Boston, baby.

Race Report: 113th Boston Marathon; Monday, April 20th, 2009

Coming off a fall marathon (my qualifying at Hamptons in September) and training through a move abroad and the adjustment to life here in Israel left me burned out and almost apathetic towards a time goal for Boston. On top of that, training on a new terrain – one with hills and trails, making it the antithesis of my comfortable Manhattan runs – and having a new schedule made me completely doubtful of my fitness level. I could only hope the hills were making me stronger and, even though I had never laid eyes on Heartbreak Hill before, I couldn’t imagine that it could be any steeper or harder than the hills I encountered on my daily runs. At least this is what I told myself to keep on pushing during training. I loosely followed Pfitz 12/70. My long runs always felt great, and I got in 6 runs of 17+ miles between the end of January and the April race, peaking at 22 miles. My weekly mileage peaked at 70 mpw – a record high for me that was only bittersweet due to the fact that I was ready to be d-o-n-e training so it was mentally taxing (see “things I’ve learned” below).

Now for the fun pre-race: I made the trip from Israel via a work trip to Basel, Switzerland the week preceding Boston. I flew in to New York City to visit friends (and because it was cheaper) and my mom found a last-minute fare to join me, flying in from Tucson. We boarded a Greyhound bus on Saturday morning. Four hours and several hazardous trips to the bathroom later, we pulled into South Station. Since we arrived around noon and the hotel didn’t allow check-ins until 4, we preceded directly to the expo at the Hynes Convention Center. Thankfully we packed light, because our bags seemed HUGE at the end of the day after lugging them all over Boston. The expo was enormous, and after doing my duty of picking up my number and buying a Celebration jacket, my mom and I quickly got a bit overwhelmed by the expo. That is perhaps sacrilegious for a runner to say, but don’t worry, I got my fill of free samples and watched the video of the course. I also ran into several of the ladies from the Runner’s World online Boston forum – Kari, Lisa, Annie, and Shannon. My mom knows all about my internet friends, and found it hilarious that Kari and I could recognize each other from across the crowd based on tiny little avatar pictures (what Mom doesn’t know is our ability to continue the stalking via Facebook, etc.!)

Our hotel was out in Quincy, and while it was far they were very accommodating with shuttles to the subway and to the bus loading area for the start of the race. We had dinner at a hotel restaurant before heading back into Boston to meet up with the RWOL crew at Boston Beerworks. Blueberry ale was the theme of the night, as was finally meeting the people I felt I already knew through our daily interactions on the online forums. Runners are congenial, outgoing people anyway – let alone when you’ve already “met” online.

Sunday was a day to sleep in, get a couple of TM miles and stretching in to loosen up the ol’ legs, and to take an Old Time Trolley Tour of the city. I was, unfortunately, perhaps not the best company for my mom to see Boston for the first time as I didn’t want to walk around too much, but this was a perfect way to see the city without wearing my legs down. Plus, we could get off right at the finish line for the obligatory “here’s where I’ll be tomorrow” photos. We then met Elizabeth and Kristin, two dear friends from high school now living in the Boston area, for dinner in the North End of Boston. The area was crawling with blue jackets and yellow shirts and a general festival atmosphere as all the runners descended on this Italian neighborhood for their final carbo loading meal pre-race. We had a great meal and conversation over dinner and standing in line for Modern cannolis. Then, it was back to the hotel for an early bedtime and a plan for my mom to meet up with the girls to watch me during the race. I fell asleep quite easily after a hot shower and my cannoli.

Goals: 1 – sub-3:30; 2 – PR (sub-3:36); 3 – re-BQ (3:40); above all: have fun and enjoy my first Boston experience.

Race day
Alarm: 4:30 am. I had about every combination of outfit laid out and stuffed into my yellow race bag, as I was still completely undecided about what to wear based on the unpredictable Boston weather patterns. I boarded the hotel shuttle at 5:15 and ate a peanut butter sandwich en route. We were dropped off a few blocks from the race buses, and I chatted with someone from my hotel who had come from Japan for the race – someone who traveled farther! He had only arrived on Friday and was leaving already on Tuesday and was hoping his preference of nighttime running would help him as he wasn’t completely adjusted to the time difference. We were the first round of buses to start the journey to Hopkinton. I sat next to a retired police chief on the way to the start, hoping to redeem his past injury-ridden Boston appearances with this race. From the list of injuries he rattled off in his past few years of marathon running, I was inclined to advice him that maybe someone was telling him to take it easy, but that would be bad form wouldn’t it.

I knew I would have a long morning at the race village, and that I probably could have taken a later hotel shuttle and still make it in time, but I wanted to keep the nerves at bay for as long as possible, and being late wouldn’t help. In retrospect, I am glad I arrived early because there were no lines for the bagels, coffee, or portajohns. Yet. I found a place in the tent to lay down on plastic bags for a few minutes to collect my thoughts, take analysis of how I felt and my goals for the day while sipping on Gatorade. Later, I made my way to the “It all starts here” sign to socialize with the RWOL crew. I soaked in the jovial mood of my fellow runners and welcomed the distraction from overanalyzing my race before it even started. After chatting, waiting with Lisa in the longest portajohn line EVER, and doing my final wardrobe adjustments, number pinning, and BodyGlide applying, the time went by fairly quickly. Before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the starting line for the start of the second wave. I was in the first corral so wanted to make sure I was up as far as possible to take advantage of not having a ton of people in front of me. In the corral, I ran into Jen from the RWOL group who I knew was also hoping for a 3:30. We also both had very similar qualifying times and a lot of the same thoughts about the feasibility of our goals.

The race!
Miles 1-3 (8:08, 7:58, 7:51): Starting off easy
I had the famous Greg pacing wristband pinned to my bib that I promptly didn’t use. I wanted to aim for 8 minute miles no matter what. With all my training on hills, if I had confidence in one thing it was that I knew how to recover after uphills and use the downhills to my advantage. I didn’t want to pull in the reins too much on downhills in order to hit a certain pace. That said, I wanted to make sure my first mile was over 8 minutes, so I was happy with these splits. At this point, my legs felt fine and I was just concerned about getting into a good groove with my pace. Definitely was thankful for being in the first corral because there was almost no maneuvering to get around slower people. The crowds here were great – I loved having the support at the beginning. 5K split: 24:45

Miles 4-9 (8:00, 8:09. 8:03, 8:05, 8:18, 8:28): What’s wrong with my legs? And my shoelaces?
During these miles, I found myself really struggling to feel good. I kept concentrating on hitting my pace, but I never felt like I was smooth. To top it off, my right foot kept falling asleep. Did this happen – ever – in any of my long runs? Of course not. I had to stop twice to retie my shoe (as evident by my splits from miles 8 and 9). The first time I stopped, some kid shouted, “Hey, you’re supposed to be running! What are you doing?” I wanted to smack him, I was already pissed enough I had to stop for the freaking shoe. I don’t know, my legs just didn’t feel “on.” Maybe it was the constant downhill? Or my feet? Who knows. 10K split: 49:52; 15K split: 1:15:28

Miles 10-13 (7:57, 8:05, 7:45, 7:54): Holy shit I’m running Boston.
For as bad as my legs felt, I was having a blast. The crowds were more interspersed than others I’ve run, especially NYC, but where there were people, they were loud. I kept smiling as I saw the different town signs: Ashland, Framingham, Nantick, Wellesley. Running slower didn’t help me feel any better, so I just kept trying to aim for 8 minute miles. I was also using the km markers for the first time ever – I knew 8 minute miles = 5 minute kilometers, so if I would look down at my watch and see my elapsed time around a multiple of 5, I wasn’t doing too badly. It was sometime during these miles that I had my “holy shit I’m running freaking Boston” moment. Maybe it was the famous screams of the Wellesley girls, maybe it was seeing the crowds thicken as we got within commuter rail-distance from Boston, maybe it was the gel I consumed at mile 7, maybe it was an internal light bulb. Whatever the reason, I remember a very distinct chill coursing through me and almost being on the verge of tears with the emotion of running this race. It was also by the half point my legs started perking up. I think the crowds offered a huge distraction, as I made a point to high five people, so I stopped thinking about how gross my legs felt and just… ran. I also encountered Jen again in these miles, who also mentioned not feeling completely up to par. She said she was actually looking forward to the hills, and I found myself thinking the same – at least I’d use different muscles in a few miles. 20K split: 1:40:10; Half split: 1:45:33

Miles 14-17 (8:02, 8:02, 7:45, 8:12): No-man’s land
I popped a gel at Mile 14 and I started looking for my fan club around mile 15. It was a welcome distraction to scan the crowds and keep my mind off the impending hills. As we made our way over the overpass, I remember having read a tip about not being surprised by this incline, and I was thankful – both because I could anticipate the incline and because it wasn’t really so bad. As I was stuffing gels I had picked up at the pit stop ~mile 16.5 into my bra, I saw my mom and my friends on the side. I ran over their way, threw them some air kisses, and proceeded on with an extra spring to my step. However, I think I gave a few firemen a death glare as I passed the Newton firehouse, remembering that another tip I’d read mentioned: “the hills start here.” I think it was also somewhere in here I heard “Erin? From Israel” from another runner, and found Ari – an Israeli now living in the States from the RWOL forum. We waved, said good luck, and continued on our separate paces. Jen and I also found each other again, gave each other a few words of encouragement for the hills, and pressed on. 25K split: 2:05:00

Miles 18-21 (8:04, 8:00, 8:02, 8:07): What hills?
In any marathon, this is the do-or-die point. If you’re feeling good, you start picking people off. If you’re feeling crappy, you try to ignore the fact you’re being passed and still have >6 miles to go. The challenge of Boston: the hills are during this already difficult stage of the marathon. For all the doubting I had done regarding my training, they were erased as soon as I hit the first hill. It was nothing compared to those on my normal training routes, and there was time in between the hills to recover – something I knew I could do fairly easily. Jen was right with me, her Colorado training paying off on the hills as well. Each split was a surprise, giving extra fuel to get over the next hill. Before I knew it, I found myself cruising up Heartbreak Hill. Don’t get me wrong, it sucked and was hard, but I knew what I had to do: make it to the top. I focused on a spot ~20 feet in front of me, concentrated on moving my arms, and let the sounds of the crowds wash over me. My mantra of “fuck you, hill” didn’t hurt, either. Upon cresting the hill, I yelled something unintelligible at the woman with the CBS camera, and wanted to hug someone. But there was still 10K to run. The hugs would come later. 30K split: 2:29:55; 35K: 2:54:33

Miles 22-26.2 (7:39, 7:49, 7:37, 7:50, 9:16(1.2): Right on Hereford, left on Boylston
All I can say about these miles is: adrenaline, baby. I had lost Jen somewhere on Heartbreak Hill and pretended she was chasing me. I let the crowds yelling my name pull me on. I cursed the gusts of wind as they hit me sideways. I felt my quads burning but not failing me and powered through the miles. Boston College: check. Beacon Street: check. Citgo sign: check. Cursing the minor undulations of the course wreaking havoc on my muscles: check (who put that stupid down-up under that bridge in the final miles??). The crowds here were absolutely spectacular. I felt like I was flying and I don’t think I stopped smiling as I cruised through the streets of Boston. The turn onto Hereford surprised me. The turn onto Boylston was breathtaking (or maybe that was the previous 25.9 miles?). I heard a woman near me exclaim “holy shit” and I couldn’t say it any better myself. There is a slight decline towards the finish, a straight shot, and you can see the finish line with the people lined up on the sidewalks like an arrow leading you home. My blood-deprived brain was still able to do enough runner math to figure out that a 3:30 was well within my reach. Now I wanted that clock to say 3:29:xx in my finish photos. One final kick and I was home. 40K split: 3:18:38; 3:29:05 official time. 6990/22,849 overall place; 1110/9,303 gender place; 895/5,023 division place

Post race

About 10 seconds after I had finished, Jen came up to me saying “we did it!!!” They were both the 3:29s that almost weren’t. I shuffled along, feeling about the worst post-race as I ever have – cold, crampy, hungry, thirsty. I almost couldn’t get my leg up to have my chip removed, but the woman’s cheery voice helped me on. It seemed forever until the mylar blankets appeared. But they finally did, along with Gatorade, food and water. The shuffling was fairly well organized, in that my speed through the stations was only limited my by own leg speed and not being stuck behind another shuffler. I found the bus where my gear was, and here the wait seemed eternal because I was so. Cold. The bra and arm warmers were borderline enough while running but now were far from adequate even with the blanket. Finally I was able to pull on my fleece and pants – which took support from the side of a truck to maneuver. I shuffled to the family waiting area and the letter B, which was unfortunately right at the exit and full of people, both Bs and non-Bs. I borrowed the phone of a kind stranger to call my mom, who of course didn’t answer. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, to my relief I saw Kristin (the tallest of my fan club). We gathered everyone for hugs and photos and made our way across Boston Common to give my legs a little more movement and to get to the T stop. Thanks, Liz and Kristin for being there!

Exhausted, hungry, and cold, the T ride was a torture. As were the stairs, although taking them backwards didn’t garner that many strange looks as many others were doing the same. But I talked to my dad on the phone (who was tracking online and serving as a guide for my mom and friends as they wanted to know where on the course I would be at what time). In the hotel room, I entertained my mom by taking an ice bath – I think she thought this was nuttier than the actual marathon thing. Post-marathon showers always rank up there on the best shower in my life list, and this was no exception. By this time, my stomach was controlling all my decisions, so forgoing a nap, we made our way to the hotel restaurant to fill my craving of a burger and a beer. Satiated, we schlepped back to Boston for the post-race FE with the RWOL peeps. It was amazing to hang out with everyone post-race: to celebrate the PRs and rehash the great moments; to mourn the what-ifs and races not up to expectations. Regardless of how people ran, they were happy to be among friends and cohorts.

The next morning, it was back on a bus to NYC. Seriously, one of the best experiences of my life, all around. I’m so glad I made the trip and could share this experience with the RWOL crew.

Things I learned
1. Running a fall and spring marathon combo and training as hard as I did for each was too much. I know I can run 70 mpw in a training plan now, so that’s a plus, but it might have been too much of a jump from my previous training. Not in an injury-prone way, but in a mentally tiring way. I found myself, in the last couple weeks pre-taper, saying “I have to run x miles on this day at x pace” and that is not the way I like to run. I need a break – this summer = just running.
2. For as much of a lone wolf as I am, running-wise, sharing this experience with a group of people was truly special. It made the whole experience completely different. Not only was I running for them, so to speak, but also the weekend was about so much more than just my race – it was about their races and meeting them.
3. I am successful when I take the first miles of a marathon nice and easy. Not banking time, but keeping within my pace and not getting too excited. I’m great running on adrenaline and guts at the end, and as long as I don’t overdo it at the beginning, I’ll always have that quality working for me at the end.
4. Training on hills works, even if the paces of my runs are depressing.
5. I have an amazing boyfriend for putting up with this marathon mania. I’ve run marathons since we’ve been dating, but we hadn’t lived together, and I don’t think he realized how crazy it makes my schedule. And yet, he never complained and I felt nothing but support and pride from him. I’m lucky.
6. I’m also lucky to have a supportive family. So many runners’ parents “don’t get it,” and mine do. It’s pretty awesome.Race Report: 113th Boston Marathon; Monday, April 20th, 2009

2 thoughts on “Boston, baby.”

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