Boston Strong 2015
Marathon racing is a tough sport, we all know that. It takes an intense amount of training, usually over the cold of winter or the heat of summer, to prepare to run 26.2 miles at your fastest, that concept itself requiring a great degree of maturity and experience to ensure proper pacing throughout.
Then there is race day itself. Running a marathon is one thing (some people do it almost every weekend); racing a marathon at full tilt is something your body is only capable of once or twice a year at most. As such, the smallest factor can impact on the event itself. How bad are the aches and pains that are the almost inevitable result of months of intensive training? (Living as I choose to do in the ski mountains, I followed each of my 20+ miles Saturday runs this winter with a Sunday ski day – no surprise then that I put my back out five weeks before this year’s Boston Marathon race day, leading to expensive massage therapy, and a rigorous schedule of new stretches that still didn’t totally alleviate some lingering sciatica.) Have you stocked up enough sleep – given that almost no one gets the recommended dose the night before the race itself? (I have learned to stay close to the Boston Marathon’s start line to help with this, rather than at the downtown finish line where you have to be up and out before dawn.) Have you over- or under-eaten in the last few days? (As my tapering period eliminates all work-outs for the final 48 hours, it’s too easy to ingest the usual number of calories – i.e. too many all of a sudden – only to suffer indigestion.)
Does the start line offer you space to warm up – and if not, how do you choose to run your first few miles? (Knowing that you can’t jog at the Boston Athlete’s Village, I put in twenty minutes in the hotel car park at 7:30am this year so as to loosen up and then get my stretching completed on warm muscles.) How have you coped with the nervous tension that is also a natural factor of tapering? (A non-runner at our hotel noted of the breakfast room on race morning, “Everyone looks so tense.”) And if you have family and/or friends who can put up with all this aggravation and still choose to stand en route to cheer you along, what plans do you make with them: do you run past them to avoid losing even a second off your race time, or do you ask them to have food and/or drink ready for you so as to maximize the kiss-and-go – and what happens if you plan for the latter but they’re not where you expect them to be?
Significant as all of these factors are, they pale into comparison compared to the weather. There’s a reason that the vast majority of marathons take place in spring or autumn, when temperatures should be conveniently cool and pleasant, and it’s no coincidence that I ran my Personal Record (3:19:50) on a perfect sunny October morning when those temperatures stayed in the 50s Farenheit throughout and there was a complete lack of wind. But weather averages are just that, mere averages, and when you live in the North-East, long-range forecasts are, frankly, a waste of time. Only about four days out from race day itself do you have a sense of whether the elements are going to work with you, or conspire against you.
The last time I ran Boston, in 2012, the weather alert four days before race day came with an unprecedented request: that runners (who have to meet stringent qualification times just to be accepted into “the world’s most prestigious road race”) not compete. A rare mid-April heat spike was going to peak on race day itself, with temperatures pushing into the mid-80s; add in Boston’s late morning start, the lack of shade, and the various compounding factors of road and body temperature, and heat stroke/exhaustion and worse was a serious threat to all but the most weather-battled and experienced. Over 2,000 runners took the organizers up on to their offer of deferment to the following year (a mixed blessing, perhaps, given that 2013 witnessed the stupid, horrendous bomb attacks); on the big day, well over 2,000 required medical attention, and 1,000 did not finish – double the annual averages. I was among those who attended, tried my best under the circumstances, and inevitably wilted, walking much of the last few miles, satisfied just to complete. I figured I’d have another opportunity to re-qualify for Boston, and as for such searing heat, surely it wouldn’t happen again?
It didn’t. For 2015, my third Boston, the weather alert came with a different warning. Following a winter that brought record snow-fall to Boston, Monday April 20 was going to be unseasonably cold, wet – and windy. The temperature itself did not present a major threat; it was certainly to be favored over the heat. Light rain might even be welcomed to help keep us cool. And as for the wind, well, one of the reasons that Boston, for all its prestige and history and stringent qualification demands, is not included in the official list of record marathon times, is that the course follows the traditional path of the wind, from west to east. This year, however, the wind was going to be coming from the east, off the sea, blowing right at the runners, especially as we started climbing the hills in the second half of the race, at which point it was going to get stronger by the hour. Cold, wet and with a head wind. As the Buzzcocks once sang, Oh Shit.
That created a different race day dilemma: what to wear. At the start line, once we had mostly discarded the extra layers of clothes we would never see again (but which will be donated to charity), it was fascinating to look around and see a complete gamut of chosen clothing among fellow runners. Some had tights and weather-proofed long-sleeved shirts, gloves and wooly hats, as if setting off for a long, cold winter training run; others wore previous Boston Marathon track suit tops that I had to believe were not going to be discarded en route; yet others wore flimsy shorts and singlets, no caps or gloves, as if embarking on a brisk summer’s 5k. I fell somewhere towards the latter, favoring shorts and my favorite loose running shirt, but with decent gloves and a knit cap (under my runner’s cap) that I intended to ditch as soon as I was warm enough.
I never did. The knit hat stayed on throughout, and as the rain kicked in at mile two – easing up for the next hour or so before coming down in earnest for the rest of the day, with temperatures staying in the 40s – I struggled with my gloves; they were a bitch to put back on after accessing my salt pills every few miles, but I didn’t feel that I’d be any more comfortable without them. The cold and the light rain were nonetheless not a real concern until, exactly as predicted, we hit the Newton hills where the wind started lapping right at us.
Frankly, it was brutal, the kind of day that you would normally suspend all plans for outdoor activities (the annual Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park suffered a rain delay roughly equivalent to a half-marathon time) – which makes it all the more remarkable and wonderful that the streets were lined with brave spectators from start to finish. The crowd at Boston never ceases to amaze me: they cheer, holler and scream for hours on end – and the wonderful girls of Wellesley College additionally volunteer themselves for kisses. (It’s okay, I had permission. Again.) Some of the placards I saw along the way had me in hysterics, such as “Hurry Up: The Kenyans are already drinking beer,” “Great job random stranger” and, at the top of Heartbreak Hill, courtesy of the hard-drinking students of Boston College, a giant “F**k Yeah.” (Asterisks added on my part.) I was smiling throughout.
Given that I plan to focus more on trails and travel for the near future – i.e. I’m not sure when I’ll run Boston again – I had always intended to give this marathon my all. And for the first nineteen miles or more, the months of preparation paid off, as I surprised even myself with a rock-steady pace that looked set for a sub-3:20 PR. Yet all that time I was nervously wondering if my pace wasn’t just a little too quick. My favorite marathons have been those where I held back sufficiently in the first half so as to finish flat out – but as I hit the hills, I sensed that I would be unlikely to pick up any additional speed, and that I would have to rely on having “banked” a bonus minute or two if I still expected to PR.
Given, again, that I expect this to be my last road marathon for a while, I had asked my family to come join me for this occasion – their first Boston – and while I was thrilled that they did so, I was also truly sorry that they had to endure such miserable weather. We arranged for them to be at the foot of Heartbreak Hill, around 20.5 miles, a good time to absorb the Clif Gel that would be distributed at Mile 17 and for which I anticipated, given the cold, that I would struggle to rip open without assistance. As I hit Mile 20, I moved to the side, checked my watch, and after about three minutes, began looking for them. The hill climbed, so did I, and as I closed in on Mile 21, I wondered whether we had allowed insufficient time for them to pack up the hotel room and get there. Then, almost at the crest of the hill, I saw and heard them – and stopped more or less on a dime. As I did so, I felt my legs immediately announce their tightness and threaten to seize up.
There is a good reason that I don’t stop suddenly at water stops, an equally good reason you are required to keep walking at the end of a marathon. As I asked my wife to open the gel and force-feed it to me, I found myself immediately second-guessing myself. Did I need the gel that much that I needed to stop for this long? Would my legs bounce back to form once I picked up running again? Would the additional energy and electrolytes make up for the full minute it was taking? With Posie behind a barrier, I couldn’t ask her to access the salt pills in my inner pocket, which my cold, wet gloves and hands were no longer able to navigate. Then again, I had chosen to be here; given that they were standing out in the rain and cold and cheering me along, surely the least I could do was stop for this minute, lean over the barrier and give them a kiss and a hug? This was not all about me, right?
Just as well. As I set back off, basking in the roar that goes up as one crests the peak of Heartbreak Hill only to encounter a dangerously steep downhill into Boston itself and the 4+ miles of mostly flat “home stretch,” the stiffness in my legs increased, and I felt my pace slow. I had no choice: I could tell I would cramp up otherwise. An explanation here: I weaned myself off of Gatorade several years ago when it still contained high fructose corn syrup, and have learned to run on water, salt pills, and a Clif Shot around mile 20. But if you can’t keep your salt pills dry or/and you can’t access them due to cold and wet hands, you need a Plan B. The best use of my family stop would have been for Posie to hand me a few pills – along with a bottle of my recovery drink (recipe courtesy of vegan ultra champion Scott Jurek from his book Eat and Run), which was already in her bag for when we met up afterwards. That and for me to keep running, especially as they were near the crest of a hill, not at the foot of it. These are minor details, but they can make a difference when you have family in attendance… and a major difference when major is extreme.
In reality, my slowing up was nothing drastic. A steady 7:34 pace dropped back a little on the hills, and down to around 8:12 on those last 4.3 miles. It just felt like I was running backwards, as I could only focus on those runners who had paced themselves better and were lapping up the last few miles. I tried to switch concentration to those who were struggling more than I was – some in heat sheets that were being handed out by race volunteers miles ahead of the finish line, some in ponchos, one of them barefoot – along with the young girl who had surprised us all in my start corral by lining up in race pants, race bra and nothing else but footwear. She HAD to be colder than I was. Still, the crowd continued to be utterly wonderful and exceptional, screaming as if they had a vested interest in every last runner’s performance, and they brought me home as fast as my feet could carry me. I finished in 3:22:43, my second fastest time out of the 13 road marathons I have raced since first partaking in New York back in 2002.
And hey… I could have been last year’s winner and all-round American hero Meb Keflezighi, who was still with the lead pack when he took water, it went down the wrong way, and he had to stop to throw up no less than five times. (He still finished eighth, grabbing the hand of a struggling female elite runner and lifting it aloft as they crossed the finish line. Not only does this prove that Meb is a dude, but that he has the perfect cheerful disposition for marathon running.) And at least I didn’t actually cramp – unlike the a man who seized up right at the finish line, and had his picture printed for all the world to see courtesy of the Boston Globe. Plus, being in the second wave, I was done before the worst of the weather; those in the last, fourth wave, who are also the slower runners, would have been on the course throughout the afternoon’s deluge.
On reflection, no plan I made with my family would have enabled me to finish three minutes faster for a PR, and I’d sooner have been that far behind it than mere seconds in sight of it. The simple fact is that I broke with my usual save-it-for-later plan, ran hard and fast, and paid for it at the very end. Similarly, I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that had I ran the first half-marathon a minute or two slower, I would have made up the difference. It was what it was: a fast time that would easily re-qualify me for next year and which, given the conditions, the challenging Boston course, and the fact that I’m not getting any younger, I will chalk up as my strongest marathon ever.
At the finish line, and despite being handed a heavier-than-usual heat jacket, I could feel hypothermia coming on, and as I started shaking, I diverted from my route towards the family meeting area into a restaurant/bar called Fire & Ice. There, dozens of other runners, family and friends were similarly ensconced, and staff were cheerfully bringing round pitchers of hot water and mugs of tea for dozens of runners in the same predicament as myself, visibly shaking and shivering. The warm water worked, even though it took several minutes and even though my shorts, in particular, were so wet that I honestly felt I had just come out of a swim in a cold lake! Somehow I digested the Clif Builders Bar I’d been handed at the finished line (I declined the bag of additional edibles), and with a cell phone borrowed from a 40-year old who had run a sub-3:00 PR and looked none the worse for it as he knocked back a beer, was eventually able to get my family to wend through the various security barriers and join me.
Finally, I was able to engage in more traditional recovery methods. Jurek’s recovery recipe worked wonders – instantly healing the threat of cramps – and the warm clothes made me feel like a different person. While Posie trekked back off to fetch the car (what an angel), Noel and I hung out and had some food and a post-race beer. Well, I had a beer – or at least, I tried; my body was in no mood to digest anything, to be honest. By the time we got back to the Catskills, however, after a long and soggy drive, I had absorbed various sugary food and drink, felt great, and was ready for the late-night doggy bags from Fire & Ice and a beer from the fridge. I imagine I was not the only one; after all, the post-race party at Fenway Park would still have been going strong.
When I first came to live in the States in 1987, I lived in Boston (and Princeton, it’s a long story) for a year or so, and I came to love the city for so many reasons. The crowd at the Boston Marathon reinforce why it’s such a special place. Qualifying for and completing Boston has been one of the highlights of my life, period – not least because, for my first 35 years at least, I would never have guessed I had it in me. This year, it was additionally reassuring to see that the city is healing from the terrible attack of two years ago, and to know, not that I would ever have doubted it, that Boston remains Strong. I expect to be back some day – and if not to run, then to cheer on those that do. Even in bad weather, everyone seems to, ultimately, have a blast. And at the end of the day, however long it may feel, isn’t that what it’s all about?