Boston 2018 - Marathon or Survivathon?
It can be said that you don't need to be mad to run a marathon, but it helps.
That was certainly true for Boston Marathon 2018, something I found out the hard way on 16 April as I stood shivering on the start line waiting to set off on my first attempt at this famous event.
Before reliving the pain, I'll try to explain some of what makes Boston so special in marathon folklore. Perhaps, to some, it's over-hyped, but it most certainly holds a special place in marathon circles.
History - Boston is the world's oldest annually run marathon, it started in 1897. This year was marathon number 122.
Qualifying - it's not just a case of paying the entry fee to run, you have to achieve a qualifying time to be accepted. If you're on the start line, you've earned it.
Crowds - The number of people lining the streets is phenomenal, and some of them appear to be a bit crazy. They certainly give Boston marathon a special atmosphere.
Course - The course is a point to point which is a little unusual, although not unheard of. It's not the toughest route, but the four Newton Hills between 26km and 34km, the last of which is scarily called Heartbreak Hill, strike fear into the hearts of first time Boston runners.
Getting to Boston
This is not the travel details, it's the earning the place on the start line, getting the Boston Qualifying time, or BQ as it's known.
To be honest, Boston wasn't on my radar, it was something for the good runners. I'd already met my personal target of a sub 3h 30m marathon, I ticked that box with a 3h 29m run in 2015, which isn't good enough for a Boston entry.
I then ran Budapest marathon in October 2016. I was nervous because my previous marathon had been a disaster. Should I try for a sub 3h 30m again, or something safer? Even as the start gun fired I still hadn't decided. So I just ran, and was gobsmacked with a time of 3h 18m 53s.
That time was good enough to enter Boston. I knew a number of runners who were trying to make their BQ, but not quite getting there, so to turn down my own opportunity seemed wrong. I entered.
I'm not sure how, but I subsequently ran 3h 14m 30s in Prague in May 2017 and then 3h 03m 42s in Dubai in January 2018. I wish I knew what I was doing differently, as it seems to be working.
My Boston Preparation & Plan
I was on a high after my good run in Dubai marathon in January this year. To the extent that I said in my blog post of 1 February:
"3h 3m 42s, that's kind of close to 3 hours or, to be more precise, 2 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Darn it, how can I be within touching distance and not think of having a go to break the 3 hour barrier? Answer, I'm going to have to give it a try. It's quite possible that it will be beyond me, the infamous "marathon wall" will probably hit me squarely in the face. But if I don't dream, and if I don't try, then I'll never know. I'm entered for Boston on 16 April, so that will be where I will fight my battle. I can't believe that I've told you that I'm going to try, but now I've said it I'm going to have to give it my best shot. Oh no, this is going to hurt😬"
Then I got injured. My training was a mess. I did almost no running in February, and really only got back into proper training on 9 March. Although I had a good level of base fitness, my Boston specific training consisted of only 4 weeks of running before my taper for Boston started.
My dreams of a sub 3 hour effort were consigned to the trash. My new plan was to simply run by feel, to soak up the atmosphere, and to try and enjoy the event.
As a point to point, the bag drop for your post race gear is at the finish line. A fleet of school busses then transports the 26,948 runners the 26 miles (42km) to the start. It takes time, my bus time window was 6:00 am to 6:45 am, even though the marathon start was not until 10:00am.
So there's a lot of waiting about, which the weather made our first big test. Heavy rain, strong winds (25mph/40kmh) and cold temperatures (40°F/4°C). At least big tents provided some shelter as we waited, although the snow at the edges was more than a little disconcerting.
We were cold and wet before we even started running, but it was now time to peel off some of the extra layers as we walked to the start pens. I wore shorts, a long sleeve running shirt and my running vest over the top. I also had a shower proof jacket, gloves and a hat, all of which quickly became waterlogged, but at least they stopped some of the wind.
In general, the route is quite downhill for the first 6km, flat'ish with some rolling ups and downs for the next 20km, then come the 4 Newton Hills between 26km and 34km before the course reverts to being downhill with some flats into the finish.
Experienced Boston runners tell you to take it easy on the early downhill sections. Don't be tempted to go fast, they say, you'll pay for it later on the Newton Hills. I heeded this advice, and settled into a comfortable pace, with the kilometers passing by quite quickly.
At 5km I took my first energy gel, and got ready to settle into running the flatter part of the course. On the small rises, I could feel the effort, but overall I was still moving along OK. My pace was better than I had expected it would be.
Despite the cold, I worried that my rain jacket might make me overheat and I decided to discard it around the 10km mark. I instantly realised this was not clever. The wind cut into me through my wet clothes. It was freezing, and I really didn't need this extra thing to worry about.
Next energy gel at 15km, and I was still holding a steady pace. It wasn't easy, but my breathing was under control. I pushed on, and soon passed the half way point in 1h 29m 15s. I was delighted with that, but knew the hills were ahead, and the second half of Boston is notorious for being much tougher than the first half.
There was not a moment when it was not raining. It was persistent, at times torrential, and it was always very cold. The wind was against, but not as fierce as I expected, although the odd gust sent me sideways or, it felt, slightly backwards. The times when I was at the side or front of a group were the worst for the wind and, although not always possible, I tried to find protection behind other runners.
On I pushed, my next energy gel was at 25km, my first with caffeine in it, ready to give me a boost before the uphill sections. With freezing hands, I struggled to open my zip pocket to get the gel. My anxiety and heart rate increased as I started to panic. What if I couldn't get my nutrition? Problems are the last things you need at these times. Panic averted, I got the gel out.
The first of the Newton Hills, just tackle the metres immediately ahead and don't look up the hill. I kept my effort fairly even, slowed my pace a little, not wanting to push too hard and blow up. Then a flat section. Was that the first hill? Not nearly as bad as I feared, or am I not at the hills yet? I don't know, but tell myself not to worry. Just keep running.
Next hill, same routine, manage the effort, slow the pace. Not too bad. Breathing slightly harder, but it could be worse. Another gel at 30km. I shouldn't need one yet, but a top up before Heartbreak Hill can't hurt.
Third hill done, and it's just Heartbreak Hill to go. I glance up and see runners working their way up an incline. That must be it. Head down again, look only at those few metres ahead of me. Same routine, and then I crest onto a flatter section. Was that it? I'm not saying it was easy, but not the monster I had dreaded. I asked the runner next to me, and yes, that was it. Great, but keep calm, there's still 8km to go, and this is where marathons get serious.
Final energy gel at 36km. I take stock, I'm freezing, my legs are heavier, my breathing a little more ragged, but I feel in better shape than I expected. I've naturally lost time on the hills, but I don't know how much. Could sub 3 hours be on? I'm not sure, my mind is focused on the cold and just putting one foot in front of the other. There's no space left to do the math. I just try to keep a good pace.
I feel I'm doing well. A few runners are passing me, but I'm going past many more. Really working hard now, and my pace feels OK. I'm doing all that I can, it's not too much about the watch, although I glance at it now and again out of habit. And then an underpass, an unwelcome effort for the up part which slows me a little, but then a few turns and the finish is in sight.
Now I do look at my watch, and I look at the finish line in the distance. It's 2 hours 58 or 59 minutes, and I realise that I won't get there before the next hour has clicked over. But I still give it my all down the finish straight, and cross the line in 3 hours and 39 seconds.
As I cross the line, I'm not elated, I'm not disappointed, I'm just freezing cold and emotional. Somehow, the effort of the marathon strips away the protective layers and leave my emotions on the surface. I try to gather myself a little, and hobble forward to get my medal and my heat shield cape. I'm shivering uncontrollably. The priority is to get dry and warm.
So that was my Boston marathon. 3 hours and 39 seconds is a personal best. It drives Sally mad that I'm not simply happy with that, but it's so close to sub 3 hours. Surely I could have found 40 seconds somewhere on the course? Who knows, but I guess it can't be the end of my marathon running, I'll have to find another one, and I need to find those 40 seconds!
Some Boston 2018 Stats
26,948 started the marathon
25,746 finished (1,202 dropped out)
95.5% finish rate (compared to 97% last year)
Of the elite men, 14 did not finish, including Galen Rupp, an Olympic medalist and favourite to win the race. Of the elite women, 9 did not finish.
1,298 medically treated on the course
992 medically treated at the finish line
80 hospitalized (including 3 elite runners)
If you've read this far, thank you. That's been a marathon effort on your part! This has turned into a long post.
But one last thing. I've been asked what I think about when I'm running a marathon. What occupies my mind for 3 hours. It's an interesting question to me, because I don't really know the answer.
Unsurprisingly, I find marathons difficult, and therefore the during part is mostly not too enjoyable. I don't look at the scenery, I don't overtly pay much attention to the crowds, although subconsciously I believe they can make a huge difference.
So what is it that I think about? I think about the few metres ahead of me, so I pay attention to the road surface. How's my pace, am I on target, too fast or too slow? At times I think of my breathing, how's my effort level, my running form, is it efficient, am I landing on the front/mid section of my foot? I may think about my nutrition, when to have a gel, or when to drink. Where am I on the course, are there particularly challenges ahead, and where am I with my race plan. Is someone tracking me from home, I don't want to stop, they'll see and I'll be embarrassed. Occasionally I'll think of my loved ones, I thought of my mother, who is no longer with us, at one difficult point during Boston and that thought helped me push on.
So that's a collection of things that pass through my mind. It's not three hours worth of things, that's for sure, so whether my mind is empty for the rest of the time, or whether the effort of the run means that I simply don't recall the thoughts, I don't know.
And last of all, if you think running a marathon is difficult, then you should consider running a marathon and then following the misguided post marathon re-hydration strategy that we followed. I'm not sure whether the achy legs or the achy head was the biggest challenge for marathon day plus one. Perhaps consider buying shares in Samuel Adams brewery, I may have contributed to them having a bumper quarter!