“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
This quote from Charles Dickens best describes the 2013 Boston Marathon for me.
Since at least 2008, I’ve been trying to break 3 hours at Boston. This year, I finally did it with a solid race, finishing in 2:59:48. Less than two hours later, two bombs exploded at the finish line killing three people and injuring many more. My finishing time no longer seemed important. Death has a way of putting life in perspective.
The Boston Marathon is always held on the third Monday in April. I tell people that it’s a religious holiday for me. They think I’m joking, but I’m not. If you’ve run Boston, you probably understand what I’m saying. It’s partly the history of the race and partly the challenge of the course.
But it’s mainly about the people who line the roads for 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square. At times, they stand 6-8 people deep, cheering wildly. There are small children all along the route, holding their hands out for “high fives” or handing you cups of water, ice cream on hot days, or orange slices. At times, like at the Wellesley “scream tunnel” or around Boston College, the noise is so loud it hurts your ears. Admittedly, I usually ignore the requests for “high fives” because I’m concentrating on my pace and conserving my energy. I sometimes tune out the noise, moving to the left side of the road at Wellesley.
For the last ten miles, from the ascent to Heartbreak Hill in the hills of Newton to the descents leading to Cleveland Circle and on to Boylston Street, the crowds keep you moving when your legs are screaming to stop. And this year, someone decided to murder our fans. It’s left me empty and sad, depressed and angry.
I know this year will change the Boston Marathon, and maybe all major marathons, in ways we don’t yet understand and can’t predict. But Boston will fill up, the fans will show up, and the finishing rate will be back around 99 percent. It’s what we do.
This year, the horrible day started perfectly. Clearing skies and light winds, with starting temperatures in the low to mid-40s and finishing temperatures in the mid 50s. I rented a house in Cambridge with John and Pam Eckenrode, Mark and Katherine Moldenhauer and Lisa Farias. A new friend, Simion Cadeaux, a runner from Toronto joined us.
Our house was close to the Porter Square MBTA train stop and we took an early train to the Boston Commons, boarding one of the buses to Hopkinton at 6:45 a.m. We arrived about an hour later and hung out near a huge tent, waiting for our wave starts. You are assigned to a wave and a corral within each wave based on your qualifying time. The corrals are strictly enforced. My wave went off at 10 a.m.
My goal was sub 3 hours and my race plan was to run 6:45 pace for the first half, covering 13.1 miles in about 1:28:30. Because the second half of the course is much harder than the first due to the hills starting around mile 15, this isn’t, in my opinion, a negative split course. (If you negative split the course, you probably started too slow.) I planned for a positive split of about 3 minutes, meaning my second half marathon would be about 1:31:00 (or just under 7 minute pace).
This isn’t a course you can attack from beginning to end. You have to “sweet-talk” it. You have to be patient with your pace, careful with your nutrition and hydration, and constantly monitoring what your body is telling you. The real danger at Boston is starting too fast. The first few miles can easily seduce you into a pace you shouldn’t run. Between the downhill, the energy you have from a good taper, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and being surrounded by lots of fast runners, it is so easy to start too fast.
This year, I pretty much held back at the start. Predictably, people flew past me. Even holding back, my first mile was at 6:52 pace, about 20 seconds per mile faster than I’d planned. I settled in and by mile 3, I was running fairly consistent 6:45 mile splits with a goal of maintaining 21 minutes per 5K. I hit the half right on pace at 1:28:30 and held my goal pace until about 30K, when I slowed about ten seconds per mile on the uphill.
I firmly believe that the uphill is overrated at Boston, but the downhills are vastly underrated. The drop from Heartbreak Hill past Boston College into Cleveland Circle is brutal. Every year for the past 9 years, until this year, the downhill has destroyed my quads, leaving me to limp the last 3-4 miles to the finish.
This year was different. I think I’ve finally learned to scamper: using a shorter quicker strider, lighter footfalls and leaning forward allowed me to not only hold my pace, but at times I was running downhill under 6:30 pace.
The last 3-4 miles were still hard, and I started to feel the tell-tale twinges of cramping in my hamstrings, abductors and calves. The cramps were slight at first, but picked up in intensity and frequency as I approached the final miles. By the time I hit 40K at 2:49:58, I was fairly confident I’d make it in under 3 hours, as long as the cramps didn’t bring me to a standstill like they did at Ironman Lake Placid 2012.
The last half mile was torture, particularly in the area where the bombs would later explode. The less I bent my legs, the less they cramped. I’m sure I looked like a rusty Tin Man, nervously looking at my watch and trying to run that final stretch down Boylston Street. Once I crossed the line, they seized up, but it didn’t matter. I made it with at least ten seconds to spare, 2:59:48, losing on 18 seconds off my planned pace for the second half. A finish line volunteer helped me until I could walk again without cramping.
My 5K splits were fairly consistent until the final miles:
30K 21:27 (Heartbreak)
35K 21:45 (including the downhill)
42K 9:50 (about 8 min pace, I think)
So what made this year different?
The weather was perfect, but I’d had good weather years before.
I credit the following:
1. My pre-race fueling and in-race hydration and nutrition were on target. I carbo-loaded well, and took 5 gels during the race at miles 6, 12, 17, 20 and 23. I usually only take 4, but took an extra gel (the course-supplied gel) at Woodland, just before the turn at the Newton Fire Station. The last two gels had 40 and 100 mg of caffeine. I took 3 oz of Gatorade or water at almost every waterstop. I never felt that I was close to glycogen depletion and my stomach held solid.
2. I trained slightly differently. Endurance training is an experiment with a sample size of 1. I’m always tweaking things a little, but this year, I trained differently in substantial ways. I built my base early in the fall, training for the JFK 50 in November. I ran the Houston Chevron Marathon in January and the Caumsett 50K in early March. I ran the Jan and March races hard, although I didn’t peak for either. In between each race, I recovered, then added quality to my workouts through tempo runs, progressive runs and a lot of easy runs for recovery. I used the 50K as my over-distance training and for 5K pace training. Then I built back to a long run of 20 miles, leaving time for a good 3 week taper. My mileage was high in the fall, but not so high after the Houston Marathon. I doubt I ever ran more than 50 miles a week and, except for the 50K week, usually only ran 35-40. I went into this race well rested and tuned.
3. I skipped the hotel scene in Boston this year and stayed four nights (Friday to Tuesday) in a house we rented in Cambridge. The house was far more relaxing and I could cook my own food. (Apologies to my guests who struggled through my intentionally bland pasta sauce the night before the race). I think all of this better facilitated rest and helped me carbo load effectively. This also minimized stress, which can totally undermine a race.
4. I felt in control of the race mentally from the beginning until the end. I raced patiently, using another runner, who ran like a metronome, as a pacer from mile 2 to mile 18. It saves mental energy to pace off someone or to run in a group. He slowed in the hills so I pushed on. I never went negative mentally and was able to monitor the splits to ensure I came in on target, unlike in 2009 when I lost track of where I was in the final 2K, finishing in 3:01:50. I also think the ultras I ran (the JFK50 and Caumsett 50K) improved my mental focus as well as my ability to “shelve the pain” in the final miles.
5. The one major change I’ve made in the past year is adopting the Jurek diet. Since last August, I’ve cut out dairy and eggs, focusing on a plant based diet. My training times have been faster in past years, but my race times are good this year and my post-race recovery has never been better. This is the first year that Boston hasn’t crippled me for several days after the race. I think Scott Jurek knows what he is talking about.
After the race, I made my way to the Park Plaza Hotel, where the MS Society has a suite of rooms where we shower, get massages and refuel. I raise money and run for the team because of a close friend who has MS. After I’d showered and had a massage, I was refueling with Simion, my friend from Toronto who finished two seconds ahead of me in 2:59:56, when someone said: “There have been explosions at the finish line.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We spent a few minutes trying to get information, I shot off a text to my wife that I was OK, and the next several hours were spent attempting to locate people that we knew who were racing, watching or supporting. Verizon either shut down their service at the request of law enforcement (in order to deter the detonation of explosive devices by cell phone) or they were overloaded with people attempting to call or test.
I’m so grateful for everyone in the Club who reached out to me and facilitated communications as we attempted to ensure our members were safe. And I feel fortunate my Mom decided not to come this year (I’d invited her) and I feel very lucky that I decided not to bring one of my sons.
I still hadn’t heard from the Moldenhauers or Eckenrodes, so I walked from the Back Bay to the Mass General Hospital MBTA T-stop enroute to the house in Cambridge, assuming everyone would do the same. Sirens were going off everywhere, people were generally stunned, and ambulances kept passing me on the way to Mass General.
The Moldenhauers were at the house when I arrived, the Eckenrodes showed up shortly thereafter, and Lisa Farias arrived later. By then all of the MMTC runners were accounted for as well. The evening was spent refueling, watching the news and trying to make sense of what was going on.
But it doesn’t make sense. Even as I write this, the drama is still unfolding in Boston: one of the bombers is dead and the other is being pursued.
I wasn’t sure if I would write this race report for the 2013 Boston Marathon. But I think terrorists want us to live in fear and change what we do. I’m not going to do that.
I’ll return to Boston in 2014.
But for the first time in many years at Boston my purpose won’t be to run under 3 hours. I’m going just to be there. To show the bastards they can't stop us. To make it a 26.2 mile party. To just enjoy the experience, like my first Boston in 2005.
And next year, I’ll give those kids along the route all “high fives” they ask for, and I’ll take their water and orange slices.