Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Race report: 115th Boston Marathon

Right before the start line, I took my last few photos, then tucked away my iPhone, putting it on airplane mode. No, I wasn't going to fly, but I had no use of the signal. I would go radio silent. I lined up at the back of wave one, considering that if I had lined up with my corral, I'd be stuck in a group of runners gunning for faster times. Today wasn't the day for that. I figured that the back of wave one was probably the best place to be. Fast enough, but not in any one's way. It was, after all a training run.

My route to the start was not without some little blunders. I was still in the athlete's village at 9:15 a.m. waiting in an insufferably long lineup for a portapotty when I decided I should probably exit with the rest of the wave. I promptly found myself in the wrong buses and had to run to where we dropped off the bag. Oh well.

Later, I decided to get that last pee break before the marathon. The porta-johns right beside the start corral had big lineups and I realized that I was lining up behind a runner who had just done the London Marathon the day earlier, and landed in Boston at 10:30 p.m.! He also let us know that he had his bib pulled last year when he was peeing in the bushes.

I was really really excited waiting at the start. I had not run for a good three days but I was feeling good. I had gone through a lot of debate about what I should actually wear race day.

6 a.m.: T-shirt

8 a.m.: Hmm, maybe T-shirt with a singlet underneath

8:30 a.m. inside a porta-john: T-shirt, good to be cold

9:55 a.m. at the start: Maybe a singlet would have done.

The wind? Well, that's pretty much the underlining theme. If this marathon had a backbeat, or the background sound, it was that wind. You'd only hear it through the rustling trees, or the discarded Gatorade cups and went blowing ahead of you with every gust. It was a cold wind, but it was at our back. The perfect combo.

The start

I went out at a reasonable pace, embracing the first downhills but not too pleased by the rollers. Oh well, I guess I was prepared for it. It was so much fun to be reacquainted with the number of people who would come out to watch the race. The crowd in Hopkinton was just unreal, really made it so joyful to run the marathon. Immediately, my I tuned into two possible issue areas. First, my right heel was a little tender, I'm not sure where it originated but I do remember babying it a bit without having it do anything major to my stride. Second, my freaking legs weren't that fresh. I felt a little tightness in my calves and legs. Three days without running and literally no warmup meant I was to spend these downhill miles 'warming up'. Not good.

5K split: 24:47
1. 7:48 (4:51)
2. 7:58 (4:57)
3. 8:03 (5:00)

In my mind, I wanted to go a bit faster than last year, maybe go for some sort of a paced run. By this point, I was keyed into runners around me and decided to go out at a very comfortable 8 minute mile pace. I could comfortable hold the pace but I was hoping my legs would shake out from the tightness earlier.

Although I was going easier than race pace, it really wasn't a pace where I could take a lot of pictures or tweet. I was also avoiding from doing too many high fives, though probably did trade high fives a dozen or so times (as opposed to dozens of times).

4. 8:01 (4:59)
5. 8:15 (5:08)
6. 7:55 (4:55)

Random picture I took (took very few)

10K: 49:47 (5K split in 25:00)
The day? Absolutely gorgeous. The previously cold weather was actually perfect. The wind was actually pushing us toward Boston, and at times, I could feel the wind at my back. Too easy, I thought. The pace was good, nothing to really write about, I just tried to divide my time between just keeping on proper pace, taking in the downhills and uphills, enjoying the crowds and the other runners.

Boston course is so great, rarely are you left to run on your own, which is actually a nice thing for pacing. The miles were pretty uneventful. My legs were feeling better. I was recognizing some of the same runners who were at my pace. a few people from the wave behind me were starting to catch up but not many. At around the 9 mile mark, I saw a porta-john and I decided that maybe my stomach was bothering me. So I ducked in for a washroom break. Never fun to do, and you do lose time, but sometimes it's well worth it. Mile 9 was about a minute a mile below the pace I was trying for.

7. 7:55 (4:55)
8. 8:05 (5:02)
9. 9:00 (5:36)

15K: 1:16:01(5K split in 26:14)

Doing a systems check, I got back into pace and started at it again. At this early point, I was already counting down the miles (10 down, 16 to go). Maybe that's not a good sign. By the time I hit the 15 kilometre mark about a minute behind 3:30 pace, I still thought I should aim for a 3:30. I knew I wasn't racing this (too late at this point) but I could at least not find excuses to slow down. This early in the marathon, I was concentrating on getting in the proper fuel mix: At least a sip or gulp of Gatorade at each stop and maybe some water. The plan was a gel about every 5 miles, which would mean I could down about 4 to 5 during the marathon. Good practice, I thought, especially since my last 30K I only brought one gel and forgot to take it. Doh.

I tried to remind myself what it feels like to run easy. I tried to remind myself that 8 minute kilometres is easy. By the time I had done the next 5K, I was back on 8 minute kilometre pace.

10. 8:07 (5:03)
11. 8:06 (5:02)
12. 7:48 (4:51)

20K: 1:41:03 (5K split in 25:02)

Seeing the word Wellesley brought back happy memories. About Ryan Hall egging on the crowd. About that Scream Tunnel. Last year, it was a blast. I decided to take some pictures so you guys can see what it's like. You enter into the campus area and you hear this distant cheer. Within metres, the volume escalates, then you see this:

And this little video.

Wow, eh? So that would make it my second stop for the marathon.

13. 8:00 (4:58)

Half: 1:46:25

So I had reached the half with a time that was a full 1:25 behind 3:30. Oh well, I had work to do. Exiting the college, you get a little bit of a high but you know they're coming, and you have no choice but to face them.

14. 7:48 (4:51)

By them, I'm talking about the words Newton and Hills. By them, I mean those four mothers of climbs. People talk about the final three hills which culminate in Heartbreak hill all the way in mile 21 (I forgot that it ends at 21, not 20.. yes). But the first one, that starts when you cross the river and following a massive plunge. I took the downward bit a little easier, using it to conserve some energy.

15. 7:57 (4:57)
25K: 2:05:35 (5K split in 24:32)

So the next 10K is basically the miles that can break many a runner. It was on that first rise, at mile 16, that I started seeing a lot of walkers, and when I started to really notice I was passing people. The first one is a long unrelenting hill over an exposed overpass. I don't remember much fan support. I took that mile in a crazy 7:42. Huh? I'd like to think my Garmin misfired but looking at the elevation gained, it looks real. Wow.

16. 7:42 (4:47)

The next five miles features three hills and also a turn in the course! The first two hills are moderate climbs, each followed by some downhill portions or flats. I found the trick was just like we take any hill. Change up your stride, use the same effort. I think I relished in taking the hills a tiny bit more aggressively. The great thing about the last three hills: fan support. Tonnes of it. I think it really helped us get through. I used markers in the distance as my targets and thank god for those Canadians who flew flags on the hills. They were really nice motivational signposts. When i'd get there, I'd point at them, point at my Canadian flag hat, and run on strong. Next two splits aren't bad, huh?

17. 8:09 (5:04)
18. 8:03 (5:00)

30K: 2:30:37 (5K split in 25:02)

So I had just done the first half of the Newton hills in exactly 8 minute 5K pace. Nice. I wasn't feeling too winded, almost too comfortable. Miles 19 - 21 includes a slight fall plus the last two hills. In this stretch, they had set up a big Jumbotron. There were tonnes of water stations and a gel station, and more fans. Seriously, that got me up the hill without thinking about bonking. As I was climbing Hearbreak, I was almost enjoying the mother. It hurt a little but I was not close to going over the edge.

19. 7:54 (4:55)
20. 7:57 (4:57)
21. 8:05 (5:01) (Heartbreak Hill!)

35K: 2:55:23 (5K split in 24:46)

Wow, I'm very happy with my two 5K splits in the Newton hills. They were pretty damned good. In retrospect, I think I turned the game on around mile 16. Before that point, before Newton, I was flirting with a sub 3:30 but just thinking training run. By the time I hit the hills, I knew I wanted to run them well.

Boston College is freaking awesome. It was so loud and rivals Wellesley. I was running near some guys wearing alumni (Badgers) that were getting massive cheers. They were two uberfit guys who looked like they were in their 40s just out for an easy strong run. They were hamming up the crowd and were running pretty strong. I was feeling just as energetic so I decided to match their pace. We were going downhill, the crowd was going crazy, they were heading into Boston. Why wouldn't I run faster.

So I ramped up the pace. Suddenly it wasn't 3:30 pace but a little faster. Great. Felt good. Didn't feel like I would blow my training at this point by ramping it up. In fact, what other confidence booster is there by finishing your marathon at your fastest. Those miles into Boston were great. A blur in bits. Part of it was just trying to negotiate the crowd of runners. Many were slowing down, some were walking and I was trying not to lose pace. I was really enjoying the crowd. I wanted to run Boston, almost race Boston. That, at least, was what I could give back to this course, some good pace that got me here in the first place.

When the race enters the Boston area, it goes a whole new level. It turns from this historical marathon route that's lined by local community into a Big City Marathon. Not that one is better than another but the fact you get both is pretty rocking.

Splits speak for themselves. This is the speed I remember.

22. 7:42 (4:47)
23. 7:37 (4:44)
24. 7:36 (4:43)

40K: 3:19:10 (5K split in 23:47)

Those three miles pretty much reeled back in that time I lost in the portapottty and then some. I was on track for the 3:30.

Now it's important to note that 1) I didn't run with my fuel belt 2) I did not have a pace band 3) I really didn't pay attention to my splits until I would hit a 5K split. So it's pretty hilarious that when I hit 40K, it was very simple math that led me to the conclusion that a sub 3:30 was a possibility. I remember last year waiting hopefully for the Citgo sign to come out so I could take a picture. This year, I couldn't wait for it to show so I can run right up to it and past it. I was thinking of the game I went to Fenway a few days earlier and how close it was to the finish. With the last two miles, I was basically counting it down by each 400 metres. Possibly because of the downhills, or maybe because of the faster pace, I was feeling mini cramps creeping. I continued to hydrate (I didn't take my fifth gel) and resolved to run off the cramps.

There was one hitch to my run fast to grab the sub 3:30. R. She had texted me and I checked the iPhone after Heartbreak and she told me she'd be across the street from the Hynes Convention centre, on the left. I knew that I had to spot her, and I love to stop and chat and give her a little kiss. It's my way of thanking her for standing there since 9:30! To do that, I would have to run faster.

25. 7:32 (4:41)

With the last mile, I was still near the uberfit guys so I stepped it up to give me a little buffer. Running under the bridge and then turning onto Hereford and left on Boylston was just as amazing as ever. I stayed on the left side and tried to keep pace while scanning the crowd. I saw R. in the distance waving and ran over to her. Said hi, gave her a kiss, took a picture, then asked her to take a picture of me. This might have taken 15 seconds but she and the people with her were telling me to go! I said 'gotta run!' and 'meet you at the hotel!' and soaked in the final stretch.

Proof I stopped.

26. 7:25 (4:37)
The rest: 2:46 or 4:30 km/pace.

What a great feeling it was to run Boston consistent, strong, and with a great finish. All through the marathon, I was trying to save the memories for the years I won't run Boston, to try to run Boston so I can get familiar with it, and to really savour its course. It's one of a kind.

Final time: 3:29:25

So, what's the deal with Boston, you're asking

You know, we all know we have an obsession of getting to Boston. Even those who may not admit it, we do. I think we really try to BQ because it is hard and it is there. Does it separate good runners from great runners? Does BQing when you're young more of an achievement than when time gives you more literal time? Do we really understand what it's all about when we say I want to do Boston? I first set my sights on Boston because it was that holy grail. The qualification stood for personal excellence and it was an important milestone to reach. By reaching the time, you reached Boston. Or not really.

Once you get your BQ, you get something that probably goes unsaid by those who have done it before. It's something that's hard to capture even in all the pictures I've collected over the past two years. To those of us who run it year after year, I think I know why you come back. It is a special race, putting aside exclusivity or elitism. The course is technical and it takes a lot of training and heart and tactics to run it well. But it is not just the course. It's the weekend, the 'Marathon Monday' when this event becomes one that's owned by all those communities between Hopkinton and Boston.

A mere hour or so after the marathon, I walked into North End for a decadent lobster roll and with the simple medal draped around my neck. I don't often keep them on after most races, but I have for Boston, even for one night. In the space of two hours, a half a dozen people stopped me to congratulate me and ask me about the race. They, Boston citizens, were genuinely happy for me, in a little awe of the event.

Because it's not just ours, us runners, it's a Boston thing. In a little way, we're allowed to take centre stage in a spectacle that has gone on for 115 years. No matter who shows up to be picked up by those school buses next April or the next 30 Aprils, it'll still be 'Boston'. We'll all come, from different states and countries, for the privilege to be part of that spectacle. BQing gets you a chance to be part of something greater than the 26.2.

Split recap
5K: 24:47
10K: 49:47 (5K split in 25:00)
15K: 1:16:01(5K split in 26:14)
20K: 1:41:03 (5K split in 25:02)
Half: 1:46:25
25K: 2:05:35 (5K split in 24:32)
30K: 2:30:37 (5K split in 25:02)
35K: 2:55:23 (5K split in 24:46)
40K: 3:19:10 (5K split in 23:47)
42.2K 3:29:25 (2.2K in 10:15 or a 23:17 5K split)


Patrick said...

so cool. congrats on a great race!

Runshorts said...

I never once noticed that mythical tailwind. I'm not sure I believe it exists.

Anonymous said...

Some nice course photography - I definitely saw those guys on the roof.

And more importantly, nice race! That relaxed approach seems to pay off in dividends on that course, probably because you've got to be so careful with expending effort. Sub 3:30 with a couple quick breaks sounds solid to me!

I also think you nailed why Boston really is a great race. You get a special kind of crowd support there. I've stayed with friends in the area the last couple years and they said that people in the area have a special relationship with the race because they've grown up with it and it just happens to be on a day where they'd all want to be out relaxing anyhow. It's amazing how many random people congratulate you there.

Marlene said...

Fantastic report! You ran such a strong and steady race, not to mention the nice negative split! With stops, too!

Your description of the course and the weekend and the city and the meaning only make me want it more.

Congratulations! I'm sure you'll be back.

Robin said...

Congratulations!! Awesome.

ghada said...