Hopkinton to Boston, MA
Monday, April 20, 2009 – Patriots Day
Pace: 6:58 min/mile
1651* place of 26,000 overall
1st Half: 1:31:38
2nd Half: 1:31:15**
*Overall place beats bib number! J
Complete splits at end. (Check out how even they are!)
Those were the two words I uttered most in the days leading up to the 113th running of the Boston Marathon. They, I knew, would hold the key to my race, if even I could race. Residual fitness, and the unknown of its depth, was what had me kicking expectations to the curb with my throwaway clothing at the start line in Hopkinton.
I had wished I wasn’t in this position, but having come down in January with an injury, my worst in years, that shortcut my training to only two long runs, zero speed work, and sadly very few runs longer than 4 miles, I knew that my 48th go at the marathon distance and 10th Boston of all time, including now 5 years in a row, hinged on my residual fitness and experience from years of running marathons. Could having run several marathons last year, the last of which was over 4 months ago, be good for something – like perhaps ensuring I could finish with a smile on my face? Never did I imagine just how deep that fitness would be.
Besides residual fitness and experience, I had at least something in my favor. In the last month, my injury had healed enough to permit me those two long runs. But the injury, always present, nagging away, did not allow me to hit pace. My last mile at pace, where I was close to or at top end speed, was back in January, before the injury flared. That was the case until two weeks ago. That was when my legs suddenly started feeling strong. I was able to work my way up close to race pace. Better yet my leg turnover was awakening.
With this glimmer of hope, I decided to test myself with two mile repeats the Wednesday before the race. Instead of focusing on a set pace to run, so as not to compare against pre-injury pace, I decided to run at a sturdy effort, one I could hold for a mile or longer. To my surprise, it actually felt easy, the injury at bay, and the pace, although not top end, was good – good enough for me to formulate a race plan.
The goal: I wanted to have the best race I could with what I had. Not with what I had last year, but with what I had today. So I would throw away any notion of time goals and instead go by effort. The plan was to settle into a comfortable yet brisk pace in the early miles, with breathing mostly under control, and hold that effort for as long as possible. Pace would be what it would be. I would focus only on effort and my breathing. And if at any time the injury felt as if it would redline, or if my residual fitness was too weak, then I would dial effort way back and turn my race into a fun run – maybe even a beer run from Boston College on in to Boylston.
And so I was prepared. I was prepared for my lack of training. And I was prepared for what would be, I was sure, my toughest marathon in years. There was no way my residual fitness could that deep.
Race morning came quickly. Up and right to it, gathering my belongings, getting breakfast and off to race site, where I met up with running buddies John (doing his 10th marathon, 6th Boston) and Natasha (2nd), and Team LIT members Adam and Monica (both doing their 1st) in the Athlete’s Village up at the Hopkinton High School. After a few giggles and good luck wishes, I slipped into my race gear and made my way to the starting line.
Pre-Race: Wishing John an awesome race in the Athlete Village.
Having been injured for several months and knowing I would not match the finish time of my qualifying race, a 2:59 at the London Marathon a year earlier, I decided to drop back from the 2nd corral to the 3rd. I didn’t want to hold up those runners looking to make a break.
Now in staged in the 3rd corral, I listened to the nervous chatter jumping about before joining along. Just as I learned a bit about a Matt from Seattle, the National Anthem came followed by a flyover followed by the start. Nearly a minute and twenty seconds later, I was across the starting line and on my way, a sea of runners flowing through the streets, destination Boston!
The first several down hill miles, I knew, would tell me much about the rest of the day. It was those miles where I wanted to find that comfortable yet brisk pace, as long as I didn’t feel the injury too badly as if to do damage, and settle in.
Sticking with plan, I found that comfortable pace by mile 2. My leg turnover was good. My breathing was under control. The early miles ticked by much more quickly than I imagined, but all systems were good, and so I tried to stay even but, due to predominant down hill running early on, not apply the breaks. Through mile 6 I was hitting 6:59’s or 7:00, thinking the faster pace, even though it is a bit shy of my race pace, was attributable to the fast down hill start.
Mile 1 – Chatting it up with a fellow runner (me in black vest).
Miles 7 through 11 were much of the same. I made sure the pace was brisk but still comfortable and always even. I didn’t have the base mileage to vary much. This I knew, so I focused on being even and using my strengths in charging the hills but not killing them. Pace varied from pre-injury race pace (6:50ish) to 7:00. I was dialed in.
But by mile 8 my lack of training reared its ugly head. Although my breathing was still under control – labored but manageable – my body was already feeling beat up. One thing I have learned through my many marathons is that this is the sort of pain you not only can ignore, but you have to ignore it, otherwise it becomes mental, and when the going gets tough, it will get deeper into your head and take you down.
Feeling the toll of the pounding so early, I made a point to hold back on the down hills. As much as I would have loved to open my stride and make up serious time on those downs, I knew – I just knew – I had to constrain myself. And so I did.
By mile 12, just as I was approaching Wellesley college and the “tunnel of noise,” as I call it, I had turned focus exclusively to running and conserving. There were no more conversations with other runners. Just me focused on racing. Because it was now that I knew that I was racing. I knew it earlier, as the effort was definitely there, but it was only now, being nearly half way through the distance, that I allowed myself to think this way. I had feared that if I slipped into that mode too early, my lack of training would kick me hard in the ass somewhere on the Newton hills. Although I still feared that, I knew to take control of my thoughts, permit nothing negative, and stay positive if not focused.
Through the half marathon mark in a surprising 1:31:38, good for a 6:59 minute per mile pace, I restrained judgment on my race so far and stayed focus on exerting race effort. If I thought too much about the pace, seeing it was much faster than I had imagined, I would have purposely slow it down, thinking, convincing myself I knew, it was too fast. So I focused on effort and kept ripping off steady miles at brisk pace.
The first real test came with the hill leading up over the Rt. 128 highway interchange. Shortening my stride, I tipped my head slightly down but still with eyes trained hard on the far top of the hill, I tucked in behind the next runner, then the next, and then the next as I passed throngs of runners now starting to show fatigue. Not me, I was good. As fans cheered, I smiled back with a sense of hope for the remainder of the Newton Hills. It was then when I realized just how deep my residual fitness was. But could it really be that strong? Or would the cord finally snap over the next of the hills?
By the second of the Newton hills, my body was feeling pretty beat up, but I was otherwise feeling no different than any other marathon at this point on the course. So although I was now pushing harder, exerting much more effort, and breathing more heavily, to my surprise my pace was still spot on consistent. Even over the hills.
Next up was Heartbreak Hill. I knew that if I got over the infamous hill in good stead, I would likely be able to cruise over the last mostly down hill 10K to the finish. Up and over I went in a workmanlike manner, head tipped down, eyes trained up, stride short, kick good, cadence high, I got way over to the side of the road so that I could make wholesale passes without getting bogged down or being cut off by those dropping like flies, as was happening. I remained focused, and now, whenever I’d wonder if my residual fitness really could be this good, or maybe it was just a fluke, I cut out those thoughts in fear of them becoming reality and kept focus on effort and breathing under control.
As much as I stayed focused, I couldn’t believe that through all four hills of Newton, never once did my pace drop more than just up hill running. I knew this meant that my effort was steady, and steadily increasing at that, and I was in decent shape to punch it on home.
At this point, now flying by Cleveland Circle, I pushed pace so that it dropped back well under 7:00’s. This was the effort I thought I could hold until a mile left. I always focus that way because I know that that’s the only marker you need to reach, because even if you have nothing remaining in the tank, the magic known as the greatest finish line in all of sports will suck you in the rest of the way.
Too tired to look at my watch and breathing hard, I had missed many of my last splits. So I figured with a 1:31 first half and a slight slow down on the Newton hills, I was good for a 3:06 finish, 3:05 best.
This gave me more of a boost because I knew that no matter what happened from here until the end, I had a Boston Qualifier, and I’d have an even better one than my last marathon. I knew this meant that next year, the 114th running of the Boston Marathon, I would be in the 2nd or 3rd corral, the same as this year. This victory made me smile as I was now using other runners to break the wind as I approached and then slingshot around only to launch behind the next for another go.
Cruising down Commonwealth avenue, I crossed mile marker 23. The timing clock, rocking in the wind, read 2:42 and change. Quick math, minus the time it took me to cross the start, made me realize that if I could rip off a final 5K at under 6:00 minute miles, I could come damn close to breaking three hours.
Whereas only a few hours earlier I was wondering just what this day would bring, wondering, even preparing for, one of my toughest marathons ever due to lack of proper training due to injury, the notion of Sub-3 hours excited me. Heck, even close to three hours was awesome.
That’s when I decided to dig deep into my core and give it everything I had. I owed it to myself to at least see what I had in me. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I stayed compacted, let other break wind as I tucked behind to slingshot again, and kept it all on redline. Mile 24 came and, seeing a 6:43, I knew I wouldn’t do it. But no matter. On a day with no expectations, I did all right, for I knew I would hold this effort the rest of the way.
Suddenly at Mile 25, still pushing redline, holding on but in control, my calf and foot twitched hard. Almost stumbling, I balanced myself with a few awkward strides and took the effort back a notch more for what is the very best finishes of all marathons.
Under the Mass Ave overpass, where I looked for John’s family but didn’t see them, right on Hereford, I raised my arms to the crowd. As if a conductor, I relished the moment, waving the crowd into cheers. Pointing at little kids, even big kids, and acknowledging with a smile or thumbs up. Left on Boylston comes the most magnificent sight, the street far and wide, lined 10 deep with throngs of people, the finish line still so far down the road, granting minutes of greatness, a time long enough to soak it in, drink its fine wine and lavender spirits, to set memory forever the thrill of victory, a hard fought well earned battle.
I love Boston. For 3 hours and 2 minutes I loved it with my legs. For the rest of my life I will love it in my core. The Boston Marathon. Dream it. Achieve it. Be there!
1 – 7:18
2 – 6:57
3 – 7:00
4 – 6:59
5 – 6:59
6 – 6:55
7 – 6:50
8 – 6:57
9 – 6:56
10 – 6:55
11 – 7:01
12 – 6:55
13 – 7:03
1st Half (13.1) – 1:31:38 (6:59 avg pace)
14 – 6:53
15 – 7:02
16 – 6:59 (hills begin, effort increases)
17 – 6:59
18 – 7:06
19 – 6:58
20 – 7:04
21 – 7:15 (heartbreak hill)
22 – 6:50
23 – 6:48 (tried to see if I had 6 min miles in me to break 3-hours.)
24 – 6:43 (didn’t have 6:00’s in me, so maintained increased effort.)
25 – 6:55 (injury twitched, please not now!)
26 – 6:50 (cruised on in whooping up the crowd.)
26.2 – 6:50
2nd Half (13.1) – 1:31:15 (6:57 avg pace)
Finish: 3:02:53 (6:58 pace)