Monday, May 2, 2011

"More (or Less?) Than a Feeling": Boston 2011 Race Report

A goal properly set is halfway reached.
--Abraham Lincoln

It's probably only a tad ironic that the marathon which has taken me the least amount of time to run has resulted in my taking the longest amount of time to generate a race report.  There are a couple of reasons for this, the main one being that - two weeks removed from it - I still don't know how I feel about my performance in the 2011 Boston Marathon.  And, so, without further qualifying equivocation, here's the report.

After the debacle which was Boston 2010 (and my running year as a whole), I had trained for and expected to run a certain time in 2011.  That time was not to be.  My sub-3:05 goal slipped away in the Newton Hills, but rather than an epic blowup, I managed to contain the slowdown and finish my second Boston Marathon with a new PR of 3:08:48.   It's difficult to characterize the result in terms of good or bad, satisfying or disappointing.  It's all of those things - and more - but the experiences from the race (and from the weekend as a whole) are more significant than the final time on the clock.

With so much going on in my life at the moment, it's difficult to know where to begin this year's race report, but it may serve everyone's interests in just focusing on the race itself.  Suffice it to say that the weekend involved some personal highs and lows, as I reconnected with some friends, forged new friendships and struggled through the complicated dynamics of marital separation.


After some crazy scrambling with my friend Steve/TTM on Sunday night, where we raided a number of southern New Hampshire chain stores in search of a tarp on which to rest at Athlete's Village on Monday morning, we finally found one in the automotive section of Wal-Mart.  I had not set foot in a Wal-Mart in about a decade, and Sunday night was a bit of a freak show there.  Still, we acquired 160 square feet of vinyl protection, and ended up back at my place a bit after 10:00 p.m., later than either of us had hoped.

We crashed at about 11:00 and I had the alarm set for 4:00 a.m., so that we could be on the road and under the Boston Common in time to get on the first wave of buses leaving Boston for Hopkinton.  The drive went smoothly, and we found James and Kevin with no problem.  My other friend Steve was also supposed to meet us, but he left his phone in his car and never did find us among the assembled throng.

The ride to Hopkinton was fine, and I was calm and relaxed.  I had not looked at pacing spreadsheets, brought no pace band with me, and otherwise was not thinking about tackling 26.2 miles in a certain time.  Instead, I was thinking only about saving some energy early and settling into a sustainable sub-7:00/mile pace.

We arrived at Athlete's Village and set up our monstrously large tarp.  Friends and strangers kept finding us, claiming small swatches of dryness as we all waited for 10:00 am to roll around.  Everyone was fueling up, drinking, standing in bathroom lines, etc.  Seth found me, and we hung out with his Swedish friends for a while.  The wind was blowing, but the frenzy over the unprecedented tailwind had everyone feeling at peace with the weather.  Sunday's storms had blown over, and the sun was shining from a brilliant blue sky.

Time passed in fits and spurts, with some segments seeming long; other moments passed by at warp speed.  We all started getting our gear on, applying BodyGlide, eating, drinking, shedding layers.  The whole scene definitely had the feel of a religious gathering, with shared rituals co-existing peacefully with individual habits.

The time finally came to meet up with some friends who'd come on a charter bus, check the gear bags and head to the starting corrals.  I had a twinge of regret about the incompleteness of my last bathroom stop, but it turned out to be too late to do anything about it.  I also forgot to put my calf compression sleeves on, which makes a second critical omission in two consecutive Bostons (forgetting my HR monitor last year).

I found my way into an overflowing Corral #8, said good-bye to one of my friends who was several corrals ahead, waited for a bit, shed my long-sleeved shirt and then pushily made my way towards the front of the corral.  The energy was palpable as thousands of highly-trained, tapered runners endured their final moments of energy restraint.


Miles 1-5

1 - 7:18
2 - 7:00
3 - 6:55
4 - 6:54
5 - 6:57

The Boston Marathon boasts 115 years of distance running lore, staged on the same course year after year after year.  For all the great moments and triumphs, it's a course which has surely chewed up and spit out more runners than probably any other road race in the world.  As a sort of recreational runner's "All-Star" race with a pronounced downhill start, Boston tantalizes many an aspiring PR-seeker to go out too fast before paying dearly for such over-exuberance.  I wanted to go out "easy" and take 3 or so miles to settle in.

Other than the annoyance of navigating the crowd, things seemed to start well.  I felt an uncomfortable pang in my stomach, which I attributed to nerves and did my best to ignore.  I found a tangent along the left side of the course, weaving more than I should have, but less than I wanted to.

By the end of Mile 2, I had found my groove, and was feeling good about the pace, my effort and what lay ahead.  I tried to draw energy from the fans without expending any extra by high-fiving or otherwise hamming it up.  I stayed alert to those around me, especially during the aid stations, but very much sought to remain in my own space.

Miles 6-10

6 - 6:54
7 - 6:49
8 - 6:49
9 - 6:52
10 - 7:21*
*includes Garmin distance adjustment

I paid attention to my stride and form, being careful not to over-run the downhills.  It seemed like I was doing fine, and my heart rate stayed relatively low throughout this segment.  Somewhere after Mile 5, I passed a guy in a bodysuit animal costume.  I pulled up next to him and said with a grin, "I hate when costumed runners are so fast."  When I saw his face and heard him speak, I realized that he was from Japan, and he replied, "Oh, thank you.  You have beautiful form."  I'm guessing he didn't quite grasp what I'd just said, but I gladly accepted the compliment, knowing that if it wasn't a lie at that moment, it was likely to be soon enough.

With my stomach still a bit of a question mark, I took my first gel at about Mile 7, a Gu Roctane pineapple (no caffeine), chased by two cups of water.  I'd drunk only water at aid stations to this point, and fueling-wise, I seemed okay.

In about Mile 9, I saw a runner towering over the rest of the field.  I ran next to him and told him that his ability to move at that pace was very impressive.  I guessed that he was 6'8" or 6'9", but he told me that he's actually 6'11", and that he's never seen anyone taller in a marathon.  He said that there's nothing special about him running, as he's just putting one foot in front of the other just like the rest of us (except with about half as many strides per mile).

Up until Mile 10, the pace felt right and encouraging, such that I had a sense that it could be a stellar day.  Yet, for no obvious reason, Mile 10 was very difficult.  I suddenly felt labored and tight, and thought that my day may be coming to a premature end.  Still, unlike in marathons past, I stayed with it, kept my wits about me, and regrouped.

Miles 11-15

11 - 6:58
12 - 6:57
13 - 6:55
14 - 6:54
15 - 7:11

This was a strange segment for me, as I didn't feel great, but remained encouraged by the mile-by-mile splits.

The Wellesley women were MUCH more boisterous than I remembered from 2010, and the "Wall of Sound" greeted us a good half-mile before the screaming co-eds came into view.  Unlike last year, though, I stayed in the middle of the road, glanced at some of the scream tunnel signs and soaked in the energy and atmosphere.  I felt privileged to be running the Boston Marathon, to be treated like someone special for a day.  I also resolved to make sure I stayed positive for the second half of the race, regardless of what ended up happening.

I crossed the half-marathon mark exactly where I had hoped to be, at 1:31:31.  I simultaneously felt hopeful and concerned.  For reasons that I can't completely explain, I had a sense of foreboding, but I tried to discount it as the irrational fear of a runner attaining a new fitness level.

Mile 14 marked my second gel, a Carboom raspberry.  My stomach was not calm, and the GI melodrama went into full swing, as my stomach and I transitioned from a state of a detente of benign discomfort to possible full-blown disagreement, but each time I thought about making a pit stop, there'd be no port-a-potty, and when I did see one, the urge would temporarily subside.  I finally decided that I would stop, but there was a line.  So, the decision essentially made itself.  I was going to roll the digestive dice and see how long I could hang on.

Miles 16-21

16 - 6:57
17 - 7:20
18 - 7:13
19 - 7:27
20 - 7:29
21 - 7:56

At this point, I knew the hills were coming, and I was not sure what to expect exactly.  I was prepared to slow down, but wanted to feel like I was maintaining a pretty even effort. I stayed as steady as I could, but I knew that I wasn't going to be pulling off any late-race heroics.  I ground my way up the hills, and somewhere around Mile 17 or so, I felt a hand on my butt.  It was a rather incongruous sensation at that point in a marathon, and I was not feeling particularly flattered or amused by the attention.  I turned to see my friend Seth behind me, not a good sign.  Our exchange went kind of like this:
Me: What are you doing?!
Seth: Jogging, dude. I'm done.
Me: [With a somewhat disgusted glare of disbelief] I can't talk to you now.
Seth: Cool.  Go for it.

I spent the next mile or two feeling badly about having been such a jerk to my friend, but as a runner I knew Seth would understand.  Given that his goal was even more ambitious than mine, I knew he was in a bad place, but I realized that I was, as well.  I was very much trying to keep myself in the race mentally, to accept that marathons are not - at least at my mediocre level - all-or-nothing endeavors.  I still had plenty of "room" for a PR, and I knew that I had a good chance to break 3:10.

So, I rode out the hills as best I could, and figured that - if nothing else - I would hang in longer than I did last year.  Progress by degrees, rather than by leaps and bounds, became my new reality.

And, with no particular degree of pomp or circumstance, I was up and over Heartbreak Hill, slowing down, but still running.

Miles 22-Finish

22 - 7:28
23 - 7:36
24 - 7:31
25 - 7:45
26 - 7:29
0.2+ - 1:37 (6:24 pace)
Most of the hoopla surrounding the Boston Marathon is about getting in, known to runners as "qualifying".  The training, the careful selection of qualifying races, the new need to rush to register.  It's all about getting to the party.  And, while I'll readily admit to having gone through all of that myself, I've spent more time thinking about the end of the race, particularly those last 5+ miles when one has earned the opportunity to run through the streets of Boston as someone special for a day.  Last year, my greatest regret was that I death-marched the last 5+ miles in a cramp-riddled, depressive slog.  I was more war victim than celebrant.

Before this year's race, I vowed to run the last 5 miles strong and with a smile on my face.  As I came down from Newton, though, I realized that "strong" was subject to situational redefinition.  The promise to sport a smile, on the other hand, lay entirely within my control.

No math whiz on a good day, it's ironic that the last miles of a marathon put me in human calculator mode.  I was trying to figure out what it would take to hang on and break 3:10.  I had the WILL to run faster.  I believe I had the CAPACITY to do so.  But, in the critical moment, I lacked the ability to turn my legs over any faster than I did.  I knew I was slowing down, but I refused to stop.  I knew my dreams of a major marathon breakthrough were on the side of a road somewhere in the last few miles.  I also realized that I was slowing down to what used to be my goal pace.  In other words, my "bad day" used to be my "good day".  That meant - and means - that I have reached a new level as a runner.  And I took great solace in that late-race epiphany.  

My reality may not yet have caught up to my ambitions, but I was getting closer.  So, with that wonderful observation at the front of my fatigued consciousness, I took it all in.  I gave thumbs up and pumped my arms.  I smiled.  I patted struggling runners on the shoulder.  I beheld the Citgo sign.  I enjoyed the drunken college kids, the silly signs, the air horns.  I basically allowed myself to be part of this pulsing, throbbing, living mass of human energy.  And it was wonderful.

Mile 25 was a struggle.  I felt myself bending, but refused to break.  I would not stop.  I would not walk.  I would not grimace or frown or wallow in self-pitying notions of what might have been.

And, with a final push, I was through the underpass, quick right, quick left.  And then impossibly long final straightaway, the runner's equivalent of putting the 18th green at The Masters.  And I saw the time, and I knew that I could not only break 3:10, but 3:09, too.  And I did, with a 3:08:48 official time.


As usual in a marathon, I was glad to be D-O-N-E.  I felt mostly numb, but not shattered like I had the year before.  I did not cast murderous glances at runners in wheelchairs, didn't stumble my way while deliberating whether to seek medical attention myself.  Instead, I went through the post-finish receiving line, collected some water, snacks, my medal and a space blanket, and looked for the gear buses.  I went to designated meet-up area, where I saw friends who'd already finished, and waited for those who yet hadn't.

It's now May 2, and I still don't have a handle on how I feel about the way I ran in Boston.  26.2 miles yields great opportunity, but also provides a rather large platform for screwing up.  Did I run too fast in some of the early miles?  Did I blow my pre-race nutrition?  Did the stress of life, the chronic sleep deprivation and other worldly distractions detract from my ability to run to 100% of my fitness level?  I still don't know the answers to these and other related questions, but I do know that I am a new and improved runner.

And I hope that the lessons gleaned from the training cycle - discipline, persistence, focus - and the race - more persistence, flexibility, tenacity in the face of potential disappointment, joy in the moment - will carry over into my life.

After the race, a good friend of mine who is a lifelong endurance athlete now in his early 60's, wrote me the following:
We invest a lot of time and effort in trying to change a couple of minutes on race day, but when all is said and done, the time and effort changes us way more than the minutes do.
So true, Dave, so true.  Thus, with a nod to Dave and to President Lincoln as quoted at the start, I'll call Boston 2011 a qualified success, and an important stepping stone on the way to greater achievements, in running and in life.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron


Run2theHills said...

Gutsy finish Ron. What is missing from your RR is how much you improved compared to your previous marathon PR. So enjoy that big leap !

Greg said...

Great stuff as always Ron. Congrats on the PR buddy!! We all want that perfect race... and I believe you will have it one day...but if 3:08 is an average performance for you??? Then WoW!!!! I remember a few years ago when not breaking 4:00 was a you have definitely come a long way.

Girl In Motion said...

Great report! Wonderful attitude as well. Yes, you without doubt a changed runner and I should know, I've been following your hijinks for a long time now. You had some physical issues, simple as that, nothing to do with training. Get that sorted out and you'll be grabbing the stars (or at least, sub3).

Love Dave's philosophy. It really is about the journey. Here's to more wonderful adventures ahead. :)

David said...

Great report, Ron. A real pleasure to read, and a well articulated account of not only running a marathon, but why we train for them at all.

Steve Berrones said...

As always, great report Ron. Maybe not as quickly as you would like, but you are truly evolving as a qreat runner and your goals will be even sweeter as you achieve. Don't rush it, have patience and enjoy the ride. And for all that you get from running, you give back more to the sport and other runners. You're a great example, teacher and friend. So glad I stumbled across 3:20 when I did. Take care!

Bettina said...

"The promise to sport a smile, on the other hand, lay entirely within my control." this line in your report Ron. I had some similiar musings about my performance in Boston also. I was more than elated to be there running, experiencing it all, etc. But like you just a tad disappointed in that finishing time by which we judge ourselves by.

On the flip side finishing strong and having that same smile on my face through those last few miles takes alot of that sting away.

Congrats on your PR!!!!!!!!!!! I very much enjoyed your report.

Keep on running!!!!

TiredMamaRunning said...

Loved this, Ron, as we had sort of parallel experiences in 2010/2011...death marching vs. smiling....and definitely noticing those Wellesley girls being louder as well. You definitely have reached a new level, and I agree, it was a gutsy race to really let it all hang out in the end.

Anonymous said...

Great report, as usual. Isn't it amazing to realize that your slowdown is to a previous goal pace? Improvement rocks!

PS time to update the PR in the sidebar!

rovatti said...

Eloquent and insightful PR (as usual).

You should be very encouraged to have taken a big step forward this cycle after stagnating last year.

Keep it up and maybe 2:59 will be a "meh" result on your next one...

- rovatti

rovatti said...

Eloquent and insightful PR (as usual).

You should be very encouraged to have taken a big step forward this year after stagnating last year.

Keep it up, and maybe you'll be considering 2:59 a "meh" result next time...

- rovatti

Nick said...

Remember when you use to suck? You realy are having a big breakthrough this year so don't let 3 min define you. Learn what was not perfect and enjoy what you have accomplished. I am sure we have not run our last race together and I look forward to seeing you out there again.

Unknown said...

Great RR! It was not the result you wanted, perhaps, but still a great improvement and a reason to grow more confident in yourself. Keep hammering away!

Mike (gusgordon)

skijumper said...

I know you're more soccer than baseball, but...As a spectator, your race report was great fun to read. Sort of like watching a pitcher battle through a game to get a win for the team when he doesn't have his best stuff. You worked really hard under tough circumstances to get this big win. Not a no-hitter, but a heckofa race!

Jess said...

you write better race recaps than any other runner i know. when i woke up this morning, i didn't feel like running. when i get that feeling, i get online and look for some inspiration. so i clicked on my google reader blog list and saw you wrote a boston recap. perfect! and it worked. i am off to run, and i am going to hold on to your words of determination and endless push to do better as i set out. hope you never stop running or writing about it! and i wish you much better times ahead.

Billy said...

A little late here but fantastic race Ron. You've become quite the runner.