as best I could, but my pace rarely dipped below 9:00/mile until the final mile. I tried to keep getting sugar into my body, and the one thing that was tolerable were the orange slices being handed out by spectators along the course (did I mention the crowd was awesome!). I tried to start taking Gatorade at the water stops, but it wasn’t sitting well in my stomach, so I didn’t take as much as a should have. Temperature regulation had also become a major issue, and at each water stop I dumped a full cup over my head to try and cool myself down. I was a mess, and I was suffering.
I think the only thing that prevented me from walking more than I did was the shame I felt at doing it at the Boston Marathon. Here were all of these people watching this great race, and the last thing I should have been doing was walking. I felt like I was disrespecting the race by not living up to my ability, so I kept plugging along as much as I could manage. My new goal was simply to avoid a personal worst, though my mental skills were so heavily challenged at that point that I had a hard time figuring out just how fast I needed to go to avoid that fate.
Thankfully, as the miles wound down I realized that as long as I limited my walk breaks to the brief uphills and kept running around 9:00/mile for the rest, I’d come in under the 3:43:38 that I ran in my first ever marathon. This wasn’t saying much, but it was enough motivation to keep me moving forward. I don’t much recall entering the city, but I vaguely remember seeing the Citgo sign, and I managed to muster a pretty solid effort for the final half mile from Commonwealth to Hereford to Boylston. After turning onto Boylston, the finish line appeared in the distance, but it seemed like it was still miles away. The noise of the crowd pulled me forward, and somehow I managed to get my pace back under 8:00/mile during that final stretch. I gave it all that I had. I crossed the finish line in 3:42:12 – my second slowest of 8 marathons.
Not long after I crossed the finish line I began to feel dizzy – it got so bad that I asked if I could sit in one of the wheelchairs that was stationed along the side of the finish chute. After a few minutes, I hadn’t improved, so they wheeled me into the med tent, where the person attending to me took vitals and asked how much water I had taken on the course (too much). They indicated that I was caked in salt from evaporated sweat, and they were concerned that I might have mild hyponatremia. I had also started cramping severely in my quads and calves, and I was having some difficulty talking since my jaw muscles felt like they were going to cramp as well. Thankfully, after a few cups of salty chicken broth and about 20 minutes of lying on my back, I began to feel much better and I was able to check out. The med tent was hopping, and at one point I heard them announce that there were no free beds – apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d had some difficulty, and I saw a few people who appeared to be unconscious as they were wheeled in.
Given all that I went through on Monday, it would be easy to say that I’m disappointed and that I had a lousy time. However, my reaction is actually quite different. Running Boston was a hard-earned reward, and one that I will not soon forget. It reminded me that one can never take a marathon for granted – “respect the distance” is an oft repeated mantra among marathon runners, and it’s one that I did not heed in the months leading up to Boston.
There are so many factors in terms of race execution that I can point to that contributed to my crash, with my fast early pace and my temperature/fluid intake issues being the most likely candidates. However, the reality is that the major reason why I had such a rough outing was that I didn’t put in the necessary training to handle the distance. In fact, I had only run one 30+ mile week since last October, and that was the week I ran the HAT 50K. You simply cannot run a hard marathon effort on such minimal training mileage, and I knew that going in – I just failed to adapt my strategy to that reality. If I had to do the race over, I would have dropped back a few corrals and gone out at a 7:50-8:00 pace. I’d much rather have run slower throughout and enjoyed the experience than take the reckless and stupid approach that I did.
It would be easy for me to dwell on this race performance and beat myself up about it, but that would serve little purpose. The better option is to view Boston as yet another of many learning experiences and move on – it will make me a stronger runner going forward. It was an unforgettable weekend, and an amazing race that I am honored to have been a part of. I’m already feeling the need to train hard and redeem myself, but I’m thinking about taking a break from marathons for a bit and focusing on 5K’s this summer and then shooting for a half marathon PR in the Fall. Marathons beat me up physically, and this body needs a break from the pounding. For now I just want to run for fun for a bit and not worry abut training for a particular goal - summer vacation is only a few short weeks away and I can’t wait!
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