Saturday, May 2, 2015

Running Sub-3: The Boston Marathon Race Recap

My Boston Marathon story actually starts six years ago, the first time I qualified. But that would take forever to tell, so I’ll fast forward—zip!—to Saturday, April 20th. Then, so as not to make this recap longer than that it already is, I’ll summarize those two days leading up to the big race with some quick bullet points.

Saturday, April 18th
Boarded Megabus to Boston at 10:30am. Ate, read, slept, and drooled intermittently on my boyfriend’s shoulder until we arrived in South Station at 3:45pm—nearly an hour later than scheduled. The reason for the delay? A bus ahead of us had burst into flames on the side of the road. We passed its blackened smoldering carcass in wide-eyed disbelief.

Hurried through the Hynes Convention Center to grab my race bib and snap a photo or two. We however manage to pause at a sunglasses kiosk long enough for Ryan to buy me a snazzy new pair!
Checked the weather on my phone. Wind and rain predicted for Monday. Shit.

Caught a ride with Marython and her husband out to suburbia where my coach’s parents were holding a festive dinner for the GCR ladies at their house. Petted their two enormous dogs, ate copious amounts of chicken/pasta/bread/orzo salad and accepted their generous offer to stay the night.

Sunday, April 19th
    Casual morning shakeout run with Coach Sasquatch, his wife, Randizzle, and Chloebullets. They all dressed in shorts and tank tops while I wore leggings, long sleeves, and gloves. Endured Sasquatch’s teasing and sweated my way through the run. Made a mental note not to make the same mistake on Monday.

    Missed the train back to Boston by literally seconds. (We watched it pull out of the station.) Caught a bus instead. Crisis averted.

    Spent the afternoon and evening with Ryan and my friend A___, eating an arbitrary assortment of foods. Pre-race edibles included chips and salsa, pineapple juice, bruschetta, cheese-less pizza, breadsticks, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and not one, not two, but three bowls of Honey Bunches of Oats. And of course water.  A lot of water.

    Checked the weather my phone again. Now showing 100% chance of rain and wind still predicted to come from the east. Shit.

    Finished off the evening by winning two rounds of Euchre and worrying that my coach had forgotten about me (he had a lot of runners racing in Boston and was staying with several of them). My worrying was needless, of course. He texted and basically told me that I was ready to go. 3:00 was the goal, and he sounded sure I could do it—or at least as sure as someone can “sound” over text message. Time to lock in and do it.

    Morning of Monday, April 20th
    5:40am wakeup—miraculously not the earliest I’ve had to get up for one of these races!

    Polished off the box of Honey Bunches of Oats and packed a banana and 2 granola bars for what I knew would be a long morning of waiting to run.

    Donned the same race outfit I wore at the 2014 Chicago Marathon (blue Nike sports bra, Patagonia GCR singlet, Brooks split shorts, Puma ankle socks, and Brooks Pureflow sneakers), plus arm sleeves and thin gloves. Then I added my “homeless person” clothes on top, which included sweatpants from Marshalls, an long sleeve T-shirt from my lifeguarding days, a men’s windbreaker I picked up from a lost-and-found several years back, and my 2013 NYC poncho, which I have to say was absolutely the most awesome pre-race garment ever. I am almost tempted to run the NYC Marathon again just to score another poncho. Almost.

    Walked out the door without consulting my phone, confident I’d be able to get to the Porter T station without any trouble. Wandered around for five minutes before finally locating a woman carrying grocery bags and asked for directions.

    Arrived at the Davis T station ready to flash my bib and get a free ride . . . but I couldn’t find an attendant to let me in! Luckily, Ryan had given me our Charlie ticket the night before “just in case.” Crisis averted.

    My teammates and I hadn’t made solid plans to meet and ride to the race start together, so after milling about looking for—and not seeing—familiar faces, I finally just got on one of the many yellow school buses that would transport us to the start. In an effort to amuse myself, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting beside me; he was from Melbourne and this was his first Boston marathon. I replied in kind, saying that I was originally from Pittsburgh but now lived outside New York City, and this was also my first Boston marathon.

    Suddenly, the man seated across the aisle rom us piped up. “Did you say you’re from Pittsburgh?” As it turns out, this guy was not only from Pittsburgh (Penn Hills, specifically, which his a community adjacent to the one where I grew up), but he also worked for the construction company that had renovated the Wolvarena (my high school football stadium), sent his 28-year-old son to St. Maurice (the Catholic school where I attended grades 4, 5, and 6), and personally founded the Collins-Wardle Double Gobble, which is what they call the combo race of 5k + 5 miles at the Pittsburgh YMCA Turkey Trot—a combo which I ran for the first time just last Thanksgiving!

    Then, as if the universe hadn’t already impressed me enough, after a cold, rainy , increasingly muddy walk from the buses to the giant Athlete Village tents, I wiggled in and found a small 2x2 square patch of dry ground to huddle on . . . only to discover that the man sitting beside me had moved to Pittsburgh from London a year-and-a-half ago! Talk about a small world.

    I was a little bit disappointed not to get to hang out with my teammates before the race, but meeting these men made it totally worthwhile, especially this last one: he was in the first wave of runners, meaning that he was scheduled to start running at 10am (whereas my start time wasn’t until wave 2, at 10:25). At about 9:20, when the Wave 1 runners were getting ready to leave the Athlete Village tents go to the starting corrals, I noticed him putting on latex surgical gloves over his cotton gloves. I remarked what a good idea that was, because I had been silently worrying about how my hands would fare in the cold wet weather. Well, what do you know he had an extra pair with him and gave them to me! I wore them literally the entire race, and while they didn’t make for the classiest marathon photos, and my hands were not cold..

    Now, for the race:

    The first 1-2 miles made me nervous because 1) there was literally no way to go any faster inside such a packed mass of runners, 2) because I could not run any faster and because the first several miles are on a downhill, I worried that I might be modifying my natural gait to keep from stepping on the people in front of me, and 3) if I did try to go any faster and tripped, there was so little space between runners that I’d be trampled!

    Also, within those first two miles, one of my Gu packets managed to work itself out of the loop in my shorts and fall into the frothing sea of sneakers. Fortunately, a fellow runner had recently been telling me about their tendency to accidentally drop Gu packets, and on a whim I had decided to pack an extra. Yet another crisis averted!

    Around miles 3-4, things finally opened up a bit. My instructions were to start out “slow” and ratchet up the pace with each 5k. The first 5k was supposed to clock in around 7:30/mile, and then I would drop 10-15 seconds per mile with each subsequent 5k with some slower 7min miles around the hills. However, by mile 4—the start of the 2nd 5k—I realized that I had had not stuck to my 7:30  pace for those first 3 miles. Concern and doubt bubbled up in my mind. “What if you went out too fast?” my brain worried. “What if you can’t keep cutting down the pace?”  At that point, though, I knew it was too late to do anything about it, so I just tried to focus on the 5k I was presently running. While most runners would probably have done the logical thing and paid closer attention to the pace on their watch, I instead chanted the pace in my head and hoped my legs would follow. 7:15, 7:15, 7:15. Then, 7, 7, 7. And so on, and so forth.

    Around mile 5 was where it really started raining in earnest. I tried to dodge puddles but eventually gave up. I also tried to find a suitable man to serve as my human windshield (also known as "drafting"), because there were some serious gusts blowing at us, but I eventually gave up on that, as well, since every time I found a man large enough, I eventually got so close that my options were to slow down or start stepping on his heelsand I wasn't slowing down.

    It’s funny to look back and see my half marathon split, because at the time, I literally had no idea. I was entirely focused on each mile and trying to keep track of which 5k I was running. (It’s shockingly hard to count to 3 over and over again while moving your legs. Thankfully I wasn’t chewing any gum, because things could have gotten really complicated then!) Of course, I wasn’t so focused as to miss the “Wall of Sound” at Wellesley, although you’d have had to be deaf and blind to miss that. (Best sighting there? A girl with bare shoulders holding a sign that covered her entire torso. The sign read, “If you run fast enough, I’ll drop the sign!”) After Wellesley, though, the cheering sections and high-fives all began to smear together in the way that Charlie Brown hears his teacher but can’t quite make out what she’s saying. I was thrilled to see so many people out there cheering so ardently in spite of the terrible weather. However, at a certain point, I just stopped seeing and hearing specifics.

    Apart from paces, the other idea I was turning over and over in my head was that  all I had to do was get through Mile 21. After that, by all accounts, the course would literally be all downhill. What I did not take into account (but should have, considering my still-vivid memories of the Pittsburgh Marathon), was how utterly painful downhill running can be when your legs are already fried. At Mile 21, we’d summited Heartbreak Hill and I was ready for the course to feel easier again. After all, my body likes to run downhill! I’ve never been good going up hills, but often I can make up the time I’ve lost on the corresponding downhill. Here, though, at Mile 21, I started to wonder if something was wrong with my quads. They hurt So Much. Was I really going to do this for five more miles?

    At this point, I had essentially thrown my pace plan out the window. On paper, I’d worked it out that if I started at a pace of 7:30/mi and dropped 10-15 seconds off my pace each 5k, I’d wind up running the last 5k at 6:10/mile. Of course, all things look great on paper. And in my head, I figured if I could finish the Philadelphia Love Run—which was 13.1 miles—at a sub-6min/mile pace, this might be doable. But as things panned out, I was running nowhere near 6:10/mile by the last 10k. However, I knew that because my first miles were faster than what I’d predicted, if I could average anything at or below 6:30/mi, I’d be in pretty good shape to hit or break the three-hour mark. Unfortunately, determining whether I was hitting that 6:30 pace proved tricky, because somewhere around Mile 20, my watch had lost satellite signal . . . and never regained it. As a substitute, the next time I saw a mile marker, I fumbled with my cold, stiff fingers to press the “lap” button on my watch, and continued to do that for the last 6 miles of the race. Thanks a lot, Garmin.

    About three miles from the finish, I made a deal with myself. At the starting line, I had set my watch to show “lap” time. This meant that at each mile—or, as was now the case, each time I pressed the “lap” button—the face of the watch would clock back to 00:00 and start counting up again. Therefore, at this point in the race, I had no idea what my total running time was. (I have tried to use the clock times, but they started at zero with Wave 1, and my wave, Wave 2, had started 25 minutes later, and as I mentioned before, me and mental math while running . . . not so good.) The deal I made was, I could only change my watch over to the “total time” display once I hit Mile 25. Whether this was smart or stupid, I have no idea. I just knew that if I checked earlier and it looked like I was going to miss the 3-hour mark, I might freak out, and if it looked like it would be close, I might freak out . . . and I basically wanted to avoid freaking out out. It was already a hard enough run, with rain and wind and screaming thighs; I didn’t need stressful thoughts to make things harder. And at Mile 25, it would essentially be too late—I’d just have to live with whatever race I had already run.

    The last 1.2 miles of the race were . . . memorable. I looked at my watch and saw that I was going to make it. I was running 6:30/mile, and even if I slowed by a full minute-per-mile in that last mile, I’d still break three hours. Emerging from beneath Massachusetts Ave, I looked toward the crowds and there was the teal umbrella, with Ryan holding it! I smiled. I waved. I blew him a kiss. And then I turned back to tackle the only turns on the course: a right, and then a left, and then there was the finish. But wait, there was a woman! In front of me! I could hear T-Pain’s voice, “Killllll!” in my head as I dug into my legs and found the will to turn them over faster. I was going to catch her. And I did.

    Crossing the finish line and realizing I’d done it—I’d broken 3 hours—felt truly shocking. In spite of the rain, in spite of the headwind, in spite of my  squishing sneakers and squeaking surgical gloves. In spite of the fact that all I’d wanted out of this race all season was to run faster than I had in Chicago. It was glorious. It was surreal. It was the first time I cried after finishing a race. So much for decent race photos. But it was worth it.