Personal record: a participant’s view of the Boston Marathon

Boston MarathonHow was Boston?

Not what I expected.

I  didn’t expect the intensity. The marathon is on the front of every newspaper, all over television, on banners on the street, and literally a hundred thousand people—runners, their entourages, and volunteers, all wear Boston gear. Everyone, from cabbies to hotel clerks to passersby’s, asks if you’re running. It’s as if the entire world has collapsed inward like a blue-white dwarf, and everything that matters is within a one mile space stretching from Boston Common down Boylston Street to the Finish Line.

Nor were my fellow runners what I expected. At Ironmen, people are chiseled specimens, with tight jawlines and calves carved out of old oak. People pulsate with intensity. At Boston, not so much. In fact, if you walked through the Y and pulled people off the exercise machines and grouped them out front, that’s pretty much what the Boston Marathon crowd looks like. The elites are a little smaller and lankier and the rest of us are a little on the thin side, sure. But for the most part what makes someone a Boston runner is hidden inside her chest—an outrageously efficient cardio system–and inside his head, a ridiculous willingness to suffer to achieve an arbitrary goal.

Finally, I wasn’t feeling the calmness I expected either. Usually, even for my big races, there’s no pressure from my friends, because an Ironman or a 12 hour bike race is so far outside most people’s experience that they can’t really connect with it. This time it was different. It’s foolish, but I felt like I was representing my friends and fellow Y runners who always wanted to run Boston and for one reason or another haven’t. I felt a responsibility to run fast.

Even non-runners were interested. My spin class gave me an ovation. My brother called. I got emails. Calls. Even cards. In part I’m sure it was because everyone knew I’d worked hard for this one. Maybe I ratcheted up the intensity by telling people I was going for a PR (Personal Record), even though Boston’s not really a good PR course. But I think most of it was because it’s BOSTON. Even if you’re not a runner and never thought of running a marathon, you know what it is. It’s BOSTON. Or “Baaahston” as the locals pronounce it.

Here’s the race report.

Sunday—the day before.

Liz and I got to the hotel late Saturday, so we waited until Sunday to go get my packet.

We walk the couple of miles from our hotel to the expo. Of course, there’s security everywhere—we’re standing right across the street from where the bomb went off. Liz and I pick up my bib, after showing an ID and signing a receipt, we pick up my tee and are efficiently hustled into the expo, where I want to find a particular race belt to hold my Gu’s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with that idea, because there are dozens of regular race belts, but only one cartridge-style belt, which I only find after much searching. We buy that, a handful of extra Gu’s, and the most intense quad roller I’ve ever tried in my life.  At the Expo, we look for my training partners Angela and Teresa, but don’t see them.

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a new Adidas store, “Runbase.” It’s a year round store and is all Boston Marathon, all the time. On a huge table inside is a scale model of the course made out of plywood. It’s a topo map, with layers of plywood representing elevation. The hills look big. I tell myself it’s the scale. To my slight dismay, this store (and every sports store in Boston) is selling the same Boston jacket I’ve already bought online. It seems everyone is wearing one, including people who don’t look like they’ll be running. Entire families wander by with grandma, grandpa, Mom, Dad and the little ones clad in matching orange and purple. Secretly, I feel a little less special, but buy a tee shirt anyway.

We stop at Whole Foods, then back at the hotel I change into my running clothes and go for an easy 30 minute run along the harbor. Not a great run, but I know from experience that how you feel the day before doesn’t really matter. For dinner, instead of going to the official pasta dinner (which Teresa and Angela say later was mediocre—long lines, takeout containers of food, not enough dry warm places to sit) we go downstairs to the hotel restaurant. I’ve been carb loading all week, so tonight it’s time for a light meal. I order rice, vegetables and fish. The kitchen loses our order, and after some drama that involves us walking out, we get fed and they comp the meal.

Back up in the room, I jump from weather forecast to weather forecast, watching as the likelihood of precip climbs from 20% to 100%, and the wind forecast slowly wheels around to due easterly at 22 mph, where it will be in my face for every single step of the race.

I try to decide what to wear tomorrow. I want to wear a singlet and shorts, which should be light and fast. Extra clothes mean extra weight means extra minutes. I tell myself that with a knit cap over my visor, arm warmers and gloves that I’ll be warm enough. But I’m not sure. So I also lay out a long sleeve shirt and a tee shirt.  Since I can’t make up my mind, I pin my number to my new race belt instead of my clothes. That way, I’m covered no matter which direction I go.

I’m so wired and nervous, I’m not talking. I feel real pressure caused by the weight of imaginary expectations, even though my friend Christopher has seen this coming and tried to talk me down. At some point, my training partner Mark sends me an email wishing me luck and reminds me it’s all about the training. He’s right, I know, but I’m still wired. Liz tries to help by repeating our unofficial family motto, “It’s just a marathon,” meaning it’s not an Ironman.

Finally, I pour myself a Scotch to help me sleep, and go to bed. As I lie in bed, my legs start to hurt. My feet, shin splints, glutes, hamstrings, even the inside of my right knee. Of course there’s nothing wrong with me at all. My physical therapist Irmina and I have been working for months to get me ready and nothing is pulled or damaged. These are not real injuries and it’s not real pain. It’s in my head. I know what it is: Fear. But I’m not quite sure what I’m afraid of.

It’s just a marathon.


Monday—race day.

I get up before 6, even though I don’t really need to. I don’t race for almost five hours.

I eat cereal and a PBJ in the room—after last night I don’t trust the hotel restaurant–and walk over to Starbucks for coffee, my first caffeine for two weeks. When I get back I apply Glide, take two acetaminophen and an Immodium (just in case my system doesn’t like the caffeine) and get dressed. I decide on the two shirts, reasoning that if I get too warm, I can throw things away. If I get too cold, I’m in trouble. Better to carry a little extra weight and sacrifice a few minutes of time than risk the DNF.

At about 7:30 or so, Liz and I walk over to Boston Common where the busses are loading. Boston isn’t a circular loop like most marathons. It’s a point to point, so for most runners that means a one hour bus ride from the finish in Boston out to the start in Hopkinton.  A quick calculation suggests there are somewhere between 200 and 300 busses lined up.

Bib numbers are assigned by qualifying time, so there’s no need to ask anyone about Q times or any of that. If you want to know how fast they are, just look at the center of their chest and read the number. As we’re pulling away, I see Angela and Teresa, but they don’t see me.

We’re divided into four waves: Red, White, Blue and Yellow. Each wave has a specific time to load into the busses, a time to enter the corrals and a time to start. Waves are determined by bib numbers. I’m at the front of the blue wave, about halfway overall. There are just over 30000 registered. Of those, around 27000 will start. Presumably the rest did the smart thing–looked at the weather, hit the snooze button and went back to bed. 80% of the runners are qualifiers like me, and the rest are pro’s, sponsor exemptions, charity runners, teams, etc.

Each wave has about a half hour break between start times. So for the most part, it’s really more like four marathons in a row than it is a single race. My marathon was essentially a race against the blue bibs, 7500 people who’d qualified by running somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00. For the most part, I was running with people almost exactly as fast (or slow, depending on how you look at it) as me. The system worked. I passed only a handful of white or red bibs all day and those were people who’d pulled muscles or gone hypothermic. No yellow bibs passed me that I saw.

Inside the bus, we talk quietly. Two thirds of us are first timers, so mostly it’s asking each other questions and getting questions back in return. Before we get there, the rain starts and we see the wipers on the bus flapping back and forth.

The Boston Marathon is the most organized race I’ve ever seen. After 119 years, they’ve got it down. When we arrive in Hopkinton, the busses unload and we’re shepherded along a sidewalk, up a ramp and into “The Athlete’s Village.”  It’s really just three huge tents serving water and coffee (good coffee—Lavazza) surrounded by rings of porto-potties. The rain has stopped but it’s cold and wet, and people are huddled under the tents, many sitting on the ground, trying to stay warm. I’d been warned about this so I wore a sweatshirt and old jeans and was reasonably comfortable. After I’d had another cup of coffee, I got in the long, long porto-potty line. By the time I’d made it through, they were calling my wave.

I started toward the corral. Volunteers were collecting throw away clothes in bags, but I knew we had almost a mile to walk to the start line, and once we got there we’d be standing for at least 20 minutes. I intended to hang onto my clothes until the last possible minute. It’s 45 degrees, the wind is pounding, and it starts to rain as soon as we get into the corral. I’ve brought a plastic poncho, so I finally take off my throwaways and pull that on. I intend to just run with it a mile or two, but I end up wearing it most of the day. I’m wearing the poncho, two tee’s—one long sleeved and one short, gloves, a visor, a knit cap, light-lensed glasses, shorts, socks and shoes. I’m already glad I decided on the extra layers. One girl is wearing nothing but a singlet and shorts and we all try to give her clothing. She finally takes a tee shirt and covers her arms. The rest of us feel warmer.

Before the weather changed, I’d set a target of 3:28 and my coach Margie and I’d worked out a plan to run that. It’s not easy. Boston is a tricky course. Usually, the plan for any race is either to evenly pace throughout or go out slow and come home fast. That doesn’t work here. Although Boston is a downhill race, it has serious hills, mostly on the second half. Much of the downhill is at the beginning and as a result, most people run this race differently—fast for the first half and slower for the second. The problem is, of course, if you get it wrong. Go too slow on the first half and it’s hard to make up time in the second. Go out too fast and you end up with shredded quads and walk home slowly.

Our plan was for me to go 7:30 pace per mile for the first half marathon, and 8:30 for the second. But with a 22 mph headwind and all these extra clothes, my 3:28 target seemed like a real reach. 3:35 or even 3:45 seemed more likely. Standing in the corral, waiting to start, I decided to try the plan anyway. My rationale was I’d probably blow up and have a slow time, but if I was lucky at least I could run fast for a while and set a personal record for a half marathon.

Finally, the gun goes. No more fretting. No more planning. No more going back and forth between singlet and long sleeved tee shirt. Now all that is over and it’s time to run.  I’m pretty close to the front of my wave, the thousand people in front of me have all run faster than I have and since the start is a very steep downhill, I expect to take off like a bat out of Hades. Unlike a normal race, I figure I won’t be dodging nervous walkers and slower runners who really shouldn’t be up front in the first place.

Not the case. The start was still slow and congested, and I spent the first mile picking my way around runners—left for a while, then right, then the middle, then right, then up on the sidewalk. It wasn’t really as bad as a normal race, though, and every once in a while when someone cut in a little too close, it was quickly followed by an apology.

The crowd was five and ten deep long the barricades, holding signs, blowing horns, beating drums. There were dozens and dozens of hands extended over and under the tape for high fives, and people were yelling like crazy. One minute into the race, a spectator yells, “You got this,” which every endurance athlete hates, because you ain’t got nothing until you cross the line. But one minute into the race? 26.2 miles to go and “we got this?” It’s so ridiculous that a wave of laughter rolls through the field.

During the day we’ll pass through at least eight communities and the course will be lined with spectators like these the whole way. This is Bahston.

My first mile is 7:49, although I have to get that from the display on the course. With the rain, I can’t read my Garmin. One mile and I’m behind pace already. But then we hit the downhill and I pick it up—7:00, 6:52, 7:22, 7:33, 7:15. Through mile 7, thanks to almost 170 feet of downhill, I’m ahead of pace and have almost 2 full minutes in the bag. I’m looking good for that half marathon PR, but my legs are starting to scream already so I’m not looking so good for the overall race.  I discard my hat and later my gloves. I’m down to visor, shorts, two shirts on top and my plastic poncho.

At some point, I pass a guy who has either MS or cerebral palsy who’s doing the marathon on crutches. I’m not much for sentimentalizing races—running for cancer and all that—but this is genuinely moving. This guy is putting more into each step that I’m putting into each mile. (The next day we learn from the news he was out there for 21 hours. Twenty one hours. Now that’s one tough dude.)

The downhill bottoms out and we hit rollers, up and down, up and down, and my times come back closer to pace times. For the next six miles I’m almost exactly on pace. I hit the half marathon mark at 1:37:48, a personal best by almost three minutes. I can relax now, it’s a crappy day and I’ve made the best of it. I can go home with a PR and be happy. Time to slow down. But I don’t. I’m going to go as long as I can. I’m not really sure how long that will be.

Just after halfway, we encounter the famous Wellesley girls. Hundreds of young women (wealthy, smart young women at that) line the course, carrying embarrassingly suggestive signs and screaming shrilly at the top of their lungs. It’s deafening and infectious fun. I grin.  Just after Wellesley are another few miles of downhill, but I’m not going quite as fast now, my legs still suffering from that fast first half. In my left calf, I feel that little tingle and tightness that says a cramp is on the way, “Don’t you dare,” I think. I rarely cramp and assume it’s just the cold. I’m soaking wet inside my poncho from sweat, but at least it’s warm. My arms and hands outside the poncho are numb with the cold.

We start to see runners in singlets walking and wrapped in space blankets from the medical tents. I feel good about my decision to wear extra clothes. It’s costing me seconds, but their decisions are going to cost them minutes or hours.

I’m still making good time. Not as good as the first half, but below my target second half target pace. At mile 16, though, the hills start, culminating in the legendary Heartbreak Hill at mile 21.  The first three miles go fine, although I’m really hurting now. I get to mile twenty 2 ½ minutes under my target pace.  By this point, I’m running one step at a time and one mile at a time, just trying to get to the next marker.

I’d been diligent about taking on nutrition the whole race. At first I tried to drink Gatorade while I ran, but then found it worked better to stop and walk three steps, get it inside me instead of on me, and then start again. At the water stop at the base of Heartbreak Hill, I walk a few extra steps as I drink. I tell myself it’s to take off my poncho, but it’s really because I’ve heard everyone talk about walking Heartbreak, I’m determined not to, and I want the extra two seconds of rest.

Heartbreak is nothing like I expect. I expected what cyclists call a “wall.” Instead it’s just a long winding hill through a pretty suburb lined with nice-looking people. It only lasts a half mile and it’s not that steep, but still it takes a toll. All those smaller runners I passed in the first mile as I used my long legs to fly down the hill now whiz right by me. It’s like I’ve got a huge rubber band stapled to my butt. They’re going forward and I’m going backwards. By the time I reach the top, I’ve given almost a minute of my cushion back. It’s my slowest mile by far, 9:21.

But I didn’t walk a single step.

The next three are mostly downhill and I get back on pace. But Heartbreak has taken whatever I had left out of me and even though two finishing miles are mostly flat,  I start to bleed seconds, well over pace despite relatively easy running. My original target was 3:28, four minutes under my personal best and under my son’s best marathon time of 3:30. I’m looking at the clock and trying to do the calculations to see if I can make it but my mind won’t work now. I’m not really sure. I’m not even sure I care at this point, as long as the pain stops. Not that knowing what time I needed would’ve helped. There was nothing I could do. I wanted to finish strong but I had nothing left.

Finally we turn on Boylston Street and I see the finish. It’s less than a half mile, but it might as well be the moon it looks so far away. At the very end, I manage to pick up the pace a tiny bit. When I crossed under the balloon, I punched my watch, wiped off the moisture and read 3:29:47. Later my official time will be 3:29:45. I actually managed to run 7:57 pace, under my target of 8:00, but because of all the dodging and weaving at the beginning I ran an extra quarter mile, which cost me that 2 minutes I’d put in the time bank.

As bad as I feel at the end, I’m actually in pretty good shape. The finishing chute is carnage. People are being helped into wheel chairs and carried to medical tents. Over a thousand people will end up being treated for hypothermia on the day, and almost 2% will fail to finish.  A woman hangs the medal on my neck and we exchange hugs. Further down, a young woman patiently helps me get my arm through the hole in an insulated cloak. It takes three tries. I eat and drink my way along and finally meet Liz at the end. She’s grinning and we kiss.

As we walk, she asks me what the towns along the way were like. I stare at her a moment, then answer truthfully, “I don’t know. I didn’t see any of that.” All I saw was pavement.

She dials the phone and hands it to me. My son answers. Before I can say anything, he says, “Yes, I know you beat 3:30, but I did mine at the end of an Ironman. Anybody can run 3:30 if they don’t have to bike 112 miles first. It’s just a marathon.”

This conversation is all pretense. He is pretending to be upset I beat him and I’m pretending to believe I’m really faster than him. Mike is thirty years younger and an outstanding athlete, an All American in two sports. He could beat my best time in a bathrobe and flip flops. I know he’s proud.

“Yeah,” I say, “Well, what do you call 3:29?”

“What?” he says.

“The family record,” I answer.


Teresa and Angela come in at 4:04, a little behind their target of 4:00. They’d planned to go easy and enjoy the day, but the hills and weather made it hard to do that. In all, I finished 10036, top third, almost 8,000 places higher than I was seeded. I set two PR’s on the day, half marathon and full marathon, and finished 67th of 936 male runners in my age group—top 7%. I wrung as much as I could out of the talent I have given the conditions.

If anyone is interested, here’s what the pace chart (vs. target) looks like by mile. Bars to the right mean I was ahead of pace for that mile, bars to the left mean I was behind. It’s pretty easy to see where Heartbreak was, and where I ran out of steam at the end.

On the way to the airport, we walked past a young security guard on a smoke break who called out, “Congratulations.”

I thanked him and then he said, “Can I ask? What time did you do?”

I tell him.

“Wow. That’s f*****g fast,” he says.

I grin back at him.

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