1st Half Marathon – 1:28:23
2nd Half Marathon – 1:47:49
Average pace: 7:29 min/mile
Some days you have it, some days you simply don’t.
Like Lake Placid Ironman 2008 (3 flats in torrential rain), the 114th Boston Marathon turned out to be a character-building day for me. I missed my goal of sub 3 hours by over 16 minutes and, although I requalified for 2011, the course kicked my butt again this year. It is one tough course.
I cannot wait to get even.
This net downhill course can easily seduce you into an early pace you shouldn’t be running. Later you learn why they say the halfway point is mile 18-19. The course is point to point, meaning you run from Hopkinton 26.2 miles to the center of Boston. You start out with gentle rollers from Hopkinton through Framingham to Natick, which pound your quadriceps quietly. Then you hit the Wellesley College “scream tunnel” at mile 13, dropping at miles 14-15 in the long Wellesley descent. The climbs start at mile 16 over Route 128, turning right at the Newton Firehouse up to mile 21, ending on or near Heartbreak Hill. The climbs are overrated, but the downhill is a silent assassin. Besides the steep drop in Wellesley, the brutal descent at miles 21-22 past Boston College and into Cleveland Circle, can cause your quads to explode.
The last four miles are always hard, but only because of the 22 that came before. The crowds are spectacular, 4-6 people deep on each side cheering wildly. Their will somehow replaces yours, and you keep moving. In previous races, I’ve passed poor souls suffering from severe glycogen depletion in this four mile stretch, running (if you can call it that) with a jerky, short stride and attempting to use their arms to overcompensate for the loss of most of their leg muscles. I always feel empathy when I’ve passed them in previous marathons, thinking that could easily be me. It never had been. Until Monday.
I had high expectations for the Boston Marathon this year: sub 3 hours. In the previous two years, I ran “tune up” marathons in March, 4-6 weeks before the 26.2 in Boston. Each of those tune-ups was under 3 hours, and, each year, I finished Boston not far over 3 hours (3:01:50 and 3:05:49). Karen Smysers, my tri coach this year, persuaded me to drop the tune-up marathon in favor of a half marathon tune-up and come to Boston better rested. I followed her advice, ran a 1:22:14 half in mid-March, and I did my standard two-week full blown taper, which has always left my legs ready to rock.
My training had been going well. Despite the blizzard, I’d made almost all of my long runs, doing 10 runs between 20-26 miles, including a 26 miler on a treadmill during the February blizzard. I averaged 60-70 miles a week since the beginning of December and did progressive runs, hill work and speed work. I was a couple of pounds lighter, which makes a difference over 26 miles. Bottom line: I felt pretty tuned.
I flew up Saturday, hit the Expo, which while always well organized, was even better this year. I stayed in Cambridge at the Holiday Inn Express near Lechmere – four T stops from the Boston Commons where the buses pick us up on Monday morning for the trip to the start at Hopkinton. Saturday night, Sadj and Bob joined me for a pasta dinner hosted by Marathon Strides, the MS Society Marathon Team. We had an excellent dinner and a nice chat with Karen, who, in addition to several top 5 finishes at Kona, was the 1995 Ironman World Champion and ITU World Champion. She’s a class act and very down-to-earth.
For me, disaster struck about 12 hours later Sunday morning. I got 9 hours of solid sleep Saturday night (the important sleep night) and then ate breakfast at the hotel buffet, which was crowded and the food was of marginal quality. About two hours later, the stomach started to rumble and a mild stomach ache started. So much for being smarter when you stay at a Holiday Inn Express. For the next 12 hours, it plagued me – teasing me as it would start to abate, then surge back with a vengeance, doubling me over. I continued eating, knowing that I had to carbo-load, but it was a pain. Literally. I had a late lunch with friends I served with in the Coast Guard 30 years ago and a 6 p.m. dinner with another friend who brought along Carlos Silva, the president of Universal Sports. (Carlos and I cleared T1 at Kona 4 seconds apart and he rides with the Bethesda group, but we’d never met). I forced the food down.
I’ll spare the GI details, but it was clear to me that my system wasn’t absorbing much of the nutrition and it seemed to be shutting down. The stomach pain continued until the early morning hours: I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep, but ended up lying in bed worrying about whether it’d go away before the race. At 3 a.m., the pain was mild again but the stomach was tender. I forced down a fraction of what I normally consume (a banana, a sportsbar, coffee, a bagel, 20 oz sportdrink) and hoped for the best. At 5:30 a.m., I caught the T and boarded a bus at the Commons around 6:30 a.m. for the hour long ride to the Hopkinton High School, where we sit under tents waiting for our call to the starting line for the 10 a.m. start.
The weather was absolutely spectacular for a marathon. Chilly with the NW winds, which I expected to be a tailwind most of the way, temps in the high 40s at the start, mid-50s during the race, and partly cloudy skies. It turned out that the 15-20 mph winds were mostly swirling, except for 3-4 miles from Wellesley to Newton where we turned a little north into a fairly stiff headwind.
Upon arriving at Hopkinton High School, I grabbed a spot under one of the tents on a side that was shielded from the wind and exposed to the sun. The wind chill was probably in the high 30s. I still could not eat and didn’t want to drink either, but forced some fluids down. The stomach pain had subsided to a dull tenderness and a bloated feeling. Why today? Some things you can control, some you can’t. I nevertheless decided to follow Michael Wardian’s advice: run the race like it was my last race ever and see what happened.
As I was getting ready to head out for my wave, I looked to my right and about 5 ft away was Wade Gaasch – we’d been sitting next to each other for awhile and never noticed. Wade was running his 10th consecutive Boston. It’s always good to see him: we seem to pick up where we left off. He is the reason I joined MMTC: after he passed me at mile 16 of the 2005 MCM wearing his MMTC colors, I decided it would be good to be with people who can kick my butt regularly. Bob Bartolo, who kicked butt all day Monday, arrived at the tent just as I was leaving. Wade and Bob both requalified for 2011.
It was a two wave start: 14,000 runners in 14 corrals took off at ten, led by the elite men. Wave 2 went at 10:30. Your bib number is based on your qualifying time, so you’re placed with people in your corral who, at least theoretically, run close to your pace. I had a fairly good qualifying time for this year, so I was in the first corral, but shouldn’t have been on Monday. It was cool being there though, because we were right behind the elites and watched them all come out and line up in front of us. It was also a little intimidating listening to my neighbors in the corral talk about their goal times: 2:25, 2:30, etc. A 50 year old won my age group Monday with a 2:37. He was somewhere in the first corral with me, but head and shoulders above me. Needless to say, when the gun went off, I let them go.
This was the hardest marathon I’ve ever run. Despite the GI issue, I decided to stick with my race plan as long as possible, depending on whether I could keep the stomach under control. The plan was to run a 6:45 average pace, about 20:45 to 21:00 5K splits and a 1:27:30 first half. Even if I slid into a positive split for the second half, as long as I averaged 7:00 min pace, I’d still break 3 hours.
The big question was the stomach, but when the gun went off, the pain was tolerable. It was dull and nagging, but not even as bad as a side stitch which always plagues me with the uphill starts like the NYC marathon. I was easily able to run my goal pace and had to throttle back repeatedly due to the downhill start, the enthusiasm, and the guys in my corral shooting out easily at sub-6 pace.
Unlike previous races when I’ve done a full taper, my legs simply didn’t feel fresh. I had to work harder than I should have been in the first ten miles. Running was hard Monday in those first ten miles, and it was about to get very, very hard. I made all my mile and 5K splits until about the 15K mark, and then they started to slip – a few seconds at first, as much as two minutes per 5K by the end. At the half, I was about 50 seconds off my goal pace with a 1:28:23. By the mile 15 downhill in Wellesley, it was pretty clear I was running out of fuel. The stomach problems themselves did not bother me much during the race – it was the second order effect of limiting my carbo-loading and glycogen uptake on Sunday and early Monday. Normally, glycogen depletion is an issue around mile 20. On Monday, it struck early. I bonked about a mile before the Newton Hills. Eleven point two long miles still to go.
This was my first bonk in 25 marathons. Detached from the emotion of the moment, it was kind of interesting. I had a little negativity (the “why today?” angry reaction), but really didn’t lose mental focus. I could feel muscle groups checking out, my gait started to get jerky, and I shortened my stride and engaged my arms more to compensate. I hoped gels and Gatorade would help, and they probably did help me finish, but the pace steadily slowed. I followed my nutrition plan carefully: gels @ miles 6, 12, 18 and 22); hydration (4 oz of Gatorade every 2 miles, water with gels); and salt twice in the second half marathon. The quads and calves hurt, but it was tolerable like the nagging cannonball in the stomach; I just couldn’t get the legs to hold a decent pace. There is definitely a mental component, but this time, I don’t think I focused on the pain or lost concentration. It was almost an out-of-body experience – I felt detached and angry, watching literally two thousand or so people pass me in the last half marathon!
The Newton Hills actually were a welcome change. They aren’t that steep, but you get to engage different muscles. I passed a few people with my ever shortening stride, but not many. It was, once again, the downhill that killed. The steep drop into Cleveland Circle really hurts. At times I was able to get down to 7:15 pace, but that probably came back to bite me in the flats as my pace slowed to 8:30 and above.
After some ugly miles at 23-25, I struggled past Fenway and Kenmore Square, and finally entered that last mile. You turn right up Hereford St., then left onto Boylston to a finish 300 yards away. This is the first time I realized there were two very long blocks between Hereford and Boylston; and someone seemed to move the finish line further away this year. All along the course, the people screaming their lungs keep you moving, but they seem to be craziest in the last several miles, willing you forward when everything inside you says stop before you do irreparable harm to your body.
My 5K splits tell the tale of the glycogen depletion: 20:18, 20:41, 21:07, 21:32, 22:14, 24:29, 26:26 and 27:34. I guess I could have run more conservatively and maybe run a 3:05, but I can’t shake Wardian’s advice: run it like it’s your last.
I crossed at 3:16:12 in a bit of a funk. Within minutes (which is remarkable at Boston), Sadj found me. With a big hug and spilling over with enthusiasm, she reminded me: “You just finished the Boston Marathon!” She was right, and I had forgotten that I run Boston for a friend: a friend with MS, who can hardly walk, let alone run. Focusing on my goal, I’d lost sight of the big picture. Sadj always puts things in their proper perspective. That’s why I like to hang out with her, Bob and MMTC’ers.
Thanks to everyone for all the e-mails and support pre-race and post-race. It helps to know people are tracking you.
One of the best parts about the weekend? Bob Bartolo requalified, saving enough for a sprint down Boylston Street before a cheering throng so he could run the 115th next year with Deb Saltz.
The hardest part? Facing Karen Smyers after the race. I think she expected me to run in the low to mid 2:50s based on my 1:22:14 half the previous month. One of my friends and teammates on the MS team, who was shooting for a sub 2:50, ran a 2:46. It was a perfect day for a marathon. The elite male winner broke the course record. My race, however, was far from perfect.
So what I would do differently next year? No changes to my training plan or race strategy, but like I do for an Ironman, I’m getting a place where I have my own kitchen; I’ll eat my own cooking. It’s no guarantee I won’t get a bug, but it decreases the odds. Nutrition before the race is absolutely critical. I may also go up for a week in March to train in the Newton hills.
Boston hurt me (again) this year.
I’m looking at the 2010 finish line as the start for 2011.
Revenge will be so sweet.