It’s only a marathon. Seriously. I’ve completed six of them before. At this point, it should be a formality.
Ah, but who am I kidding? This is the Boston Marathon, and it’s special. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s the oldest ongoing Marathon in the world: Monday will mark its 114th consecutive year. For another, it’s one of the most crowded: I’ll be amongst 25,000 people (barring those who fail to get on a plane in time from ash-covered Europe) running the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to central Boston. These factors alone have long made Boston one of the most important of Marathons, and when a five-cities World Marathon Majors tournament was established in 2006, it was obvious that Boston would be included. (The other cities are London, New York, Berlin and Chicago.)
But these are not the real reasons Boston is so special. Most major marathons are over-subscribed and thereby difficult to get into, requiring either luck with a lottery, commitment to an expensive travel package, or a willingness to run (and pay for) the necessary number of “qualifying” races. Alone amongst the major marathons, Boston requires that you meet a certified time to compete. Running Boston means you’re not just another Sunday stroller off for a lengthy jog. It means you’re an elite marathoner. It means you’re fast.
How fast? That depends on sex and age. A 30-year old man needs a recent marathon time of under 3hrs, 10 minutes. A 60-year old woman is allowed a full four and a half hours. When I was in my early 40s, I needed 3 hrs, 20 mins. I tried hard to meet that goal, a couple of times, but when, in Albany, in October 2005, I got to the 21-mile mark, hit the wall (believe me, it’s so real you can almost see it), and realized I’d still need to run the fastest 5 miles of my life to make it to Boston, I slowed to a disappointing half-walk, and decided to concentrate on the Catskill Mountains’ equally challenging Escarpment Run for the next couple of years until I could move up an age bracket. I turned 45 last year, and, sure enough, qualified for Boston at the first attempt, finishing the Run Vermont Marathon last Memorial Weekend in 3:29, a comfortable minute under my new time requirement. I may even have allowed myself a little tear at the finish line.
So here I am, about to set off for possibly the biggest sporting event of my life, and you can understand that I’m just a little excited. I’ve been training all winter, participating in weekly Saturday 8am runs with fellow crazies, regardless of conditions – and believe me, there have been some cold cold mornings this winter. Still, despite getting three 20+ mile runs under my belt, it’s not quite as much training as I would like: winter time is ski time as far as I’m concerned, and my mileage is down on what it should be because of that other sport (though skiing surely qualifies as “cross-training”). In truth, I found it easier to prepare for last year’s Marathon in Vermont which, though just five weeks later in the calendar, allowed me to “peak” with my training after the end of the ski season, rather than in the midst of it, as I had to do this year. The weekends this winter have not seen much by way of sleeping in, that’s for sure. Part of me has already determined not to run Boston next year, instead spend the money I’ve shelled out on hotels and entry fees and the like on full Hunter Mountain season tickets for me and Campbell instead. But I say that now; let’s see how I feel once I’ve had the thrill of running Boston.
After all, it’s now seven and a half years since I ran a “major” Marathon. And though the sheer number of participants creates a degree of hassle, there’s still an aura about a New York or a Boston that can’t be matched by competing with just 500 other people along the banks of the Mohawk river in Albany. One of the factors that makes these major races so exciting is the knowledge that you’re competing in exactly the same event as some of the very best in the world. In Boston on Monday, I will be setting off at the same time, on the same course, as last year’s Boston winner, Deriba Merga, of Ethiopia; last year’s New York winner, Meb Keflezighi; and last year’s Boston bronze medalist and leading USA Olympic Team Trials marathoner, Ryan Hall. The three most recent female Boston winners – Salina Kosgei, of Kenya (2009); Dire Tune, of Ethiopia (2008); and Lidiya Grigoryeva, of Russia (2007) – are all also taking part, setting off in an elite women’s group 28 minutes ahead of us. Is there any other sport where can you compete alongside the world’s best like this?
Then there’s the other stuff that surrounds the Boston Marathon. The fact that it’s held on a Monday, Patriot’s Day, a holiday nowhere else in the States except Maine, which makes it feel suspiciously like playing truant. The fact that the Boston Red Sox schedule a home game in the morning, with the intent that it gets out in time for the crowds to cheer the runners through the last miles. That there’s a Grand Marshall leading the way, in this case Vermont’s own Vancouver Olympics Moguls Gold Medalist, Hannah Kearney. That the race is unusual for having an overall altitude drop of about 500 feet – which doesn’t forestall the fact that there are four hills to climb between miles 16 and 20. Or the knowledge that, around the half way mark, we run though a funnel of Wellesley College girls who will, so I am promised, attempt to pull many of us men (and some of the women?) off the course to kiss us and ply us with beer. There are worse things can happen at Mile 13, believe me.
My goals for the race? Everyone except the prize competitors know that the best approach to one of the big city marathons is just to “enjoy it,” and save attempts for personal records for a smaller scale course. But that’s easier said than done, so I’m setting what I believe is the realistic goal of qualifying for Boston again, which means anything under a net time of 3hrs, 30 minutes and 59 seconds. If I can take three minutes off that time, I’ll have broken my PR from 2005 and I’ll be ecstatic. Essentially, I plan on taking the first, fast downhill half cautiously and not letting loose or testing my reserves until I’m over Heartbreak Hill at mile 21.
I have another goal. Unless it’s raining heavily, I’m fully intending on running in my Vibram Five Fingers, which will no doubt make me something of an oddity and the subject of great inquisitiveness. People simply don’t believe that you can wear something so simple and not come an instant cropper, but that’s the very point of minimalist footwear – that it brings us back into contact with the ground beneath us, whereas the modern Nike/Asics/Saucony/Adidas/New Balance gel-injected shoe cushions us against any such interaction and only lead to a greater injury rate as a result. The Vibrams are a different kettle of fish, that’s for sure, but I’ve broken personal records in several distances since I started wearing them, and I managed 23 miles of hills in them six weeks or so ago; I’m trusting the extra three miles shouldn’t prove too much of a hindrance.
Every runner – indeed, surely, every competitor of any kind – knows you have good days and bad days. I may suck on Monday. But I hope not. I’ve worked hard for this one. But even I do suck, I trust I can remember to enjoy myself. Because if you can’t have fun, whether running a marathon or a mile, you shouldn’t be doing it.
Oh yeah, I’m Bib #11847, for anyone feels like checking in.