Boston 2012: The Race for Survival
“Any well-prepared Boston runner expecting New England weather (in other words, not necessarily predictable conditions) has accepted the possibility that their run in Boston might be warmer than they would prefer.”
The above paragraph, somewhat buried on page 122 of the massive (advertiser subsidized) official program of the 2012 Boston Marathon, will go down in history as one of the 116-year old race’s great understatements. The possibility? That the run might be warmer? Than we would prefer? As the April 16 date for this year’s Boston Marathon got closer, we runners went from mild concern to genuine panic. A warm front that initially teased an over-seasonal 60-something temperature turned into a reliable threat of mid-70s, and then, just a few days before the Marathon, at the point that predictions come closer to certainties, of race day temperatures peaking in the high 80 Farenheits, or 30 Centigrade. The reality of running a Spring marathon in the kind of mid-summer conditions that not even the Kenyans would readily volunteer for, became all the more bizarre as we saw that this heat-wave was due to last all of one day. Running on the Sunday or Tuesday, either side of the Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts and Maine, might have been “warmer” than we would prefer. Running on the Monday was going to be like a furnace.
How serious were these conditions? Well, three days before the Marathon, the Boston Athletic Association started sending out heat advisories and tactical advisories on how to handle the weather. Then, two days before the race, I got an e-mail from the organizers suggesting that most of us not run. Not run? Hang on there people. I have to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It’s not easy. Having qualified, I then have to shell out for it. That’s not cheap. Having shelled out for it, I then have to train. That’s every Saturday morning (often into Saturday afternoon) of my entire winter, powder days be damned. And you’re suggesting I don’t run? Do you think I’m crazy?
Well, yes, I probably am, given that I ignored the recommendation, as did 84% of other runners. Actually, I did consider taking the Boston Marathon up on its offer to “defer” my entry. Long enough to read the fine print, which stated I still had to come to Boston and pick up my bib, that I wouldn’t get my money back, and that I would have to pay again next year. That sounded less like a true “deferment” than the Boston Athletic Association rightly practicing some self-indemnity against possible deaths on the highway. But it was a serious enough threat to deter approximately 4,000 of the 27,000 runners, most of whom would have been slower runners who knew that the longer they were out on the course, the harder it would be to survive, and the even longer it would take as a result. For those of us who hoped for comparatively fast times and to be out of the sun before it could kill us, we were still faced with an incredibly tough decision: what pace should we run? The Marathon rightly warned us not to aim for Personal Records, to adopt a slower pace than usual, to hydrate but not over hydrate, to walk significant parts of the race, and to watch out for warning signs of heat stroke; the one thing they could not tell us what speed we should adopt. That was, clearly, a personal decision.
Most of the runners I spoke to at the Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton, where it felt like a mid-summers beach day even at 9 in the morning, just said that they were going to “wing it” and hope for the best, not quite the last-minute tactics any of us really wanted to employ. For my part, I had trained exceptionally hard and very well for this race. I’d run a half marathon or more almost every week since New Year’s Day. Four weeks before the race, I’d clocked 25 miles. Three weeks before, I’d broken 1:30 for the first time in a half-marathon – on hills, in another country. Until the weather forecast had shattered my dreams, I’d anticipated a PR for sure, with a 3:15 time as a distinct possibility. The best tactic I could come up with at the start line was to figure on an 8-minute mile pace, which would put me at a 1:45 first half, and then see how it went from there. If I felt great and could push it up to a 1:40 second half and 3:15 overall, I would have an official qualifying time for next year’s Boston. If I didn’t feel good, I would take my foot off the proverbial gas and hope to get through it without incident.
When the gun went off for my second wave, at 10:20am, I felt good. Perhaps too good. Well trained and with a good night’s sleep behind me (I had stayed in a cheaper hotel closer to the start line, and enjoyed peace and quiet that I had lacked two years earlier in the city centre), and hopefully well enough stocked up with carbs and protein and sodium (though not, in retrospect, with water itself), I settled into the same pace as those around me, all of whom had qualified with the same marathon time, all of whom inadvertently seemed to set off at exactly that pace, and just about all of whom, I suspect, came to regret it. My first mile logged 7:52. My second, third and fourth came down to a 7:45 average. Admittedly, these were downhill miles, but I couldn’t help thinking they were too brisk. By the time I hit ten miles, I was almost two minutes ahead of my intended goal.
One of the Marathon’s funnier moments occurred in those early miles, when we ran down a shopping street with shade on one narrow patch on the southern side and the entire marathon course shifted to that side of the street and squeezed together to get out of the sun! Otherwise, it was an open course with a relatively late start and an accordingly high sun. By mid-day it was into the 80s. And it kept climbing.
I knew I had made a mistake with my initial pace when, around mile 11 or 12, I caught up with my friend Pat Lopiano, with whom I ran many a long training run over the winter. Pat is faster than me. He certainly has more marathon experience than me. (It’s not just that he’s older, it’s that he’s been running for ever.) He was also in a corral ahead of me, which meant that he had started almost a minute ahead of me, and yet here I was in the process of overtaking him. That didn’t seem right. I dropped my pace slightly to run alongside him, and he confessed that he had started far too fast himself, at a 7:40 pace, but had pulled back within three or four miles, and was now trying to slow down further. His legs, he said, were feeling the effects of the heat; he had noticed people walking already. He was, frankly, concerned.
So was I. But for different reasons. We were just about to hit the Scream Tunnel of Wellesley girls, and Pat may not had permission (or indeed, interest) in getting himself some love, but I most certainly did. At Boston two years earlier, the girls of Wellesley had provided the pick-me-up to score a negative split and near enough a sprint to the finish. Hopefully, this year they would have the same effect.
My heart was into it. My body though, was not. I paused to peck a few of those with the cheekiest signs – “Kiss me, I’m British,” “Kiss me, I won’t tell my boyfriend” (“and I won’t tell my wife,” I assured her), “Kiss me I’m graduating” – and I was jovial with all of them. But I wasn’t with it the way I would like to have been. I was hot now, seriously hot, and not in the sexy way we 47-year old men would like to presume we come across to co-eds. I’d taken as much water as I thought necessary, had loaded myself with seven Succeed (sodium) caps in one pocket and as many potassium pills in another, and was working my way through them quicker than I’d planned. I’d acquired some orange slices along the way from kind specatators. But none of it seemed to be having an effect. As I emerged from the Scream Tunnel, I expected to feel invigorated, as I had two years ago; instead, I felt shattered. My halfway split was 1:44 and change, a tad faster than the 1:45 I’d hoped for, but my pace had already slowed from that initial 7:45 to 8:30. It was evident that it was going to get slower still. The idea of a negative split – a faster second half – was out the window. I realized that it would be a matter of just getting through it in one piece, if I could.
This might be the time to praise the race organizers. Reading the news reports the night before, I believe the Medical or Race Director had said something very close to the line that “We are probably the best equipped race in the world to deal with conditions like this.” He was right. With 116 years of experience, the Boston Marathon knows what it’s up against. It had rented misting stations for us to run through; it hired 30 extra doctors; it brought medics up from the early miles as soon as they were done with; it had the Fire Department open up hydrants on the second half of the course; it had a Medical Tent just over the peak of Heartbreak Hill (of course you had to climb up the hill first!), and the Volunteers at the Aid Stations seemed to be working just as hard as we were. (Thanks so much, all of you!) The spectators too, are an experienced bunch and rose equally to the occasion; because Boston runs through residential areas, there was rarely, if ever, a mile without people offering water, ice, orange slices, wet paper towels, bananas, or a hosing down with a garden sprinkler.
And of course, there was rarely a moment where people weren’t cheering us on. In particular, they all seemed to be cheering ME on. When I had realized that I needed a tank-top for this occasion (I normally run in a tee), my only option was the same one I’d run my first marathon in, back in NY, ten years ago, back when it was such a big deal that we put my name across it. Almost from the first mile, people called out to me. As I got further and further through the course, and the crowd got noticeably more wild (and possibly more drunk, Boston being a drinking city if ever such a thing existed), they took to chanting it. Most of them were young, female and cute. When I was 19, I thought I was going to be a rock star, but this was about the closest I’ve ever got to having that kind of adulation, and however fleeting and light-hearted it may have been, it meant the world to me. It reminded me that while this race had turned into a survival course, it was still there to be enjoyed. Remember, don’t run if you can’t have fun!
Having recognized the effects of the dry heat and the inherent limitations of my body under such circumstances. I made a decision to stop at mile 15 and walk through the aid station – for a minute or so, much as one of my health advisory e-mails had suggested I do from the beginning of the race. And once I did, I knew I would be doing so several more times. But it didn’t seem to matter. I was determined at this point not to push it so hard that I couldn’t enjoy myself – especially as I saw people not just walking on the sidewalks, but collapsed on the sidewalks. I was determined to finish this on my own feet, and with a smile on my face.
The good news was that my hill training stood me in good stead. I attacked all three of the Newton hills with vim and vigor, and not just because I paused to take gels before two of them. Jogging up Heartbreak Hill, even as others overtook me, amidst that absolute wall of noise, a college student, just about the visual personification of a jock, yelled out “Tony, you’re awesome.” It made my day. Thanks, dude, for sharing the love. I almost stopped to take a beer.
The hardest aspect of the heat in Boston was that it was dry. Me, I’m used to humidity; you can often swim through the Catskills air. This weather, though, was astonishing. We didn’t sweat; our bodily fluids just evaporated instead. In the later miles, I would pour water over my head at an aid station, have a volunteer pour it down my back, soaking my shirt in the process, and within half a mile I would be dry as a bone. I’d take advantage of someone’s garden hose, douse myself completely and then need to do the same thing again just a few hundred yards later. I do have just some experience with these conditions, at Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, where afternoons in similar heat and dryness are typically spent in the shade and those who don’t realize their thirst until it’s too late often end up on an IV. This, it occurred to me somewhere during the race, was the equivalent of running a marathon in the Burning Man mid-day sun.
The last few miles, after coasting down the back of Heartbreak Hill trying my best to conserve energy were, to be frank about it, a bitch. I was running in Vibrams, and my feet were getting sore from the hot pavement underneath. (Though when I saw a barefoot runner doing much the same pace as me, around mile 23 and 24, I knew not to complain.) My muscles were drying up. Not cramping, thank God, as they seemed to for so many other people, but they just weren’t capable of more than a mile at a time without walking for a minute. Two years earlier, I had cruised these last few miles, a big fat grin on my face; now I was doing my best not to turn my fixed smile into a grimace.
“Come on Tony, you can do it,” roared spectators as I walked through yet another aid station, checking my watch to consciously take a full minute in the process. “I know I can,” I wanted to respond. “In fact I know exactly what I’m doing. Do you want to swap places and see if YOU can run your 24th mile.” Instead, I waved and gave them the thumbs up. I appreciated the encouragement, however ill informed.
At the Heartbreak Hill medical tent, I had seen someone on a stretcher, in a very bad way, being loaded onto an ambulance. I realize that that makes it sound like a war zone but it wasn’t, actually; I was just as aware of people overtaking me. When I looked around at other runners’ bib numbers, there appeared to no particular pattern to any of it; there were plenty of people from the first wave, the so-called elite of the elite, barely moving forwards; there were also those who would have set off long after me now passing me. Later, after finishing the race, I looked up a bunch of random bib numbers out of interest; the vast majority of those with fast qualifying times and low bib numbers that put them at the front of the first wave appeared to have an incredibly bad second half-marathon, having shot off at impossibly optimistic paces. Those who were held further back in the field by the sheer mass of bodies appeared to have benefited from that slower initial pace. But nobody, not anybody out of the 100 or so people I looked up for the fun of it, ran a negative split (i.e. a faster second half). The best training in the world could not prepare you for this.
And there are unknown hypotheticals at hand. For all that I was frustrated at slowing down, I didn’t know how much slower yet I might have gotten had I not been in (excuse the immodesty) such good shape and so well trained. Similarly, though my brain was now saying that had I set out slower than an 8-minute pace, I might have been able to end up at something closer to an 8-minute pace, I have no actual proof of such. If I’d set out slower, I might have finished slower. Ultimately, compared to the split times of other runners, who went from initial 20-minute 5ks to eventual 40-minute 5ks, my time was relatively even. Only the last of my 5ks was longer than 30 minutes. It certainly could have been worse.
I took one final walk as we went under the tunnel that leads up to Boylston Street. I figured nobody would see me doing so. “Come on Tony, you can do it,” roared a by-stander. I gave the thumbs up sign again. I shuffled back into pace. As we hit the one mile to go mark, I lapped my stopwatch one more time. It would be interesting to see what I was capable of.
I managed that last mile in just under ten minutes. And I did cross the finish line with a smile on my face, my fists in the air. My net time was 3:49:05, by a strange coincidence the exact same time, to the second, of my third New York marathon, in 2004. (Every one of my five marathons since then has been notably faster, which brings the weather of April 16 2012 back into sharp relief.) As I was handed a bottle of water and congratulations, I realized that I really could hardly walk. I looked up and my vision went white, the objects in front of me fading as if in a movie. This was heat stroke, for sure. I wobbled, thought about fainting, and then realized how incredibly over-dramatic that would seem and decided to save myself the embarrassment. I wobbled some more instead and then started walking, gingerly, past the line of runners-in-wheelchairs (NOT to be confused with wheelchair contestants) waiting to be pushed into the medical tent. I wasn’t sure that I was okay, but I wasn’t certain I needed help. I was handed various crap food items: Gatorade Recovery with milk in it; Power Bar Recovery with milk in it; a bun with bloody milk in it. Alright so maybe I’m in the minority as a vegan, but since when did a Gatorade drink or a bun need milk ingredients?
After collecting my (heavy) bag from the baggage bus, I joined a crowd of exhausted runners sprawled on the road and pavement just by the meeting area. I swapped my war story with the woman next to me, which may have been the wrong move; she was disappointed because she had finished a minute off her time at last year’s Boston, which meant she was a minute off her PR. She looked fantastic, rosy and happy. I didn’t ask her actual race time; I couldn’t deal with the thought that anyone could run at the same speed as last year’s record fast course. I took a picture of my feet and my face instead; at least I could see the funny side of it. It was slightly overcast here in the middle of Boston, and there was a hot breeze coming from somewhere; the conditions didn’t seem quite so excessive now that we had stopped running – but when I looked at the expressions on those around me, it was clear. Yes, it had been excessive.
Half an hour later, having had to suddenly stop on the sidewalk to get half a clif bar down me, I eventually found the bus back to the start line. As we waited for it to depart, and for the AC to kick in, the effect of the food’s sugar rush on my empty stomach knocked me sideways. I started sweating profusely. I thought I was going to throw up and had to disembark and sit on the sidewalk for a while. I’ve been through this feeling only once before – after my very first marathon (run, oddly enough in near freezing conditions). Again that might say something about the extremity of the conditions. But the feeling passed, and about 30 minutes into the bus ride, as the traffic jammed up due to an accident, I was able to use the bathroom for the right reasons, after which I felt much better and was finally able to think clearly again. It was gone 5pm by the time we got to our car park, over three hours since I’d finished the race, but at least now my equilibrium was back. I threw my stuff in the car, opened up a ginger ale, pulled out a bag of pretzels and set the controls for the heart of the Catskills.
Another three hours and I was home already, mainly because I didn’t have once have to make a pee stop. In fact, I didn’t pee between 10am, before the race, and 8:30pm, more than six hours after it. I reckon I put away about 5 liters of fluid during that time. Do the maths on what I must have lost from my body over those 26.2 miles. It also took me a full week to get my body back up to its regular weight, and believe me, I feasted during that time. I hesitate to realize how depleted of fuel my body must have been that Monday afternoon at the finish line.
It’s strange though: what was by far the hardest (though not the slowest) marathon I have ever under-taken also found me recovering most quickly. Perhaps it was walking through all those aid stations rather than the repetitive stress of consistent running. Maybe it was the sodium and potassium pills. Maybe the training. Maybe the realization upon getting home that I had finished higher up the field in numbers and percentage than two years ago despite running twenty minutes slower, and that the Kenyan winners had been a solid ten minutes off last year’s times themselves. Probably it was all of it. Whatever. A big fry-up was awaiting me in the oven (let’s not get too pedantic here) and I had a 25oz bottle of Ommegang’s Rare VOS lined up in the fridge. My first beer since leaving England six days earlier. You’d think I’d have been drunk on first sip. Somehow it doesn’t work that way. Later, I sweated my way through the night but woke up feeling fit and trim. I’ve stopped trying to figure this stuff out.
Perhaps oddly again, I felt as good emotionally about this marathon, despite the slow second half, as any I’ve run. After all, over 4,000 people decided to defer. 1200 who started the race sought medical attention. 900 did not finish, a very high number given the elite status of the Boston marathon. (Fortunately, only one person spent the night in hospital; thanks to the BAA’s organization and the runners’ training, nobody literally killed themselves.) Everyone seemed to have run a positive split (i.e. a slower second half), and it would appear that the vast majority ran the second half considerably slower than my 2hrs and 5 mins. My friend Pat Lopiano ran a very impressive 3:37 (all the more so for being 61 years old), but I would have expected him to finish 13 minutes ahead of me even if we had both run half an hour faster. The same with another friend I had trained with over the Catskills winter; her time, likewise, was about 30 minutes off what she had planned. So at least we were all aligned. I realized then that while the hard work through the winter hadn’t resulted in anything close to the personal record I had anticipated before the heatwave arrived, that it had certainly helped get me over the line in a respectable time. Best of all, when it came to the enjoyment factor, I had had a wonderful time. You can’t win them all. Sometimes, finishing is victory enough.