Monday, April 26, 2010

Prepared for the Hills, but not for the Heartbreak: A Debut Boston Race Report

All right, as I’ve done in the past, I will spare my faithful followers the need to wade through umpteen pages of self-absorbed prologue in order to find out the only thing anyone else would find worth knowing: I finished the 114th Boston Marathon in 3:20:41, barely re-qualifying for next year and completely botching my first attempt on the world’s most historic marathon course.

Here are the splits:

1          7:31
2          7:03
3          7:02
4          7:00
5          7:09
6          7:00
7+8     14:13 (missed a mile marker)
9          7:02
10        7:06
11        7:10
12        7:04
13        7:12
HALF  1:33:24
14        7:12
15        7:29
16        7:16
17        7:46
18        7:53
19        7:47
20        8:13 (cramp!)
21        8:55
22        8:30
23        8:50
24        8:55
25        9:00
26        8:28
26.2     1:40

The full story follows.


On Monday, April 19, 2010, the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombings and what would have been Adolf Hitler's 121st Birthday, I was fortunate enough to be one of 26,000+ participants in the 114th Boston Marathon.  It was the culmination of a journey that started with an offhand remark at my 30th birthday in 1998, which led me to take up distance running in 2006, qualifying for Boston in May 2009.  The Boston Marathon is not just a race.  For me - and many, many others - it's an "event", an experience largely unparalleled in the world of participatory sports.  The Boston Marathon makes dedicated recreational runners feel like superstars for a day.  For me, it was a very special weekend, though the joy I'd hoped to feel was tempered by my father's death exactly two weeks before the race.  Nonetheless, I mostly relished the experience.


Big city marathons all begin with a major Expo, where exhibitors set up displays, ranging from the massive apparel/shoe sponsor (in this case, Adidas) to more offbeat products like "energy-balancing" bracelets and customized mp3 ear buds.  There's also food, free samples, and running celebrities.  As an avowed and incurable gear-head, I tried to restrain myself at the Expo, and managed to do so pretty well.  I got the kids t-shirts, bought a couple of things that were a great deal (like 2 pair of Sof-Sole socks for $5) and got my picture taken with three running celebrities, each of whom is know for something very different.

I first ran into Antonio Vega, sponsored Mizuno athlete and current U.S. Half-Marathon Champion.  I only learned later that his father is a native of Chile. Antonio will be making waves in U.s. distance running for the foreseeable future, as evidenced by his 2:13 Boston Marathon debut (and new PR).

Then, I met up with the "Mayor of Running", Runner's World's Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso.  We chatted briefly, and then I went on to meet a true legend.

Roger Robinson is far and away my favorite running writer.  He covers the history of the sport with unparalleled knowledge and is a fantastic writer to boot.  He also happens to be married to Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run Boston with an official bib number, a true pioneer of women's running and athletics in general. Roger was an elite runner for 30 years, but really distinguished himself as a Master's Runner, including a shocking 2:18:44 personal marathon best at age 41.  We chatted for a while, and though I kept trying to leave graciously so as not to monopolize his time, he kept pulling me back and regaling me with just one more story.  I enjoyed every second of our conversation, the highlight of the Expo for me.

I made sure to pick up the Adidas race posters (which have the name of every registered runner embossed on them), and made my way home for a dinner party my wife was throwing.

The weekend was off to a good start.


After taking it easy and spending time with my kids on Saturday, I had the pleasure of hosting many of the regular posters to the Runner's World Online Marathon Race Training Sub-3:20 thread.  It's an eclectic group of men and women who've developed  an amazingly close bond in pursuit of marathon improvement.  The group boasts people from different parts of the country (albeit with Texas being over-represented), different professions, different sexual orientations and different athletic abilities.  Yet, running brings everyone together, gives us all something to talk about and bridges cultural, religious, education and political gaps like a magic balm.

We had a great lunch, laughing and getting ready for the race.  Afterwords, I left with one of the group members to spend the night at the house he rented in Boston.

After eating a big pasta dinner, I ended up coughing myself to sleep, waking up every couple of hours.


The alarm went off at 4:45 am, a harsh awakening for a 10:00 am race start, but such is the scheduling of point-to-point races where runners have to be bussed out to the start.  Steve, Nick and I got our things ready, waited for Kevin to join us, and made our way to Boston Common to board the buses to Hopkinton.  Things went fine, the crowds moved quickly, and soon we were among the convoy of school buses slated to deliver us to the Athletes' Village, being transported in a bus nicknamed, "The Green Turtle".  Not exactly the image a racing marathoner might choose, but that's what we got.

Mingling among the runner masses in the Athlete's Village was a highlight of weekend, finding and chatting with friends real and virtual, old and new.  A few of us laid out a couple of tarps and we just talked and laughed until it was time to get ready.  I donned my nearly-Day-Glo orange regalia, applied BodyGlide, ate and drank my fuel and headed for the start corrals.  It was cool enough to make it tough to decide what to wear at the start, but I opted to leave my layers behind.

En route to the corral, I made one final bathroom stop, and was in line when the military jets made their customary flyover.  That last bit of business having been taken of, and it was off to the start corral.


Though I did not declare a public "A" goal for this marathon (a good thing, as it turned out), I had hoped to run 3:03 (aka, 6:59 pace) if everything went well, but - more realistically - 3:05:xx.  My next goal was to come in under 3:10, and my third goal was to run a new PR.  I figured that my training rendered these very reasonable goals.

I arrived at Corral #7 with less than 5 minutes to go before the gun went off.  I found a spot in the corral, asked loudly whether anyone else was looking to run 2:45 with me, and then waited for the announcer to let us know that we were soon up.

The gun cracked in the distance, and – about 6 minutes later – I was actually off and running in my first Boston Marathon.  Having lost my pace band in the Athlete’s Village, I decided that I would let the sizable pack of runners around me dictate the first mile pace.  I consciously tried to stay smooth and relaxed, not over-running the first major downhill, until I felt like I found a rhythm.  That feeling did not come quickly or easily, and the first mile passed in 7:31.

I waited for things to open up, for the running crowd to dissipate a bit, but that didn’t happen, at least not for a good long while.  I increased my effort slightly, and started looking for openings in order to go in between more conservatively pacing runners.  I settled into a low-7:00 pace, ticking off miles of 7:03 and 7:02, at what seemed like a reasonable effort.

At the Mile 3 mark, I decided to check my heart rate to see how hard I was working.  As I touched the bezel on my Garmin in order to toggle to the heart rate display, I realized that – in an uncharacteristically boneheaded move – I had forgotten to put on the heart  rate monitor strap.  I later compared this flub to a woman forgetting to put on her bra before running (though, as my wife pointed out, such a woman might notice before running 3 miles).  So, as a person who’s used to having regular HR feedback during a run, I was now flying blind in that department.  I told myself not to panic, just to remain smooth and steady, using the downhills and staying focused on the task at hand.

I was enjoying myself, dividing my attention between the runners ahead and the spectators on either side of me.  I took an occasional pull from my Gatorade bottle.  Everything seemed just fine, as I continued to marvel at the fact that I was really, truly running the Boston Marathon.
Somewhere around Mile 5, I saw what looked like an overgrown Smurf come tearing out from the woods to my left.  I did not recognize the person wearing baggy full-length blue coveralls as a runner. The screams of “Go Mario!” and “Hey, it’s Mario”, as well as the fact that the guy paused briefly to adjust his fake mustache gave away that I was running with someone in costume.  People seemed to enjoy the display, though I found it a tad disrespectful.

The next few miles clicked by, as follows: Mile 4 in 7:00, Mile 5 in 7:09, Mile 6 in 7:00, and I passed the  the 10K mark at 44:20.

I soon tossed my Gatorade bottle along the ground towards a garbage can, apologizing to the spectators as I did.  I was preparing to take my first gel at Mile 7, and had accomplished my aim of not slowing down for the early, more heavily congested aid stations. I pulled out a Gu Roctane Blueberry/Pomegranate and prepared to suck it down.  It went down easily enough, and I drank a full cup of water afterwards.   The mile splits were looking good, I was feeling fine and I was looking forward to seeing what the day would bring. Miles 7 and 8 (I missed the 8-mile marker) totaled 14:13 and Mile 9 was 7:02.

Around Mile 10, I saw a running acquaintance who I know from the Y, who’d started a corral or two ahead of me.  We chatted briefly, discussing how we felt and what pace we seemed to be holding, and then said goodbye as we went our separate ways.  I was drinking every other mile, alternating between Gatorade and water. When I crossed the timing mat at Mile 10, I heard the loud beep which made me think  about friends and family who’d said that they would be tracking me online during the race.  I was pleased to be running strong at that point, and thought about how all the hard training was paying off then and there. I covered Mile 10 in 7:06.


Miles 11 and 12 (7:10 & 7:04) were largely uneventful. My nervous, excited anticipation grew as we approached Wellesley and the famed “Scream Tunnel”.  Thousand of college-aged women stand on the right, holding signs (e.g., “I majored in kissing”, “I won’t tell your wife”, etc.), cheering and screaming their heads off.  One tradition which has grown out of the women’s presence is to “Kiss a Wellesley Girl”.  I had thought about whether I would participate, and decided that I’d only have one first Boston, so I should make the most of it.  I worked my way over towards the women, and put my, sweaty, unshaven cheek  out while slowing down.  They did not exactly appear to be fighting over who would get the honor, until one Indian-looking woman puckered up and planted a light kiss on my right cheek.  I smiled and moved on.

I hit the half-way mark at 1:33:24 (Mile 13 in 7:12), feeling good about where I was and how my body seemed to be faring.  I could feel my feet starting to take a beating (was it a mistake to race in the 7.5 oz. Mizuno Wave Ronins?), but overall, things were looking good.  I figured that I could give up 3 minutes in the second half and still break 3:10, which I would have considered an excellent Boston debut.

Gel #2 came out at Mile 14, and I slowed to a walk at the aid station so that I would get every drop of water down my throat, lest I repeat the mistakes of my last half-marathon which landed me in a port-a-potty and blew my chance for a PR.  For some inexplicable reason, though I ran Mile 14 in 7:12, things got harder not long after that.

I felt my effort level increase, and realized that I was bleeding time, covering Mile 15 in 7:29.  I told myself that the lapse was mental, and thus focused and regrouped, so that in Mile 16 I got back roughly on pace, clocking 7:16 .  That revival was short-lived though, with Mile 17 passing in 7:46, so I thought about my strategy, in particular as it would bear upon  my number one goal: to finish strong at Boston.  That change led me to decide to back off the pace in the hills, then speed up again after cresting Heartbreak, adjusting my goal yet again, yielding maybe a 5-minute PR.

The hills were tough, but I felt that the effort I expended was about right, with Miles 18-21 ending up as follows: 18-7:53 , 19-7:47, 20-8:13, 21-8:55.  I missed the statute of John A. Kelly and didn’t really know when I’d reached Heartbreak, but did hear the voices yelling that we had just crested it somewhere after Mile 20.  Although things were tough and my goals required a few on-the-fly adjustments, I was convinced that a strong finish still lay ahead.  After all, I'd trained for that, and it was time to put the training to work.


After Heartbreak came the moment that would determine what kind of debut I would have in Boston.  My feet hurt, and my hips felt fatigued (that hard-to-describe “tightness”, which I had not experienced in training, was back).  Still, I figured that with all the miles I’d run in the buildup to this race, I should have plenty of strength to carry me  through to the end.  Unfortunately, though, it was not to be.

No sooner had I tried to drop the pace hammer than my left hamstring cramped violently.  I hobbled off to the left side of the road, thinking that this could be the end of the day.  I put my left foot on the curb, stretched and started running again.  Several times I tried to step it up; each time my hamstring said, “Don’t think so, hotshot”. The point was non-negotiable.

And, in what seemed like an instant (but which was obviously a culmination of many factors, starting weeks before the race), my dreams of Boston glory evaporated.  I was sentenced to hobbling along at what felt like a crawl, 8:30-8:45/mile pace.  Even at the slower speed, every few steps led my left leg to buckle a bit as my hamstring twinged.  My feet went from being achy to being acutely painful, and I felt blisters on each foot (neither of which was an issue in the same shoes and socks throughout training).

Somewhere in Mile 22, I believe, I started to do the math, and realized that I was now in “Fallback/Everything’s-Gone-to-Hell/Goal-C” mode.  In other words, I was in danger of failing to re-qualify for the 2011 Boston Marathon.  With that unattractive prospect now at the forefront of my semi-delirious consciousness, I went into a survival mode.  I would occasionally test the leg to see if a faster pace was available, only to be rebuffed each time by the hamstring.  I was tired, and hurting, and in danger of giving up on myself, sensing with each passing step that any chance of re-qualifying had gone up in smoke.

Suffice it to say that the last few miles of a marathon do not constitute the ideal laboratory to put one’s math skills to the test (especially when those skills may be suspect even on a good day) .  But I kept looking at my watch, thinking about how much time I had left, converting (well, trying) to kilometers, counting backwards from 3:20.  As each mile and kilometer marker ticked off, the approaching finish line also represented a painful reality:  was not going to break 3:20.  Mile 22 went by in 8:30 ; 23 in 8:50 ; 24 in 8:55 and 25 in 8:28.

Finally, we’d made the last two quick turns, and I was trudging (think of the exact opposite of “gliding effortlessly”) down Boylston Street.  The crowd roared; the Finish Line in all its splendor loomed in the distance.  I passed the 26-Mile mark, and looked at my watch: I’m not going to make it.  Still, I decided that I had not suffered for the last hour-plus to fritter away my chances to re-qualify by giving up then.  So I “pushed” it, somehow getting back to a 7:00-ish/mile pace, covering the final 0.2 miles in 1:40.  I crossed the line with every fiber of my hips and legs threatening to seize up completely.  I fumbled with the buttons on my watch.  I eyed a couple of runners in wheelchairs with nauseated envy.

I finished my first Boston Marathon in an official time of 3:20:41, re-qualifying for next year thanks to the BAA’s generous 59-second grace period.  The 18 seconds to spare means that I used 99.8% of my allotted re-qualification time.  How’s that for cutting it close?


For all the grandiose splendor of Boston, the post-finish was underwhelming.  While I understand the need to keep runners moving at the end, things seemed spread very far apart.  In addition, the Nissan lunch bag with a couple of modest munchies was less impressive than what most 5Ks offer in terms of post-race grub.  I was shuffling along, on the far edge of going into a full body cramp, and I had to find my gear bus, then backtrack to change into dry clothes in a tiny dark tent.  I headed over towards the massage area, tried to go in, only to be thwarted by a guard who pointed to a line seemingly extending around the block, telling me to queue up at the end.  It reminded me of the scene in A Christmas Story where Ralph tries to see Santa in order to ask for his Red Rider BB Gun.

I started thinking about how my friends might have fared, and looked up to see Nick standing in front of me, precisely as he was on the phone telling Steve that he hadn’t seen me.  I fought back tears and nausea as we worked our way back to Boston Common to my car.  We ambled around in the garage until we found the car and headed to the rental house where Steve graciously said we could shower and rest up before dinner.

The rest of the day, I felt raw, disappointed, humbled and a bit sad.  I was genuinely happy for all of my friends who’d had a good race, but the veil of self-pity prevented me from experiencing any sort of post-race euphoria.  My family came down to join us for dinner, a plan which clearly stressed out my wife, and we got home late and put the kids to bed at almost 10:00 p.m., less than ideal on a school night.

Oh . . . and I realized that I'd signed up to do another marathon on the other side of the country in 6 days.  Yeah me . . . or not.


The line between diagnosing the causes of a sub-par performance and making excuses for oneself is a fine one.  Based upon my training, I had every reason to believe that a 3:0x marathon was well within reach.  Since things went quite awry from that expectation, I have to ask, “What went wrong?”  I’ll omit the “It was just a bad day” explanation, as it is useless and unsatisfying, at least in terms of avoiding a repeat down the road.  Below is a list of ideas, in no particular order.  Should my dear readers have any further insights, I’m all ears.

  • Stress – My father’s death was hardly the way to kick off a marathon taper; carrying around the weight of grief and stress had to affect my ability to give 100% come race day
  • A Cold – I had a cold, marked by sinus and chest congestion, for about 10 days before the race; while I did not feel it affect my breathing during the race, it also could not possibly have helped matters
  • Cumulative Fatigue – Despite what I considered to be a stellar training cycle, I know I did not arrive at Boston well-rested.  I never really caught up on sleep, and may not have recovered completely from such heavy training volume.  I might want to re-visit the idea of running 100+ days in a row
  • Nutrition – I’m also not sure I did a particularly effective carbo load, and will look into that before the next time I race a marathon
  • Overestimating Race Fitness – This is the scourge of inexperienced distance runners, and I'm ashamed to have to include it on this list.  Having had no solid tune-up race, I went into Boston semi-blind In terms of knowing my marathon fitness.  While I thought I could sustain a sub-7:10/mile pace, it turns out that I was wrong, at least on that day
As always, thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Friday, April 16, 2010

Closet Sandbagger?

This is a brief post to unburden myself about several recent charges that I am sandbagging about my Boston "A" goal.  Far too many friends - both real & virtual - are suggesting that I should try to break 3 hours in Boston.  One went so far as to pledge $5 per second under three hours.  That's $300 for a 2:59:00.  While it's tempting to try to be a hero, I KNOW that doing so would almost certainly result in a disastrous latter stage of the race.  As well as training has gone, and many miles as I logged, there exist no objective indicia to lead me to believe that I could sustain a 6:52/mile pace for 26.2 miles.

As I've said before, given the choice, I prefer to "enjoy" the final 10K at my first Boston, even if it means that I finish feeling like I could have run faster.  Sub-3:00 is the current goal for Chicago, which is flat, comes on the heels of summer training (i.e., when conditions around here are most favorable) and where a final death march has become a time-honored tradition for me anyway (2-for-2 there).

So, I'll truly be satisfied with anything under 3:10 at Boston, and would very much like a 10-minute PR, which would be 3:07:41.  Beyond that, I've got an idea of what a good day might bring, but I'm not declaring it publicly.  While that seems to frustrate some (which I find quite entertaining, actually), the reason is that if I announce a stretch goal, I know I will try to hit that goal no matter what, ignoring any early indications that it's not going to happen, and thus setting the stage for the very blowup I'm seeking to avoid.  If, on the other hand, I give myself a little latitude and keep that stretch goal close to the vest, I will feel far more free to adjust as needed and will likely salvage a good result.

Adding to my reticence is the fact that I still don't feel great physically: my runs have been lousy this week, and the cold I've struggled through has morphed into a nasty cough.  Add to that the emotional weight of still grieving my father's death, and I truly do not know what Monday will bring.  I'm hoping that I'm passing through a dark tunnel, and will find myself on the other side on Monday morning, buoyed by great weather (it snowed this morning, incidentally), the collective energy of other runners and spectators and the realization of a longtime dream.

When new runners ask about how to improve at the marathon distance, I preach patience and consistency about all else.  Why would I not take my own advice as I prepare for the biggest day of my running life?


Monday, April 12, 2010

NOT Part of the Plan

So, by 9:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday, April 4, 2010, I had reached the "tapering" portion of training relatively intact.  Tired, a couple of random aches, all sorts of race-related issues on my mind . . . sure.  But, early Monday morning came the sobering news which - while not completely unexpected - still hit me like a punch to the stomach: my father is dead.  Just like that.  So, what follows may be some somewhat random ramblings, part tribute, part gripe, but likely much cathartic drivel.  Thanks for your indulgence.


For as long as I remember, my father and I experienced more interpersonal friction than familial harmony.  The reasons for that are nuanced and plentiful.  He was always (at least in my mind) the voice of "No", the strict one, the one who seemed disappointed in and critical of my behavior and my choices.  When the chips were really, truly down, though, he was there for me, but on a day-to-day basis, we seemed to clash on issues big and small, be it politics, expectations as to how sons should treat their fathers (and vice-versa), diet and health choices, financial management, etc.  I could make a long list of those types of squabbles, but there's nothing to be gained from such an exercise.  And, to be clear, I wasn't a completely innocent victim in the whole ordeal.

Since my father's death, many concerned friends have offered words of solace and consolation.  Those who've wished me peace & strength have helped a lot.  One college friend observed that on the few occasions when he met my father, he'd seemed very proud of me.  That also helped.  But, those who - albeit with the best intentions - have said things like "celebrate a life well-lived" or "find comfort in all the positive memories" . . . well, let's just say that those comments have not made me feel much better.

It's very difficult to articulate how one feels after losing a parent.  In this case, the natural emotions and pain are complicated by the very complicated nature of my relationship with my father.  As I wrote elsewhere recently, when a parent dies, the child immediately feels that much more alone in the world.  A constant presence in my life for 41+ years is now gone forever.  It shakes one's foundation.

But, in terms of my own situation, what makes me the most sad is that the way things were is now the way they will always be.  In fact, the last conversation I had with him occurred about a week before he died.  His last words to me were the following: "Please let me know how soon you can come down again, since there are still a few things I'd like to say to you."  Try letting that echo within your psyche for a while.  Yeah, kind of harsh.

The hope that my relationship with my father would continue to heal, improve and grow is no longer.  And I am filled with feelings of regret, sadness, anger, remorse, disappointment, fear, emptiness, etc., as well as with love.  And, I am scared to death of being an inadequate husband and father myself.  I don't just want my kids to know I love them; I want us to know and understand each other, in a profound and real way.  I don't want to talk "at" my kids; I want to have a give-&-take with them.  The same is true of my marriage.  I want to grow closer to my wife as we age together, not feel like the pressure of modern-day life is driving us apart.  And, of course, I find myself sometimes paralyzed at the thought that I will repeat my father's mistakes.

I'm feeling kind like a bit of a wreck, and I'm not sure what to do about it.


So, today I look back one week and think about what may be the saddest day of my life.  Then, of course, I look ahead one week, and hope to be experiencing one of the happiest.  The Yin-Yang-iness of this is not lost on me, but I'm having trouble seeing the Boston light through the darkness of loss.  My Dad didn't really "get" the running thing, and so saying that he "would have wanted" me to do well at Boston and continue raising money for the Reeve Foundation would be a stretch.

But, I do think that Dad would have wanted me to stay focused on something in which I've invested so much of myself, to give it my best shot, and to be satisfied with the final time, so long as I put forth an honest effort.

My training was "in the bank" before my Dad passed away (I did 71+ miles the week before and nearly 50 last week, taking my first rest day since Christmas).  Physically, therefore, nothing has changed (save for getting a nasty cold which is still lingering).  In terms of being in the right place mentally/emotionally, though, I'm feeling a bit less-than-optimally prepared.

So, I'm taking it one day at a time (really, not in the cliched sense) and trying to deal with work and other non-running issues.  I'm trying to view the "Boston 2 Big Sur" double as a well-earned reward for dedication, discipline and sacrifice, all the while doing something good for a worthy cause.  I just need to figure out how to channel my sadness and grief in a productive way.  I trust that I have the strength to do so, but won't know for sure until I put one foot in front of the other for a couple of 26.2-mile runs in six days.

Thanks for reading and sharing my journey.