A little over three years ago, I committed to running my first marathon. I’ve beening running since I was 13 (I’m 37 now), and the marathon seemed the logical progression of my love of the sport. My first understanding of Boston was that it was a marathon runner’s promised land, the mecca, the big daddy, the superbowl of marathons. (Insert your favorite corny cliched metaphor here.)
But, in early 2008, I hadn’t even completed my first marathon, and the thought of running the Boston Marathon with its daunting qualifying times seemed a tremendous longshot.
Then, I finished my first marathon in the Fall of 2008, just 7 minutes shy of qualifying–with gas left in the tank. Not so daunting anymore. Not quite the longshot. Like so many other runners before me, I focused on improving endurance and speed, and qualified in time for the 2010 Boston Marathon.
But, alas! I waited too long to register and the race sold out.
Suffice to say, I didn’t make the same mistake for the 2011 race. By 11 a.m. on October 18, 2010, I was officially registered for the 115th running of the Boston Marathon.
B. O. S. T. O. N.
On Monday morning, April 18th, 2011, I woke up at 5:18 a.m., ready to celebrate the end of a journey that I had begun over three years ago. It was finally time to run Boston.
Tracy, my sister-in-law and running partner extraordinaire, needed no encouragement to arise and shine either. Within 25 minutes, we were dressed and ready to head to the buses that would take us to Hopkinton, the little town with the big claim to fame.
The bus ride lasted about half an hour, getting us to Athlete’s Village before 8 a.m. We were greeted by the collective buzz and hum of thousands of runners who were already there. Music boomed from loudspeakers; nervous laughter and chatter could be heard from every corner of the village.
With plenty of time on our hands (my wave didn’t start until 10:20, and Tracy’s would begin at 10:40), we popped a squat and enjoyed the people watching. I also picked up some useful tips for surviving athlete’s village in style. (Sounds like I’m already planning for next year, huh?) For example, we noticed that quite a few runners had brought inflatable rafts to sit on. Not only would this keep them dry, it would keep their bums elevated from the cold ground.
Eventually, we met up with fellow Caped Cruise-ader Carole, which was a small miracle given the ridiculous amount of people in athlete’s village. According to the official Boston statistics, 24,338 runners started the race – and all of these runners gathered on the grounds of the local high school. Waiting for the announcer to call our waves, we did the best we could to relax.
I fussed in my head: did I eat enough? Do I have enough gels? Did I drink enough water? Was my taper adequate? A million thoughts went through my mind. But none of those thoughts were as pressing as this one: What the heck was my race strategy?
Yes, one might think that 30 minutes prior to running the Boston Marathon was not necessarily the best time to figure out exactly what one’s strategy should be.
I had a loose strategy that included having fun, and not going out too hard for the first 10k (6.2 miles). My thinking was this: nothing faster than an 8:20 min/mile pace, unless my heart rate was really low (140 bpm or less). Okay, that’s a start – but what was the plan for the remaining 20 miles? John (via phone about 45 minutes before the race) recommended that I break the race up into four 10k segments (a marathon is a little over 42 kilometers), and work toward negative splits for each segment.
I was still working through the pieces of my plan as Carole and I settled ourselves in the corral for the beginning of the race. As I crossed the start line, I was still working the plan out. By the time I reached the first 10k marker, I had worked it out this way: keep the heart rate under 145 beats per minute for the first 10k, then I could let it rise to 150 bpm for the next 10k, then into 155 bpm for the third and fourth 10k, and for the final 2k I was in survival mode. Because the first half of the marathon is mostly downhill, I wanted to heed the caution of Boston veterans to avoid blowing up my quads by running the descent too aggressively. This plan sort of worked.
Using my heart rate strategy, I was able to run faster than my 8:20 min/mile rule for the first few miles, because my heart rate was barely at 140 bpm.
So, as I approached the 10k mark, the plan evolved.
I decided I was going to go for a PR. Interesting thought considering I hadn’t done any speedwork in preparation for this marathon, and had committed myself (or so I thought) to taking it easy so I could recover more quickly.
But something John had said to me before I left for Boston reverberated in my head:
“It’s going to hurt no matter what, and you are going to need to recover no matter what. You might as well go for it.”
The race plan officially changed as I passed the sign that indicated I had reached the 10k point. Looking at the splits from my Garmin clearly tells that tale. Now, the plan was to keep the heart rate under 160 bpm, unless I was running uphill. Anymore than 160 bpm, I would be flirting too closely to the anaerobic zone (171 bpm for me). I wanted to finish as strong as I started. More on how this strategy panned out in just a bit.
Running the Boston Marathon was not as I expected it would be. I had heard so much about the spectators, and all of the excitement along the course. I fully expected to enjoy the revelry. Yet, I was so far inside of my own head throughout this run, I didn’t really take in my surroundings. Sure, I noticed things, like the line of drummers beating out a rhythm, costumes, funny signs, and so on. But for the most part, I had my eyes faced forward, and my focus was inward. I’m still trying to decide what to make of this.
One thing is for certain, however, running the Boston Marathon was for me. I realized as I ran how much I had wanted to run this race. Its lure is quite strong.
As I moved along the course, I managed to maintain and even descend my pace–even through the infamous Newton hills. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the training (or both), but these hills are quite runnable. Sure, their placement at miles 17-20 is not ideal, but they are far from impossible. I guess all those repeats up and down the Ocean City bridge were worth it.
When I hit mile 24, I knew it. My legs started locking up. I had foolishly skipped a few water stations, and decided I didn’t need my last gel. Wrong choice on both counts. As I passed the sign for mile 25, I knew my pace was slipping, but I was working as hard as I could.
I prayed to the marathon gods to let my legs keep bending for just 1.2 miles more.
Never before had I been in so much pain during a race. Not when I did the Ironman. Not when I ran the Vermont 50. Never.
Keep. moving. forward.
By this point, the crowds were deafening, and the throng of runners was thick. It was a challenge to summon the enery to move around people, but I reminded myself that I was still able to pass people. That had to be a good sign. …Right?
Keep. moving. forward.
After what seemed an eternity, I saw the sign that said “1 mile to go.” Lucky me – this mile had both an uphill and a downhill portion. I didn’t know what was worse at this point. It all hurt.
And then, I realized we were making the final two turns that would take us to Boyleston Street.
As I made the left turn on to Boyleston, the crowd was thick and LOUD. I knew my friend Courtney and her family would be there, but I had no idea which side of the street. So, I ran down the middle scanning the crowd. And then I heard her – loud and clear!
“M – A – R – I – A! Woop! woop!”
Courtney’s cheer, the blue awning of the finish line looming just steps away: I started crying. It hurt like nothing I had ever felt before, it was about to end–and I felt like I wanted to start all over again.
As soon as I stopped running, I could feel every muscle in my legs, the blood pulsating through my veins, my heart lifted with joy.
I ran the Boston Marathon.
What a feeling when dreams, matched with hard work and preparation, come true.
I crossed the line in 3 hours, 36 minutes and 54 seconds (official time). This was a 2 minute and 5 second improvement over my previous personal best. I got my PR, and qualified for the 2012 running of the Boston Marathon. Provided I can make it through the rigors of the registration process, I think it’s a safe bet I’ll be toeing the line in Hopkinton once again.
As Tracy and I took a cab back to our hotel after the race (and massages), our cab driver said, “What a blessing to be able to run and feel so wonderful when you have finished.”
What a blessing indeed.
Much love and congrats goes to Tracy, my running buddy, who finished the race, despite battling an ankle injury over the past several months. Let’s do this again in 2012, sister!
Much love and thanks also goes to the entire Neal family for their awesome on-course (and post-race) support. Courtney, Eric, Charlene, Brian, Ethan, Gavin and Carson: you guys are the best!
And, special thanks to my friends who were showing their support on Facebook and Twitter. Your comments were uplifting and an inspiration to keep.moving.forward.
It means more to me than I think you will ever know.