Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Marathon 2013

Before I start this race report, I want to take the opportunity to express how horrified and shocked I was at the events which unfolded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston St at 2:50pm.

Terrorism is a threat we are all aware of, yet most of us have never have to face head-on. On Monday afternoon that threat came to Boston, and a child died. Two more young people lost their lives, and dozens of others were injured. Even worse was the fact that many had lost limbs in the blast - something no runner ever could, or should, have to think about. 

Running the Boston Marathon is the crowning achievement in the lives of so many runners, and waiting to see them finish is how their friends and family support and celebrate that achievement with them. It is unthinkable that these people were hurt doing something so loving and positive. One of my online running friends expressed how many of us feel on his blog, and a quote from Josh Cox that sums up how I and all my friends who were in Boston on Monday surely feel:

"Not sure what the cowards tried to accomplish but I do know they picked the wrong group of people to try and break and discourage.  Runners are the strongest people I know"

My own response to the bombings, and that of many other runners I know, has been not just horror and sorrow, but one of affirmation: we want to come back to Boston. We want to show that we will not be cowed or frightened by terrorism, that we will return and support the city of Boston as it recovers and heals from this awful act of violence.

That all said, the story of Boston 2013 for me is one that began with an email I received on March 1st, which read: 
Based on your qualifying performance you have been selected to participate in the Elite Women's Start for the 2013 Boston Marathon. 

My qualifying time was the 2:51:54 I ran in Honolulu in December 2012, and although the official qualifying time for the EWS is sub-2:50, my status as a Masters runner meant I was still offered a place - which I was delighted to accept.

The Training
Once again I (loosely) followed a plan by Pete Pfitzinger, emphasising quantity over quality, but building in a fair amount of marathon-pace training and the occasional tempo run. My pre-taper mileage averaged 99mpw (160km) over 10 weeks, and although the one tune-up HM that I ran was something of a bust - much hillier and trail-ier than I was expecting - I felt reasonably confident that I was in PR shape heading to Boston.

The Travel
Ohhhh, what a disaster. After flying in from Wagga I arrived serene and relaxed at the Customs area in Sydney's International Terminal, only to be told " need to go back. I'm not sure they are flying today". All together now: WHAT???

It turned out that the A380 plane scheduled to fly me to LA was "unserviceable". I was told that I would get a hotel room for the night and fly out on Saturday instead. Obviously this was not something I was capable of considering, even for a minute. I spent the next 90 minutes in a whir of panic and adrenaline, but was able to apply a mixture of persistence ("Isn't there SOMEONE I can talk to?"), begging ("Re-route me via Buenos Aires! Via London? JUST PLEASE GET ME THERE!!") and cockiness ("Actually, I'm an elite athlete, and I really need to get to Boston...") to get myself on the next flight, leaving only 45 minutes after my original flight was supposed to.

After another drama involving problems locating my bag - and a brief period when I reconciled myself to leaving without it - I was first "on standby" for the United flight, then finally my seat was confirmed. My thoughts of a leisurely 90 minutes in the Qantas Club were replaced by a reality in which I ran probably 7-8 laps of the terminal (between the "On-Hand Luggage Room" and the Qantas Sales Desk), chewed through a month's worth of adrenaline, and finally made it through Customs and security as my plane was already boarding. I don't think I actually breathed out until the plane was airborne -- but I made it to Boston only half an hour late, not 24. What a ride!

Boston, Boston, Boston
It was simply fantastic to be back in Boston and I took every opportunity to meet up with both real and imaginary Runners World friends as we all enjoyed the pre-race buzz. 

RWOL legends: a Sandbagger, a Tiger, a random Aussie and Greg...

The Expo was an insanely tempting experience - I could have bought one of just about EVERYTHING. I held it back as much as I was able, but still walked away with a veritable mountain of blue-and-yellow Boston paraphenalia. This would come in very handy in the tragic aftermath of the marathon, when all everyone wanted to do was wear Boston colours.

The other highlight of the Expo was meeting up with the INKnBURN crew - my awesome sponsors - for a photo op with a bunch of other fast runners.

Whoa, look at all those funky running clothes! (and Steven's hat...)

On Sunday I attended a pre-race briefing for the elite athletes and managed to bump into the only other Australian woman in the EWS - it was great to know that I would at least have one person to talk to on the morning of the race! The details about drug testing and the award ceremony seemed pretty irrelevant and the briefing was over very quickly.

Race Day
I'm awake fairly easily at 5:30am after retiring early the night before. I scoff down a Clif bar and a banana, and start sipping on Gatorade. My race outfit (with many thanks to INKnBURN) is already laid out with front AND back bibs already pinned:

so it's a simple matter of getting dressed and heading to the Fairmont Copley Plaza to board the BAA Elite athlete bus.

The ride out to Hopkinton - apart from being terrifyingly long ("I have to run ALL THAT WAY back?? Oh My GOD") - is another surreal experience. There is an actual police escort for the 5 swanky coaches that swiftly convey myself and a wide selection of current and former Olympic marathoners to a church adjacent to the start line. At every on-ramp there's a line of traffic, called to a halt by a motorbike policeman until we pass. It's literally unbelievable!

At the church I find a chair and sit around feeling intimidated. There are lanky Africans (both male and female elites are at the church) all over the place, lying on mats (some with towels over their heads) with legs in the air, just hanging out. It's colder than I expected downstairs, so I relocate fairly quickly to the balcony that runs around the upper level and find myself outside a room containing not only Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, but also Sheri Piers, a formidable Masters athlete who was written up in the Runners World magazine I read on the plane. Whoa.

Then I look down at the people below and for god's sake, there's Rob de Castella!! He is wearing a jacket with "Indigenous Marathon Project" on the back and sitting with an Aboriginal girl, who I assume is running the race. I rack my brains for a way of introducing myself to him but can't come up with anything, so when I see my fellow Aussie (Sharon) nearby, I head over and whisper excitedly, "Deek is down there!!" She immediately says "Let's go say hi!" and off we go down the stairs.

Deek turns out to be as awesome a guy as I would have imagined, and we chat for a while. He asks what advice I’d give to Emma, his runner who is here to run her first marathon. I tell her “Take it easy until the top of Heartbreak Hill, then run your heart out!” She laughs but she’s nervous, so we head back upstairs and leave her in peace.

Finally it's time to go outside for our 9:32am start. The top 20 women are called by name and lined up to go out first. I am in awe. Then the rest of us follow them up a narrow path to the starting area, and it's seriously like I'm in a small local race, not the most famous World Marathon Major. 

Fuzzy but there I am, on the left about 3 rows back

I jog around a bit between the two human chains of volunteers that separate us from the corrals behind and the race/press vehicles ahead, then briefly say a brave hello to Sheri (who is very sweet and encouraging) before deciding just to stand still and enjoy the moment. The top athletes are lined up at the front - Kara, Shalane, Rita Jeptoo (who will go on to win the race) and Sharon Cherop (1st last year and 3rd this year) for a photo op - and then with surprisingly little fanfare, off we go.

Miles 1-2: 6:18, 6:22 (pace in min/mile as per Garmin)
The women on the line spring forwards and as a group we set off at a pace that seems wrong to me - I can actually keep up! We glide along with the press and official vehicles smoothly leading the way. Half a mile in I have to do it, I check my Garmin and it tells me we're doing 6:00 pace. God, it's tempting to try and keep up, but I need to ease it back - this is pretty much my 5K pace and there's no way on earth I am going to be able to hold it for another 25.7 miles! At mile 2 I remember I need to take my first GU, so I yank it out of my bra and suck it down quickly.

Gradually I begin to drop back and am rewarded with mile splits that are a little closer to my goal pace, and  I make a sudden decision to aim for 6:25 min/mile, which equals 4:00 min/km. When I first started running and racing, that was my ultimate top racing speed, so it's almost preposterous that I'm trying to run that fast for a whole marathon, but whatever! Also, it makes the mental math much easier as I go through each 5K marker. I'm going to need things to be simple, especially later in this race. 

Miles 3-4: 6:12, 6:15 -- 5K split 19:42
So much for slowing it down. I now find myself the leader of a little pack of 3: I know there are more women behind me, but not many, so there's no way I'm going to let these two pass me. One is someone with whom I chatted briefly at the church - her name is Perry and I know her PR is slower than mine, so I'm bemused as to why she's pushing me along at sub-6:20 pace - oh well, I guess we'll see what happens.

Miles 5-6: 6:26, 6:15
One mile that's more like it, but then oops, off we go again. Is this going to be a recurring theme? I feel great, though, really fresh and bouncy. The lead pack are still within sight, although they are stretching out as a few more women fall behind. We catch and pass my fellow Aussie during mile 6.

Miles 7-8: 6:16, 6:20 -- 10K split 39:30
Perry and my other shadow (whose name I later discover is Lisa) are still pounding along just behind me. This pace really is way too fast, so I ask quietly "Um, what time are you shooting for, Perry?" She replies "2:48 would be great", but her breathing is giving her away - I'm quite convinced she is even crazier than I am at this point. I tell her we really don't need to push any harder, we're ahead of 2:48 pace now, but she doesn't respond. We catch and pass a crazy Finn called Jutta sometime during mile 8.

Miles 9-10: 6:17, 6:19 -- 15K split 59:10
We hit 10 miles in around 1:03:30, which is a 10 mile PR for me and not surprising, since that distance is not raced in Australia and my 2 previous 10 milers were run in Scotland many years ago. I start to wonder about whether anyone who is tracking me right now is at home yelling at the computer, because I'm still going way too fast. But many of my closest running friends are somewhere behind me on the course, so I don't dwell on it for too long.

Lisa, me, Perry. None of us look too thrilled.

Miles 11-12: 6:25, 6:14
Slowest mile yet, then overcompensating once again. The halfway mark is approaching and wow, I'm a long way head of goal pace. I know this could all end very badly -- but I'm not slowing down. Maybe it's the elite start, maybe the girls behind me, maybe it's sheer stupidity or a combination of all three, but I've realised that today I'm running the race of my life. It's time to see what I've really got in me....

Miles 13-14: 6:16, 6:16 -- 20K split 1:18:48
Through halfway in 1:23:13?? HOLY CRAP - that's a new half PR. Am I really on track for 2:46? No - a positive split (aka fading at the end) is inevitable, I know this now. A moment of fear hits me, then I quickly pull it together and push the negative thoughts from my mind. Mile 14, time for another gel, and some water from the overenthusiastic volunteers - they've been waiting hours to hand out water to the runners and they are all straining to give me a cup.

Miles 15-16: 6:28, 6:21 -- 25K split 1:38:48
Oh, hello, Newton Hills! Last year you guys didn't phase me at all - this year is going to be different. Suddenly I realise I've lost Perry, and I have no idea if Lisa is still behind me or not (she is, but about 10 seconds back now). I focus on effort level and try to keep it even. The 25K split reassures me that I'm still on target, even if I'm not sure my target is entirely sane.

Miles 17-18: 6:32, 6:34
I know I'm slowing down now, so I quit looking at the Garmin altogether. I was expecting the elite men's leaders to pass me by now, so I occupy my thoughts wondering where they are and thinking up smart things to say to my running friend Reed, who did the math and told me the men would catch me at mile 15-16. I called him a "math geek" at the time - I'm going to enjoy ribbing him about how wrong he was.

Somewhere around 30K; I'm pointing my left hand down - not a good sign.

Miles 19-20: 6:25, 6:25 -- 30K split 1:59:10
At mile 19 I suddenly hear a helicopter overhead - and then hey presto, I have my own bicycle spotter! In fact, the few women up ahead (whom I am slowly catching on the hills) also have spotters. THE MEN ARE COMING!! Bike Guy and I exchange greetings and he says "I'm just going to stay with you until the press van comes through, okay?". I'm all, "OKAY!" - I mean, this is pretty darn awesome - and we speed along together for the next half mile.

At this point I really, REALLY want to cross the road in order to run the tangent. There's no sign of either press van or African men, so I tell Bike Guy and he apologises for making me run long, but he's not willing to risk me getting squished by an official vehicle. I stay on the right. A truck with a small grandstand finally goes past, with a bunch of guys holding enormous cameras.....and then at mile 19.75 by my Garmin, a group of 5 African men sweeps past me like I'm standing still. 

Here they come!
The crowd are going NUTS and although I know it's not for me, I have this ridiculous grin plastered across my face and I'm giving them waves and thumbs-up like an idiot. Wow, what an experience.

Miles 21-22: 6:39, 6:18 -- 35K split 2:19:38
Heartbreak Hill is, appropriately, my slowest mile so far. But I'm still running consistent 20 minute 5K splits, which is frankly amazing. Several more men - including the fastest American man, Jason Hartmann - pass me in this mile, which brings renewed roaring from the crowd. I can feel my quads protest as the downhill begins after Heartbreak; this is a very different sensation to last year, when the problem was the relentless heat, not my legs. Uh oh, is this the beginning of the end? I am reassured to see that I am somehow back on sub-6:20 pace for mile 22. How long can I keep it going??

Miles 23-24: 6:18, 6:25 -- 40K split 2:39:55
I'm using all kinds of mental trickery just to keep my legs going at this point. I know I've fuelled well - I ate like a carbohydrate-addicted pig in the 48 hours prior to the race, and I've taken all 4 of my gels right on time - and I know I've trained well, with more volume than just about anyone I know. They say you run the first third of a marathon with your brain, the second with your personality and the third with your heart - I'm all heart at this point, and so focused that I completely miss several groups of friends who tell me later they were yelling at me in these last few miles.

Digging deep.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:34, 6:43, 6:10 pace to finish
Finally I'm running out of steam, but by God I'm almost there. I remember well the turns that are coming up - right onto Hereford, left onto Boylston - and just how far away that finish line is when you look up, and I'm ready for it this year I suppose. But it's still a bloody long way! 

Booking it onto Boylston St.
Running as hard as my legs will let me, I look up to see the clock relentlessly ticking towards 2:21. Around mile 15 the clocks reset to the men's race time - 28 minutes less than mine - and I'm too out of it right now to do the simple arithmetic to figure out what finish time I'm headed for; I simply put my head down and GO.

Finish time: 2:49:03, 6:27 pace (4:00.47 min/km!)

Placement: 39th OA female, 5th Master and 5th AG

This one is getting framed for sure.

After crossing the line it's a wonderful relief to stop running - and I feel surprisingly good as I walk slowly towards the entrance to the VIP tent. I take a bottle of water and start sipping it as I walk, and then just outside the entrance I see Deek again. I stop and tell him my result, he's lovely and congratulates me warmly. Inside the tent I chat to a few of the other women, and find that Lisa (F113) finished just 30 seconds behind me. Turns out she's a triathlete and mostly does Ironman events - she only runs around 40 miles per week! Insane that she can run sub-2:50 on that sort of training.

Someone now hands me my bag (Incredible! No walking or lining up!) and I go off to an extremely roomy portable toilet to change into my spare tights and my jacket. After snagging some Gatorade and food and talking to Perry (who is a little disappointed to have run 2:58) I head out to find my friends Joel and David, who were running together and shooting for around 2:50. As I walk towards the finish line they are right there, and have run 2:50 and 2:49 respectively! They're both very sweaty and very happy with their huge PRs, and we smugly pose for a picture together.

Aftermath and Analysis
I return to grab my stuff and some extra food from the VIP tent, and then the 3 of us wander down Boylston St through the finish area, making our way to the buses where the guys need to retrieve their baggage. We bump into our RWOL buddy Greg, who is surprised and delighted to see us, and from there we head back to the hotel for a welcome shower and fresh clothes.

We're walking through the lobby of the Sheraton on our way to lunch when it becomes apparent that something weird is going on. A woman is on her phone, yelling something about explosions near the finish line. Outside I see a runner with teeth chattering, clearly freezing - where is his space blanket? He's dressed in just his running clothes. Another older male runner is heading past and tells us "They stopped the race!" We are in shock: the Boston marathon, stopped? This cannot be true. But the air is full of sirens, and multiple police cars and ambulances are racing past as we stand watching.

At a nearby Thai restaurant we sit and stare at each other, and then simultaneously everyone's phone goes insane. Text messages, calls, Facebook messages: "ARE YOU OKAY?" We find out about the bombings at the finish line from people hundreds of miles away, in New York City and Michigan. The news filters in slowly: first it's gas explosions, then a fire, then the word terrorism emerges. Another bomb has been found, maybe a few more -- now we are wondering, is it even safe to go back outside? I know my placement as 5th female Master means I have won prize money, but there won't be an awards ceremony to attend anymore. The Fairmont is about 200 yards away from the bombings and now it's part of the crime scene.

Eventually we make our way back to the Sheraton and up to our room, where the news is full of the explosions and reports of people dead and injured. Silent, we watch in horror. The jubilation of personal best times is lost; it feels wrong to even talk about how we ran. Joy is replaced by fear and shock.

Boston is normally full of people and life in the evening after the marathon, but tonight - when we finally venture out and skirt nervously around the cordoned-off area that surrounds Boylston St and the finish line - it's quiet and eerily empty. Walking back after dinner, there are SWAT vans and heavily-armed police all around; we have to duck under police tape to get back to the hotel.

As I flew back to LA on the first leg of my trip home, news broke that the second suspect in the marathon bombings had been caught. For so many of us who ran Boston 2013, this news brought with it a huge feeling of relief. It does not change the fact that 3 people were killed by these criminals, and it does not change the fact that many of the survivors will be maimed for life. But it affirms the fighting spirit of Americans, who refuse to be daunted by fear and terror. This photo, shared by a friend on Facebook, sums it up well for me:

And as for my race performance, it's pretty simple to figure out where this one came from. I trained like a maniac and ran to my absolute potential on Patriot's Day 2013. Being given elite status was inspiring and I knew early in the race that I was going to put it all on the line. Typically when racing I do not like to take risks; I'd rather leave some time on the course than risk a major blow-up. But on Monday in Boston I took that risk, and it paid off in spectacular fashion. 

My next PR attempt won't be until Boston 2014, where I will have automatic Elite status that I am definitely going to pursue. Until then I'm going to enjoy running, and the simple fact that I can. I'll be wearing a lot of blue and yellow as I do this - my small way of remembering and paying tribute to the victims of the Boston marathon tragedy.


  1. Thanks for this Rachel. Excellent report. I can't even begin to imagine lining up with the world's best to start a race much less have the men's leaders come up from behind a run by.

    Glad to read that you had an awesome race and your training and race management paid off.

    Good luck next year and hope you run the course even faster!


  2. Well done Rachel. I was excited tracking your progress on that early Tuesday morning - slightly raised an eyebrow at the 1:23 split, but knew you'd be strong to the finish. Thought you'd run 2:48, but looks like you did tire slightly the last couple of ks. You're human after all!

    Terribly sorry about the aftermath. Glad they caught one of them alive - was following that on Twitter last Sunday. Hope your recovery goes well. I'm sure you'll come back in 2014 and run, well, who knows what. You're amazing.

  3. Loved your report! I'm astonished you managed both a half and a full PR in the same race...time to push that half a little more...