Thursday, April 23, 2015

Race report: Boston Marathon 2015

No Stopping.

There's a famous sign that those who have run Boston have seen on the course. It says "No Stopping -- Monday," with a figure of a runner breaking the tape. Nothing stops us from wanting to get here. Nothing stops us from getting our own personal Boston.

There's a truth when it comes to Boston -- the hardest part is making it to the start. So when my friend Kerri and I played our own game of Amazing Race on Friday morning, we knew that we'd be off on an interesting adventure. A fog that made a brief appearance at the Toronto island airport saw my flight get cancelled, my departure pushed for two days. So with a few airline points (all of them) and some quick laptop work, we found ourselves taking three cabs, visiting three airports before we thankfully arrived in Beantown nine hours after our scheduled arrival.

The journey to get back to Boston really started two years ago, when I decided I wanted to get back to the race I had done twice earlier. The vow became a commitment to train and along with it the work that it's taken to get to register last fall with a Boston qualifier. I had believed it near impossible to get back any time soon when I last ran Boston in 2011. Could I get faster with age?

That question has been answered over the last two years. I got coaching, joined a series of running teams and became the runner I thought I could be. By the time I got back to Boston last Friday, I had laid down a PB in every distance, hitting a 3:02 marathon last December, but importantly, I had come to loved running even more than the early days.

This winter season has seen its share of challenges with the weather and niggles I've been nursing in my left foot and hamstring, but I was able to progress. Coach Rejean had me running 4:15k marathon pace, right at that sub 3 hour marathon mark. So far in 2015, I hit a 1:26 half marathon and followed it up with a 5K and 30K personal best. Things were looking great. I was in shape.

But Boston is Boston and there was something about the weather. A beautiful Saturday and Sunday turned into a rainy forecast with an east wind, a direct headwind unlike that tailwind we got in 2011.

This year, I was there with seven other teammates, plus about a dozen other friends, including some who had come to do the 5K and also cheer. Toronto's run community was there in droves.


I met up with my friend Lee, who was running his 8th Boston, for our trip up to Hopkinton. We stepped off the bus around 7:15 am and found ourselves with a no lineup portajohn. And yes, it rained. So we stood at the tent and passed the next hour and a half until it was time to get to the start corrals just after 9 am.
A photo posted by Kenny (@yumkerun) on

As I walked towards the start corrals in the fenced off roads, watching the Hopkinton residents wish us well, I felt a sense of calm. It was quiet as thousands of us made our way to the start. I had a vivid memory of four years ago when I walked the same road. I'm back, I thought. I'm back.

My bib, 4927, put me in the fifth corral and for the first Boston, I was intending to race. The 2011 edition saw me put down a 3:29 with a reasonable, fun-run effort, but this time I was bringing fitness to the start line. I was also bringing in some niggles.

The race plan had me attempting a sub 3 hour marathon. I had that on back of my mind, but if there's something I've learned, it's to listen to the body and effort. What I've been telling everyone was "I want to run a strong marathon." On my right wrist, I put on a 3:05 pace band. In my conversation with Lee on the bus, I told him, "I want to run strong and run a sub 3:10," which would be a near slam-dunk BQ. In my head, I wanted to end the marathon strong after conquering the hills of Newton.

1-5K: Hopkinton
A few minutes after the gun went off, we were flying down the hill and I was managing a controlled descent. While doing that first kilometre, I was doing a check of my foot and my upper hamstring (both were sore), but it was a pinch of my hamstring right above the knee that spoke up. I kept it easy, though, hitting the first kilometre in 4:22 or right around the 3:05 pace. Along the side, runners were taking a bathroom break and I joined in the second kilometre, which gave me a second kilometre of 4:40.

I knew that runners I had been seeded with were around the 3:02 and 3:03 range, so the crowd was going at a quick clip, but I could never really get a tune in for pace. As it turns out, we were taking the first 5K quite conservatively. Besides, the leg was still feeling blah and I didn't feel as bouncy as I thought. "Warm up for 5 miles," I thought, knowing that I have the legs for long distances and at times, it never feels right until 8K in.

Boston, I thought a few times, I'm really running Boston. The decision to dress for the end of the race and not the beginning was one I was starting to regret. I had worn tights, a long sleeve and a singlet over that. Underneath it, I had a pair of light armwarmers. I wore gloves and a headband instead of a hat or visor, a decision I came to regret later.

This is me later in the race, on Beacon Street. The picture captures the rain. Oh I hate rain.

We exited Hopkinton and into Ashland with me finally hitting a split around coach's plan -- a 4:12. It didn't feel hard so I went with the flow to see how the day would turn. It was still early.

1: 4:22
2: 4:40
3: 4:19
4: 4:23
5: 4:12
5K: 22:07 - (22:07 / 4:25K pace)

6K-10K: Ashland to Framingham
I had hit the 5K mark well slower than the pace I needed to, but I remembered a lot about how I ran CIM in December. I put zero pressure on myself and ran it by feel and it netted me with a great run. At the same time, I was listening to how the running felt and it was a heavy feeling. I was babying my stride knowing that the niggles had not worked their way out of the body.

By the time I reached the comfort 8K mark, I had put down a 4:13, but also a few 4:18s and 4:20s. It felt like the good pace to take. The splits didn't concern me much.

Besides, the wind picked up and the rain, well, that started too.

6: 4:13
7: 4:20
8: 4:18
9: 4:20
10: 4:13
10K: 43:42 (21:35/ 4:19K pace)

11K-15K: Framingham to Natick
We exited Framingham and into Natick and by then, we were also battling the elements. I had torn off the arm warmers and rolled up the sleeves. The road was still fairly packed with runners and if I needed at this point to draft or pace with other runners, I could, so I continued to run by feel. A lot of my road races that I do with teammates, I run silently with them but the past three marathons, I've run them basically solo. I grew to realize the advantages of running with a partner -- you don't have to talk but you share a plan. Today, I felt like the plan was to run 'strong', whatever that pace felt like, and run within the limits of where my legs wanted to take me.

Besides, all of my training partners were doing different things today. Erin was using today as a training run so she started off slower. Randy was chasing a faster time and was in another corral. And Andrew was cheering somewhere in the final 4K.

The rain, I won't lie, is not my favourite weather. It may be more that I wear glasses when running and there's not much you can do to combat raindrops accumulating on your lenses. Runners with glasses can identify but not being able to really see the course can start to have an impact on your perception and feel for the road. When you are trying to strain to see where your footfalls land, your running form changes. I usually wear hats when it rains as it shields you somewhat but for some reason today, I felt that a headwind would drive rain into my face anyways.

So into the rain, it would be. With every bout of rain, I found it hard, literally, to focus.

But oh well, it's Boston, and a little headwind and rain ain't stopping me.

11: 4:14
12: 4:23
13: 4:20
14: 4:16
15: 4:18
15K: 1:05:19 (21:37/ 4:19K pace)

16K-20K: To Wellesley
I really couldn't really see my watch/paceband in the rain, but the splits I do recall made me think I was making good headway into my 3:05 "strong" marathon. The Natick to Wellesley stretch was a good time for me to try to open up, but my legs settled for anywhere from 4:18s to 4:25s. Still, I didn't see any red flags when it came to my running. Today, I felt, I could make it to the hills intact.

Wellesley is an impressive portion of the race. It signals a few key points in the race. First, it's where you'll find the Scream Tunnel, which I'll describe as a wall of sound you can hear hundreds of metres out. Then you enter into the town where the crowds are just spectacular. You also hit the half way mark, obviously a crucial part of the race. And it's into Wellesley and exiting Wellesley where you get a chance to taste the hills that are to come.

And it went as billed. I ran through the tunnel in awe of the noise. I ran up the subsequent hills, testing my fitness. I ran toward the halfway mark, knowing I was now closer to Boston than to Hopkinton.

I hit the half way mark in 1:32:10, and I remember seeing the number, thinking "okay, today it'll be okay -- lets get past Newton first."

16: 4:20
17: 4:25
18: 4:23
19: 4:18
20: 4:25
20K: 1:27:19 (22:00 / 4:24K pace)

21: 4:23
Half: 1:32:10

21K-25K: Wellesley to Newton
On to Wellesley the terrain turns into rolling, with smaller inclines. I just ran by effort and while the wind and rain continued, I was starting to think that it was a good idea to dress for the cold. My gloves were soaked by this point from a few miscues at water stops and my tights were water logged, but I knew everyone else was having the same problem.

The fueling plan was going well -- I had my usual gel every 8K. I was taking water and Gatorade at the stops and felt the course was well managed. The crowds weren't out in full force but the citizens were definitely supportive.

We plunged down the final hill before entering the Newton area. I knew I was banking effort at this time, but was able to nail down a 4:11K.

22: 4:25
23: 4:29
24: 4:27
25: 4:26
25K: 1:49:32 (22:13 / 4:26K pace)

26K to 30K Newton Hills, Part 1

One of the first surprises at Newton was a contingent of Parkdale Road Runners, who were there to cheer there own. My friend Angela was on the course, and I saw her just as she was yelling my name. I blew a kiss their way as we started to make our way to the first of four hills. Over the next five kilometres we'd hit two of the hills.

I had forgotten much about the Newton hills until now but the first one was in front of us. It was a long steady climb, as much as a kilometre. I just focused on the stride and made sure not to push myself to locomotive mode.

The second hill starts about a mile after you crest the first one, and is preceded by a downhill, enough so you can recover well. I think the hills are built with enough recovery to attack them a little harder, unlike the Around the Bay hills, which are more of true roller variety.

After the second hill, I hit the 30K mark in 2:12:10, well within my comfort pace. I kept on thinking about when Heartbreak would arrive.

26: 4:11
27: 4:33
28: 4:30
29: 4:36
30: 4:27
30K: 2:12:10 (22:38 / 4:31K pace)

31K-35K: Newton to Boston College
The third hill was merely a small bump in the road, but by the time we hit Heartbreak, around the 33-34K mark, I was thanking my coach for all the hills he'd put in the interval workouts, where we'd be cresting hills at tempo or interval pace.

During these efforts, even with the wind and rain, I was making my way up while other runners slowed. I wasn't going too fast but I felt I was revving up the engine, ready for the final stage of the race.

I crested Heartbreak while the rain fogged my glasses and looked at the rest of the course and I could see the course turn into the Boston College area. The crowd was much thinner than I'd remember, but I focused on what coached wanted. He wanted us to have energy for the end

The last three seasons of training had seen me hitting the marathon course three times and never really hitting the wall. It's an amazing feeling knowing you can make it well past the 32K, even 35K mark without running out of gas. I turned around a 4:13 35K and knew I had energy to run home with pace. If I could only see the road through the droplets on my glasses.

31: 4:17
32: 4:38
33: 4:27
34: 4:37
35: 4:13
35K: 2:34:42 (22:32 / 4:30K pace)

36K-40K: Boston College, Brookline, Boston.
What felt like a blister started to form under my left foot, and as I ran toward Beacon Street, I knew this was time to take advantage of the downhill course. If that was the worst of my worries, I'd take it. I resumed a faster pace, starting to hit the 4:22/4:23s. I knew at this point that I was going to finish this race the way I wanted it to. The rain, which had been falling for quite a while, was not going away, so it was a little harder to enjoy the experience. I remember in 2011 how I ran this portion harder and how great that felt and longed for that.

At Boston College.

My teammate Andrew told me he'd be somewhere 3-4K before the end, so around the 38K mark, I started to look left and right. The scanning, combined with my blurry field of vision, made for interesting running. I concluded that he had decided to regroup with a larger group of friends -- they had said they'd be at Kenmore Square, around a mile out from the finish and around the Citgo sign.

Nevertheless, the pace was still fine and my legs had cooperated so far. No way I was stopping.

36: 4:23
37: 4:22
38: 4:28
39: 4:21
40: 4:34
40K: 2:57:06 (22:24 / 4:28K pace)

41K-42.2K: To the Finish.

With about 2K to go, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend Kyle, who was a Blacktoe teammate last year. He now trains with the Black Lungs and told me he ended up in the medical tent a ways back and was running slower to the finish. With a few traded words, we agreed that'd we'd run together, reminding ourselves that we were here at The Boston Marathon.

So both of us ran, scanning the crowds for our friends. His wife was among them as was C. along with Pace and Mind and Blacktoe friends.

Kyle spotted them first, and with a few split seconds, I knew we just had to swing by. I'll let the pictures tell the story.

A photo posted by Kerri (@kerriandreas) on 

Slow mo is the best

Posted by Kenny Yum on Sunday, April 26, 2015

One of the best 20-30 second breaks I've ever taken. We doled out hugs, a kiss, finger points and encouragement to friends, while posing for a picture before being sent away. I shouted at my teammate Andrew that next year he'd be on the course withe me. These guys had seen me through many seasons, witnessed my comeback, ran many miles with me, made me a better runner. If I was to stop, it was for them.

We continued running and took an easier pace. We hollered at the crowd, relishing the moment. I thought, as we went under the bridge as we approached Hereford, that it was at the same point where the race was halted in 2013. That 2013 April day made me want to come back to Boston as soon as possible and now I was running pass that mark, and about to make the series of turns.

It meant something.

We turned right on to Hereford and I heard my friend Julie shout my name. I waved, then turned left on to Boylston and gave the biggest smile. I was here.

Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston, the sweetest left turn in road racing.

I was on Boylston.

I was at the Boston Marathon.

And there was the finish. There was no stopping me now. All the years I wanted to get back here. All the training runs that got me my Boston qualifer, all the fitness that got me three Boston qualifying runs last year. It was all for this moment, and I wasn't going to let that slip.

We yelled. We waved. We screamed. We said how cool it was. It was.

If Kyle and I could have run it slower, I'm sure we would have. His hamstring was pulling, and with 100 metres to go, my left calf gave a little. He looked back, thinking I was giving him room to finish ahead of me, but I limp/ran to the finish a few steps behind.

I smiled, thinking how ridiculous it was to run 26.14 miles to have to have my calf complain at the end. But that was no real matter. The finish was steps away and at some point, I would have to stop my dream run that I didn't want to end. 

41: 4:50
42: 4:36
42.2: -- 4:37 pace
42.2K: 3:07:32 (10:26 for 2.2K or 4:44K pace)

Final pace: 4:26

I finished my 30th marathon and third Boston in 3:07:32. Days later, friends asked me that I missed a 'PB' by a few seconds (not knowing my PB was in the 3:02:54 range) but even for the chance to choose between the third or second fastest marathon, I absolutely have no regrets.

This race completes the comeback. It tells me that in 24 months, you can work and realize a dream.  I must have run 8,000 kilometres to get back to Boston, endured two Polar Vortex winters, but I choose to remember how the journey took me to new places. I learned to run, I became a better runner, I made a lot of amazing friends who cheered me on race day. I learned patience, resilience and strength. Boston will come again and -- if all being equal -- the truth is that I'm not stopping here.

I'm coming back in 2016.

I'm coming back because on Monday I qualified for Boston at Boston.

In Massachusetts, on Patriot's Day, there is no stopping.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Boston?

So, why Boston?

It's a question you trying to answer while explaining to your friends who don't run at all. You talk with newer runners or those who have been running for years. No doubt, people have heard of this race because it transcends this sport. It is a sporting event bigger than just about any other road race.

In four days, I'm flying out to Boston to run the race of my dreams for the third time. It's been four years, thousands of miles and the culmination of a journey for me so I can start a 26.2 mile race in the small town of Hopkinton.

Why Boston? The standards are tough. When I started running, the prospect of a 3:10 or faster marathon seemed just out of reach. So I strived for many years to get my first Boston Qualifier. It's taken me so many more years, and the journey back, to figure out why Boston.

You hear among many runners the chatter about the BQ. What is your BQ? When you trying for a BQ? What BQ do you need and when do you need to do it?

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.

My Pace and Mind team

Boston means so much to many of us for different reasons. I spent years striving, fighting, running, for a chance to run my dream race. When I qualified, I looked back at all my achievements - personal and professional - and put that run among the greatest things I've ever done. Months later, toeing the line at the corral, I was in utter awe. I did not belong here. Everyone was so much better than I was. This was on national TV. How did I make it here?

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. 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.

So Boston for me is a vivid memory. It's getting to the Toronto airport and seeing all those Boston jackets. It's seeing the banners on the streets, it's visiting the finish line, or holding The Jacket for the first time, or looking up at the signs at the corner of Hereford and Boylston. It's about school bus rides, the village and high fives with kids on trampolines. It's about beer on the course, a kiss at Wellesley and hills that make you remember why it broke someone's heart. It's about the growing crowds, the Citgo sign and Fenway, and noontime baseball. It's about the everything about 26.2 but also what happens alongside that course, and of the days before and after that day.

In the past two years, I've been on my own journey. When two men tried to take my Boston memories away from me, I responded one way I knew I could, by vowing to get back. And to get back, there was only one thing to do -- do it harder, faster and with the purpose and love I've always had for the sport.

The last time I ran Boston in 2011, 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.

For a few hours, once a year, Boylston becomes the hallowed ground for thousands of runners. Boston on this day doesn't become the name of the city. It's the name of the race, run on Patriot's Day, also known by those who line the 26.2 mile route as "Marathon Monday." Citizens and runners alike love the event. No question.

Around the world, and in every other state, it's a Monday. In Boston, that day, Patriot's Day, is Marathon Monday, and it's my Christmas Day.

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 more than 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.

*This post is a culmination of some of my thoughts about Boston I've written over the past few years.

Monday, April 06, 2015

How spinning helped my running

Confession. I'm loving the bike for the unlikely reason that it's made me a better runner.

Cross training is the activity that most runners know they should do to improve, but when faced with running vs. other activities, most of us choose running. But there's always something new to teach a runner, I've learned over the years.

So spinning.

No, not that spinning.