Saturday, May 01, 2010

Wicked Pissah Fast - Brian's 2010 Boston Marathon Epic

The bucket list. Not just a sappy movie, people definitely have them. The things they want to do and goals they want to accomplish before they leave the earth. Qualifying for and racing Boston was very high up on my list. So after qualifying in December of 2008, I knew that the next 16 months of running were all leading up to the 2010 Boston Marathon. This training cycle was my hardest on record. Running 6 days/week for 18 weeks was a level of training I'd never seen before, even in high school. But I knew deep down that I wanted to put an effort level into this race that I'd never done before. It meant a lot to me to do well in Boston. So... here's the story broken into three parts: Pre-race, the race itself and my post-race thoughts. Enjoy one part or the whole thing. I know I did!


Before the story starts though I have one thing to add. Becca and Kai are the most amazing family I could ever hope for. Their support and Becca's understanding and sacrifice over the past 18 weeks were THE reason I had such a great race and Boston experience. Having someone who understands or at the very least supports my long distance running habit is immeasurable.


5am Friday comes awfully early. Why are we up this early again? Oh right, it’s either this or a ticket that costs us another $300/each. Hmm. Becca's brother picks us up and off we head to the airport. Jon half-jokes that he refuses to touch my race bag (which I was taking as a carry on like any good paranoid athlete would do) for fear of one of my shoes randomly flying out and making a break for it. A relatively painless flight to Long Beach (the only downfall of taking Jet Blue is having to route about 1500 miles out of the way) delivers us into a sea of what Becca describes as "really fit looking people." Jet Blue was nice enough to have a 90 minute delay, ensuring that we had plenty of time to discuss the question of the day: is it bad karma to be wearing a 2010 Boston jacket before the race? There were plenty of runners already sporting them in the airport. While I appreciated people's pre-race enthusiasm I'm definitely in the "bad karma" camp. No need to temp fate three days before the race.

Our delay got us into Boston about 8pm local time. My college friend Lara picked us up and showed off the awesome Boston driving skills she's picked up over the last 12 years. We settled into her place in Newton, ordered Chinese takeout (including the awesomely named Mystery Sauce Chicken) and made it a short night. After dinner I got the following fortune: "Even the toughest of days have bright spots, just do your best". What does that mean? Is this a good sign or a prophecy of things to come?

Saturday brings the Marathon Expo. We quickly picked up my race number and moved to the more important stuff: the adidas schwag area. Using Kai's stroller as a battering ram within the crowds (without Kai in it of course) I ended up picking one of the previously mentioned jackets, a sweatshirt and a running shirt before the crowds became too much and Becca got me to checkout before I could do any more damage. The rest of the expo was pretty low key for me as I'm a running luddite and don't get too excited about the latest energy bars, drinks, horse tranquilizers, blood doping etc. The two expo highlights though were a Bill Rodgers sighting (he was signing autographs for Runner’s World) and getting to watch the video of the last half of the course. As I soaked in Newton Hills and the last five miles, it really hit me that I was here and ready for this. I have to admit the room might have gotten a little dusty for me as it moved towards Boylston Street and the finish. Definitely time to exit stage right.

The rest of the pre-race weekend was pretty low key. Due to wet weather, instead of hiking around Boston on Saturday we drove up to Marblehead and enjoyed the shore. In the end this was likely the best strategy as I still got some tourist activities in without being on my feet too much. Sunday meant sleeping in, picking up some sweet sweats at the second hand shop for race day, hitting the grocery store to get my pre-race meal of peanut butter and matzoh and driving part of the course. Starting at Wellesley we drove miles 12-23, including Cleveland Circle from where you see the famous CITGO sign for the first time. Since my original understanding was that you could see it 4 miles away on Heartbreak my thought was "that's not TOO bad!" I guess it’s all about perspective and expectations.

Race Day

For many, Boston is the culmination of years of hard work and putting everything together for a great qualifying time. This combined with the timing of the race (training during winter can be hard depending on locale) and the hard course can lead to many people just running the race for the experience. When I got into Boston, my original goal was to requalify. Then as I rounded into shape to start training, the target moved to running under 3 hours. As training went progressively better and better, I set myself one final summa cum laude from Harvard goal: 2:55. Becca and a few other people were the only ones who knew about this and for good reason. To meet it I’d need to run 6:40/mile for 26.2 miles. A tall order.

These goals and expectations were the last thing I was thinking of with the alarm went off at 5am. 5am is WAY too early for this reformed night owl though I did take a moment to appreciate Boston’s later than usual 10am start time. At CIM in 2008 I was already on a bus to Folsom by 5am. After a good luck kiss from Becca, Lara drove me down to Cambridge to pick up Duke’s Bus. During this time I soaked in the beautiful morning and watched the crew teams work their way up and down the Charles. For anyone who has the chance to run Boston, Duke’s Bus is an awesome bus service provided by the Cambridge Sports Union. They deliver you to Hopkinton and stick around until race time ensuring you of two very important things: cover from the elements and a bathroom.

I ran into fellow Portland and Red Lizard Louis at the bus drop off and we hopped on and headed towards Hopkinton. It was really cool to see the wall of buses on the interstate, all delivering a group of very focused runners towards the beginning of something bigger than all of them. The pre-race time ended up being pretty low key. I left the bus once to check out the athlete’s village. I got as far as the entrance, saw that it looked like a cross between a refugee camp and a outdoor concert and decided to retreat to the bus to relax. Of course, the one drawback of having the bathroom on the bus is that there is only one of them. So with 30 minutes before the race and at least ¾ of a mile between me and the start, I found myself using the “I’m in Wave 1!” card to sneak to the front of the line for one final pit stop. I tried to run from there to the start but the masses were just too much. It was really impressive to see approx. 25,000 runners walk through this little town of 15,000 towards whatever fate had in store.

With a bib number in the 3000s, I was guaranteed a corral fairly close to the start (close enough to hear the starter’s pistol but not close enough to see the elites. It was a very cool moment to hear them list the vets that live in Hopkinton followed my two jets doing a flyby of the start. With that and a shot of the starter’s pistol, we were off!

5k: 0:20:58

Everyone I’d talked to warned me to take it easy for the first mile as it includes the steepest downhill of the course. In fact most people had told me to really stay reserved for the first 16 miles and start cranking up the effort level in the hills. It was not hard to take it easy; there was way too much people watching to be had over the first 5k as I settled into a solid effort without going out control. There was my favorite sign on the course: “Real Gingers run Marathons.” There was the Boy Scoutmaster running in full uniform (though thankfully for him in running shoes and not boots). As a former Eagle Scout myself I came up, introduced myself gave him a quick fist bump and headed off. Then there were the “Beer Me” guys. Wearing matching shirts, I watched them stay true to their word when the motorcycle posse @ mile two offered them beers. I’m assuming they made it to the finish but would have love to seen their BAC at Boylston.

10k: 0:20:49
15k: 0:20:46

Miles 3-9 just seemed to be a blur. Ashland, Framingham and Natick all passed by with nothing terribly of note. I chuck my favorite running gloves @ mile 6 because it's already getting warmer than I like it. At that point, I wonder how much money gets burned in clothing chucked at the start line and throughout the course. On a positive note some little kid in Framingham just scored some sweet Asics gloves.

During this time, I’m also starting to notice that there are really no flat areas on this course. It’s all up or down and actually many more uphills than advertised. The good news is my body still feels good and relaxed as I start to get closer and closer to Wellesley and the half way mark.

20k: 0:20:48
Half (21.1k): 1:27:50

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been warned that it's all about the 2nd half of the race. As a result, I’m just trying to enjoy the festive atmosphere of the race in the first half as much as possible. This cumulates in my visit to Wellesley. The women of Wellesley are known for two things on marathon day: the scream tunnel they create that you can either on either side for a long ways and their signs that say “kiss me.” As I approach Wellesley I decide I can use all the good luck I can get on the day, run up along the fence and plant a quick peck on the cheek to one of the ladies. This leads to a huge uproar in my immediate area and sends me off like a rocket towards the halfway mark. I hit the half feeling strong and within 20 seconds of the summa cum laude goal.

25k: 0:20:48

I spend the next three miles just preparing for the start of the famed Newton hills. These four hills come in miles 16-21. Each one on it’s face isn’t a killer but put the four together and they’re famous for a reason. For me, I think the first one might be the worst because you've just come off the second steepest downhill of the course and it's so friggin' long. It was at this point that I realized that my hill work might not have been the most appropriate for the course.

But before the gory part of the course, two funny barefoot stories. The first was about 4-5 miles in when as a barefoot runner was passing by, a young spectator suddenly blurts, "he's running and he doesn't have any shoes on! Did he forget his shoes?" This led to laughter by everyone in our little running blob of 20 at that point. The second was at the mile 16 or 17 aid station. Another barefoot runner was coming through the aid station at the same time as some of us and one of the volunteers, in her best Bahston accent yelled at us "watch out for him, he doesn't have any shoes on!" Can't decide if she thought his feet were WMDs or whether she was keeping us mean, shoe wearing runners from doing any damage on him.

30k: 0:21:22

At about mile 18, with two of the Newton hills behind me, my quads have joined the party. They start to feel like ground beef put into a blender. I think to myself “I could have sworn I took it easy on the first half of the course. What the hell?” I start channeling Ryan Hall and glance at my watch occasionally to make sure I'm still close to being on pace. At mile 18, I also start trending heavily left to make sure I don't miss my posse and aid station (my friend Erin from NY had done up signs and balloons and Becca, Kai and Lara were planning on seeing me there and handing some extra supplies to me). While I'm doing that, I have a long legged man name Ron come up to me and start quizzing me about the Lizards (turns out he's from CA and had met a few @ the CIM race I qualified at). We then have the following conversation:

Ron: "Do you know Louis?"
Me (huffing and puffing): "Yes"
Ron: "Just passed him walking about a mile back. Said he was cramping."
Me: “Really? Crap!”

At this point I A) Feel horrible for Louis and hope he's putting it back together on the course (I eventually found out he had Achilles problems and had to drop out) and B) suddenly get very worried about my own survival skills as Louis is in a LOT better shape than me...

Mile 19: After much meandering along the left side of the course I finally hit “Davis Square” @ the famed Johnny Kelly statue. I see Becca with Kai strapped in and make a beeline for her. With my “business face” on, I proceed to do the following:

1) Chuck the Gu I’d picked up at mile 17 (why did I carry this thing for two miles when I had no intention of actually consuming it? Damn it!) into the crowd. Evidently though I chucked it right at Lara’s friends. Oops!

2) Grabbing the Gatorade and Mojo Bar from Becca without so much as eye contact. I disputed this later on but the photographic evidence was damming. This on its face wasn’t horrible but when coupled with my later story of giving the Wellesley girls a kiss? Well, let’s just say I’m lucky I have a very understanding wife ☺

3) Becca had been nice enough to hand me a banana as well for fear of me cramping late in the race. What was my reaction? A look of utter confusion followed by me chucking the banana onto the road about 20m down the road.

So despite all that drama, it was really nice to see familiar faces even if just for a few seconds. I was really starting to hurt going into the last two Newton hills and it showed. I really didn’t have any extra drive at this point. Despite grabbing fluids at every water stop during the race, I was still starting to feel a little off. As a result I held onto my bottle for most of the next two miles, despite my hatred for carrying things while I run, eventually finishing it off. While my watch showed that I was starting to slip off my overall goal pace it did end up feeling like I was gaining ground on people but also having people pass me as well. Suddenly my hill training seems inconsequential as I'm just slogging up the third of the Newton Hills at whatever pace my body is willing to do.

35k: 0:21:19

As I hit the top of the famed Heartbreak Hill I catch a break of sorts. I am suddenly by myself with a short stocky runner in front of me. As we reach BC, I quickly figure out he's got a Boston College singlet on leading to an insane level of cheers by the drunken BC faithful. I somehow gain strength not from the crowds cheering, but from imagining myself as being the "heel" whose job is to ruin the hometown boy's day by defeating him on the homestretch of Boston. I’d like to say that the shift to downhill running was a welcome respite but at that point my legs just wanted a flat piece of land. And my mind wanted a good stiff drink.

Miles 22-24 become very interesting. I stop looking at my watch so much I realize I’m going as fast as my body will let me. I feel like I'm making up ground but also feel my quads punish my on every foot strike. At this point I hit the mental wall: I'm no longer caring about what pace I'm running or who I'm keeping up with/passing/getting passed by. A large chunk of the course at this point turns into a blur only brought into clarity by mile markers and aid stations. I remember crossing the tracks near Cleveland Circle only because my friend Lara had warned me the day before that many a person had been their victim during the race. I then see the Citgo sign and in a complete turnaround from Sunday, I look at it thinking, "I still have THAT far to go?" I hit Kenmore Square remembering my friend Lincoln’s advice to soak in the crowd but not remembering a damn thing other than finally passing the taunting piece of Boston skyline that is the Citgo sign.

40k: 0:21:05
42.2k: 2:57:26

Everything is anything at this point (ok, I have no idea what I meant when I wrote this originally but for some reason it works). I'm focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and hoping I don't randomly cramp up or crash or do something equally idiotic. The dip under Mass Ave feels like climbing Everest. Once I turn onto Boylston, I actually hit my watch @ 26.2 so see how close I really was to my original pace goal (2:55:33 so just over a second a mile off) My official marathon ends up being 26.5 miles, most of which I tacked on in the last 10 miles of the race. After hitting my watch I look up for the first time to see the finish. It's strangely soothing to see it so close yet still a ways away. It's then that the whole thing has hit me; I'm finishing the race I've always wanted to run and I'm doing it in record (for me at least) time. I take off my hat (which I never do while running), start pumping my arms and have this idiot grin on my face as I cross the finish line. I've done it. I've finished Boston. Hell, I’ve PR’d at Boston.

Finish area:

The finish area is so damn long. I guess it's a good way to keep people on their feet and moving. About 50m after the finish I help a volunteer get someone to the medical tent as I guess with two semi-functional legs I qualify as extra help. I watch another person go down ahead of me like they've been shot and be immediately taken care of by the crack medical staff. Get the mylar blanket (btw, a nice touch having the people tape it together), get the medal, get the lunch and go to get my bag. During this process I continue to move along though I stop every 50m as well. No physical problems, just overcome by the emotion of the moment. I keep starting to cry, then hold it back, compose myself and move ahead.

After it taking 10-15 minutes for the volunteer to find my bag, I take advantage of the awesome Boston infrastructure to get a massage. I somehow enjoy the cruel irony of having to walk down two flights of stairs to get into the massage/chiro area. From there I head to the University Club (many thanks to Len!), catch up with Len/Dan/Sarah/Clover and then head to the Gardens to meet Becca & Kai, where we find out Kai is scared of metal ducks... After a little bit of touristing around the Gardens, we hit the Green Dragon bar for Guinness & fried food. Seems like a fitting start to the post-race recovery process!

Final Results

PR of 7:28

1021/22645 Overall
957/13112 Men's
737/4656 18-39 AG
16th ranked Oregonian
Half Splits: 1:27:50/1:29:36

Post Race Thoughts

Boston is quite simply an amazing race. I'm not quite sure how quickly I'm going to be able to get back but I'm hell bent on doing so. The crowds just fire you up, even if your brain can't process them the last few miles. They are 4-5 people deep in the early miles, ebb and flow for a while, get loud again @ Wellesley and then after that it's just a solid wall of people topped off with the chaos from Kenmore Square to the finish. To run a personal best on one of the most famous marathon courses in the world surpassed any performance goal I had. However, if the day had gone less well time wise I still would have been happy having the experience of running that course with that crowd.

The most deceptive part of the course itself is the lack of any consistent flat parts in the race. I trained for the hills but I don't think I realized that you spend almost the entire time moving up or down (or at least that's how it felt to me). This led to...

My hitting the wall psychologically for the first time in a race. Any time I had struggles in previous races, it was always physical and I usually got through it with my stubborn demeanor. However Boston, whether it was the course, the crowds or the occasion took more out of me mentally than any other race. I really didn't realize how much so until I hit those last few miles and stopped looking at my watch, had my game plan mentally float out of my head and contemplated walking at one point. Over the last three miles I just have these brief memories of the race and most of that has to do with the course itself, not the crowds at Kenmore or along Boylston. Regrettable in some ways but also tells me I pushed myself to another level and points to things to work on in future Boston races.

It was awesome to see the blue jackets swarm the town after the race. And even those who weren't wearing jackets wore their badge of honor (the non-functioning quads) with pride. Though I did feel bad for the guy on our Fenway tour the day after who at 6'4" realized he was going to try to be wedging himself into the old school seats at that night's game.

A post race recovery snack of Dunkin Donuts has never tasted so good. :-)

I tend to be a fairly self-critical person. Becca and I were talking on our flight back to Portland and given her knowledge of summa cum laude goal of 2:55, she asked "are you proud of your performance? Because you should be..." And for the first time since the birth of Kai, with no reservations the answer was yes. I was happy with my experience with no reservations. The way it should be I know but for me that short conversation really drove the whole experience home for me.

A final note: I was really amazed by the pride the city's citizens take in the event. I have had friends who have lived in Boston and watched the marathon and heard their stories but I lost count the number of times I had a random Bostonian stop me on Monday/Tuesday to either congratulate me or ask me how I did. This also included this awesome exchange at one of the downtown T stations:

T ticket guy: "So what did you run?"
Me: "2:57"
Random disheveled older man who scared the crap out of the family by appearing out of nowhere: "Do you know that's four times the normal speed of humans? You're wicked pissah fast!"
Me: "Thanks?"

On that note, thank you Boston. I’ll be back.


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