Ambivalence. Defined as the “uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by an inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.”
That word (or the idea) has been plaguing me since getting accepted to Boston in September of 2015. At first I wasn’t going to go.
What do you mean you’re not going to run the most iconic, most recognizable foot race in the entire universe? The one marathon that everyone knows about? That’s what I’m going to attempt to explain here- bear with me.
That ambivalence would eventually give way to “well, I might not do it again for a while so maybe I should…” which gave way to “yeah, I have to do this” which then landed on “I’ll just use it as a long tempo run for Canyons 100k” to “I do not want to embarrass myself, I should train hard for this”.
This whole range of weird emotions: indifference, excitement, resignation and finally determination.
I mean, I really want to run scenic, long(-er) trail races. So for me, putting a road marathon in the middle of a 100-mile training block felt counter-intuitive. My initial hesitancy stemmed from not wanting to get hurt before attempting another Western States qualifier- that’s every trail ultrarunner’s ultimate goal.
That’s our “Boston” so to speak. I don’t want to jeopardize that.
But I also don’t want to “mail it in”, I mean people spend years, decades even, trying to get a Boston qualifier. Some folks give up on the qualifier and go the charity-runner route, which is hard in its own right. I have to respect that I got a BQ on my second attempt, and I don’t know what my chances look like in the years to come (even though I get five extra minutes to qualify for turning 40 this year).
I didn’t even want to write a race report for Boston, today is Race Day, 2017- the race was exactly a year ago.
A year to write a race report? Must’ve been some race. Seriously, though- I need to write this report, in order to come to terms with the aforementioned ambivalence.
Looking strictly at the numbers, there were 30,741 runners entered to run Boston. I can’t find an exact number of “charity runners” but it seems like 6,000-ish is the number floating around out there. So that’s about 25,000 runners that got in from qualifying times. There were 551,295 marathon finishers in 2015. So, using “math” we’re looking at 4.5% of all marathon finishers in the September 2014 to Sept. 2015 official qualifying window get into Boston.
I can’t find the age group breakdowns but I imagine it’s a similar number, maybe slightly lower. Also, running is funny in that you can be in the top 4.5% and not be considered an elite. I know, the elite ultra guys do fast road marathons all the time, run a sub-2:30 and then turn around and jam a 6:30 50-miler a few weeks later.
That ain’t me.
So in thinking about that number more in-depth I realized I’m not at the top 4.5% of anything, so I should probably take this chance to run the race. I’ve had people joke with me about “not being a real runner until I’ve done Boston” and I’m sure part of me signed up to quiet their judgments, but really- it’s Boston. Of course I had to try to run the oldest, most prestigious of all marathons in the known universe.
So ambivalence made way for excitement after a few months of ultra training and both a 50k race and a 50-miler. A few workouts here and there; a Jack Daniels’ inspired tempo-long-tempo run, then a 3 by 2-mile repeat session, throw in a six miles at marathon pace run, then a 16-miler at 20 seconds off MP, followed by a 12-miler with 20 x 1 min fartleks, a 5-miler at MP, a Brad Hudson-inspired 25k fueled progression run (five 5k’s, each one getting progressively faster until the last 5k is about 5-10 secs faster than goal MP) and finally a 5 x 1000 meter repeat session on a track, and that was enough to basically not embarrass myself.
Looking back on it now, I can see how foolish it was to try to cram all these workouts in when all I really had was a semi-decent aerobic base. I literally could not wait to get back to 100-mile training where I measure standard road marathon training with “is this good enough and was I fast enough?” with the requisite “how much time did I spend on my feet this week and how much vert did I gain?”
The folly of this thinking has been replaced by my current mode of training, i.e.- having a decent aerobic base to support more quality sessions, making every run have a purpose and getting my body as strong as possible with core work and light weights.
Yep, I’m kind of becoming a gym rat. You can do threshold runs on a treadmill just fine. It’s not great in terms of specificity, but it works.
So I flew in to Boston on Sunday afternoon, eliciting a few “no way, dude- you gotta go Thursday or Friday and get the whole weekend in…” but having grown up right down the road (I-95) in Philly and visiting Boston enough times to realize I wasn’t going to miss all that much. Maybe a selfie with Bill Rodgers or hearing Shalane Flanagan give a talk would be cool, but I could probably catch them at a local mall or diner one day and it would be way more special because of the randomness involved.
Anyway, took the T over to the expo, grabbed my bib and race swag, looked at the over-priced jackets and weird new nutrition companies yadda yadda. Honestly, I can’t stand road marathon expos. 20 minutes of that and I was exhausted. Hopped back on the T to go over to Cambridge to meet my friend MB to pick up her house key, I was staying with her and her husband Toby in Somerville (pronounced SUMMAH-VILL). They’re the raddest and sweetest people ever, we even had a taco party on Monday night after the race (spoiler: I did not go to the party at Fenway because why go to a baseball stadium when no baseball is being played?) I also don’t drink beer so Samuel Adams is as about important to me as Karl Lagerfeld.
Seriously though I was over crowds anyway. They freak me out when I’m tired, cranky and sore.
I also like to freak out about on-course nutrition. So Clif Shots and Gatorade, woo hoo! I did a little bit of training with it to see how it sat at near 7-minute pace. All systems go! As far as gels have been concerned lately, Honey Stingers have been going down and sitting really great so I went with four of them, a “Gold” (basically just honey with a B-vitamin complex) and a Vanilla and two Fruit Smoothies.
I figured I’d mix up a few hundred calories of UCan beforehand then bring 2 servings of ~150 cals in 3-oz travel size shampoo squeeze bottles, that worked great. I tried to mimic everything I did at Santa Rosa because that was my most recent best performance, so it has to be my model of consistency. Gotta stick with what works, right? I also did a Vespa about 45 mins before the start and another at the half marathon mark.
I did try something new before Boston, however, and I don’t think it worked, in hindsight it may have hindered me because after the amount of calories I took in before Canyons 100k, I probably should’ve eaten more. The new thing I tried: eating a tiny breakfast before the race. Before Boston my M.O. was to start racing on an empty stomach (or at the very least some type of easily-digestible “super starch”) and although I didn’t feel “heavy” as I am wont to after eating and then running, it was something I definitely wasn’t used to.
Watching the race day forecast starting ten days out was another thing driving me nuts. I know I can’t control the weather but I just kept thinking “ugh, I’m not at all trained for running in the heat.” Northern California has turned me into a baby, so for every degree over 60 a little part of me slowly dies.
So I had a great night sleep, slept in a bit and took a later bus out to Hopkinton from downtown, there was no way I wanted to be hanging out at the athlete’s village for 3 or 4 hours before my wave started. Everyone I rode out with had really high numbers, up the high 20-thousands. I think these folks were all the charity runners. Part of me felt guilty for hitching a later ride, but again- I can’t understand why anyone would want to hang out in Hopkinton for 3 or 4 hours before the race. I guess that’s the trail runner in me; I show up for a local 8 am race at like 7:40 and that’s more than enough time to slap a bib on, fill a water bottle and pee in the woods.
I started to get hungry on the bus ride out so I started in on part 2 of breakfast (UCan) and just focused on breathing. This is around where I decided if I get back to Boston next year, I’m staying in Hopkinton or Framingham or somewhere close to the start. I’m already tired from being awake for almost 3 hours. I’d like to run now, actually I like to start running 45 minutes to an hour after waking up. It takes a lot of mental as well as physical energy to wake up, get on the T in Somerville, go downtown, drop off your bag, get on a bus, take an hour ride, then get in line to give someone your warm clothes, then get in another line to walk a half mile to get in line to go pee, then get in another line to walk to the start, then run a half mile before you actually start.
That’s the real race- just getting to your wave and corral. Exhausting.
It was 10:04 when I crossed the start line and I was already pretty tired- have I mentioned that yet? The excitement I had of running Boston had given way to what I call “comically exasperated frustration”. It was like the LA Marathon all over again; so much energy wasted on “other stuff” that when it came time to run, I was ready to nap.
I understand the logistics of getting 30,000 people to a small town 26 miles away from Boston (that’s why they want us first wavers out at the start at like 7 am) but damn, I was not prepared for any of that. I was told what to expect but that’s a lot of people. Next time I’ll fend for myself, thanks.
So I wanted to run around 3:10 to 3:12, which meant 7:14-7:19 pace. Funny thing is, right here after the start everyone told me these things: “don’t get swept up in the excitement… take it easy… it’s a long downhill, save your quads…” but again, I was so tired already. I knew by Ashland (mile 3) that I was in for a rough day.
I had printed out one of those Asics pace wristbands and kept my eye on it. Went through 5k in 22:41, cool. Only ten seconds off, no biggie. Went through Framingham and then 10k, 45:16, only 14 seconds slow, okay- not bad. I noticed that it was starting to get warm here, maybe it was 65? Just keep drinking water and Gatorade, keep dumping water on your head, you’ll be fine.
15 km now, 1:08:19- only 45 seconds behind, gonna have to throw in a little tiny surge here, something manageable- there’s still a lot of race to go. I also felt my bladder starting to fill a bit… First porta-potty I see after the half marathon mark I’ll use it. Gotta make my 13.1 split at 1:35:02… and what’s that noise?
The Wellesley Scream Tunnel. Deafening. Had to move over to the left side of the road because it literally hurt my ears. Holy shit, you can hear it from almost a MILE AWAY AND STILL HEAR IT A MILE LATER. Gotta be 120+ decibels.
Here comes halfway, and I glance down at my wrist again. 1:36:27. Shit. That’s a minute and twenty-five seconds off, which is an eternity. That’s a 3:13 if I can mange to run an even split. Gonna have to throw in another surge, right after I stop to pee.
The crowds started getting bigger at this point, and the mercury had to be up around 70. Non-runners be like “that’s perfect!” but we feel it probably 15 to 20 degrees warmer, and like I said before anything over 60 degrees sucks to run fast in. Passing through 25k at 1:55:36, now almost 3 mins off, and here comes the Newton Hills!
So yeah, this is where I go to die. First Newton hill: dipped to an 8:30 pace. Not good.
30 km comes and goes in 2:20:12, now five plus minutes off schedule. Next hill: oh my, slowing to mid-9 minute pace. Just… if… no.
I’d be lucky to run sub-3:20 at this point.
So I wasn’t going to re-qualify I realize as I make the right hand turn and see the Newton Fire House and the last of the Hills, the biggest one of them all. I’m literally running in molasses now, way up over 10 minute pace. The struggle bus pulls over, picks me up, and lets me drive it. Awesome.
Once you crest this hill it’s about 5 miles to the finish and you are greeted with a very pleasant breeze from the east, blowing some gentle, cool ocean air. Too bad I couldn’t appreciate it because I was dead on my feet.
I told myself to just have fun from here on in, just party with the crowd. I started pumping my arms, working the crowd up. Doing the Hulk Hogan hand to the ear thing, all that.
DAT CROWD DOE
My biggest take away, the thing I’ll never, ever forget is the absolute electric feeling I got from the crowd. Every time I needed their mojo, it was like getting hit with a wave of positive loving energy.
Way to go, sixty-seven sixty-one! (my bib number)
NICE BEARD BRO! (my beard was big)
Hey SFRC! (I was wearing my SFRC singlet, they’re famous now)
I was doing the Hulk Hogan hand to the ear “I can’t hear you” thing and getting doused with cheers. Was pumping my arms in that “c’mon get loud” motion, more cheers. The crowd literally picked me up and carried me onto Boylston Street, the last five miles were a blur.
So I ran the Boston Marathon one year ago today.
The biggest reason to want to go back is to recapture that feeling, all that joy and love I felt from the crowd. After chilling out for a while in Copley Square, sitting on the grass and eating the fruit cups and bananas and whatever else they gave us, basking in the glory with all the other runners from around the world, I was struck by how awesome the entire day was, and how I almost missed out on it. I get it now. It’s more about the experience of being there than running a great time or having the race you want. It’s about sharing in something so gigantic and special that people come from Australia and Denmark and Kenya to run this thing.
So I hopped on the T with my space blanket and medal around me, and someone gave up their seat for me.
“No, man, I’m good thanks.”
NO, SIT DOWN.
“Okay.” I said. Then a mother and her daughter, decked out in full Red Sox gear sat across from me. ”
How’d it go today?”
“You know,” I said, “not great, but it was really, really awesome.” They said they do this every year, go to the 11 AM Sox game then get out and cheer people on for a bit before heading home.
“This really is Boston’s best day, nothing beats Boston on this day.”
I’ll have to agree. To borrow that quote: if you’re ever losing faith in humanity, go watch the finish line of a marathon.
So officially, I ran a 3:25:04, and I did not re-qualify for 2017, mssing the standard by 10 minutes and 4 seconds (actually more like 12:30 with the cutoff times, but yeah). I did “beat my bib” though, which is a big deal apparently. Here’s the official result page.
I qualified for the 2018 edition at the hilly and frigid Roxbury Marathon last December. So I’m going back, and you better believe I’m going to take it very serious this time, take it as an absolute honor that I get to do something that people spend a lot of time and energy trying to do and come up short time and time again.
Synonyms: hesitancy, indecision, inconclusiveness, irresoluteness, quandary, tentativeness.
Antonyms: certainty, sureness, decisiveness.
I’m gonna try to live in that second list of words from now on…