Category: Old Dog New Tricks

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Three Strikes But Not Out: A Boston Marathon Memoir – Part Three

For part one of this memoir, click here. For part two, click here.

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:BostonMarathonElevation.001The 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.

Still Smiles at Wellesley

Still Smiles at Wellesley

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.

Brick Masonry

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

The Final Turn

The Final Turn

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.

More Water!

Done! More Water!

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 Jacket

The 2018 Jacket

The 2018 Jacket

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.

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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…

 

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Three Strikes But Not Out: A Boston Marathon Memoir – Part Two

If you missed part one of this memoir, click here.

After qualifying for Boston 2018, my coach and son, Miles Fowler, and I discussed my plans and goals for the sixteen month gap between my December 2016 race at Kiawah Island, SC and the April 2018 Boston Marathon.

There was definitely time to work in another marathon, but I had just come off nine months of seriously intense training. I opted for recovery, strength building, and perhaps trying to improve my 5K time. I had PR’ed in every distance in 2016, not bad for a 48 year-old, but missing out on a sub-twenty 5K by four seconds in May 2016 still bugged me. Just one of many flaws, I suppose.

Overall, 2017 was a lighter year on the race schedule. I kept training, of course, but the few events I entered showed a step back in speed, especially my unsatisfying 20:59 in May’s Jailbreak 5K. I blamed it on my new job. For motivation toward year’s end, Coach Miles and I decided to gear up for a PR attempt at the Lexington Half in November 2017.

Half marathon training was going well until a few weeks before the race. I was working on that build strength goal, performing an exercise called single leg dead lifts. This is where you hold two dumbbells and bend at the waist, lowering the dumbbells toward  one foot while the opposite leg raises out behind.  On one of the repetitions, as I raised my left leg behind me and lowered the dumbbells toward my right foot, I felt a pop in my upper right hamstring. It felt as if someone had plucked the muscle like it was an upright bass string. The pain caught me off guard, and I almost fell in the floor.

That can’t be good I thought. A few minutes later, when the initial pain subsided, I headed over to a treadmill to see if I could still run. Surprisingly, I could still run at a comfortable pace without pain. I took it easy until the Lexington Half, where I had a solid run of 1:37:34 with no hamstring pain, but was a far cry from 2016’s PR of 1:35:06. Still, I was at a good fitness level and still looking forward to a solid Boston.

Well, mid-November is too early to start official training for an April Marathon, so I set my sites on another 5K. I really wanted to beat that twenty minute mark. Coach Miles was planning on doing the Charleston Half Marathon in January, and I decided to join him in there for the Shrimp & Grits 5K race that goes along with the Charleston Marathon weekend.

Shrimp & Grits 5K: Meh!

Shrimp & Grits 5K: Meh!

Training was going well, and the hamstring was not causing any problems. Then, a week before the 5K, I was doing speed work (400 meter repeats) on a 36 degree afternoon. Apparently, I wasn’t warmed up enough, and the hamstring twinged on me again. I was not able to complete my 400’s at the targeted speed, but running slow still was OK. I took it easy that week, and managed a disappointing 21:18 in Charleston, where I didn’t push it in the windy 39 degree weather.

With the Shrimp & Grits 5K behind me, Coach Miles and I started “official” Boston Marathon training. The stretch goal was a fitness level capable of a 3:20 marathon, but an “easy” 3:30 (my qualifying target) would be acceptable on race day, depending on what curves were thrown at us. Given my Lexington Half time and Shrimp & Grits 5K times, the 3:30 definitely seemed doable.

I wanted to re-qualify, even if Boston 2019 was probably a not a possibility from a priority perspective. I’d received conflicting reports on re-qualifying for Boston at Boston, from two very good runners former Boston participants. One said it was hard to do and I should just enjoy a celebration run, while the other said re-qualifying was very doable. Decisions decisions.

“The hay is in the barn”

Unless you’re a marathon runner, you’ve likely not heard this phrase. I had not until a running veteran said this to me once upon a time as we discussed an upcoming marathon. It is a reference to doing the hard work of baling hay fields and taking it to the barn to have food for the animals over the winter.

For a runner, it means that if you’ve done the proper preparation, then while you taper off your training the last two or three weeks before a race, you will be OK for the race duration.  Your hay, or fuel earned through training, will be there for you to consume during the race.

Did you catch where I wrote strike two back in Part One of this memoir when writing about the weather conditions?  Did you think it was a typo? It wasn’t. So what about strike one?

Take a look at this chart:

Kiawah2016TrainingGraph

The blue line shows my weekly run mileage for the three months before Kiawah 2016, while the red line shows my longest run distance of that week. That’s some solid running there – 45 miles per week average and seven runs longer than 15 miles during the training.Now take a look at this chart:

Boston2018TrainingGraph

It is the same chart for the three months leading up to Boston. Do you see a problem? Mid-January to mid-February was a solid beginning. I was starting to feel confident and have really solid long runs. My 1968 model GF Hay Baler was really starting to harvest some serious hay. But then…

Boston, We Have A Problem

On Sunday, February 18, a day after my longest run so far in Boston training, 13 miles, the run plan was mile repeats. Coach Miles and I believe Sunday mile repeats after Saturday long runs were the secret sauce to my Kiawah success, and we planned to keep doing them.

I warmed up for 30 minutes on the bicycle trainer and then did an easy mile with some striders (kinda like sprints) to prepare my body for the planned four repeats. The weather was warm for February – 70 degrees. I felt good, perhaps too good, as I launched into the first mile. I probably started too fast and made it about 200 yards when my right hamstring sent a shock through my leg, stopping me in my tracks. I tried to restart and ran about another 200 yards, but every step was painful and my pace was extremely slow. The 1968 GF Hay Baler had a blown its transmission.

I quit for the day and spent a couple of days recuperating on the bicycle. Run attempts later in the week showed no improvement. Seven weeks to Boston and I literally could not run.

There’s your strike one.

By the way, Boston has a no deferral policy. If you’re injured and cannot go, that’s just too bad.

Any thoughts of re-qualifying for Boston at Boston were now lunacy. Just figuring out how to run pain-free again was the priority, along with how to keep marathon fitness without running. Fortunately, I have a coach who also knows a bit about cycling. Workouts now became almost 100% cycling, with some elliptical thrown in. I logged about 500 miles on the bicycle trainer during last seven weeks. I also found a local chiropractor who practiced Active Release Therapy to work on the hamstring/glute/hip area a couple times per week.

The ability to run slow and pain free finally returned in early April. Just eight days before the marathon, I was able to do double digits again – a mere 10 miles at a 10:15 per mile pace. Certainly nothing to write home about. The weekly average for those twelve weeks leading up to Boston was less than twenty miles and my longest run was only 13 miles.

As I boarded the plane to Boston, I wondered if it was enough. I hoped that somehow the previous nine years of training had stored up some hay in a mystery reserve barn somewhere deep inside.

To be continued…

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Three Strikes But Not Out: A Boston Marathon Memoir – Part One

The Boston Marathon. The oldest annual marathon in the world and arguably the most prestigious (does anyone really argue this?). Twenty-six point two miles starting in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and ending on Boylston Street in downtown Boston. Along the way, 25,000+ runners pass through the towns of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley and Newton. The race is held each year on the third Monday in April – Patriots Day in Massachusetts.

Getting To Boston

Near the finish line on Sunday before the race.

Near the finish line on Sunday before the race.

Making it to the start line of the Boston Marathon is not for the faint of heart. There’s getting to Boston. Then there’s getting to Boston. Then there’s getting to Boston.

The first getting to Boston is qualifying. There are tough qualifying standards. 2014 Boston winner Meb Keflezighi once said “If you are a marathon runner, you are measured based on the Boston Marathon.”*

Trying to qualify can become quite the obsession for some (not me, of course) and may take years of trying. I started officially trying in 2012, and took four years, several failed attempts, and a coaching change to do it. If you’re interested in my write up about my qualifying run, you can find it here: Finish What You Started.

The second getting to Boston is figuring out the travel logistics around traveling to Boston. A seasoned travleer, I am not. Being in South Carolina, driving is doable, if you have extra time to make a couple day trip of it. We chose to fly on the Saturday before the race. My carry on bag held all my running gear, including multiple clothing choices and layers to handle anything mother nature might throw at us – or so I thought.

Passports

Passports

I also made sure my official Runner Passport from the Boston Athletic Association was in my possession at all times. It had been in the fireproof lock box at the house since receiving it a few months back. This was my official ticket to run and had to be presented in person at the packet pickup/expo to receive my race bib. I could replace all gear easily at the expo, if lost, but that passport was not replaceable.

We had no travel problems and arrived at our downtown Boston hotel at 5:30 p.m. We had chosen to stay a few blocks from the finish line to make race day logistics easier on the support team. Upon arriving in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel, which was bustling with runners and quite different from the Holiday Inn Express,  my daughter remarked with wide eyes “Where are we?” “Definitely not in Kansas, Sweetheart.” It was country come to town.

The third getting to Boston is actually finding your way to the start line on race day. Boston is a point-to-point race, starting 26.2 miles west of the finish line. Fortunately, the race provides free bus service from Boston to Hopkinton, but which creates a couple of potential challenges. First, you still have to make your way to the bus loading area early on race day. Second, once the bus makes the approximate one hour trip, you’re dumped in the Athletes Village to wait, potentially braving the elements for a couple of hours before your wave start.

My friend and main Boston advisor, Scott, told me about a private charter bus which provided shuttle service to Hopkinton. The cost was only $30 for a ride on a heated bus with a bathroom. The shuttle also left from our hotel at a reasonable hour and you could stay on the parked bus as long as you wanted. Sold.

Hopkinton

Pre-race Poncho

Pre-race Poncho

And there I was, my first race as a 50 year-old, finally standing in Hopkinton at the start of the 2018 Boston Marathon. Despite taking up running at age forty, I’d beaten the odds and qualified for Boston. I’d also successfully navigated travel, packet pickup, and the bus ride to the start. Ain’t it great when things are going your way.

I won’t lie, though. My confidence was low. I probably hadn’t been this unsure of how a marathon might go since marathon #1 back in 2009. The weather wasn’t helping in the least. Just a few days prior, I had been in sunny South Carolina with temperatures in the 80’s. Now, here in Massachusetts, the air was 37 degrees with heavy rains falling in frequent bands. If that wasn’t miserable enough, there was the bonus wind-  20+ mph out of the east, which meant we’d be running into the wind the entire race. I’d done training over the years in cold, rain, and wind but nothing like this. Strike two.

My start time was scheduled for 10:25 a.m. – Wave Two and corral five. Thanks to the logistics of herding thousands of people to the start, I’d been in weather better suited for an episode of Deadliest Catch for almost an hour by the time 10:25 rolled around. The three quarters of a mile walk to the start from the Athletes Village would have to serve as the warm up. I threw in a few lunges and leg swings for good measure before the corral filled.

IMG_5735Right on time, Wave Two started. Those of us in corral five started creeping toward the start line. I briefly considered trying to run  in the poncho I’d been using in my last hour’s attempt to stay dry. Nope, I decided, and tossed the poncho into the growing pile of throw-away clothing being discarded along the side of the corral.

I pressed the play button on my wireless headphones, and the beginning organ notes from Boston’s “Foreplay/Longtime” filled my ears.  Crossing the start line timing mat, I pressed the start button on my watch. It was FINALLY time to run the 2018 Boston marathon. So, I hoped.

It’s been such a long time
I think I should be goin’, yeah
And time doesn’t wait for me, it keeps on rollin’
Sail on, on a distant highway
I’ve got to keep on chasin’ a dream, yeah
I’ve gotta be on my way – “Foreplay/Longtime”, Boston

 

To be continued….

References:

My BQ write up from 2016: Finish What You Started.

* http://www.espn.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/19129302/expert-panel-world-10-best-marathons-including-boston-london-tokyo

The Old Dog Manifesto

“Look in the mirror. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Not one nearby? Then take out your phone and turn on the camera app.

Press the icon that flips the camera to “selfie” mode.

If you’re not sure how, ask a teenager.”  – From The Old Dog Manifesto

What happened?

Does it seems like just yesterday you were young with crazy dreams and now you’re staring in the mirror at wrinkles and gray hair and think you’re going crazy?

OK. Maybe it wasn’t yesterday, but you still cannot believe it, not to mention you don’t really know how it happened.

If you’re not happy with this middle age thing, you need to read The Old Dog Manifesto.  In it, I’ll convince you an old dog can learn new tricks and show you how to start.  Fill out and submit the form below to receive an email with a link to the download. Along with the manifesto, you’ll also receive regular updates from me, Greg Fowler.

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