Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The Big Dance: Boston Marathon Recap
There are a million aspects of the Boston Marathon that I want to share with you. There's so much to tell and I apologize in advance for the lengthy post. In time - and probably several shorter posts - I'll share even more of the smaller details. There is plenty to say about the sights and sounds, the inner thoughts and the all-around feel of the most prestigious race in the world.
For now, I thought it would be best to get some of the race details down while they're still fresh in my mind.
JUST GETTING THERE
The thing about Boston is that there are a lot of logistical details to take care of. I'm talking literally pages and pages of things you have to do, details of places to be and exact times to be there.
Having snagged a hotel in Newton, I opted to ignore the advice to use the shuttles from Boston to get to the start in Hopkinton. It just didn't make sense to me to take the subway into the city just to grab a shuttle back out. Oh, then run back in.
Instead, my sweetie agreed to drop me off at Hopkinton State Park - which, by the way, was a piece of cake. We hit minimal traffic and made it to the drop-off point in plenty of time. There was a line of school buses waiting as runners walked right up and boarded.
I gave my sweetie a quick wave as I boarded the bus, feeling kind of like a school-kid on the way to their first day of school. Their very long, hard first day of school.
The bus ride was relatively uneventful, just filled with constant, loud chatter. It was as if a group of long-lost friends had been put on a bus together - but in actuality most of us were strangers brought together with this common bond that made us instant friends.
The ride was quick enough, and soon we pulled onto a small side street. We streamed off the bus, thanking the driver on our way out. I chuckled at his advice to runners: "Don't run too hard today." He obviously didn't get this crowd.
We were quickly greeted by a cheery volunteer clad in a bright green jacket, a sight that would be commonplace throughout the day. More on the volunteers later, but needless to say they were invaluable to this well oiled machine. And, it must be noted, they were all friendly and happy to be part of it.
The walk to Athlete's Village was about a half-mile or so from where we were dropped off. We passed by the signs with big arrows pointing toward the starting line. Nearly every runner craned his or her neck to get a glimpse.
I instantly noted how cold it seemed. The temperatures were somewhere in the upper 40's and there was bright sun - not bad at all for a New England morning. But the wind was wickedly chilly.
While walking I ended up chatting with an older gentleman after he asked me for the time. It was his 25th Boston Marathon. Incredibly impressive.
What was even more impressive was that last June he had a significant health issue and ended up undergoing a triple bypass. "I'm just lucky to be here," he told me. "And you have to get 25 to get in the special club, so I wasn't missing this one."
By the way, he travels from Oklahoma every year to run Boston. It made me think about how lucky I am to have this prestigious, worldwide event practically in my backyard. Along the race course, I heard conversations in French, Spanish, German and Japanese.
I'll share more on Athlete's Village later, but for now I'll just let you know I made it and waited there for the my wave to start. And waited. And waited. As part of the slower runners of the race, I was part of the last wave to leave.
At last, my wave was called and we made our way to the corrals, shedding our warm-up clothing in the charity bins along the way. I made the turn and saw the sign for Corral 8. I was in Corral 5, quite a bit up the road. I picked up my walking pace and squeezed in just in time to start.
The funny thing is, I'm not really sure how the race started. I know there were a bunch of announcements and cheering. I'd found my running pal, Scott, who was running for Dana Farber, in my corral and made a bee-line to say hello.
We hugged and chatted as the race started. Scott was one of my first running pals, back when I first joined TNT and had never run a mile. There, at the starting line of the Boston Marathon, I couldn't help but remark at how far we'd come. I mean that literally and figuratively.
Scott and I ran together briefly, but we had different pacing goals for this race and respected each other's plans. We said good-bye and I trotted ahead.
The first couple of miles were crowded, but not nearly as bad as I expected. (I expected the worst, mind you.) I was able to find a spot and keep it, mostly. I was able to keep my pace in my targeted zone for the first phase of the run.
The plan Coach Lauren put together for me divided the race into three parts. It mimicked, nearly exactly, my training plan for the 20-miler. I'd done that one on the course and, if I do say so myself, really rocked it. I felt intimidated by the Boston Marathon plan, but just kept reminding myself that I'd already done this. Well, I'd already done most of it.
My race plan called for me to average a pace of 9:30 per mile, which is a comfortable pace for me but would certainly be a stretch to maintain over 26.2 miles. It would bring me to the finish line in less than 4:10 -- a huge, huge PR. I'm talking 37+ minutes.
I was excited, if not daunted, by the possibility. I knew I'd put in the training and was ready to give it my best shot.
The plan was to break the race into three parts. Miles 1-10, I'd shoot for a 9:40 (+/- 10 seconds). For the next 10 miles, I'd go for Marathon Pace (9:30s with +/- 10 seconds). At Mile 20, I'd assess and "run by feel." My hope, of course, was to be feeling great and be able to pick up for the final Victory Lap miles. At the very least, I'd just aim to maintain my pace.
Yep, that was the plan.
I'll admit, I felt totally awesome. My running was strong and controlled. I had to consciously check my Garmin and slow myself down. The advice of every other Boston veteran I'd talked to went through my head: Go out slow, go out slow. You need stuff left in the tank (and the legs) for the Newton Hills. They weren't kidding.
I hit my goal paces for the first 10 miles, falling closer to the 9:30 mark than the 9:50 mark, but staying well within the plan. I love when a plan comes together! I thought about my splits being broadcast to Coach Lauren (and many others!) as I crossed the timing mat at the 10K mark. She'd be proud and happy to see I was on target.
I tried to soak everything in. The crowds of spectators and the sounds of the cheers were overwhelming and impressive. I tried to read every sign and waved when I heard the familiar "Go TEAM" shout from the crowd. I think I was smiling from ear to ear for those 10 miles. And I was looking forward to the next 10.
By mile 10, I was ready to pick up the pace slightly to get to the next part of the plan. Again, I had to slow myself down a couple of times. I recall reading a 9:04 at one point and a 9:15. I tried to get it back to 9:20. C'mon, I told myself, It shouldn't be harder to run slower. It's a strange thing to experience.
I was able to hit the planned paces as I entered the Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College. Holy cow! What else can I say? It was completely incredible - with screaming college girls everywhere, holding signs, hanging over the the metal barricade in hopes of getting kisses from passing runners. (I saw a couple get them, too!)
By the time I hit the 13.1 mark - halfway! - I was still right on target. I crossed the mat at 2:05, exactly according to plan. The thought of actually getting that huge PR was sinking in. I still felt good and strong. I could keep this up for a while, I thought.
Yep, that's what I thought.
At Mile 15, I struggled to hit the plan. I'd stopped for some water or Gatorade and couldn't quite get back up to speed. I was quickly coming into Newton and would be facing the hills.
I tried to get back to 9:30s, but struggled to hit 9:40s. It was just a bit outside the plan, but I could feel the plan slipping away. The thought of running 11 more miles at this pace became a daunting task.
My inner thoughts must have been obvious. As I passed a coach for another charity team, he tapped my shoulder with The Stick he was holding. Just one more mile to go until you're only facing single digits. Bring it home, he said.
I smiled. Then I wondered if I really looked bad enough that someone would actually be cheering for me just to get to the single-digit mark. I must admit, though, it was way better than the "almost there" that some spectators love to shout when you're nowhere near the finish.
The next mile was tough, but I knew my sweetie, Coach Lauren and TNT pal Matt would be somewhere between 16.5 and 17. I scanned the massive crowd for them. I needed to see a friendly face at that point. I needed a mental boost.
Finally, there they were at Mile 17. I made eye contact. Coach Lauren must have sensed I was in trouble. As I neared, I saw her whip off her jacket, revealing her running tank and running shorts. It was just like seeing Superman ripping open his Clark Kent button-up shirt and revealing, the giant "S" on his shirt. Seriously, that's how it felt at that moment.
Do you want us, she called out to me in the crowd. I waved them in. Please, I thought.
Within a few seconds, Coach Lauren was on my left and Matt (who now coaches the Seacoast TNT team, but I met when I was his mentor last year) was on my right. I asked about my sweetie, whom we'd left standing on the sidelines with a pile of bags and gear. I felt bad for him once again being deemed the team sherpa, left to haul the bags around the city as he made his way to the finish line.
As she joined the run, Lauren asked a few questions about the race so far and tried to asses how I was feeling at that moment.
My biggest complaint was my legs. My quads were killing me, unlike any feeling I'd had on any other run I've done. It felt like someone was punching them with every step I took. At that moment, I knew exactly what all of those Boston vets meant when they said the first half can take a toll on your legs.
Coach Lauren talked me through the next miles, assuring me that I hadn't fallen that far off the plan and that I was still running a good race. I could feel my 4:10 goal quickly slipping away. I tried to avoid the disappointment and push forward to a PR, no matter what the finish time ended up being.
I avoided looking at my watch. (I didn't actually check my individual mile splits until the next morning, semi-afraid of what I'd find.) I knew I was way off pace. Lauren kept talking to me - and I needed that! - and pushed me through the hills. I made it up all of the hills - even Heartbreak - without walking, which was a great feat at that point.
I got another little boost mid-Heartbreak seeing my running friends and first TNT coach on the sidelines. I passed Scott's wife cheering at me from the sidelines a little while later.
Matt became my personal water-boy, fetching me water or Gatorade (whichever order I barked at him as we approached an aid station) whenever I asked for it. It seemed hot out there, the sun shone down brightly and I realized how much the weather was affecting me. I was gritty with the salt that had been drying on my skin from my sweat.
At one point, when I apparently couldn't stand it any more, I took off my RoadID band and handed it to Lauren - revealing a white band where it had been. Proof that it was sunny and my body was taking a toll.
The third part of the race plan - which was pretty much out the window at this point - was to "run by feel." I tell you, it was a good thing Coach Lauren and Matt were there because, if i was on my own, I think I may have "felt" like walking. Actually, I know I would have.
My legs (specifically, my quads) were throbbing. The downhills were the worst. The pounding was unbearable. I felt like I was barely picking my feet up off the ground. I wondered how Coach Lauren and Matt, both of whom are much faster runners than I am (even at my "fast" miles) could possibly be running this slow. I may have even apologized at one point.
Then I started to feel the familiar tinge of a blister. I felt it on both heels. It was so sore with every footstep. I internally contemplated converting to a barefoot runner for the last few miles. Okay, it wasn't that extreme, but I admit the thought of taking my shoes off to relieve the rub against the blister was really inviting.
Miles 22-24 are pretty much a blur. The crowds were there and probably just as loud, but their shouts seemed somehow muffled. I knew I was running, but I felt like I wasn't "in" the race. I know it's hard to explain. I was there, but wasn't there.
I didn't do much talking - which, for me, is really unusual. I'm sure Coach Lauren and Matt sensed my struggle. But they kept with me, talking with me and keeping me going.
Coach Lauren suggested we try to pick up the pace in short bursts, a suggestion that honestly just sounded ridiculous at the time. But she's never steered me wrong yet, so I obliged. And it actually felt pretty good. We did this on and off for a while.
I can say without a doubt that without Lauren and Matt there I would have succumbed to my overwhelming urge to walk. I'm not sure I ever would have started running again. And I definitely wouldn't have even entertained the thought of running faster bursts.
At one point after she joined me, Lauren had mentioned that a 4:20 was still within reach. By now, without her even saying anything and without looking at my Garmin for the last several miles, I knew that was out the window, too.
I adjusted my goal internally to just get in under 4:30. It would still be a 17 minute PR.
At Mile 25, I looked into the crowd and saw a woman who I assumed was going through chemotherapy. She'd lost her hair, she was pale and she was wearing a surgical mask to protect herself from germs. Still, she was there in the front row of the Boston Marathon cheering on the runners.
As I passed, she saw my team jersey and pulled down her mask. Thank you, Team In Training, she said.
Wow, what an incredible moment. It was only later, after I'd gotten out of my late-mile-marathon haze, that I truly grasped the importance of that moment. At the time, I was only focused on the last mile. It seemed like the longest mile of my life.
Coach Lauren and Matt veered off just before the turn onto Boylston. It was a planned move. I was going to finish this thing on my own. I scanned the crowd for my sweetie, but the crowd was massive and there was no way I'd find him if he was there.
I made the final turn, happily, and headed into the homestretch. I could see the finish line in the distance. The crowds seemed to get bigger, if that was even possible. The cheers were so loud.
I looked up ahead as I approached the Finish Line, spotting a freakishly tall, costume-wearing guy with a crazy wig. There is no way I'm letting him into my Boston Marathon finish line photo, I thought. So I picked it up a bit.
As I crossed the finish line, the clock read 4:30-something. Huh? I looked at my Garmin, which read 4:27. I had no idea how long it had taken me to cross the start line. I didn't know my official finishing time. Had I broken 4:30?
I made my way through the long line of must-do's - medal pick-up, heatsheet wrap, banana, water and eventually found the bag I'd checked at the start. I wandered around, admittedly in a bit of a daze, to finally find my sweetie, Coach Lauren and Matt waiting for me in our designated spot.
My sweetie came out into the street, giving me the biggest hug I can ever recall getting. At that moment, I cried. And so did he. It was one of my favorite marathon moments, standing there in the middle of the hectic chaos that is the end of the Boston Marathon quietly celebrating together.
I still had no idea what my official time was. Luckily, thanks to the instant online tracking, my sweetie and friends could tell me exactly how I'd done. (Funny to think that my friends sitting at their computers miles away knew what my finish time was before I did.)
My official time: 4:27:01. It was a 20-minute PR for me. I felt a slight moment of disappointment (it still creeps in every now and then) for missing my race plan by so much, but realized that I'd had a huge day of a tough course.
Most of all, I'd toughed it out when the going got tough. I ran the best I could and didn't have any regrets. I wouldn't be saying any "I wish I would have's."
There you have it. My turn-by-turn experience of the Boston Marathon. It was better and worse than I thought it would be, all wrapped up in one. It was truly the experience of a lifetime, something that I recommend every runner put somewhere on their Bucket List.
More to come in the coming weeks. For now, thank you for all of your support in this most incredible journey ... so far.