Posted by: pointlenana | April 23, 2015

Boston Marathon – April 20 2015

I went into this year’s Boston race with relatively modest goals.  I’ve been training hard, but towards Western States in June, not Boston in particular.  I wanted to do “well”, but walk away ready for a hard training race schedule in May and a good race in June.  I decided “well” meant two things:

1) run fast enough that I’d requalify for Boston with enough margin to survive a cutoff if there are too many qualifying runners for 2016.  I’m optimistic that this coming year will return to normal and everyone who qualifies will get in, but I figure two minutes is a safe margin in case there is a cutoff.  My qualifying time is 3:30 (I’m old) so that means 3:28.  I hadn’t run any recent races, so I didn’t really know my fitness, but based on a few training runs I felt like I was nearly as fit as I was last year when I set a 3:21+ PR at Napa – maybe 3:22-3:23 shape.  I was hoping that running a tiny bit off my max effort would significantly shorten recovery.

2) run a “good race” – have a race plan, execute well on it, maybe run my first-ever negative split in about 10 serious marathon attempts, improve upon my previous Boston course PR of 3:29:02, and run hard on Boylston for the first time ever.  I’ve run Boston 5 times before, and never had a great race.  Attempt #1: I made the typical first-timer mistake and started too fast on the downhills, bonked at the top of Heartbreak Hill and had the worst 10k/last hour of any marathon I’ve run, dropping from a projected finish of 3:20 at mile 21 to that 3:29:02 PR – I felt so bad that I don’t really remember that hour.  Attempt #2: got injured a few weeks before the race, ran ok but slower than my training goal, and slowed on purpose in the last few miles to enjoy what I thought might be my last Boston.  Attempt #3:  “ran” with Janet on a day when temps hit 90 degrees and we walked many many miles.  Attempt #4: ran with Janet again and got stopped 300 yards short, watching bomb #2 explode 100 yards in front of us.  Attempt #5: ran with Janet again, had a wonderful day, made a long movie of our experience, and finally finished in a time she felt good about (4:08+ which is a Boston-qualifier for her – and she ran a little faster 6 days later at Big Sur).  Many good experiences (and one horrible one), but I still wanted a “good race”.

As usual, the weekend before the race was fun.  My friends Will and Heng-Jin made me very comfortable in their home and fed me well, yet again (thank you!).  I got to meet/hang out with people from RWOL some Sat/Sun and during the morning before the race.  I ran into my friend Ather – he and I ran for a while at Chuckanut, during his first race after spending a year rehabbing an ACL tear.  I had a nice visit with our friend Dale from Seattle (who ended up finishing 109th out of 27,000 people, in 2:32+).  I walked past various celebs – Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden, and (surprisingly) Scott Jurek.  Janet and I have run together the past 3 years, and she was supposed to come again this year (although not to run) but couldn’t due to some last-minute circumstances, so it wasn’t quite the same.  But it’s the Boston Marathon and it’s hard not to have a good time in the pre-race prep.

With Scott Jurek.  It's a good omen when a 7-time Western States winner wishes you luck - right?

With Scott Jurek. It’s a good omen when a 7-time Western States winner wishes you luck – right?

Sunday night before the race, I had two worries:

1) The weather.  The forecast had been great – cool, cloudy, dry – but deteriorated in the days before the race.  Ultimately it settled on clow 40s with rain and a 15-20mph headwind arriving sometime between the start and end of the race.  I run in weather like that a lot here in Seattle, but racing usually means minimal clothing and cold/wet/headwind with minimal clothing can easily turn into hypothermia.  I waffled on clothing until the morning of the race, and settled on a singlet, cap, shorts, discardable gloves and wool armwarmers that I never wear and could discard if necessary.

2) My foot.  I’ve had some foot/heel pain in recent weeks – plantar fasciitis and/or a nerve problem.  I’ve been working on fixing that and it seemed to be getting better, but it ached pretty bad Sat and Sun afternoon after walking 3-5 miles each day to/around/from the expo.  Surprisingly it was always better the next morning and didn’t really hurt during my shakeout runs.  But I wasn’t sure how it would hold up over 26 miles.  This actually made me more worried about the weather – if I dressed for a race and then had to slow due to issues, I could get in serious hypothermia trouble very quickly.  I finally decided that if I had issues, this would be a race where I dropped out quickly instead of gutting my way to a slow finish – probably better both in terms of short-term survival and keeping my hopes for June intact.

Race morning came, and the weather looked similar to the forecast – the big question was when the rain/wind would arrive.  I felt bad for some people I saw travelling on the T to the buses at Boston Commons – wearing shorts and a light shirt/windbreaker on top, or in some cases nothing more than their running clothes.  My first year waiting at Hopkinton it was about 40 degrees, and although I had extra clothes on, I was still pretty cold when the race started.  Waiting in Hopkinton for 2+ hours wearing only race clothes is a recipe for race disaster, if not a visit to a medical tent at Athlete’s Village.  It’s challenging because Boston no longer lets you send a bag back from the start, so you either wear things you care about through the whole race or discard things in Hopkinton (clothes are collected and given to Goodwill or something like that).  I had old jeans over my shorts.  On top, I had had my Maniacs singlet and armwarmers, 3 short-sleeve shirts (one thermal), a light kitchen garbage bag to stop wind, a long sleeve shirt, a heavy garbage bag over everything, and a space blanket that they were handing out in Athlete’s Village.  I was just warm enough.  Three of us from RWOL found a space inside one of the tents, and an hour or so before the race, the rain and wind started.  The tent became very crowded after that, as rain poured off the edges.  Thankfully, the rain stopped again after a little bit.  Shortly before heading to the start corrals, I ran into my friend Bob who will pace me at Western States.  I took off most of my extra clothing in the start corral, 5 minutes before I started running.

My race plan had 4 stages:  1) run the first few (somewhat downhill) miles a little fast to bank a little time, since my quads are pretty trained for downhills.  2) run steady pace to the Newton Hills – I settled on 7:55 as my target pace, which is about 3:27:30.  3) push a little in the Newton Hills through Heartbreak Hill, since those hills are not that big compared to some ultra hills, but probably give back any time I banked 4) run the last 5 downhill/flat miles with whatever I had left.  Doing all this would give me a good chance of hitting my 3:28 goal or at least a 3:30 BQ even if I faded a bit due to the headwind and/or overestimating my fitness.  I also wanted to try “high nutrition” in a race, which meant downing a gel every 25 minutes through the race.  Most people who hear that go “ugh!!!”, but I read about it in Matt Fitzgerald’s book and had tried it in a few training runs.  In my test runs (e.g. 20 miles with the last 12 at marathon pace), I felt stronger and less bleary at the end, even though I always started thinking “really??? I have to eat another one already???” later in the runs.  And my friend Bob managed to consume 60 gels during his successful sub-24 hour Western States run, which is about the same rate of intake.

The First 5 Miles – Splits: 7:56, 7:47, 7:48, 7:51, 7:53

There are many great things about the Boston experience – for me, going past the start pillars and looking down that first hill is amazing.  The first five miles are mostly downhill, with some ups thrown in to keep things interesting.  After the long wait, it’s an incredible feeling to start with a downhill while everyone is cheering and giving you high fives.  Plus you are running with people who’ve all worked hard to be there and are equally excited.  The spectators disappear for a little while around mile 1, but reappear soon after and then are constant for the rest of the run.  The start went as planned, the weather was still dry, and any wind wasn’t noticeable.  I drank a Gatorade endurance sample about 15 minutes before the start – if I drink ANYTHING earlier in the morning of a race, a pit stop is guaranteed so now I wait until just before the race to hydrate.  I took my first gel 15 minutes in and went from there.  I find it very hard to do pace math over the course of a race, so I’ve settled on a system where I have a goal pace (in this case 7:55), look at my split for each mile as I pass the marker, and keep cumulative track of the seconds relative to that goal pace.  So in this case, I was +1 after mile 1, then -7 at mile two, -14 at mile 3, etc.. By the end of mile 5, I was about 20 seconds ahead of my goal pace.  Not quite the 30 seconds I had hoped for, but that first mile is pretty congested and being within 10 seconds over 5 miles is pretty much a bullseye.

The cover of this year's Official Program.  The start pillars are on the sides at the top.  That's Meb leading from the very start of his awesome, tear-inducing, winning effort last year.

The cover of this year’s Official Program. The start pillars are on the sides at the top. That’s Meb leading down the hill from the very start of his awesome, tear-inducing, winning effort last year.

5 Miles to (almost) Halfway – Splits: 7:49, 7:51, 7:49, 7:51, 7:57, 9:01, 7:47, 7:41.

Based on the splits, I nailed the next 4 miles.  I was checking my heart rate and it was slightly under what I typically see in marathons, so being slightly fast was ok.  As usual, I felt like I needed to pee from even before the start of the race.  When I’m going 100%, that feeling usually goes away around mile 6, but this time that feeling was still lurking at miles 8 and 9.  And I had failed on my goal of starting the race empty in every way – I chalk this up to some combo of cheap “pesto sauce” the night before (my choice – my friends had no involvement in that one), time zone challenges, and a weird eating schedule through the weekend.  I weighed an opportunistic portapotty stop in this section against an emergency stop later in the race, and when I saw someone leave a portapotty with no one rushing in afterwards, I bolted off the course and took a break.  It happened to be in Natick, across the street from the singer who was leading the Sweet Caroline singalong last year.  He was singing again this year, but it was some other crooner classic and just wasn’t the same.  Or maybe it was the HoneyBucket ambiance.  Anyway, based on that 9:01 split, the stop cost me 66 seconds, eating up all of my banked time and putting me somewhat behind 7:55 pace.

My heart rate said I was running comfortably, so I pushed a little in the next two miles to make up time, and just before the halfway point I was only about 5 seconds slow relative to my goal pace/time.  It helped a lot that the Wellesley Scream Tunnel is in this section, during that 7:41 mile.  If the start of Boston is the 2nd best thing in amateur sports, Wellesley is the best – for 90 seconds ordinary runners are treated like rock stars.  Around this time, the rain and wind started again, but being among a lot of runners it didn’t feel much worse than an ordinary run on a rainy Seattle day.  On the other hand, my (fast) friend Dale said that from mile 10 onward he was pretty much on his own pushing into the wind.  I’m not sure why American elites went out in front in the middle section of the race – that seems like bad tactics given the weather but what do I know about racing at that level.

In this section, I was still present enough to notice things about the people around me.  Everyone I was running with had run a marathon that was good enough to qualify them for Boston, which implies some level of awareness and expertise.  But there were surprising things.  For example, I was briefly part of a 3-runner pileup when a guy decided to stop suddenly in the course to open a gel.  The woman behind him plowed straight in, and I brushed her as I swerved to avoid the mess.  You don’t stop suddenly in a sea of runners.  I passed a man and a woman running together, and as I passed I heard the woman ask “how you doing?”  The guy answered “ok, but I’m worried about nutrition – I need something soon”.  I offered him one of my gels, and he said “no thanks, I’m just hoping I can get a Gu at an aid station soon”.  I told him that they don’t have Gu on the course, and the only gel is PowerGel (wrong – it was Clif gels this year) at mile 17 (and we were at mile 11).  He said “really???” so I handed him one of my gels, told him it was a Gu and wished him luck.  Nutrition available on the course isn’t exactly a secret, and given the time people spend training, it seems reasonable to spend 5 minutes reading about what’s at the aid stations.  And then there is running tangents (staying close to the inside of curves, not on the outside).  This probably sounds like an anal thing, but if you don’t run tight turns, you can add several tenths of a mile to your race.  At 40-60 seconds per tenth, this can easily turn a PR effort into a disappointing time.  It’s not easy to run tight tangents at Boston – the road is a little narrow, and it’s fairly congested with people – but there were sections where (for example) there was a long bend to the left, the area to the left of the center line was mostly empty, and most of the runners were to the right of the center line.  A little awareness there can shave a few seconds and (at least for me) make it more fun because I don’t have to be as careful about where my feet land.   Maybe they were avoiding the wind, but I don’t remember a lot of wind there.  Everyone has their own goals and reasons for being there, and I’m sure I did lots of less-than-perfect stuff too.  Mostly I concluded that being old and somewhat talent-impaired, I have to worry about stuff like that, whereas some people are naturally younger and/or more-talented and can get away with things I can’t.

Mile 13 through Newton Hills (Miles 13-21) – Splits: 7:52, 7:53, 7:49, 7:57, 8:03, 7:49, 8:06, 8:05

After the portapotty break and catch-up, I got back onto my steady pace, getting ready for the Newton Hills.  There are four hills that people worry about there, finishing up with Heartbreak.  None of them are particularly big (Heartbreak is the biggest, at about 100 feet) nor long (1/2 to 3/4 of a mile).  But miles 16-21 in a marathon are when you start to wear out, so they come at a bad time.  Also, by now it was raining pretty well and there were puddles in the street, so my shoes were soaked by the time I started up the first hill.  At this point I started passing people.  Up until Newton, I had mostly held steady, seeing the same runners about the same distance ahead of me for several miles at time.  I felt pretty good, and I didn’t have any time banked, so I pushed up a little closer to my aerobic threshold than I would have otherwise, and passed people.  That felt pretty good too.  It helped having run the hills 5 times before, knowing roughly how long each would last.  You actually can’t see the end of Heartbreak when you start it due to a curve, but there’s a stoplight close to the top and once I rounded the curve and could see the stoplight in the distance, I knew I was almost done with hills.  Just past the top of Heartbreak, at mile 21, I was about 10 seconds off my goal time/pace, even with the 1 minute delay courtesy of the HoneyBucket folks and Cheap Pesto Sauce(TM) pesto sauce.

Mile 21 to Finish – Splits: 7:42, 7:54, 7:37, 7:36, 7:35, 1:36 for last .22 miles (6:29 pace)

From the top of Heartbreak to the finish, it is all downhill and flat.  At least in theory.  In reality, it’s downhill and then rolling to the finish.  The rollers are little but after 22 miles you notice them.  Plus, by now, there really was a headwind.  I had mostly followed my nutrition plan – I was aiming to eat 8 gels, ate 6 plus that Gatorade drink before the start (which replaced the gel I normally eat then) and had some Gatorade on the course so I was pretty close to my carbs plan.  Cresting Heartbreak, I felt good and ran a fast mile down the backside.  There’s a nasty small hill in the 23rd mile and I slowed somewhat – for a minute or two I noticed all the fatigue and discomfort and considered dialing it back, but ate yet another gel instead and felt better a few minutes later.  Or maybe seeing the Pace Prophet from RWOL cheering us did it.  Anyway, from mile 23 on, I don’t think I was passed.  I don’t know for sure – there were a lot of people out there – but I passed a lot of people pretty quickly and didn’t notice anyone going even faster past me.  Going relatively faster than the people around me was actually a bit of a problem – again and again I’d aim for a gap between two people and one of them would veer slightly into the gap just as I got there.  Once or twice I had to stick my arm into the gap and gently make it a little wider again, apologizing as I passed through.

I stopped tracking my “delta seconds” – it didn’t matter anymore, all that mattered was continuing to push for a few miles.  I did have a brief marathon brain moment a bit less than a mile from the finish.  In previous years, there’s been an underpass 1k from the finish where you have to go downhill (that’s fine) and then back up again (not so fine) to get under Mass Ave..  I remembered that being just after another small hill at the Citgo sign.  I passed the hill/sign, ran for a while, and didn’t see the underpass, so I concluded that the course had changed slightly this year and we didn’t have to do the downhill/uphill.  A couple minutes later I saw people veering off to the downhill and thought “doh”.  But the uphill was brief, we turned right onto Hereford, and two blocks later took the left onto Boylston.  I had hoped to run fast there AND high-five spectators, but the barriers there are a few feet deep now, so I just focused on running.  The Boylston section is only 600 yards long, but every time I’ve run it, it feels endless.  This year wasn’t any different on that front, but according to that last split, I did run fast.  Finally.

Right on Hereford

Right on Hereford

Left on Boylston.  Please note that I've dropped the people who were with me two blocks back.

Left on Boylston. Please note that I’ve dropped the people who were with me two blocks back.

My official time was 3:26:34.  Is that good?  Let me count the ways:  1) better than my 3:28 goal 2) my best time at Boston 3) it requalifies me to run Boston in 2016 4) even if there’s a cutoff it’s 99.9999% certain I’ll get in 5) I thought the portapotty stop would put an asterisk on this, but I did the math and taking that stop out, I ran my first ever negative split (1:43:52 first half – so 1:42:46 of running and 66 seconds of HoneyBucket – and 1:42:42 for the second half.  It’s only 4 seconds, but hey, it’s negative.)  6) It’s my 3rd fastest marathon time 7) It’s only 20 seconds slower than my 2nd fastest time (which had no pit stop, but did happen during a monsoon with 20-40mph headwinds) 8) I was even older and more decrepit in this race than in those other races.  9) 6:29 pace over that last bit – that might have even looked a little bit fast, assuming people had a short memory and forgot the sprint at the end of the women’s race.  Yeah, compared to truly fast people – I’m talking to you Dale – or fast old guys – FB, OMR, Jim – it’s a mediocre time.  But I’ll take it.

Post-race:

The wind had picked up through the race.  Once I stopped, I was warm for a minute or two and then quickly started getting cold.  I wanted to walk quickly through the finish area, but my legs said “no way”.  I was happy to get the lined cape on, but with the wind, it was only partially effective in keeping us warm.  I knew that eating much would cause instant shivering, so I had a bit of recovery drink and some chips, and skipped the rest of the food.  Slowly, slowly, I hobbled toward gear check at Boston Commons, shivering slightly but not dangerously.  15 minutes (30?  120?) later, I finally got to my bag and got dry things on.  I had another hour of travel to get back to my friends’, and had to stop in a Starbucks for a warm drink along the way, but I was basically fine.  And very happy with the day.

As always, thank you to the volunteers and spectators.  You are the reason the race is special.


Responses

  1. Great run Seattlemax! But you need to do a find/replace on your article and insert “not” before the word “old”. Ps – go western states!

  2. Woohoo! It was great seeing you, too. I wonder whether the clueless folks were bandits? I didn’t see anyone running without a bib, but I have no idea whether all those bibs were genuine. Congrats on persevering through the lovely liquid sunshine.


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