Hey again! In Part 1 I wrote about training for the 2017 Boston Marathon. Here’s Part 2, all about the actual race.
During my training I read as much about the Boston course as possible. For anyone who has never run the Boston Marathon, here’s my basic breakdown of the course, as learned through studying the course map, talking to friends, and reading race reports:
The first mile is almost entirely downhill, dropping rapidly for .6 miles, then rising slightly for .15 miles, and then dropping some more. The course continues distinctly downhill for miles 2-5, with some easy rolling hills that I can barely remember, flattening out from miles 6-15, with some more rolling hills that I also cannot remember. Just after mile 15, the course drops significantly for almost half a mile. It then flattens out briefly before the first of four bigger hills from miles 16-21. The first hill, starting right around mile 16, climbs steadily for over half a mile and traverses an overpass, so it’s long and quiet. The course then flattens out and rolls along for about a mile until the next distinct uphill at mile 17.5. Another small set of rollers emerges before a steep bump just after mile 19, and then another flat to rolling section before the infamous Heartbreak Hill, .6 miles of 4 percent grade at mile 20. Heartbreak has two climbing sections separated by a flat area. Once you’re at the top, the course drops slightly before a tiny bonus bump. Once over the bonus bump, the course drops significantly past Boston College, and remains downhill or slightly rolling through the finish line.
As you can guess, the key to running well on this course is preserving enough strength to get up the hills between miles 16-21 so that you feel strong enough to run hard on the final five-mile downhill stretch. If you hit the top of Heartbreak Hill feeling strong, then you can make up any time you lost on the climbs. If you pushed too hard earlier and you summit Heartbreak with thrashed quads, then the final miles will hurt.
Knowing that the Newtown hills from miles 16-21 often claim a number of victims, I had made sure to run multiple long runs in Central Park, and added hill repeat days on Battle Pass Hill in Prospect Park. However, once I started to read other runners’ recaps of the 2016 Boston Marathon, I got a little scared. The warm weather during the 2016 race has become the stuff of legend in the running community. Ask anyone who ran that race how they felt out there, and they’ll just shake their heads. I lost count of the number of recaps that read something like this: “By mile 5, I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. So, I slowed down, drank as much water as I could, and enjoyed the fact that I was running the Boston Marathon.”
I also noticed another trend: athletes who readjusted their goal times prior to the race ended up having a decent day. In one particular recap, the runner had hoped to run 2:55 (around 6:41/mile), but decided to fight just for sub-3. He succeeded in his sub-3 goal, but not by much. He drank water and dumped water on his head at every aid station. I noticed this strategy in a number of other write-ups as well, along with the advice that in the warm weather, one should consume in-race nutrition earlier in the race. Noted.
However, when I started to check the weather forecast about a week out from Marathon Monday, I felt good about my 2:53 plan. The weather was promising low 40s for the morning, with a high of low 60s. Perfect! That’s about what the NYC Marathon has been the last two years. Can’t argue with that.
Unfortunately, upon arriving in Boston on the Saturday before the race, temperatures had drifted into the high 70s, and promised Marathon Monday temperatures creeping into the 70s. I told myself not to worry about it, but to run my own race. It did not matter if 2:53 happened. Execution of a strong race plan and enjoying the experience became the most important aspects of my Marathon Monday.
On Marathon Monday I spent my pre-race time sitting near home plate in the baseball field at Hopkinton High School. The sun flew overhead, but I was not perspiring while sitting in the open. I chatted with my friend Ryan pre-race, and meditated on our collective attempt to run 2:50 at the 2016 NYC Marathon. We just could not pick up the pace after running a 1:26 first half., and I ran a four-minute positive split, never hitting the wall but slowing down in the final six-eight miles. After this past training cycle, with consistent 50-mile weeks and no time off for injury, I knew that I would be able to hold a more consistent pace through this course.
After a short wait of about an hour, the race organizers called the Wave 1 runners to the corrals, and we walked through Hopkinton down a small hill and to a second porta-pottie-filled parking lot. I strolled up to my starting corral, letting others walk and jog past me, reminding myself that I had over 26 miles to run. After about a half hour, which included the singing of the national anthem and a flyover by two F-16s, the starting pistol fired and Wave 1 Corral 3 lurched forward, halted, lurched again, and spilled across the starting line. Some runners sprinted. I focused only on starting my Garmin as I jogged across the timing mats.
Miles 1-5 (6:58, 6:49, 6:49, 6:40, 6:42)
Despite all my preparation, I was still surprised just how much the course dropped throughout those first five miles. Feeling the down slopes under my body, I focused on staying perpendicular to the hills, shortening my stride, and not worrying too much about my foot strike. Combined with the tightly-packed running crowds in the early miles, I did not push my pace much, and really let my body dictate how fast I warmed up. I sped up once at the end of mile 1 to get a sub-7 mile split on my watch. Otherwise, I followed my friend Mary’s advice: I “parked myself” on the double yellow line and ran down the middle of the road, and moved to the water stations on the left to hydrate (left-hand stations came after the right-hand stations, and were less crowded). I soaked in the crowds and enjoyed what felt like super easy running. Even though I was not thirsty or hot yet, I started drinking water and dumping water on my head at mile 2, grabbing at least three cups at each station. By mile 5 my shorts looked like I was swimming. My forehead, however, remained bone dry.
At some point during these miles, another runner yelled out, “Enjoy the miles while they’re easy.” I chuckled, and thought to myself, “I’m going to enjoy them even when they get tough.” And that’s the whole point of running these races, right? I did not take time off work to surround myself with thousands of strangers for hours on end just to enjoy the first five miles of the race. I came to enjoy the motion of moving my body at a fast pace for an extended period of time. Bring on the muscle soreness! Let’s have some fun.
Miles 6-15 (6:35, 6:34, 6:38, 6:37, 6:38, 6:39, 6:33, 6:38, 6:38, 6:40)
As the course flattened out, I started to find my rhythm. On a cooler day I would have pushed for 6:30-6:33 through this section, but I did not want to risk pushing too hard, too early. As the splits show, I was a model of consistent running. Honestly, not much to report. I felt strong, kept drinking and dumping water on my head at every water station, and grabbed extra water being handed out by kind spectators. At two different parts of the course, I grabbed entire water bottles, most of which went on my head. I also took a GU gel at the miles 7 and 13 water stations.
Around mile 10 or 11 I ran into Steve, a fellow New York City runner who I’d e-mailed a few weeks earlier after reading some of his race recaps. Like me, he was running strong but cautious. Unlike me, he had the experience of running the 2016 Boston Marathon, so he knew firsthand just how quickly the heat could dash one’s chance at a strong race.
Miles 16-21 (6:29, 6:47, 6:49, 6:41, 6:53, 7:01)
After the steep downhill in mile 15, I approached the first of the four Newton hills. It loomed long, but not as steep as I had imagined. Although I felt my pace slow a bit as I ascended, my legs felt strong and steady. I saw my first group of walkers, and at least one runner at a medical tent looking disoriented. I reminded myself to stick to the hydration plan, made it to the top of the hill, and kept rolling along. The second Newton hill was steeper but shorter, and I felt good as I maintained an even effort to the top. I started to feel the first bit of fatigue in my legs, but not enough to slow me down.
November Project brought the ruckus to Mile 18. I heard the cheer station from about 30 seconds away, and moved to the left side of the street to grab as many high-fives as possible. However, right as I hit the main cheer station, I nearly collided with a guy running in a Robin costume, because why not? Robin looked like he was loving the NP crowd, so I felt a little bad knocking him out of the way to high-five my buddies.
After the NP cheer station, I honestly don’t remember the third Newton hill or the following section of the course. However, my mind came sharply into focus at the baseball of Heartbreak Hill. I looked up and thought, “This is it. Get up this guy and then you can let loose.” And up I traveled. My legs started to rebel a tiny bit, so I shortened my stride and repeated, “Get up this guy and you can let loose.” I crested the first bit, then started up the second. The crowds cheered loudly, but I focused only on each step, one at a time. The rebellion in my legs calmed. My body felt relaxed. My mind, clear. “Get up this guy and you can let loose.” One step after another.
Miles 22-26 (6:38, 6:35, 6:34, 6:33, 6:27)
When I summited Heartbreak Hill and the small bonus bump immediately following it, I pumped my fists and charged down the Boston College hill. My pace, which had dropped to 7:00/mile while climbing Heartbreak, briefly dipped into the low 6:20s as I high-fived every Boston College student I could see and shouted, “How ‘bout it, Eagles?!” I felt like the race was only just beginning, and smiled ear to ear down the hill. I really had to push myself to hold back. Although I knew that the remainder of the course was heavily downhill, I was not going to risk a late-stage, unanticipated bonk.
Miles 23 and 24 felt like the most intense and intimate miles of the race. Although no spectators jumped into the road like during some earlier points (which made me wonder if that was how the Tour de France riders might feel, surrounded by fans slapping their backs as they ascended 10 percent grades in the Alps), everyone seemed like they were continuously screaming and cheering. I really fed off their energy, even though I was conserving energy and no longer pumping my fists at every “Yeah, NP!”
Once I saw the Citgo sign looming ahead, I knew it was time to ice this thing. I ascended the short bump between miles 24 and 25, passed the mile 25 marker, passed the Citgo sign signaling one mile to go, and pushed my pace just a little bit more. The time on my watch suggested a PR was happening, but my brain was not able to compute exactly how fast I needed to finish to make it happen. Oh well, I thought: just run faster.
And I did. As I dipped under Massachusetts Avenue while following the tangent line painted on Commonwealth, I got a huge cheer from my fiancé, Melissa, and our good friends Leah and Dana, who live right at that intersection overlooking the Marathon route. I raised my hands over my head and then focused on passing the two or three runners directly in front of me. I shouted, “Let’s go boys! Half a mile to go!” However, no one joined my cheers. Either I had too much energy left, or they were dying.
Either way, I started to push a little harder when I took that final right on Hereford, left on Boylston. As noted in so many recaps, once you turn onto Boylston, that finish line seems so far away, despite being only 600 meters down the street. I planted myself on the tangent line and kept pushing, focusing only on passing the runners immediately in front of me. My hip flexors felt sore, but every other leg muscle felt up to the task. I pushed forward, the crowds screaming with every step, the sun bright between the buildings, reminding myself how many times I’d run a hard 400 meters in training. Then, as if the last two minutes had not happened, I crossed the finish line, stopped my watch, and saw 2:55:XX as my final time. Boom!
As almost always happens after a marathon, every muscle in my legs seized up within a minute of crossing the finish line. I honestly believe that the hardest part of a marathon is the walk to pick up the medal and your gear bag! Fortunately, I ran into Ryan and my other friend Chris, who had just finished in times of 2:50:XX. Incredible! We congratulated each other, and then Chris and I walked to get our medals, goodie bags, and met up with Sarah, Chris’s incredible wife and Ironman destroyer. She was nice enough to take some great finisher photos of us once we exited Boylston and walked over to Commonwealth Ave.
Post-race reflections and next steps, in Part 3! (Coming Soon)