Note: A shortened version of this report appeared in the April 19, 2011 issue of The New Hampshire, UNH’s student newspaper. All race and post-race photos courtesy of Julie Fortin, who takes pretty awesome pictures (the less-impressive expo photo is by me). Official Boston Marathon photos should be posted online on Thursday.
In my first marathon last March, I trained in the New Hampshire cold, but I raced in the Virginia heat. I got in a decent amount of miles, but I didn’t get my long runs in. I started out fast and took regular walking breaks beginning at mile 17.
Somehow, I still qualified for Boston.
From the moment of that 3:06 finish at the Shamrock Marathon, Boston was immediately on my to-do list. The world’s oldest annual marathon is also its most famous, with approximately 27,000 runners (and half a million spectators) descending on the city each Patriot’s Day, and the eyes of the world zeroing in on the battle of the elites at the front. Plus, pretty much everyone who runs marathons, especially those in New England, gets asked, “Have you done Boston?” (And pretty much every runner knows that your real question is: “Are you fast enough to qualify for Boston?”)
I admit that I thought that Boston might be somewhat overhyped. A lot of people spend years and years with qualifying for the race as their goal, but I never had that stage. Neverthess, as I wandered around the marathon expo at the Hynes Convention Center on Sunday, and as I milled with thousands of runners in Hopkinton’s Athletes Village Monday morning, I realized that I was playing a part in something special, and not just because there were free samples of every sports bar/drink of all time.
The best part of the expo was definitely the video put together by John Hancock Financial Services, the race’s primary sponsor. The camera had the viewpoint of a car driving the course, and the whole time there were cameos from different people associated with the race (past finishers, elites, BAA employees) discussing some aspect of the course. It was a beautiful demonstration of the magnitude of the feat that all 28,000 of us would soon undertake. There aren’t a ton of point-to-point marathons out there (my first one was more of a figure eight). But there’s something awesome about them. In the case of Boston, you start 26.2 miles outside of the city in the town of Hopkinton (population: 14,000) and run into the heart of one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
Wrap your head around that.
My training had been sporadic. I hadn’t been doing more than 30 miles a week, even less than before my first marathon (I averaged about 50 miles a week for that), and my last run over 10ish miles was in early February. But I hoped that the muscle memory gained from September’s 50 mile trail race and January’s 100k, as well as the psychological boost of a 1:16:44 half marathon in February, would pull me through.
My strategy was this: start slow, finish fast. I’d been warned (from that course video, as well as what I’d read online) that Boston’s first half was fairly easy, and that the real battle was the hills between miles 13 and 21, capping off with the much-feared Heartbreak Hill. But having a strategy only gets you so far. Doing it is another matter. Trust me, I’ve got some pretty epic race fails I can share with you (only in the pacing sense, no race is truly a fail).
Annie, a TNHer, her friend and I left Durham at 6 a.m. to head to Hopkinton (I will probably owe her for the rest of the life for our early morning departure). We got to the race drop off point without trouble, and I joined other runners on a school bus into Hopkinton. Then I spent an hour and a half killing time in Athlete’s Village, which basically consisted of peeing, waiting in line for food, putting a temporary tattoo on one calf and writing my name on the other (both of which you could do at the Adidas tent), then waiting in a line to pee again. It was a little chilly, but not bad. I had a ratty sweatshirt with me that I discarded at the race start to be donated (most people do that, unless they elect to outfit themselves in trash bags instead).
It turns out that a slow start in the Boston Marathon comes out of necessity. Weaving through the mass of runners at the start wasn’t worth the energy. I also stopped to pee about a half mile in, which slowed me slightly (yes, I peed right before heading to the starting line, but we got there 30 minutes before the race actually started, and there are these things called nerves that exert more influence over the bladder than scientifically makes sense). By mile five, things were opening up a bit, though I would be within sight of hundreds of runners all race.
The first half was all downhill. I tried to restrain myself while taking advantage of it. I took advantage of the Gatorade handed out every mile. The weather was perfect; the crowds were awesome (I’d never run a race with more than 2,500 runners). It wasn’t long before we were in Wellesley, home of the Wellesley girls and their scream tunnel (No, I didn’t partake). I went through the half-marathon mark in 1:28:21. It didn’t sound great next to my half marathon PR, but I felt like it was a sustainable pace and I looked forward to moving up a bit.
I expected hills immediately afterward, but the next few miles were more mild than expected. All systems appeared to be go, so I picked up the pace as we rolled through Natick and Newton.
In the ultimate display of my course naivety, I didn’t realize I was at Heartbreak Hill until I crested it and saw Boston College’s display at the top. Don’t get me wrong: I was glad it was behind me and it took something out of me, but the hills of Boston were less a factor than I expected (Side note: Best race sign was the BC college girl at the bottom of Heartbreak who held up “Just like our bras, we support you”).
The last five miles were a glorious descent through the streets of Boston. I saw – well, heard – a girl I worked with over the summer on Long Island (she graduated from Boston University and lives in Boston) cheering for me at mile 22 or so, which was incredibly awesome. Things started hurting around mile 23, but by that time I was too close to get discouraged. It helped that my quality-over-quantity entourage had elected to group near the end; seeing familiar faces definitely brought a surge. I tried to put on a little show when I came across the five awesome staff members of The New Hampshire (plus one staffer’s friend) who had gathered to cheer at mile 25. That show is slightly captured by this photo:
As I turned on to Bolyston Street, I tried to take it all in – the crowd, the noise, the pain, the finish line just ahead. More than anything, it was beautiful – and inspiring – for a city to transform itself for a marathon, for the humble runner to be elevated to the stature of the divine, if only for a day.
I crossed the line in Boston 2:56:05 after I’d set out in Hopkinton. The second I slowed, my legs seized up, my face seized in an unavoidable scowl, and the combination of sweat and Gatorade that I’d spilled on myself meant I was cooling down – fast. Ah…running.
It was a personal record (PR) by more than 10 minutes for me, a very welcome time after minimal training. And as I slowly meandered through the finishers chute – assuring dozens of medical staff that I was indeed fine, I just really felt the need to walk with my hands on my knees – I reflected on the fact that, basically, I’d done Boston because of all the hype it gets in the running community.
And what do you know – the race lives up to it.
After a wonderful 20+ minute sit (much-needed), I met up with the entourage, who had all managed to have an interesting Monday of their own, to say the least. The running gag for the rest of the day was that they were in worse shape from their activities than I was. But I digress.
As we made our way back via the T (Marathon finishers didn’t have to pay! Thank you, Boston), I plowed through the post-race nourishment we’d been giving, notably some potato chips, diced pears, 100 calorie pack of cookies (no joke), five+ powerbars, and Gatorade recovery drink. Aside from a brief, I-need-to-sit-down-now moment on the T, I was pretty much good to go, and didn’t crash until midnight, after throwing together the piece for TNH.
Boston was an incredibly amazing experience.