Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Boston Marathon, April 2017

What can I say to introduce the Boston marathon? I wasn't even aware of its existence until somewhere around 2011, but since then I've run it 6 times and every single one has been memorable in its own way. 2013 was the scene of great tragedy, 2014 one of triumph (and my own personal best of 2:47:57), 2015 a freezing weather disaster that provided a counterpoint to 2012's freakish heatwave.

In 2016 I found myself placed second in my age group with a 2:51 that I knew was going to be close to getting me back in to the Elite Women's Start - a privilege I had in 2013-2015 but missed the subsequent year.

I should explain that the elite start is a somewhat surreal experience that manages to be at once both utterly fantastic and completely intimidating. For a sub-elite sort of runner like me, the pressure that comes with it can be overwhelming - and in particular the desire to NOT be the slowest of the 40-something women that start together at 9:32am precisely - and can lead one to do silly things. Like going out way too fast, for example.

Not that I've never done that myself of course (cough cough), but Boston is a dangerous place to take risks. And sometimes, being all alone (or at best in a small pack) can be a distinct disadvantage: witness the debacles of NYC 2014 and Boston 2015, where I battled alone into a savage headwind for virutally the entire race. But all in all it's a privilege and an honour to start with some of the world's best runners, so when I managed to run 2:49 last July in the Gold Coast, I knew I was going to accept the offer to run in the EWS (if it came) for what would most likely be my final Boston.

The Training

12 weeks
Average mileage:  83 mi/ 133km per week
Speedwork: no, not really
Races: 1 marathon, 1 half-hearted half

After taking some time off in January, I thought I'd be back into the swing of marathon training with gusto. The truth, however, was something less enthusiastic. I knew what I needed to do but lacked the motivation to do it with precision, and my good intentions ended up somewhat hit-and-miss in their execution. Point in case: in late February I planned to run the marathon in Orange as a supported long run, yet ended up racing it for the win (2:59:04 with a nice finishing kick) and probably wearing myself out more than I should have at that point. Oops.

Two weeks later I ran a strange 20 miler in Melbourne that ended with a somewhat baffling slow-down in the final miles, and left me with worse DOMS than I've had after many marathons. And then with 2 weeks left until race week, my left ankle decided to scare me half to death by swelling up and developing a distinct crunchiness to its Achilles tendon. Ready, set, PANIC!

I was very relieved that it seemed to be under control fairly quickly with eccentric heel drops and reduced mileage, but the combination of all of the above meant I headed off to Boston feeling slightly under-trained and ever-so-slightly over-optimistic. My usual approach of "do your best on the day" means exactly that and no more, but I usually have a much better idea of what that might actually be than I did this year when I set off on the long journey to Beantown.

Pre-race: Boston

I arrive a day later than usual; I had been looking forward to staying at a fairly new hotel just a stone's throw from Boston Common, but for reasons that make me too angry to elaborate, we have been rebooked to stay at The Charles out in Cambridge. In some ways it's sort of cool to see a new part of Boston - the Charles is a very swanky hotel and it sits right on Harvard Square, with easy access to the T - but having to commute everywhere is a distinct pain. There's nothing to do but suck it up, though, and hopefully we're going to be too busy most of the time to notice.

Peaceful Harvard Square: "Marathon, what marathon?"

The BAA 5K is a Saturday morning tradition now for Joel and me, so we head out to run it without a second thought. Despite the Common being packed with thousands of runners we manage to bump into our friend Chris with her family - what a great way to start the morning! In the past I've run this race WAY too fast (in particular in 2015) so I joke about pace for a bit but really, I'm planning to run as sensibly as I can. These days it takes me a few miles to warm up, anyway, so I'll barely be hitting my stride and the race will be over already. Did I just call it a race? Oops.

Definitely not racing, nope.

For once I follow through on my stated intentions and we tick the miles off in 7:59, 7:31, 6:54 minutes and then sprint down Charles St to the finish at 6:10 pace (3:49 min/km). Wheeee! Time to seek out carbs and then the expo. Although first we have to spend 2 hours getting to and from the hotel to get showered and changed, grrrr.

Just stood in the world's biggest queue to get these

The queues to get into the expo are ridiculous - the lines stretch out the doors and all the way down the block. Once we navigate all of that and pick up bibs, it's time to get crazy! Or at least spend way too much money on running gear we don't really need, but really really want.

Mindful of the toe problems I have had over the past few marathons, I've brought with me an almost-new pair of ASICS Hyperspeed 7 racing shoes that are half a size bigger than the ones that took out both my big toes at Gold Coast last year, but what I really want is a new pair of Adidas adizero adios. So when I see them on sale at the expo, the idea of wearing brand new shoes for a major marathon seems like a really good one. What could possibly go wrong?

The weather, that's what: on Sunday morning we wake to a forecast high temperature of 87F/30C - a major contrast to the usual average high of 55F/13C! I have to go out and buy some casual shorts from the local Gap store; it doesn't look like the long tights and warm jackets that I packed are going to make it out of my suitcase at all. At least the forecast for Monday is slightly less alarming, but it's definitely going to be another warm one. I've said - rather smugly - many times how heat doesn't bother me as much as it does most other runners, but I'd really prefer not to have to test that out once again on Patriots' Day. Sigh.

The rest of the weekend passes in a blur of socialising, carbs (both solid and liquid) and sleep, and before my body clock really knows what to make of it all, it's time to set out my outfit and get ready to wake at 4:30am for my 6th Boston marathon. For once jetlag comes in handy and we are both awake before our alarms have even thought about going off: plenty of time to saddle up and get to our respective buses. The one nice payoff from our hotel overbooking debacle is that we both get personally chauffeured directly to these locations, a service which will do nicely today thank you.

Lucky green INKnBURN singlet to counter the lunacy of brand-new orange shoes

I know a fair few others in the elite start now, so the bus ride out to Hopkinton and the ensuing wait in the Korean church by the starting line pass relatively quickly with lots of running talk and laughter. Outside the weather is a mixed bag: for the first time since 2011 there's a strong tailwind blowing, which is great, but already it's feeling warm and the lack of cloud cover is rather worrying.

I spend most of my time in the church in a small room upstairs with a bunch of other women, many of whom seem to also be in the Masters category. Apart from my Canadian triathlete friend Lisa, there's one more who is in my age group and then to my amazement I learn that my main AG rival has been sick with pneumonia and then shingles - she isn't even here today. Ooh! My main goal for the day is to place in my age group, and the chances of that actually happening just rose considerably.

Another nice thing is that I'm definitely not nervous this year: knowing that the chances of being back here again are slim at best, I'm focusing on taking it all in and just enjoying myself. Once up at the start line I take care to start my Garmin early (for a change) before doing a few strides and again just soaking in the atmosphere. Kathrine Switzer appears up on the gantry and is announced as our official starter - we all wave enthusiastically to her and I'm grinning like crazy as the final preparations are made for the race to start.

Waiting to start our race; I met her in New York in 2014

Grinning like a lurking maniac

Miles 1-4: 6:19, 6:22, 6:23, 6:20 (pace in min/mile)

Off we go! To my surprise the pace is relatively sedate to start with and I remain at the tail end of the pack for at least half a mile. The combination of fresh legs and the downhill start mean it all feels way too easy and of course I don't want to be dead last, but at some point I'm going to have to put on the brakes or risk nasty things happening later in the race. 

There doesn't seem to be any wind at all, but a quick look at the many flags lining the route confirms that in fact there is a strong breeze blowing at our backs; as a result there's no cooling effect and the temperatures are more uncomfortable than I remember from last year. By mile 2 already I'm thirsty and eagerly looking for the first water stop - this is not a good sign. At mile 3 I come up behind and then pass Lisa - a positive step for my age group ambitions, but there's a long race ahead of us still of course.

5K split: 19:42

Miles 5-8: 6:35, 6:30, 6:29, 6:36

By mile 5 it's clear today isn't going to be a fast race; I've already stopped checking the mile splits and am focusing on staying comfortable and also on dumping water on my head at every opportunity. I've been running pretty much all on my own ever since I fell off the back of the pack late in the first mile, but the lack of headwind means I'm not too bothered by being alone. The lack of shade in this stretch is more of a worry; with the air not really moving around me, already I'm uncomfortably hot. The water I've been throwing on myself at every water station since they started is not helping much at all: it's making my singlet very wet but the tailwind is just sticking it to my back and I'm not feeling any cooler as a result. Ugh.

10K split: 39:50

Just as I pass through the 10K mark, I become aware of a siren behind me and then a bicycle spotter appears on my left: "You've got about a minute, so stay right, the men are coming through" he says.  Wait, WHAT?

"Really??" I reply - I mean, I heard and saw the jets doing the flyover that marks the start of the general race, but that was only 10 minutes ago! Are the men riding Segways or something? Because that's what it would take for them to catch me up already - I've done this a few times before, after all, and I know the men won't catch me for at least another 10 miles - but this bike dude seems pretty convinced. Not wanting to waste breath arguing, I let it go and just stay to the right.

Pretty soon a police bike and then a single vehicle pass on my left, and then -- nothing, followed by more nothing. And no men, of course. Just an overexcited bike spotter without enough to do.

Miles 9-12: 6:31, 6:38, 6:35, 6:31

I'm trundling along at a fairly steady pace - as comfortable as I can be in this stifling heat - when mile 10 heralds the approach of another enthusiastic bike spotter. This one has grey hair and it appears that he wants to give me running advice. Lovely!

"Keep to the tangents, don't just follow the road" he tells me sagely; I glance in his direction and nod "Yep", but refrain from further comment. A mile or so later he approaches again from the other direction, executes a U-turn and informs me that the tailwind is "really blowing - it should give you at least a minute or two" before riding off again to places unknown.

This is sort of puzzling, I mean I have never really had much input from the bike spotters in the past other than during mile 18-19 when the lead cars and then eventually the elite men have been coming up behind me. Perhaps this year they have been instructed to randomly hand out advice and encouragement during the entire race? Or have I just been lucky enough to encounter 2 rogue running coaches on bikes already? The race isn't even half over yet.

Looking overheated and rather confused at all the attention from dudes on bikes
photo credit: K. Kelley

Miles 13-16: 6:38, 6;35, 6:46, 6:37

The Wellesley scream tunnel hasn't left me deaf in my right ear (hooray) and I'm not feeling too bad actually as I approach the left-hand turn and the final stretch to the halfway mats. I'm far too hot and I'm definitely running slower than I'd like, but my thoughts are surprisingly Zen: it is what it is, and I'm going to make the most of today since this might be my final time running here.

My Zen lasts as I veer over to the left side of the road, cutting the tangents (as I've been instructed), but is then abruptly destroyed as I glance down and suddenly realise there's a bike wheel about to slam into the back of my left ankle. WTF?!? Oh my god, it's my nemesis the bicycle coach again. In his fervour to get close and give me helpful advice he has almost ridden straight into me.

I gasp, straighten up and am astounded to hear him repeat his advice about running the tangents. I've had more than I can take of this stupidity: I bark out in reply "I am...now LEAVE ME ALONE!!"

Halfway split: 1:25:27

My rudeness has the desired effect: thankfully that's the last I will see of this particular gentleman, and pretty soon afterwards I cross the mats in a half split that is on the slower side of what I had anticipated. In this weather the second half of this race is going to be positively dangerous; I need to run smart now. As for AG placement, I'm not really sure where the other woman from the church is, and of course there may be a speedy interloper starting from the general start, as I myself did last year in fact. But hopefully I'll be able to hang in there well enough to earn another nice crystal vase - we will see what happens.

The first of the hills goes by with far less fanfare than it has in past years - and only a slight slowing of pace - but the worst lie still ahead. Gulp.

Miles 17-20: 6:55, 6:58, 6:41, 6:59

I don't remember checking my splits during this part of the race; all I know is that I'm slowing down but at least I'm still moving. During mile 18 the usual procession of lead vehicles is preceded by another bicycle spotter, who briefly advises me to keep right and then (to my relief) rides off without another word. The cars that pass have the usual assortment of police, photographers and officials peering backwards out of them and then, just as I'm approaching a corner, the men catch me.

A grainy screengrab but you can identify me from the weird thing I'm doing with my left hand
(as well as the fact that both feet are on the ground - shuffle shuffle)

This year there's a big group of them and I'm looking ahead at the corner, wondering if I should slow down or move over more, when the group briefly envelops me - passing on both left and right - before closing ranks again in front of me and moving on. There are about 10 of them and I see Galen Rupp (the American favourite) in the mix as well as another non-African dude with a moustache. Meb is nowhere to be seen - it's quite a while til he finally grinds past as we both make our way up the first part of Heartbreak Hill. I'm too focused this year to do any fangirling but I did get most of that out of the way before the race, anyway (see below).

American running royalty, L-R: Meb, Jared (after race) and Galen. Oh, and me and Joel of course.

Miles 21-24: 7:23, 659, 6:51, 6:54

The final part of Heartbreak Hill is an absolute shocker this year - my slowest-ever mile in the Boston marathon. Thankfully I won't realise this until much later, and in fact right now I'm actually surprised that I don't feel worse as I crest the hill and start the long downhill towards Highline and eventually Boylston Street. In retrospect my body went into survival mode at some point quite early in this race, and it simply wouldn't let me run any faster. The exertion level seems appropriate: tough, yet manageable, and to my surprise also I haven't really had any negative thoughts at all today.

Usually at some point I start thinking things along the lines of "I hate this" or "I want to stop now" or the classic "Why the bleep do I do this sort of thing anyway?", but today I'm fine with whatever's happening. Maybe it's the knowledge that I probably won't be back - or maybe it's the appropriately slower pace I'm running - but in any case, I'm having fun despite the uncomfortable conditions. Now I just need to step it up as much as I can and get to the finish without collapsing. I can do that, right?

A few unseeded male runners have passed me already but to my glee I've also caught a few more female elites; one, although I won't realise it until later, is my AG rival F108. I'm in that brain space now where I'm seeing things but not really taking them in, and the crowd is awesome but I can't really hear them; all I can do is run. There's a thick blue line on the road just begging me to follow it - and so I put my head down and that's exactly what I do.

Ignore the pain, follow the blue line, just keep going

Miles 25, 26, 0.2: 6:57, 7:06, 6:30 pace to finish

The Citgo sign appears after what seems like an eternity; the overpass right before it seems to stretch up almost to the sky. I'm surviving from mile marker to mile marker, thinking of no more than the fact that I'm almost there, almost there, almost there. Dragging myself along towards Cannoli Corner at mile 25.5 (where my spectating RunnersWorld friends congregate to hand out pastries and scream encouragement to members of the group), once again I hear my name being called but am too far gone to respond. The sun has gone behind some clouds now but the humidity is just as bad as it ever was and I'm way too hot, period.

But then something awesome happens: the lanky figure of Michael Wardian appears beside me and before I know it he's loping past, waving cheerily as he goes. If you don't know who Mike is, click here to find out more, but in short he is one of America's most prolific and successful marathoner and ultramarathoners. I spent much of the weekend of Big Sur marathon in 2015 hanging out with him (he and I were the winners of the Boston2BigSur Challenge that year) and much of the morning before today's race also in his company at the Fairmont Copley Hotel while waiting for our bus, and he's one awesome, humble, friendly guy.

This morning and back in 2015 - always smiling

Seeing Mike pass by makes me happy because we don't have far to go and so that means he must be on track to run under 2:30 (since I'm pretty sure that I'll still break 3 hours today) which is an AWESOME time. I'm impressed actually also that my brain has enough composure left to make those calculations - I'm clearly not as fried as I thought I was - and that I'm now about to make the famous turns: right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The race is almost over! Thank goodness for that.

Turning onto Boylston St I'm trying to remember to smile - there is always a photographer right at the corner and I have some awesome shots from over the years at this point - but it doesn't really work all that well. Despite the surprising ongoing absence of frank negativity, my face is betraying how tough today's race really has been and it just does NOT want to look happy.

2013, very nice  -- 2014, looking fast-- 2016, looking determined -- 2017....NOPE

But somehow I dredge up the ability to pump up the pace again as I run down Boylston; somehow the finish doesn't look as far away as it usually does, and I even have the presence of mind to stay left so I can get a decent finish line picture (although my addled brain then decides to hit stop on my watch while crossing, despite knowing how dorky that always looks). But oh what sweet relief! I can stop now!

Finish time: 2:56:32 (6:44 min/mile, 4:11 min/km)

Placement: 59th overall female, 1st in AG (F45-49), 7th masters female (40+)


I've done it: 6 Boston marathon finishes, all of them sub-3!

My time isn't as fast as I'd hoped, but I've hit my ultimate goal of running once again under 3 hours, and within an hour or so I'll know where that puts me in my age group. For now I can enjoy the luxury of wandering straight over to the elite tent to change, get a massage, chat to my friends and wait for Joel. Also I get to eat Cheez Doodles (my son will die when he finds out these actually exist outside of his Big Nate books) and drink as much iced tea and Gatorade as I can handle. Bliss!

So happy to be done!

Shortly after Joel arrives - having run a fantastic 3:22 on spotty training and lots of sandbagging - we have a dilemma on our hands: I've managed to win my age group and have just received an email inviting me to the official presentation at 5pm! But right now, normally we'd head to the downstairs bar at Loew's, a nearby hotel, to rehydrate (aka drink beer) with all our RunnersWorld friends. And there's no way we can fit that in plus the long commute to and from our blasted hotel. But I'm not going up on stage in my current sweaty, messy state, that's for sure. So off we go trekking to the hotel to shower and change, in lieu of beers with mates. Such is life when your hotel overbooks itself and bumps those with the cheapest rates, I guess. Grrrr.

The presentation is thrilling and fun, just like last year, with added bonus of my own cheer squad (courtesy of our friends Alice and Steve who meet us in the bar beforehand and sneak in to the ceremony with Joel) and my friend Paula - with whom I ran NYC in 2014 and Boston in 2015 in the elite starts as well - who has, not surprisingly, placed in her AG too. Seeing her again, even briefly, is awesome and I think I can say that this year's Boston will go down in history as my favourite one ever. Apart from the hotel, grrr.

Fast doctor runners, unite!

Summing it all up

Looking purely at the numbers, this was a pretty crappy performance from me. It was my second slowest finish time, my slowest from the EWS by almost a minute and my worst ever second-half fade. Crunching the data, it simply doesn't look good at all:

But given the circumstances it seems my body and some deep, instinctive part of my brain colluded to once again bring me the best possible result for the day: an age group win and a solid race without need of the medical tent (always a bonus) and, as it turns out, not even a blister or single destroyed toe. In sports physiology there's a lot of talk about a "central governor" that ultimately controls how we perceive fatigue, and it looks like mine sized up the conditions and decided that running for place would be a wise choice rather than allowing me to develop hyperthermia trying to hit an ambitious time goal.

And looking at the rest of the weekend, I'd have to say that 2017 was my absolute favourite of all years in Boston. Because although it's one of the biggest running events in the world, the Boston marathon, for me, is all about friends. Through running I have been so fortunate to make many good friends from all around the globe, friends who share my passion for our sport and spending time with them in Boston is always one of the highlights of my year.

The whole marathon thing is just an excuse for runners to get together and party

That said, I'm ready to take a break from Boston - for once I'd like to spend the April school holidays in Australia with my kids and perhaps run a different marathon in the first part of the year - at least until I have a new age group to conquer. Then, like Nellie Melba I might be back for yet another farewell, you just never know.