There were two plans for the race – a running plan and a music plan. The smart running plan would have been to accept the slow pace of the last, and only, double digit mile run of the last two months. However, I’ve never been one to accept my own limitations. At least not at first. Sometimes, I have to learn the hard way.
In January, my ego wanted a sub three and a half hours marathon. Now, with a nagging injury (strike one) and extreme weather (strike two), I was willing to compromise. My ego and I could live with a sub four hour race – roughly a nine minute per mile pace. After all, my slowest marathon was my first way back in 2009 – a 3:58. No need to give into age and injuries quite yet.
I had done some mile split planning, of course, and had a race plan. I’d try to start out super slow then increase my pace if hamstring and fitness permitted. Mentally, I had the course broken up into three sections. The first section was 16 miles, and appeared to be easy with lots of downhill and flat spots, ending at the Charles River crossing. The second section was going to be very tough – approximately miles 17 through 21 were the four Newton hills, climbing 200 feet. I figured if I could survive those, then the last section – the five miles to the finish – might not be so rough, as this section was another net downhill. Here’s the elevation map:The music plan was much simpler than usual. Under normal circumstances, the length of my music playlist would match up pretty close to my goal time. But this was Boston, and I was injured. Despite a paper plan, my race pace was likely going to be a mystery. On top of that, crowds were fabled to be like nothing I’d experienced in a marathon. I didn’t want to be immersed in music and miss the crowds.
The music plan went like this: play the first three Boston (the band) albums (their best) back-to-back-to-back. After that, I’d play the usual classic rock artists who had accompanied me on the many miles I’d put in for this day. For a finishing song around the 3:30 mark, I had a last minute addition in honor of the weather forecast- Led Zepplin’s “Fool in the Rain.” Seemed appropriate. At least there were 25,000 fools. When “Fool” was over, I planned to shed the headphones and take in the crowd for the last few miles.
The Day the Music Died
As the race began, I settled into Boston’s first album, and tried to run my goal pace. Most people have a tough time holding back at the start of the race, and I’m no exception. The atmosphere and huge pack of runners made it even tougher. The first couple of miles were definitely slower than my best, but still faster than my goal pace.
I wanted to run 9:30 per mile for the first three miles, but I couldn’t make myself go that slow and ran right at 8:50 per mile for the first five miles. Since that seemed to be my “groove” for the day, I decided 8:50-9:00 minute miles were fine.
I average 8:51 per mile through 10 miles, but I had a suspicion this was a tad fast. My hamstring was not protesting, but I decided to slow down the pace for a bit. Miles 11 and 12 were right around 9:00 minutes each. Mile thirteen included the Wellesley scream tunnel, where the young ladies of Wellesley College raise quite the ruckus. I heard them long before I saw them. I couldn’t believe they were out in this weather and felt obligated to give some high fives. This was truly a bright spot in the day.
Shortly after Wellesley, the screams were replaced by something much worse – the shutdown tones of my wireless earphones. Uh-Oh. Apparently, Bluetooth doesn’t like the cold, either. A supposed six-hour battery life reduced to under two. Strike three.
A pulled hamstring is bad, as is a cold pouring rain with a twenty mile per hour head winds. But no music? No one should be subjected to cruelty like this. I was distraught. Funny thing is, I actually had a backup plan for just such a situation. My phone’s battery had been acting up, and I was worried about it dying, not the headphones. I had located an old phone at home, along with a set of wired headphones, and loaded up my playlist. Given the weather, though, I didn’t think I could keep them dry and left the backups in the hotel room. I was kicking myself now.
I finished out mile 13 in 9:08, and shortly thereafter, my halfway point split time was 1:57:20, which was great considering everything. I was on track for that sub-four time, but the rain seemed to fall harder and the wind seemed much stronger.
There’s been a time in each of my marathons where the adrenaline bubble bursts and despair sets in. This feeling tells me “the wall” is going up, and it’s going to be a long, painful road to the finish line . Usually, this descends on me somewhere between miles 15 and 18. At Kiawah in 2016, proper training kept the feeling at bay until about mile 23. Today, as I started the second half of the race with no music and inadequate training, there it was. Way too early. I could hear the foreman bricklayer calling, “All right boys, let get moving on that wall!”
Mile 14 was another 9:08, and mile 15 slowed to 9:23. Those brick masons were working fast. Up ahead, I saw we had a nice long downhill. Time to get back on track. I lengthened out my stride and felt fast for a bit, motoring down the hill. For the first time, the hamstring gave a protest. I heard a voice inside my head. It was my internal first mate.
“Hold on, Cap’n. We’ve got a complaint from the transmission crew. You better slow down.”
“I heard it,” I replied, and passed over the Charles River.
Mile sixteen was 8:30, my fastest mile so far. Then the voice came back.
“By the way, Cap’n. That was the last hay bale.”
“What? We have 10 miles to go! Find something else!” I commanded. “We’re about to hit Newton.”
“Eye, eye, Cap’n.”
For the next 50 minutes, I “ran” the hills of Newton. I’ve probably never been more miserable during a race. The Newton hills reminded me of Trenholm Road back home at the Columbia, SC marathon, only twice as long! The last of the Newton hills is the famous Heartbreak Hill. Yes, this is a killer hill, but its job is easy because the first three thugs rough you up so bad. I refused to walk Heartbreak Hill, but my 11:18 split for that section might call me a liar.
Deus Ex Machina
After the Newton hills, the wall was up, the bricklayers’ job made easy by Newton. Now survival mode was in full swing. I was out of Gu energy gels and began drinking Gatorade at the water stops instead of water. Between miles 21 and 22 there was that voice again:
“Cap’n. There’s another problem. The calf crew is wanting to strike. They say they’re going to start cramping soon!”
“I know. I felt their warning protest back there. Tell them to hold on. The hills are over.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but you need to find some fuel!”
“I know. I’ve been drinking Gatorade. It seems to be the only option.”
“Well, we’re desperate down here, Cap’n! Do something!”
Then, the savior of the day appeared. A random Boston spectator, who probably should have been inside somewhere, held out a banana. I took it. I’d never taken a banana during a race before, but times were desperate. I hope my “Thank you” was audible and just not in my head. God bless you, ma’am.
The banana successfully appeased the calf crew, and miles 22-24 were better than the Newton hills, but their 10:15 average had probably taken a sub four hour race officially out of the question. Just past mile 24, I finally glanced at my watch to see my overall time. I was surprised to see only 3:50. I figured I was well past the four hour mark at this point. If I could just hold on to a 10:00 pace to close it out, I’d have an acceptable 4:10 or so race. The crowds were the now the largest and loudest they’d been all day. This was music back in my ears.
City Road, Take Me Home
With four tenths of a mile to go, I made one of the most famous left turns in running, from Hereford Street onto Boylston Street. Even without my prescription sunglasses, I could see the famed finish line in the distance. A lump began to swell in my throat. For a moment, I thought raindrops wouldn’t be the only moisture on my cheeks.
I held it together and focused on the finish line in the distance – a whole lot of distance. The day before, the family and I spent some time on Boylston, sight seeing, shopping, and taking in the pre-race atmosphere. The distance from the turn to the finish did not seem far at all then.
Today, though, soaked to the bone with numb feet, the 800 yards or so looked quite daunting. Spectators completely lined Boylston, albeit not as crowded as better-weather years. Their cheers and encouragement were amazing just the same. The blue arch of the finish slowly grew larger, and soon I raised my arms in triumph as I crossed the painted line in 4:10:45.
I staggered down Boylston in the post finish line chute. A quick check with my internal crew chief told me the medical tent was unnecessary, but I better keep moving. Someone placed a finisher’s medal around my neck. I staggered on.
Someone else held out a bottled water – uh, thanks? I’d seen enough of that today, but I took it. Despite hitting pretty much everyone of the 24 water stops, I had to be dehydrated, unless of course one could absorb water through one’s feet!
At the next station, a wonderful volunteer helped slip a hooded Heatsheet blanket over me. I could have used this hours ago, I thought. Next, someone handed me a bag of food. I don’t remember much about it except there was a banana.
Two blocks later, in the ‘F’ section of the family meeting area, I found my family. I tried to peel the banana, but couldn’t feel my hands. I think my daughter peeled it for me. The family was also cold and pretty wet. The winds had made the umbrellas pretty worthless, and we braved another block to the hotel. Paying extra for the close hotel now seemed genius.
I entered the hotel through the revolving door and into a small tunnel the employees and other runners’ families had formed. They were giving each runner an ovation as we came through the door. That was really awesome. I felt like a frozen rock star.
At Kiawah, I nursed a 1000 calorie chocolate milk in the medical tent, while waiting for the world to stop spinning. This time, Saint Angie had a Venti (large for all you non-Starbuckers) Black and White Mocha waiting on me in the hotel room. A hot drink was much better than cold this time. The coffee combined with a 45 minute hot shower finally brought my body back to normal temperature and feeling back to my toes. Post race reports were 2500 people treated in medical tents during the race, most of them showing hypothermia symptoms. I believed it.
The next morning, we arrived at the airport and checked in without incident. Most of the passengers on our flight were either runners or family members of runners along for support. Pretty much every runner wore his or her 2018 commemorative race jacket. Some people had been wearing them around town before the race, which I felt was a no-no. Bad karma. I only tried mine on for size at the expo – and very quickly, I might add. Finally, once we we headed out to dinner a few hours after the race, I slipped it on and proudly wore it, just like half of the restaurant.
Once we arrived back in the south, it was unseasonably cool. I was fine with this for a change. I could keep wearing my jacket! I secretly hoped it would stay cool for a while! If you see me wearing an orange jacket in the heat and humidity of a South Carolina August this year, you’ll understand. I may still be trying to warm up.
Not a Solo Effort
I’d like to give some special thanks to a few people. First, there’s my wife of 27 years, Angie. Not only has she had to endure my pursuit of Boston, she’s washed more athletic clothing than anyone should have to. Next, there’s my son and coach, Miles. Thanks for pushing the old man, son.
There’s also my friend, former co-worker, and once upon a time training partner, Craig Farmer. He ran with me on my first-ever run over 6 miles back in 2009, prepping for my first race, the Lexington Race Against Hunger 10K. He would probably point out he beat me for the only time in that 2009 race as well. Many years later, he provided excellent sherpa duties at my Kiawah BQ in 2016.
I’d also like to thank Trip Davis for advice and encouragement, Scott Flicker for Boston logistics advice, and Dean Schuster for planting the seed all those years ago in the Harbison Target. I guess this was ZeroToBoston II.
PS. After Boston, I took nine days off from running. That first very short run back was awful. I felt like my 2009 beginner self or maybe an 80 year-old man. I then realized what my internal first mate had done for fuel when the hay ran out. The only thing he could have done, really. He burned down the hay barn, and I’m pretty sure he burned down the farmhouse, too. Recovering from this one is going to take a while.
We can rebuild him. Better. Stronger. Faster. Stay Tuned…