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


Girl In Motion said...

I would not say you overestimated anything. I was there to see your numbers through the cycle. All the stress/sick related components very likely had a hand in it.

But then, I am a believer that for the marathon, you just don't know. That's one reason I don't like's unfair to work that hard only to have it unravel for a million reasons or lack of any discernible ones.

One things certain, the work you did is yours and isn't going anywhere. You'll build on this and when Chicago rolls around, you'll do what you set out to and then some.

It was a joy to finally meet you after all this time and I look forward to following your next few months as you pump out more great work and write loads more funny snarkiness for us to enjoy. Hugs!

Stevi N. Honaker said...

Ron- It seems wickedly unfair what you had to go through on race day. You have paid your dues to the marathon gods and yet you were still tested. However, I have always believed that the strongest get tested the most (and you could say that is what makes them so strong). Unlike other runners that shrug their shoulders at what happened on a race course, your analysis is honest and raw.

I hate to say this but your story reminds us all that race day does not always end in glory, no matter how much training and dedication you apply towards it. It's how you handle the aftermath that teaches you the lessons you will need for the next attempt.

I've learned so much from you and the other 3:20 gang and I hope to apply your dedication, wisdom, and attitude over the next 5 months.

Thank you for being an incredible teacher!

Anonymous said...

I totally know how you feel, having been there in Boston myself; but you did finish, and you did requalify, and you ran a faster time at Big Sur than my first three marathons, so, go you!

I think the reason for the last item on your list is the first four; I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of assuming/hoping your fitness hasn't been negatively affected by the factors that crop up late, but of course it is, and I had the same problem.

I wish I had been able to meet you in Boston. Maybe some other time.

screaminzab said...

Yes to the first four reasons. You pushed it this cycle and it most likely cost you. It's hard to tell how much, because of all the other outlying factors.

You should know that all of your hard work and all of the shitty things that popped up still paid off in a BQ. Last year at this time you were still trying to get one.

The marathon is a beast. It can be unforgiving and it can crush a man's spirits. But there is something about it that makes us come back for more. Once you feel that feeling of triumph when you cross the finish line, it's hard not to want it gain and again. Unfortunately all of the miles in the world can't guarantee what's going to happen on race day.

It's been awesome to see you grow as a runner and I'm very proud of you. This little bump in the road will make you better in the end. I'm sure of it.

The Puerto Rican Kenyan said...

It's situations like yours that make me dislike the marathon. You train for weeks or months getting ready for one day only to have stuff get in the way. You definitely were ready for a much faster time, and I have full confidence that you'll earn yourself a huge PR next time.

One way to look at Monday is to think that even with all of your struggles and obstacles on race day, you still qualified for next year's Boston. While far from the ideal or preferred scenario, it shows just how far you've come.

I hope you can rest up from your Boston 2 Big Sur adventure and get ready for a fun-filled training cycle for Chicago. You and I both have some unfinished business to tend to in October!

Unknown said...

Seems like we had some similarities in how the day treated us. I think Ilana said it best: The first four items on your list caused the last one. I think another cycle of the caliber of training you're putting in will give your body a chance to adapt better. I am very eager to see how you do this fall!

Anonymous said...

+1 on what Zab said. The small stuff adds up, and you've gone from first BQ to BQ-despite-a-bad-race in a matter of months. GIM does not like marathons because of the unpredictability. Sensible I suppose, but the rest of us are pulled in like moths to the flame.

Unknown said...

Y'know, all I can say is that I've found that running and racing has a certain karmic element to it. It sounds trite, but the bads really do balance out the good, and my best races have been preceded by my worst.

Analyze it well and learn from it (as you have) and take pride in the fact that you BQd again at Boston despite everything going wrong.


Black Bear! said...

I bet the cold/sinus thing sapped you more than you thought. BUT, you get some revenge next year!

Nice RR!

Morrissey said...

great race report. like what everyone have said, marathons have tons of uncertainties and just never know what is going to happen. Sometimes things click...and well sometimes it just doesn't. But it doesnt mean all the efforts that you've put down have gone down the drain. In the end you still BQed and granted it wasnt the result you were expecting since you think you are capable to run a 3:05XX, i really think when it comes to marathoning, patience is key and try not to rush too much in terms of goal setting. I know Im a bad example, but from my took me 19 tries to hit an unexpected goal of mine.

I will say this. There is nothing to be disappointed about. You BQed in Sugarloaf and you BQed in a tough course like Boston. I would say if you could hit this mark in Boston, who knows what damage you couldve done if you were to race in a flatter course?

Congratulations on BQing on your first boston.

Dan said...

Ron, first off congratulations on qualifying for Boston in 2011.

A lot of things can go wrong in a race of this distance and the stress from a cold and the loss of a loved one can take a toll.

I suspect your nutrition was also to blame. Cramping can be caused by inadequate fluid, caloric and electrolyte intake. Sounds to me like you could have benefited from drinking more (up to 20-25 oz per hour) taken in more gels (one every 45 mins) and maintained your electrolytes with an S-Cap or Endurolytes every 1 to 1.5 hours.

At least for me, I found that staying ahead of fluid and food intake during long races keeps the dreaded bonk at bay.

Good luck with your training and future races.