Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Boston Marathon, April 2014

Boston. Two years ago, if I’d told a random person in Wagga that I was going to run the Boston Marathon, chances are this would have meant very little to them. But since April 15th 2013, the same news has provoked a very different reaction. Just about everyone has heard of the Boston Marathon now, and everyone who knew I was there in 2013 had the same reaction as I did: going back in 2014 was never in question. I had to do it. Of course, the invitation to once again participate in the Elite Women's Start did help -- but I was always coming back to Boston.

The Training

Strangely enough I seem to have changed a lot of my beliefs about my own running in the past few years. I once said I'd never run a marathon ("Run a HM twice over? No thank you!") and there was a time when training plans and coaching were not for me ("But what if I don't WANT to run 10 miles that day?") All that has changed now, and I have been very pleased to find that Benita's method of coaching agrees with me in every way.

So after my slightly disappointing finish in Melbourne, Boston assumed even more significance - once again it became a major goal race, my chance to better my PR from last year, and I was fortunate enough to have a practically perfect training cycle leading up to April.

From December through February we hummed along at a steady 80-90 miles per week with regular intervals and tempo runs, as well as a fair dose of racing, all at my suggestion. With the exception of one VERY poorly thought-out long run that ended in an epic bonk (my first real experience of hitting the Wall), my training went very smoothly. I was encouraged by my results in both Wangaratta and Yarrawonga, and by the end of March the stars appeared to be aligning themselves for a major happening on April 21.

My ride to Dallas.

Travel and lead-up

I get a solid 7 hours of sleep on the flight to Dallas Fort Worth and once there make my way so effortlessly through Immigration and Customs that I swear I am never going to fly anywhere via LAX again - the comparison between the two airports is laughable. I've often said LAX is a toilet but compared to DFW it's actually a hole in the ground with sandpaper the only option for wiping. The flight to Dallas is slightly longer but the time saved from not having to queue for hours on end at Los Angeles airport more than makes up for this inconvenience.

In Boston the atmosphere is one of an enormous, joyful street party. It's awesome to meet up once again with running friends from all parts of the country and the world; there are many old faces and many new as well. The expo is a epicentre of activity and energy, heaving with excited runners and supporters. This year's jackets are a startling dayglo orange, though, and although I'd like to I just can't quite bring myself to buy one. Never mind, there are exciting palindromic bibs to be picked up and plenty of other running goods to be had!

It's like I'm number 1, only 3 times as awesome!

As we walk the streets we are surprised to see large numbers of people wearing hand-knitted scarves in the Boston colours; at first it reminds me of the knitting projects we did in Year 5 at school (aka the 5th grade), but why are there so many of them around?? It turns out the scarves are from the Marathon Scarf Project, which is being run by the Old South Church in Boston. The church stands on Boylston St just 100 feet from the marathon finish line, and last year was one of the places where terrified runners and spectators took shelter in the aftermath of the bombings. This year the scarves are being distributed to runners as a way of fighting back against the horror of last year's tragedy, and from their website below the explanation:

"In this year of remembrance and hope, we will wrap you in love and prayer by presenting you with a handmade blue and gold scarf. The scarves are a labor of love by knitters across the country and beyond, specifically for this year’s athletes. May the scarf warm your spirit as you maneuver a new city, as you carry the weight of a somber anniversary year, and as you look down 26.2 miles with resolve."

The love and goodwill are palpable as I am wrapped in my scarf, and as I walk away someone randomly hands me a tulip with a tag attached: "You're crushing it! #bostonstrong". I stop to photograph it and my companion points out a small peace sign that someone has crafted from pipe cleaners and fixed to the barricades that line this side of Boylston St in preparation for tomorrow's race: by chance we have stopped at the exact spot where the first bomb was detonated. 

Boston Strong, indeed.
The traditional pre-race party is on again at Beerworks, and there are familiar faces that I've met there three years in a row. Time flies and before I know it, it's almost 11pm and really I should be thinking about getting some sleep - but not before engineering a photo opportunity that is irresistible:

Dan, Joel, me and Greg: 2013 on the left, 2014 on the right.
Spot any differences??

Race Day

It seems almost too luxurious to sleep until 6am on the morning of a major marathon, but the 9:32am start does have some advantages. Once up I force down a bagel and some iced coffee, then dress and head down to the Fairmont Copley Plaza, where the elite buses await. Last year I was already in my race outfit at this point but this year I've wised up and am planning to change at the church - I've got all my stuff in the clear plastic check bag that every runner has been issued.

Half asleep but happy!

The ride out to Hopkinton is again extremely smooth and somewhat surreal, with motorcycle cops stopping traffic at every on-ramp in order to keep our passage uninterrupted. At the church I again head straight upstairs where it's warmer; this year I actually know a few people so it's a lot of fun to chat with them and wander around a bit. The Africans head out to do an easy warm-up and the rest of us lesser mortals feel compelled to do the same; as I jog slowly and rather pointlessly up and down the small street behind the church, Desi Linden (one of the top American seeded women) and Rita Jeptoo (last year's winner) both run past me. Wow!

Then to top it all off, on the way back into the church I pass Meb Keflezighi in the corridor. I seize the opportunity to wish him good luck and a great race; he's sweet and gracious, patting me on the shoulder as he wishes me the same in return. Then it's time to change and get ready to race - the top seeded women are called out by name and lined up to walk up to the corral. I humbly wait my turn before bringing up the rear as we head into the bright sunshine and the almost deafening noise from the spectators and, more importantly, the first corral.

There is a row of blokes lined up along the fence and one yells my name - we high-five each other as I pass and belatedly realise, that must have been Tyler from our sub-3 Facebook group?? Then I see Steven Moore - another of the INKnBURN elites - he's yelling in my face too so I grab his hand and yell back "Steve!!!" before finally I'm out in the open and WOW. The atmosphere is electric. I jog around a bit, do some strides and then just stand around in what can only be described as an overwhelmed stupor, before belatedly realising that I haven't bothered to turn on my Garmin and the race is 2 minutes from starting! Holy crap! Thankfully it fires up quickly and the announcer begins the countdown - I think I can hear someone bellowing my name from behind me, but there's no time left to look - here we go....

Miles 1-3: 6:08, 6:28, 6:12 (pace in minutes per mile)

The gun sounds and everyone sets off like their shoes are on fire. For the first half mile, as it was last year I am again in the middle of the pack, but the pace is noticeably much faster. Shalane Flanagan is leading the Africans out at a blistering pace; later I hear the first mile was covered in 5:11 pace. She has stated her intention of winning and it looks like she's giving it everything she's got.

ZOOOOM - there she goes

For me, though, this is clearly WAY too fast. I glance at my Garmin and practically pass out when I see it reading 5:20. Ok, back off, back off now. I put the brakes on so hard that mile 2 ends up actually slower than target, but this early in the race I know better than to worry too much. Just settle in and let it happen. I slug down my first gel and grab a cup of water to wash the sickly taste away. 

Miles 4-6: 6:13, 6:17, 6:13. 5K split 19:31

This pace feels....honest. That's the best way to describe it: tough yet manageable, for now. I have no expectation that any part of this race is going to feel easy - the old saying about how the first 10, or 13, or even 20 miles should be a cakewalk no longer applies to me. At this level it's supposed to feel tough, at some point it's going to hurt, and almost certainly at some point I'm going to want to throw in the towel. If none of that happens then I'm not running fast enough.

I'm actually leading a small group of women (so at least I'm not dead last) and running beside me is a woman I met briefly at the start. Her bib is F115 and her name is Sarah; I know she is shooting for 2:50ish and this pace is not too advisable for her. I've warned her several times of this fact, but she's determined to stick with me. We zoom over the 5K mats -- she laughs and comments "Now everyone at home knows what we're up to!" I picture online friends shaking their heads - or perhaps their fists - at their screens when they see my first split, and the thought makes me laugh too. Onward! I will later find she didn't finish the race - oops, hopefully that wasn't my fault.

It's a perfect running day but also warmer than I expected; I'm still wearing my gloves and so around mile 4 I peel them off and toss them at a spectator. The crowds are wonderful, vocal and excited - there are flags that read "Boston Strong!"  waving at me and kids lining up for high-fives. I veer to the side and oblige - I'm not likely to be wanting to do this later in the race, so might as well do it now.

Miles 7-9: 6:13, 6:20, 6:18. 10K split 39:02 (19:31)

The 10K split is more fuel for the fire of those who may be spectating online; oh well, I know Boston well enough now to know that going slightly too fast in the early miles is not a disaster. These miles take me past some interesting scenery and I'm feeling good enough that I am still able to take in and store small observations along the way; this ability will be lost later in the race. As we pass a small lake on the right I notice that the fire hydrants are painted in Boston yellow and blue - how awesome! And a sign grabs my attention, although the woman holding it looks like she's still setting up for the day; later it appears on Facebook in a friend's feed so I'm able to share what made me smile:

Thanks, Kate, for sharing, and Amy too!

Wait, what did you just call me?

Miles 10-12: 6:18, 6:25, 6:17. 15K split 58:40 (19:38)

Something is different about this race. Last year although I ran with 2 others through halfway, I barely saw any of the other elite women; this year, however, things are much less lonely. Between the 5 and 10K mats I've already lost most of the group that were with me early on (F115, F110 and F114 among them), but as 15K comes up two others have appeared just ahead of me. Playing "assassin mode" is always a great way of passing time - steadily and relentlessly reeling in the people ahead of you one by one - so I take advantage of the opportunity to focus on that. It makes sense: Shalane took everyone out incredibly fast, and now those who maybe couldn't control the urge to go with her as well as the rest of us are paying for it. I almost got caught up in it myself - perhaps I've finally learned my lesson about going out too fast? As if to confirm this, I easily pass F43 just before the 20K mats.

Somewhere around mile 12, Kristin just behind me. I'm not frowning....yet.

The Wellesley scream tunnel comes and goes with little fanfare and intact eardrums - no doubt because there are no guys around just yet - and that's fine with me.

Miles 13-15: 6:26, 6:22, 6:23.  20K split: 1:18:35 (19:55) 
HM split: 1:22:54

I'm still with it enough to do the mental math and realise that I'm well under the agreed-upon target for 13.1 miles, so I try to ease up as much as I can at this point. It's not hard to do, given that both the labels "tough" and "manageable" still apply to how things are feeling (the former slightly more than the latter), and also because I know that the Newton Hills are fast approaching. I've passed Kristin (F106) now, and F48 is only 6 seconds ahead and firmly in my crosshairs. I will get her in the hills - my silly Roadrunner shuffle is even more efficient going uphill - and this knowledge is a boost as I head into the toughest part of the course.

Miles 16-18: 6:15, 6:29, 6:32  25K split: 1:38:27 (19:53)

Here's a screenshot of the elevation profile for the course from Hopkinton to Boylston St:

It's fairly obvious that the first half is considerably downhill, and then the torture starts around the 16 mile mark as the Newton Hills make their presence felt. The uphills have affected me differently every time I've run Boston; this year I cruise over the first one feeling pretty great, but miles 17 and 18 hit me hard. My pace drops below target for the first time since mile 2 -- I'm expecting this, but still it's very unpleasant. I'd rather like to stop running now, but that's not negotiable. Thankfully a bike spotter choses this moment to appear beside me, and my attention is diverted by the experience I know is coming soon: I'm going to see the lead men go past me.

Miles 19-21: 6:17, 6:28, 6:42 30K split: 1:58:38 (20:11)

Mile 19 starts and I'm still able to run the tangents, which is pleasing, but I know I'm going to have to stay right pretty soon. Sure enough, a procession of vehicles begin to pass me when I start hugging the right hand curb, and it's both thrilling and slightly nerve-wracking. I'm running as hard as I can whilst looking over my shoulder, watching for the pack of Africans that I'm expecting to sweep past me any moment, and as the final truck comes by I look left again.....and do a massive double-take. It's Meb!! And not only that - he is totally alone - where on earth is the lead pack??

Seeing him running alone and obviously so far ahead is like a massive adrenaline surge directly to my brain and without even thinking about it I go straight into dippy fan-girl mode: I'm clapping like a maniac and screaming "MEB!! GO MEB!! YEAH YEAH WOOOOO!!!!" with every molecule of oxygen in my lungs. If you don't believe me, see below (with many thanks to jcboston from RWOL for sending me the link).....oh and you have to watch all the way to the finish.....

After he passes and I'm done with my fan-girl hysteria, I'm waiting for the Africans to come chasing him. I wait...and wait...looking over my left shoulder more than once....but it's well over a minute until a tight group of 5 finally comes flying past. Oh my god, Meb is going to win! Well, I hope so - he has a big lead now, but who knows what will happen down the track? I'd like to consider this more, but then Heartbreak Hill swallows me whole and I have no spare brain cells to use.

This final hill is just...horrible. All of a sudden I really, really want to simply stop in my tracks. I consider it quite seriously - how hard would it be to just step to the side and say I'm done? - before telling myself firmly, NO. "This is Boston," I tell myself sternly, "and you do NOT GIVE UP." Right, right, I sigh back. Now we've got that straightened out, just get to the top of this ridiculous hill. I'm not even looking at my Garmin anymore, I just want to get over the top and start the 5 painful miles that remain. I pass F42 and see F45 still ahead - keep it going, Rachel. Do. Not. Give. Up.

Miles 22-24: 6:26, 6:18, 6:22 35K split 2:19:04 (20:26)

I'm more than happy to see my Garmin showing some paces that are closer to my goal again, as I pound my way through the downhills that take the course into Brookline and ever closer to Boylston St. I sail past another two elite females (F45, then F38 - who looks like she's toast, but to her credit she's waving her arms to amp up the crowd and seems to be having fun still) and look up to see not one but two distinctively female runners ahead.

Passing and frowning all at once. You'd think I'd be happier about this...but no.

This will consume me for the remainder of the race; the chant of "This is Boston. Do not give up." will take up half my brainpower, the goal of catching those women will take up the rest. In the moments that remain I will also think of the people who lost their lives and limbs in the finish line bombings last year - I have passed many amputees throughout the race and it's a stark reminder of that awful day. They are out here doing it so I have absolutely no right to even consider stopping, although I'd love to. I owe it to them to keep running and so that's what I do. Not negotiable.

Miles 25 & 26: 6:31, 6:33 40K split: 2:39:04 (20:00)

I catch up to F44, a Japanese woman, who clearly doesn't like this at all and she immediately pulls ahead again. I realise all of a sudden that the next woman ahead is F112: Lisa, the Canadian triathlete whom I beat for 5th Master last year. She must have gone out hard, and it's taken me at least 2, maybe 3 miles to catch her, because I've been seeing her back for quite a while now. By the 40K mats we are just 3 seconds apart, and a spectating friend takes this photo as we grind past - both looking suitably unimpressed with the current situation.

Mid-life crisis? No, this is how we planned to spend our mid-forties, really.
Again I've given up looking at my Garmin - with the finish so close, I really don't care how fast I'm going, I just want to get there. F44 pulls further ahead as we dip below the infamous underpass at mile 25.5, and I hear someone scream "Rachel!!" from the side of the road - did I just pass Cannoli Corner? I'm 0 for 3 when it comes to cannoli, but maybe one of these years I'll be inclined to stop.

Rounding the corner up Hereford towards the final turn onto Boylston St, Lisa has gone ahead and I don't have enough energy left to care. The crowds are 10-deep on either side of the road and the noise is deafening, but I can barely hear it. My legs are screaming at me to get this over, and I'm not even bothering to disguise the torture that I'm feeling: it's obvious and all over my face.

Ugh, are we there yet?
Boylston St: 5:49 pace to the finish

Burning down Boylston, I know better than to expect the finish line to be close. It's oh so far away, but as I grit my teeth and pump my arms it draws rapidly closer. Lisa is out of striking range and I wouldn't be able to get her even if she was: it's taking every ounce of determination and concentration for me to keep my legs moving now. I stare stupidly at the clock as I approach the finish - it's about to come up to 2:20 - how many minutes do I add, again?

For a second my addled brain gets it completely wrong and tells me "that's 2:52", and I can't quite figure how that could have happened, but thankfully then some other part of my brain yells WHO CARES?? Just get there! so I put my head down and sprint. As I cross the finish line I manage to hit the stop button and when I look at my Garmin: 2:47:57. YES!!!

Finish time: 2:47:57 (6:25 pace)

Placement: 42nd OA female, 5th in AG (F40-44) and 6th Masters female.

The Aftermath
Lisa has gotten me by 10 seconds - a fitting return serve after last year, I guess! We are both quickly joined by volunteers very solicitous of our well-being; we each get one who puts his arm around our shoulders and guides us gently but firmly  - and rather quickly - towards the VIP tent. The events of mile 19 flash back into my mind and I demand of my guide "Who won?" The reply stuns and delights me: it was Meb! First American winner since 1983! 

In the VIP tent I chat briefly with Lisa, who it turns out was gunning for 2:45 (no wonder she beat me!) and a few of the other women there, before putting my name down for a massage. I have felt a few weird, unprecedented cramps in my calf muscles in the final few miles - more evidence that I was truly red-lining it in the closing stages of the race - and it can't hurt to get them pummelled for free. One of my other friends from last year, Perry, shows up and together we drink Gatorade and chat. It's the perfect end to a fantastic race - there's only one thing that is still missing, but that's soon fixed after a trip back to the hotel for a quick shower and some fresh clothes.....

Beer! And a noisy Pom.

The Analysis 

Comparing my splits from 2013 and 2014 proves very interesting. 

Essentially, I was 30 seconds ahead by the 15K mark this year, and I stayed 20-30 seconds ahead all the way through 35K. Between 35 and 40K I gained at least another 20 seconds and the rest of it (making up 66 seconds in total for my new PR) came in the final 2.2km. Not only was I able to go slightly faster, I was MUCH better able to hold that pace in the second half of the race. It's a pleasant confirmation of what I already knew: my training has been vastly improved with Benita's direction.

Where to now? I declared shortly after crossing the finish line that I'm done chasing marathon PRs now, and that may yet be true. I'm not going to race another marathon until probably Melbourne this October, but in between I'm going to see how much fun I can have with the shorter distances. Starting with one every weekend in May.....did someone say "Raceaholic"? You heard it here first!


  1. Woot! You are awesome! (Though in the photo of you passing F38, both of you look pretty toasty...) It was so much fun to cheer you on from my computer, and when I saw Meb pass you I cheered out loud, too! See you in 2015!

  2. That was good. Very happy I got up to watch such an amazing and exciting race - also to track how you were going. Thought the projected 2:44:5X at 10k was about right with the quick start. Sub-2:48 is a great PB but with Benita's help I'm sure you'll run faster. In Melbourne! By the way, 6:25 pace doesn't sound as impressive as 3:58.8 pace. That's fast!

  3. Even reading was an adrenaline rush. Well executed and a great story. Thanks for that report Rachel!

  4. You rock Rachel!

    I haven't completed my first full yet...but reading your entire blog made it very real & now I get a very good sense of what it's like to race at the higher levels!

    I appreciate all the time you took here....and all you do for this awesome sport!

    (and I agree with you 100%...Benita is an AMAZING coach!)

    PS - I watched your clip several times when Meb passed when you first sent it to the FB group...
    and it's just one of the most inspirational things...to see you're in pain...but then get this giant boost when he's there and you give him all you've got...LOVE it!

  5. Hi Rachel, I found your blog via a Google Blog Search. I was a Marathon Scarf Project scarfmaker and volunteer. I don’t know if you've been able to connect with your scarfmaker but if you're interested in learning more about what went into the project you can read about it at my blog:

  6. Hey Rachel -- Just a quick thanks for one of the best race reports I've ever read. Just revisited for a bit of inspiration before a gut-check race tomorrow morning, and hopefully again near Patriot's Day 2015. Rock on. --Steve