What I Learned In Boston

In 2002, after completing my first Marathon, in New York, I penned a piece entitled “How Much Will It Hurt? Ten tips for the Marathon Virgin.” I then failed to follow my advice for my next four marathons, all of which entailed hitting “the wall.” Switching to the Escarpment Run after moving upstate, I came back to the Marathon distance in ’09 and finally ran a beauty, qualifying for Boston in the process. Now I’ve run Boston perfectly as well, and feel like I finally have this Marathon thing down. It isn’t easy, believe me. And I still make mistakes. So this advice, written on a post-race high and therefore a little light on the modesty, is intended to be taken on board next time I run a big city Marathon. Hopefully it’s helpful to others as well as to myself.

1) Eat well, sleep well. “Tapering” before a big run is tougher than it sounds. You have to ease off the mileage while staying primed for the big day. And because you’re not exercising as much, yet you’re trying to stock up on protein, carbs, sodium and potassium and the like, it’s easy to overeat at the last moment. I brought my own vegan food to Boston and got worse indigestion than had I gone out and downed a few slices of greasy pizza. Next time I need to listen to my body, which was saying to me, that Sunday afternoon: “Hey, I’m full right now… Don’t worry about the food you brought with you. Get up early and have a big breakfast if you like. Just don’t go to bed on a full stomach.” After all, it’s bad enough trying to get a decent night’s sleep as is. Even when you’re at home, nerves and an early alarm call can cut into your rest, but when you’re in a strange hotel… I was at the Park Plaza, with a tour group discount (and a private coach to the start line – at the lazy hour of 7:30am). I had a 90-minute wait for my room and it turned out to have nothing much more in it than a bed and a TV. Worse than what it didn’t have was what it did: a noise that started up and wound down again approximately every two minutes, relentlessly. It wasn’t the heating: I turned that on and off again a couple of times during the night. It didn’t seem to be the plumbing. It could have been an ice machine or the like, down the corridor, but either way, compounded with the indigestion, it prevented me from getting to sleep before the early hours. I doubt I got more than three hours total. So it was vital to…

2) Stay positive. Lying awake, I consoled myself with how Paula Radcliffe was up all night with stomach poisoning from reheated spaghetti bolognaise in New York in 2004 and still won the marathon the following morning. I recalled how, the year before that, I slept so well I slept right through my alarm for NYC, went out and ran the worst Marathon ever. I allowed how ultra-runners have to start their 100-milers at 4 in the morning and keep going for the next 24 hours. This was my big day, and I’d had multiple early nights and sensible food over the previous two weeks. I had to just shrug off the last twelve hours and focus on all the good stuff. That included my decision to…

Yes, I run in these, the Vibram Five Fingers KSO. Not, note, the KSO Trek, which is made of kangaroo leather.

3) Tread lightly. For the first time, I ran a Marathon without a Fuel Belt, figuring I’d rely on the aid stations for water and the occasional Gatorade. For the first time also, I ran a Marathon in my Vibram Five Fingers. I appeared to be the only person in Boston who did so. And how were they? Well, I felt the road under my feet, I felt it big time. I was especially wary of potholes and other cracks in the road. But that’s partly the point of the “shoes”: to interact naturally with the surface rather than to be falsely cushioned from it. And yes, my feet were sore at the end of the run, but they’d have been sore regardless. And I had no blisters, no callouses, no injuries of any kind. Wearing the Vibrams on hills leaves me with post-race calf ache, but wearing Asics on hills leaves me with post-race quad aches, so it’s a wash. And I could walk just as easily after this race as any other. So while the Vibrams might not be for everyone, they’ve certainly worked for me. I love ‘em. Light of feet, I now needed to remember to…

4) Pace yourself. If I’d heard it once I’d heard it a thousand times. The first half of Boston is downhill. (See interactive map here.) It’s easy to let gravity carry you away, to run like the wind, only to find that you’re out of energy when you hit the Newton hills between Miles 16 and 21 – as turned out to be the case with any number of disappointed runners I met after the race. So when my first miles kept coming in under my intended 8:00 pace, and though part of me was happy to bank them against the second half of the course, I knew I had to scale back. I let people pass me. I settled into the pack, tried to find a couple of older people to jog alongside and chat with and get a few miles under my belt before opening up the legs. I remembered the advice Caballo Blanco gave author Christopher McDougal in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, as recounted in Born To Run: “Easy, Light, Smooth and Fast.” Focus on the first three, and you won’t have to worry about the last one. Which gives you more time to…

A 5-year old gets his wish granted. Boston Globe pic… forgive me, I didn’t bring my camera on the run.

5) …Enjoy the occasion. You qualified for this, you trained for it, you’ve been dreaming of it for months, so you’d better damn well smile through it, or else! But seriously, there are hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets, and they’re everywhere: unlike New York, very few stretches of the Boston marathon are devoid of spectators. They’re cheering, they’re high-fiving, they’re holding up encouraging signs, they’re playing music, they’re distributing oranges and water and bananas and Twizzlers, they’ve got more cowbells than the entire New York City post-punk scene and the Winter Olympics spectators combined, many of them are blind drunk already (and proud of it)… and you owe it to them to accept their support. Soak up their encouragement. Interact with them. For my part, whenever I felt myself flagging, getting bored, or harboring internal doubts, I moved to the sidelines, and high-fived a bunch of little kids with their longingly outstretched hands, thinking of my own 5-year old Noel, imagining him with the same look of hopeful expectation and glee on his face. It was fun, though not as much as the opportunity to…

6) …Kiss ‘em quick. In truth, the Wellesley College gauntlet had been exaggerated: the girls are held back by barricades, they’re only on the one side of the road, and they don’t ply you with beer. Here’s what they do do: they scream like it’s 1964 and you’re in the Beatles, and they do, down to just about the last lone woman, hold up signs inviting you to kiss them. “Kiss Me: I’m Asian.” “Kiss Me: I’m Irish.” “Kiss Me: I’m Muslim.” “Kiss Me: I’m Gay.” “I majored in Kissing.” And my favorite: “I Won’t Tell Your Wife.” I granted the following three their wishes: “Kiss Me, I’m from New Jersey.” (“Hey, so’s my wife!”) “Kiss Me, I’m English.” (“Hey, so am I!) And “Kiss Me, I’m Lonely!” (“Hey! Who’s lonely? Have a kiss!”) It may have taken me 20 seconds longer to get through Wellesley, but you can guarantee it put a spur back in my step. Coming at the halfway mark, right where it dawns on you that you’ve got to do this all over again, and with feeling, Wellesley College could not be better placed if you designed a marathon course by computer. The girls made it all the easier to…

What’s not to love? Some of the girls at Wellesley College, mile 13. Photo from the Boston Globe web site; hope you don’t mind me cribbing it. More Wellesley pics here. There’s a great YouTube video taken by one of the runners going through the Wellesley scream tunnel: it’s almost a full two-minute journey. View it here.

7) Dig deep. There comes a point in every long run where you have to burrow down inside yourself and pull out something from the reserves. In truth, we’re all capable of it. It’s just that our bodies try and tell us otherwise. After all, us homo sapiens no longer fear being hunted by lions and the like for their dinner, or having to chase down deer and their ilk for our own. So our bodies, enjoying the moment after thousands of years of struggle, tell us to take it easy, not because we should, but because we can. Yet when we force our minds over the matter, it’s amazing what we can do. Ultra-runners and triathletes can vouch for that; me, I’m just pissing about. But still, I had my little moment. It came around mile 18. The first of the Newton Hills had been long and gradual, the kind of hill I hate. It slowed me down, and looking at my watch I realized I’d allowed myself to fall way back off my intended 3hr:30 finish time, which would re-qualify me for Boston. I was flagging, and the self-preservation part of my body was telling me that it didn’t really matter, that as long as I finished the race, I should be proud of myself. But then the primordial instincts – the ones that said I was barely testing myself – took over. I kicked in and picked up the pace on the back side of the hill, regardless of whether or not I would have enough left in me for the rest of the race. It felt good. As we bottomed out and then launched straight in on the second of the four Newton hills, I realized I was enjoying myself. I’d raised the ante, upped my heart rate, got the adrenalin going. I had started racing. This, I realized, was what I’d been waiting for all along. These hills were my domain. I quickly got through the third of them without a problem, staying on pace, and found myself actually shouting out loud: “Heartbreak Hill, here I come.”

Despite the video title, this can’t be Heartbreak Hill if it’s mile 18: it would be the first or second of the hills. But it’s a really nice composite video that captures much of the day’s energy.

8) Hills are but nature’s speed bumps. And believe me, they’re preferable to the ones Lambeth Council has installed all over South London. In truth, Heartbreak Hill is not as bad as it’s made out to be. It ascends only eighty feet over the course of half a mile. (By comparison, the hill I live on in Mount Tremper ascends some 200 feet over a lesser distance, and I run it regularly.) Of course, it does come awfully late in the race – at mile 21, when many of us have run out of physical reserves and hit the wall – but that’s why I’d run 23 miles of hill on a single Saturday morning in March. (A separate bullet point, about training, would emphasize the advantage of getting used to hills.) It meant I was ready for this short sharp spike. I fair galloped up the hill, eased on by the crowd, who were amazing in their enthusiasm. At the top, the noise got even louder. Turned out we’d hit Boston College, and the frat boys (and girls) were offering us beer along with aggressive calls of encouragement. “You’re almost there,” they kept shouting, which was, largely BS: we still had over five miles to go. But the next mile was all downhill and I fair flew down it – my insides welling up as I realized I was into some sort of home straight, that I had plenty left in me, and that I was going to meet my goal. Time, once more, to …

9) Enjoy the occasion. It bears repeating. You have to savor every moment. Coming off the back of Heartbreak Hill, into the Brookline neighborhood, it was time to start slapping high fives again. Yet as we reached mile 24, and though the crowd remained several people deep, they seemed quiet, as if they, like many of the runners (or, at this point, the walkers) were out of steam after two-three hours of cheering. It was left to those of us with energy to spare to gee the crowd up, lifting our arms and imploring them to make some noise. Sure enough, it worked; they started shouting and screaming again. The last four miles fair flew by. Next I knew, we took a short downhill under a flyover, a short (steep) uphill back out of it, a right turn and then a left turn, and we were on Boylston Street. The finish line looked further away than I wanted it to be, and I knew I wasn’t going to break my 3:28 PR. But I’d run miles 23 through 26 in barely half an hour, my fastest pace of the day. (To keep it in perspective, the top men run more than six miles in that same time period.) I hit the finish line in 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 22 seconds. I wouldn’t realize until the next morning that, en route, I’d passed approximately 4,000 of the 11,000 runners who had set off in front of me. I did know that I was exhausted, and a little queasy, but that it was still important to…

10) Thank the volunteers. There were 5,000 of them out there in Boston: one for every four and a half runners. It felt like it, too. From the incredibly efficient athlete’s village set up at a high school, through multitude of people on each of the baggage buses, to the heavily staffed drink stations (one a mile, on either side of the road, but set 2-300 yards apart, so that there was none of the dreaded “funnel” effect that slows you down in New York), to the fantastically upbeat and loving people at the finish line – and of course, all those others on the course offering first aid, Vaseline, comfort, whatever – they were friendly, they were courteous, and they were efficient. “Thank you for volunteering.” “No, thank you for running.” “No, really, thank you.” “No, thank you.” Ah, it’s such a love fest.

11) Thank mother nature. I got busted by the weather four marathons in a row, so I’m under no illusions what it can do to you. A hot day (as per the day after Boston) and I wouldn’t have met my goal. A wet day (as per the day before) would have been no fun. But this year’s Boston was perfect. Starting temperatures in the 40s with a mild wind, a finishing temperature in the mid 50s. Very low humidity, so low I barely broke a sweat. Nice mix of sun and clouds. You take your breaks where you get ‘em. It’s probably no coincidence that the course record was broken this year under such ideal conditions. Nature’s assistance made it that much easier to …

12) Recover. Again, practice makes perfect. I’ve abandoned Gatorade from my home routine for V8; you can feel the goodness pour back into you. Food is hard to get down the gut for a while after a long ‘un, but a Clif Bar makes it through and, similarly, replenishes the body with vital ingredients. On a personal level, now came the hard part; changing hotels. (I’d initially booked just one night in a Boston hotel, figuring I’d drive home that same afternoon; only a few days before the race did I realize the insanity of this and book a second night– but at a cheaper location.) That meant walking back to the Plaza, retrieving my other three bags, and traipsing them all a couple of city blocks to my new hotel… which had steps up to its front door. Other than that, the Milner was perfect. It boasts “European-style hospitality,” which means a small reception area, a lift the size of a shower, and a shower the size of its lift. Continental breakfast. No room service. But all of that’s cool. Because the room itself was vast. It had a fridge. A sofa. A coffee machine. All the things I’d expected at the Park Plaza. I took a few minutes to take it all in, called the wife, managed to drag myself into the shower, came out feeling that much more human and knew that it was now time to…

13) Relax. I hadn’t had a drink for over a week. Had only, in fact, had one drinking day in two weeks. The previous afternoon, I’d picked up a six-pack of the local beer, Mayflower Pale Ale. I flicked on the TV, found ESPN2, and the Liverpool-West Ham game live on TV. It was time to let some other people run around in the name of sport. I stretched out on the sofa, put a pillow behind my head, some luke-cold ice packs under my calves, and cracked open the beer. Outside of Maine and Massachussetts, this was not Patriot’s Day, a public Holiday. It was a regular Monday afternoon, and everyone was at work. But inside Room 507, it was like Christmas and birthday combined. Alright, so I was struggling to chew on a bagel, my gut rebelling at the thought of more food, but that same gut had no problems with the carbs from the beer. It was heaven. An hour or two lying there watching the football, then a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a quick jaunt to bring the car round to the new hotel and it was time to…

That’s the spirit. Thanks to Boston Globe for great pics. More here.

14) Celebrate. I’d trained, I’d abstained. I’d run myself ragged. Now it was time to cut loose. I did a quick search on my new iPod touch, and found to my delight that there was a brewpub right round the corner from the hotel. Ok, the Rock Bottom Brewery is a chain, and it looked like one, but it did have a brewery on the premises and the staff could not have been much nicer if they’d held out “Kiss me” signs! I found a seat at the bar, ordered a pint of the Rock Bottom Brewery’s Improper Copper IPA and, within moments, was joined by another loner – not a marathoner but, as I found out an hour or two later, a Continental Airlines pilot. (They hire ‘em young at Continental.) We kicked back with a couple of beers as I waited for my other Onteora Runners to call in and he waited for another pilot buddy to show up, and in the process switched to the cask ale rendition of the Improper Copper. It was like night and day. A fairly gaseous, relatively nondescript pint gave way to the kind of beer I’d been drinking back in Britain: round, smooth, hoppy and healthy, a magnificent session beer that fair slipped down the throat and, believe me, felt like it was doing the body good as it did so. I didn’t mind that my phone didn’t ring; every marathoner needs to recover as they perceive best.

Eventually, our pilots went their separate ways, I cashed out (only to find that I’d been comped most of my drinks, thanks to the lovely bar staff at the Rock Bottom Brewery), and, it being only 8:30 at night, and leaving aside the fact I’d barely slept the previous, cabbed it over to the official post-race party at the Hynes Convention Center. Some people were up on their feet dancing to a band in the ballroom; the majority were very much in a sedentary position, watching the TV replay of the marathon in an adjacent room. (Getting back to my pre-race point about competing in the same event as the world’s best, it was astounding watching the Russian outsider, TatyanaI Pushkareva, reduce Teyba Erkesso‘s two-minute lead to just three seconds at the finish, just as it was to watch the “new” Robert Cheruiyot blaze away at such a pace that even fourth-place Ryan Hall set a new American record in Boston. Cheruiyot ran at a 4:48 pace per mile. I can’t get below 5:40 for just one mile.) I sat on the floor, turned to what looked like an incredibly healthy young marathoner next to me and asked how his race had been. He’d had a DNF. Did not finish. Got an injury. Once again, I felt incredibly fortunate. So many people I met between Monday afternoon and Tuesday lunchtime, when I finally left town, claimed disappointing marathons, slow times, injuries and the like. Boston has a habit of nailing even the best. Perhaps I got lucky. Perhaps the training paid off. Maybe it takes this many years of running marathons to get them down to a science. Any which way, I’m grateful. Thank you, Boston, for making my day.

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9 Comment(s)

  1. Carlo

    23 April, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Tony ,first time poster long time reader of you(Moon is next to my bed since it came out) and your blog .I’m glad you got a little taste of Boston .As a former traveler (can’t leave Florida anymore) I can attest what a wonderful city it is ! But you must hit the Museums(Isabella Steawart Gardner ,MFA ) and see the Sergent murals in the Public Library next time . And Italian food in the North End after some local beers ! Congrats and Cheers Tony !!!

  2. doug sawyer

    29 April, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Great write up! You’re the 2nd I know of that did Boston in Vibrams. @luau on twitter ran in them as well, finished 3:32. I’ll be doing my first in them this weekend.
    Thanks for bringing back the Boston memories, I need to get back there again.

  3. 30 April, 2010 at 10:41 am


    Thanks for the note: I know of this person as well:
    Are you running a Marathon in the VFFs?

  4. 30 April, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Hi Carlo

    Thanks for the comment… I lived in Boston, somewhat out of a suitcase, when I was first in the States in the late 80s and have only fond memories. I did not have the time to make a holiday out of this so my Tuesday morning was spent walking Boston Commons/Beacon Hill and taking the T out to Harvard Square, which I used to know well enough. Boston has a lot going for it – not least the enthusiasm of its sports fans, obviously including the Marathon here!


  5. doug sawyer

    3 May, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    I just did the Providence marathon in VFF Sprints yesterday. Absolutely loved it and feet felt great. Can’t wait for the next one.

  6. 4 May, 2010 at 7:27 am


    Congratulations! I hope your time was what you felt appropriate in the VFFs…. Curious to know if you wear socks with them?


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