Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Boston Marathon

On April 20, I ran the Boston Marathon.  This was my fifth Boston Marathon.  I also ran it in 1991, 2012, 2013 and 2014.  Some parts of the race, like the course and the great crowd support, are always the same.  Other things, like the bombs at the finish line two years ago, make each year unique.  Another thing that can make each year different is the weather.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept an eye on the forecast.  It was going to be cool.  It might rain.  It was going to be windy.  How the wind would affect us would depend a lot on its direction.  There’s a big difference between a 20 MPH headwind and a 20 MPH tailwind.

I flew to Boston on Saturday.  The race wasn’t until Monday, but there were pre-race events going on all weekend.  My flight was early, arriving around 1:30.  I took the shuttle to Airport Station, where I bought a 7-day transit pass.  I was only there for four days, but that always turns out to be the best value.  Two train rides later, I arrived at the downtown Doubletree.

I always stay at a downtown hotel.  It’s expensive, but there’s a buzz that permeates the downtown area all weekend.  I like to be near that.  Wherever you go, you see people wearing Boston Marathon gear, including jackets they just bought at the expo.  The runners aren’t the only ones who get excited about the race.  It’s a holiday weekend.in Boston.  The race is held on Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the first battles of the Revolutionary War.  The marathon isn’t just a race.  It’s a part of the Patriots’ Day festivities.

After checking in at Doubletree and dropping off my bags, I continued to Solas Irish Pub at the Lenox Hotel for dinner with other members of the 50sub4 club.  Along the way, I walked through the finish area.


In the evening, I went to Harpoon Brewery to have a few beers with Stefan, a fellow Marathon Maniac and Marathon Globetrotter who traveled from Germany.

Sunday morning, I had breakfast at Doubletree and then went to the expo at Hynes Convention Center.  The expo opened at 9:00, and I wanted to get there as early as I could, so I would have time to look around.  While I was there, I bumped into a few friends.  After stopping at the hotel to drop off my race packet, I went back to the finish line on Boylston.  It’s an annual tradition for Marathon Maniacs doing the race to meet there at noon for group pictures.

When we were done taking pictures, a few of us went to Durgin Park for lunch.  This is also a tradition.  I’ve never traveled to Boston without dining at Durgin Park.  It’s a restaurant that serves traditional New England dishes, such as their Yankee Pot Roast.  I always save room for dessert, so I can have a bowl of Indian pudding, topped with vanilla ice cream.

After lunch, I went back to the hotel.  I didn’t sleep well Saturday night, so I tried to take a nap.  I only nodded off briefly, but it seemed to help.  After waking up, I took some time to organize my clothes for the race.  Later, I met two of my friends for dinner at a pizzeria that was a block from my hotel.

I got to bed early and slept better that night.  I was awake before my alarm and started getting ready around 5:30, giving me time for a light breakfast at the hotel.

When I woke up, it was 41 degrees.  It was forecast to climb into the upper 40s and then stay there throughout the morning and afternoon.  There was a strong likelihood of rain during the race, but I was hoping it would hold off until after the race started.

The big story was the wind.  There was a big storm system moving up the east coast, and we were on the fringe of it.  During the race, we were going to have steady winds of 20 MPH with gusts approaching 30 MPH.  That wind was going to make it feel much colder.  Also, it was a headwind.  We would have to fight it all the way from Hopkinton to Boston.

To stay warm enough in a cold wind, I wore a long sleeve polypro shirt, tights, gloves and a warm hat.  I chose my cheetah print tights and hat.  That’s appropriate, since it was at this race that I was originally dubbed Cheetah Man by my friend Kino.  I kept a plastic rain poncho in a fanny pack in case it started raining before the race.

To get to the start in Hopkinton, most runners take the buses that depart from Boston Common.  The start is divided into four waves.  I was in the first wave, which started at 10:00.  Runners in my wave were advised to board buses between 6:00 and 6:48.  I left Doubletree at 6:30, so I could get to Boston Common around 6:45.  In past years, I’ve waited in line for a long time to board a bus.  This year the bus loading was more efficient.  I was on a bus in just a few minutes.

The Hopkinton High School grounds are used for the athletes’ village.  There were three huge canopies set up near the school.  All morning, buses arriving from Boston were dropping off runners.  I was dropped off around 8:00 and made my way to one of the canopies.  I brought a small blanket with me in case the ground was wet.  There were hundreds of port-o-potties, tables with food and water, a jumbo-tron and a PA system. 

Besides my running clothes, I wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants while I was in the athletes’ village.  Last year, they added new security procedures because of the bombs in 2013.  You used to be able to check a gear bag in the athletes’ village.  Now, anything you bring to the athletes’ village that you don’t take with you during the race has to be left behind.  The clothes left behind get donated to charities.

On a sunny day, most people sit outside on the grass.  This year, most people were waiting under the canopies, so it was hard to find an unoccupied piece of ground.  After looking around a bit, I found a space, spread out my blanket and sat down.  I would be there for an hour and 20 minutes, so I did my best to relax.  After about 10 minutes, I spotted my friends Heather and Cade, and they joined me.

We weren’t there long before it started raining.  Then everybody who was outside came under the canopies, making it standing room only.  We were lucky to have room to sit down.  The rain was discouraging, but it didn’t last too long.  It was just a passing band of showers.  When it stopped raining, I took the opportunity to make a bathroom stop while the lines were short.

At 9:20, I took off the sweatpants and left the athletes’ village to walk to the start corrals, which are about a mile from the high school.  Along the way, I passed a parking lot with more port-o-potties, and I made a final bathroom stop.  Then I made my way to my start corral.  My qualifying time for this race was 3:08:42.  That was fast enough to get into the first wave, but just barely.  Within my wave, I was seeded in the last of eight corrals.

I kept my sweatshirt on until I entered my start corral.  For the time being, there wasn’t much wind.  Then, just as the race started, the wind picked up.  It wasn’t the 20 MPH wind I was expecting, but that would come later.

The first 16 miles of the course have a gentle downhill trend.  It’s most noticeable in the first few miles, making it easy to start fast.  I made no effort to start quickly or to pass people.  I just followed the other runners out at a pace that felt easy.

Since I was in the last corral, I had roughly 7,000 runners in front of me.  Normally, that many runners packed onto a two-lane road would mean a slow start.  It’s worth noting however, that all of the runners in front of me had qualifying times that were at least as fast as mine.  Everyone got moving pretty quickly.

My goal, ideally, was to break 3:30.  To do that, I needed to average 8:00 per mile.  With a headwind, I was skeptical that I could do that.  I was surprised to reach the first mile marker in 7:29.  It really didn’t feel like I was running fast.  I stayed relaxed and didn’t try to push the pace at all.  My second mile was 7:27.  After that, I eased up, but I was still running mile times between 7:40 and 7:50.

We had a headwind, but it wasn’t too strong in the early miles.  Because I was dressed for strong winds and rain, I started to get warm.  After a few miles, I took off my gloves.

After about five miles, I felt a little light rain, and the wind picked up.  I was lucky to have some easy miles with lighter winds, but the wind would get steadily stronger as the race progressed.

After about eight miles, it was a steady rain.  The drops felt ice cold, and I had to put my gloves on again.  I wouldn’t feel warm again.

I was disappointed with how quickly the runners spread out.  Although there were 30,000 runners doing the race, there were only about 7,500 in each wave.  After a few miles, we got spread far enough apart that I was more exposed to the wind.  My normal tendency is to run close to the side of the road.  Instead, I had to move closer to the center, where there were more runners to block the wind.  In time, we started forming lines of three to five runners.  We were like cyclists riding in formation, drafting off each other.

Somewhere between 11 and 12 miles, I started hearing cheers in the distance.  We were approaching Wellesley College a women’s college that’s right on the course.  The Wellesley women always come out to cheer.  They call it the scream tunnel.  As usual, I could hear them before I could see them.  As I got closer, I moved to the right side of the road.

The Wellesley women hold up signs asking the runners to kiss them.  I saw signs reading, “Kiss me, I’m the one,” “Kiss me goodbye, I’m a senior,” “Kiss me, I have stamina,” among many others.  My favorite this year was the Texan holding up a sign saying, “Mess with Texas.”

For the third straight year, there was at least one woman holding a large sign in front of her saying, “Run faster, and I’ll drop the sign.”  From the front, it appears that she’s wearing nothing behind the sign.  In fact, she wears shorts and a bikini top.  With the wind and rain, it was freezing cold.  I was wearing warm clothes from head to toe, and I was running hard, yet I was cold.  She had to be freezing, yet she was undeterred by the weather.

That was true of all the spectators.  Despite the horrible weather, there was great crowd support all along the course.  Boston spectators are the best.  They aren’t fair weather fans.  They’re always there for you.

The Wellesley scream tunnel was a nice diversion, but after I got past it, I had to get back to reality.  I still had almost 14 miles to go.  For the time being, I was riding a downhill trend to a fast pace, but there would be tough miles later.  The wind was increasing.  When the downhill trend ended, I would have to slow down.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:40:31.  Until then, I didn’t realize just how fast I was running.  I was on pace for my fastest marathon since August.  The course was still downhill for three more miles, but I started to conserve energy.

At 16 miles, I entered Newton, and began the first of four hills.  I reminded myself that I was more than four minutes ahead of schedule.  I didn’t have to maintain a fast pace on the hills.  I took the first hill with an effort that felt sustainable.

I ran that mile in 8:22.  It was my slowest mile so far, but if I only gave back 22 seconds on each hill, I’d be in good shape.  Over the next four miles, there would be three more hills.  I was careful not to wear myself out.  I gave back 13 seconds on the second hill and 18 seconds on the third.

Running uphill, I couldn’t draft behind other runners.  Everyone takes the hills at their own pace.  I wasn’t going to find another runner going at a pace that was just right for me.  That meant I had to take on the headwind at the same time I was taking on the hills.  The wind tired me more than the hills did.  It was getting stronger.

The fourth hill is Heartbreak Hill.  The wind made it doubly difficult.  I ran that mile in 8:32.  I was at the 21 mile mark.  With 5.2 miles to go, I still had a cushion of almost three minutes.  All I had to do to break 3:30 was run the last five miles at the same pace that I ran on Heartbreak Hill.

From 21 miles to the finish, the trend is downhill again.  There are still a few short uphill sections, but I was able to pick up my pace again.  I couldn’t run as fast as I did in the first half, but I was able to manage roughly eight minutes per mile.

I was really cold now.  My hands were numb.  I skipped three of the last five aid stations, because I didn’t know if I could grab a cup.  I knew I would make it only because there weren’t that many miles left.

I’ve done this race enough times that I know the course.  I know the turns and the landmarks.  Strangely, besides the mile markers, I didn’t see much between miles 22 and 24.  I had tunnel vision.  The cold was wearing on me, and I was just trying to keep moving.  Each time I passed a mile marker, I was more confident that I would break 3:30, even if I slowed down.  I tried not to slow down.

In the last two miles, I saw people walking.  I wanted to say, “Dude! Don’t you know you’ll stay warmer if you keep running?”  Not knowing what they were going through, I said nothing.

With one kilometer to go, I ran under a bridge.  I’ll always remember that underpass as the spot where thousands of runners came to a sudden stop two years ago when the finish area had to be closed off by police.  Then I saw the runners ahead of me turning right.

I made the most famous turns in road running:  Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.  I saw the finish line in the distance, but it seemed like it took forever to get there.  I crossed the finish line in 3:27:39.  I would have been happy with that time even in good weather.  I was ecstatic to be able to run that time with a strong headwind.  I really earned my unicorn this year.

I still had to walk about a mile to get to Doubletree, so I kept moving.  I didn’t bother getting any water or Gatorade.  I kept moving until I got my “baked potato wrap.”  Last year, they stopped using Mylar blankets in favor of silver ponchos.  The ponchos have hoods and arm holes, and they fasten in the front with Velcro, so you can keep your hands free.  I would depend on that wrap to keep me (somewhat) warm while I walked to the hotel.

Most of the post-race food was handed to us in plastic bags with handles, making it easier for runners to move quickly through the finish area.  I also picked up a protein bar, a bottle of protein drink and a banana.  I ate the banana right away.  Everything else went into my bag, so I could keep moving.

The finish line volunteers were great.  They asked me if I needed help opening any of the packaging.  If I was willing to stop and eat, I would have needed their help.  My fingers couldn’t have done it.  Instead, I kept walking.

By the time I got to Doubletree, I was struggling to keep moving.  I was cold.  When I got up to my room, I used my teeth to pull my gloves off.  I had to run warm water over my hands before I could finish getting undressed.  Even when my hands were better, it was difficult to get undressed.  I had trouble bending at the knee.  I never felt any soreness during the race, but now my quads were unusually stiff.

I drew a hot bath.  It was difficult climbing into the tub.  Once there, I ate my post-race food while I soaked my legs.  There were snacks you don’t usually see, including craisins, blue potato chips, and King’s Hawaiian rolls.

After a long soak and lots of stretching, I was able to move again.  Later, I went to a post-race party with other Marathon Maniacs.  On my way, I saw runners on the subway wearing their silver wraps and finisher medals.  They were still making their way home after finishing.  The last wave didn’t start until 11:15.  Runners needing more than six hours were still on the course.

For people in the last wave, conditions were even worse than what I experienced.  It started raining hard while they were still waiting in the athletes’ village.  They had strong winds the whole way.  The finishers I saw all looked weary, but they all wore big smiles.  The tougher the conditions, the greater the satisfaction when you finish.

Our post-race dinner was at Boston Beer Works near Fenway Park.  People trickled in a few at a time, but it turned into a lively party.  I had one last pizza before traveling home.

I didn’t fly home until Tuesday afternoon.  That gave me the luxury of sleeping in.  I needed it.  When I went downstairs for breakfast, the lobby was filled with people wearing Boston Marathons shirts and jackets.  The scene at the airport was the same.  Actually, it was like that all weekend.  Every year, I see dozens of friends and thousands of strangers who are all there for the same reason.  I can’t remember when I’ve had so many conversations with people I never met before.

Earlier in the year, I felt like I was in a slump.  Now, I’ve run Boston qualifying times in four consecutive races.  This one was especially nice, since I didn’t think I’d be able to do it in these conditions.

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