Boston Marathon: I don’t even know where to start. In the style of Dickens, It was the hardest race I’ve run, and the easiest race I’ve ever run. It was the fastest, and the slowest. It was the most isolating race and the most friendly race.
To be sure, it was certainly the hottest race I’ve ever run. Temperatures were 90F towards the end of the race. The Boston Athletic Association offered an unprecedented option to defer racing due to the heat; about 4,300 people (15% of racers) deferred to run next year. 2,000 participants (10% of the field), received medical attention.
My finish time was 4:28 ish, which is about 2 minutes/mile slower than my qualifying time [3:35:05]. I’m just happy I didn’t end up on a stretcher. You can see my splits here (my bib number was 15030).
In terms of the actual race, I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I qualified at the Santa Rosa Marathon last year, with a time of 3:35:05. As mentioned, I had no plans to run Boston at a pace even close to that.
The morning of the race, I walked with my mom about a mile and a half to Boston Common, where buses shuttled us to the Athlete Village in Hopkinton. The ride was painless. BAA assigns bib numbers based on qualifying time; I sat next to someone with a three-digit bib number. His qualifying time was a 2:48 or something equally ridiculous.
At Athlete Village, runners sprawled on the grass like as many brightly-colored weeds. The garden of runners was primarily clustered in what little shade was available, and runners were hyper-hydrating and eating bagels, sandwiches, muffins, or whatever other carbs they could find or had brought.
The two hours passed surprisingly quickly. I chatted with a runner from Rocklin, CA, where I used to live, and I also spent about a half-hour waiting for an open port-o-potty. [Note to runners next year: hold it until they herd you to the corrals – there are tons of port-o-potties with zero line over there].
At some point, they called my wave to the start line. There was, surprisingly, no count down – just a gun. With that, we were off, like as many cattle trying to fit through a very small break in the fence, which is to say, not very quickly at all.
Spectators. That’s almost all that needs to be said about this race. From the start, fans lined the streets, sometimes several people deep, yelling and generally cheering on thousands of runners who they didn’t know. I wrote my name on my arm, so several times a mile someone would shout encouragement at me. It reminded me of a baseball game; lots of fans cheering for athletes they don’t personally know, but are really excited to see compete.
On trail runs, after the first few miles, runners settle into a pace and retreat into their own minds for a while. I usually use this time to reflect and center myself, planning for the miles ahead, many of which will be by myself. It’s almost an exercise in mediation – there will be many quiet, lonely forthcoming hours, and figuring out how to prepare for that is part of the challenge. This time is also a good time to think about race strategy – when will I push the pace, and when should I hold back? What’s the strategy for hydrating and fueling?
During this marathon, there was no such opportunity. There so much noise that there was almost no time to think. Even though my pace was slow, the miles flew by because of the spectator engagement. There were fun signs to read, silly costumes to look at, and sprinklers to run through. There were also Gatorade and water stations every mile, which meant a minor walk-break every 10 minutes.
On most runs, I’ll find another runner to settle in with for a few miles. We’ll talk and chat, exchanging the equivalent of war stories for runners. For Boston, even though everyone was purposely running a more leisurely pace, it was impossible to carry on a conversation; the noise level was just too high. A few runners tried to chat, but the conversation was two or three exchanged phrases. Then we gave up and kept running.
Hands-down, my favorite part of the race was running past the Wellesley girls. Every year, they line up along the course and create a “Scream Tunnel.” This year, they held up signs saying things like “Kiss Me, I’m from the Bay Area,” “Kiss Me, I’m a geophysicist,” or “Kiss Me, I’m Latina.” Reading the signs and seeing such a fun display of pride was a a pleasant distraction for a quarter of a mile.
Heartbreak Hill deserves its own paragraph, just because it’s so famous. Trail runners won’t find it difficult to surmount this hill. I didn’t even realize I was on it until about three-quarters of the way to the top. End of paragraph.
The real cheering began at the top of Heartbreak. The first 21 miles had some serious spectators, but after mile 21, based on the way the spectators were shouting and making noise, you were sure the end was just around the corner, and not, as it actually was, 5 miles away. This cheering was exciting, but somewhat distracting; these few miles of a marathon are always super difficult, and it was hard to focus on forward motion when so much brain power was dedicated to the cacophony of excited cheerleaders.
There was one point around mile 22 or 23 that I had my very first hallucination as a runner. There was a woman running in front of me, and I was looking at her shoes. There was one step she took where it looked like the asphalt was made of trampoline material. Her foot sunk a bit into the road, and the asphalt bounced back when she took off. It was only one step, and I realized that what I was seeing was a little weird, so I thought hard about physics for a minute and it went away.
One of the lessons trail runners learn fairly quickly is that finish time doesn’t really matter, and it doesn’t really matter how fast you are relative to other runners. Taking that lesson with me to this race was really, really important. For reasons I’ve gone over, this wasn’t going to be a fast race. During this marathon, I was always faster than someone, and always slower than someone, and usually I was slower. Surprisingly to me, this didn’t bother me at all. Runners passing me didn’t make me feel anxious or nervous that I wasn’t moving quickly enough, and I didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment when I passed other runners. I think this is the equivalent, for runners, of achieving enlightenment.
During the last few miles of running, I like to think about how the experience of this race is drawing to a close. Especially with the last two or three miles, you really only have 20 or 30 more minutes of running left before it’s over forever. Taking a moment or two to reflect on that feeling, of almost being done with a race, is something I like to do. It’s a good time to create a memory of the race.
There was no opportunity for that bit of reflection. At this point in the race, I was tired, dehydrated, and had a headache, probably due to lack of calories and lack of salt intake. I did try a few times for a moment of quiet reflection, but there was no opportunity for quiet.
The last quarter of a mile was balls-to-the-walls, empty-the-fuel-tank sprinting. At least, it felt like that. It was probably an 8:30 pace or something.
- Gather Medal.
- Drink a lot of water.
- Eat a protein bar.
- Eat a burrito.
- Drink a lot of water.
- Eat Red Mango frozen yogurt.
- Drink more water.
- Watch Hunger Games. (It was okay)
- Eat sushi. Ask for normal soy sauce, with normal salt content, because they only had the low sodium stuff on the table. Also drink a lot of water. Headache finally goes away.
- Eat Dunkin Donuts.
- Drink more water.
- Go to bed.
This was a fun race to have run. It was an experience more than anything, which, to be fair, is what most of my races are. There are very few races I run for time, and this was obviously no exception.
The best part of the race was seeing people I knew. My parents came out from California to cheer me on, and my brother joined them at mile 18 too. I saw a few friends from high school, one of whom I hadn’t seen since graduating, along the course.
My main observation about this race is that it’s famous, and people think it’s cool to run it. More of my friends and family were excited about me running this 26.2 mile race than the 100-mile race I ran a few months ago. Obviously, I’m more proud of the 100-mile race – I think that’s a much more impressive feat. But I think 100-miles is past understanding, whereas Boston is something everyone knows about.
The knee still isn’t better. It’s getting better, but it isn’t 100%. I’m sticking to cycling for a few more weeks.
My next registered race is the Inca Trail Marathon in July. Bring on 13,000 feet of altitude!