Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Qualifying for Boston in All 50 States

The July issue of Runner’s World includes an article about Dennis Frisby.  Dennis has qualified for the Boston Marathon in all 50 states.  There’s a companion piece on runnersworld.com featuring other runners who have done the same thing.  I’m one of eight runners mentioned in this article.  Here’s a link to it.

I often set goals that are larger than any one race.  I’ve reached several over-arching goals.  The most difficult of these was qualifying for Boston in every state.  I didn’t originally set out to do this.  It was something that evolved gradually.

I started running marathons in the early 1980s.  At the time, the qualifying standard for Boston was 2:50.  It took me three tries just to break 3:30.  The 2:50 standard seemed way out of reach.

Sometime around 1987, the BAA changed the standard to 3:00.  That still seemed out of reach.  Then, in 1989, they changed it to 3:10.  At the time, my PR was still 3:28:20, but 3:10 seemed feasible.  With enough training, I could get there.

At the time, I was training for the New York City Marathon.  My goal was 3:15.  On the morning of the race, I made an impulsive decision to try for 3:10.  I’m not sure if I made that decision before or after starting the race.  I might have upped the ante after starting at a fast pace.  The crowds in Brooklyn can have that effect on you.

After running a blistering pace all the way through Brooklyn and Queens, I started to slow down in Manhattan.  At about 22 miles, I fell off the pace.  Then the wheels came off.  I finished in 3:19:46.  It was hard to be too disappointed.  It was still a PR by almost nine minutes.

In 1990, I set my sights on qualifying for Boston at the Twin Cities Marathon.  I followed a training program for a 3:10 marathon.  My training went well.  I toed the line believing I was ready.  For most of the race, I was right on pace.  At 23 miles, I fell off the pace for the first time.

In that moment, I had a mental meltdown.  I was only a few seconds off the pace, but I felt like I was coming apart.  I gave up on qualifying.  I didn’t just give up on qualifying in this race; I gave up on ever qualifying.  I was filled with pessimism.  I can recall thinking that I might run other marathons, but I would never set a time goal again.

At 25 miles, I was still only seconds off the pace, but felt totally defeated.  I walked for one minute.  When you walk, you’re still covering about half as much ground as you would of you kept running.  My one minute walking break probably only cost me 30 seconds, but that was enough.

I finished that race in 3:11:10.  I missed qualifying by just over a minute … or so I thought.  In those days, when the BAA said 3:10, they meant 3:10 and change.  Anything up to 3:10:59 would have been good enough.  I missed by only 11 seconds, although I didn’t know that at the time.

The day after a marathon I always felt like I was run over by a truck.  Not this time.  The next morning, I didn’t even feel sore.  That’s when it hit me.  I should have qualified in that race.  Physically, I was ready.  I forgot that even when you’re in good shape, you still have to dig deep in those late miles.  I think I was expecting to qualify just by showing up and going through the motions.  To say I was upset with myself would be an understatement.

Less than 24 hours after giving up on ever qualifying for Boston, I was already looking for another race where I could try again.  I chose the Seattle Marathon.  This race was six weeks after the Twin Cities Marathon.  That gave me enough time to be fully recovered, but I wouldn’t need to start training from scratch.  It was a medium-sized race with a flat course.  Deb had always wanted to visit Seattle, so we could combine the race with sightseeing.  That made it easier to justify the expense.

To bridge the gap between the two races, I did a 21 mile training run three weeks before Seattle.  A week later, I did a 10 mile race as a final tune-up.  I was ready.

The Seattle Marathon was on Thanksgiving weekend.  In Seattle, that falls during the rainy season.  It rained every day we were there.  Weather for the race was 50 degrees with light rain.  I found the right clothes to keep warm enough, but I also had to contend with puddles all over the course.

At that time, the Seattle Marathon was a point-to-point race.  It started on the east side of Lake Washington and followed the Burke-Gilman Trail around the north end of the lake, finishing in Seattle.  It was a paved path that was about 10 feet across.

I started at the right pace.  After about seven miles of successfully dodging puddles, I misjudged one and plunged ankle deep into the water.  That shoe was soaking wet.  Before long, I plunged the other foot into a puddle.  Now both shoes were waterlogged.  That made them heavy.

During the middle miles, I started talking to another runner.  After a couple miles, I noticed that we had fallen off the pace by about a minute.  I told him we need to speed up.  He said he couldn’t and told me to go on ahead.  I picked up my effort.  I was no longer losing time, but I also wasn’t gaining back the minute I had lost.  With soaking wet shoes, my calves felt like they were tied up in knots.  My stride was getting less efficient.  I had to work harder and harder just to run the same pace.  This went on for miles.  Each mile I would push harder, only to find that I was still running the same pace.

With five miles to go, I still needed to make up a minute.  I calculated that I needed to run seven minutes per mile for the rest of the race.  I didn’t think I could run that fast without burning out, but I took it one mile at a time.

I played a mental game to coax myself to pick up the pace.  I picked out a runner who was about a block ahead of me.  I told myself that I needed to pass him … I needed to pass him as quickly as possible.  When I caught him, I immediately picked out another runner who was about a block ahead of me.  One after another, I caught and passed the runners ahead of me.  That worked.  I was running the pace I needed.

This went on until I was almost to 26 miles.  Then I pointed at the runner in front of me and said to myself, “He’s going to be the last runner to break 3:10.  If you want to qualify, you need to finish in front of him.”  I did.  I finished in 3:09:47.  I thought I qualified by just 13 seconds.  I still didn’t know that the BAA would give me 59 extra seconds.  The whole time I was thinking I was a minute off the pace, I was actually doing OK.

Deb didn’t have a clear view of the clock when I finished.  She didn’t know I qualified.  She thought I just missed.  After the race, I got really cold, so I didn’t say much.  Deb thought I was depressed about not qualifying.  I was just too cold to express any emotion.

At the Twin Cities Marathon, I should have qualified, but didn’t push myself hard enough.  Seattle was just the opposite.  Conditions were much tougher, but I pushed harder than I’ve ever pushed in my life.  I earned it.

When we got back to Minneapolis, Deb’s whole family met us at the airport.  They knew qualifying for Boston was a big deal.  They held up a big sign that read, “Congratulations Dave.  Boston Bound.”

In April of the following year, I ran the Boston Marathon.  My time there was 3:22:48.  Although I had qualified once, I wasn’t able to do it consistently.  I also didn’t qualify at Grandma’s Marathon.  In 1992, I had the fastest marathon of my life.  I ran Grandma’s Marathon in 2:58:17.  That was my second Boston qualifier.  It was also the last one I would have for five years.  I let myself get out of shape.

When I turned 35, I set a goal of qualifying again, since I was now in a new age group.  The standard for the 35-39 age group was 3:15.  I had to lose some weight and get back I shape, but I qualified at Grandma’s again with a time of 3:14:01.  That would be my only Boston qualifier in the 35-39 age group.

By the time I turned 40, I had set a lifetime goal of qualifying for Boston at least once in each age group.  In 1999, I ran the Chicago Marathon in 3:21:19.  That’s not quite fast enough.  I needed 3:20.  In 2000, I ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon in 3:21:31.  That’s not fast enough.  I also ran the Flying Pig Marathon in 3:21:31.  Are you kidding me?  Finally, in 2002, I ran the Tucson Marathon, which is almost all downhill.  With the help of a lightning fast course I was able to qualify with a time of 3:16:59.  That would be my only qualifier in the 40-44 age group.

By the time I turned 45, I had run 40 marathons, but I had only qualified for Boston in four of them.  Then three things happened.  I lost 18 pounds, I started biking on the days I wasn’t running, and I moved into the 45-49 age group.  Before, I needed 3:20, but I could barely break 3:30.  Now I only needed 3:30, and I could break 3:20 again.

Suddenly I was qualifying for Boston consistently.  I did it in almost every race.  By this time, I was working on running marathons in all 50 states.  I didn’t need to run them fast; I just needed to finish.  Most of the time, I broke 3:30.  That happened to be the qualifying time for my age group, but that was just a coincidence.

In 2010, I completed my goal of running marathons in all 50 states.  Then I set my sights on 50sub4.  I already had times under four hours in 42 states.  Over the course of the next year, I repeated the other eight states.  I broke 3:30 in all eight of them.

After finishing 50sub4, I decided to set the bar higher.  I already had Boston qualifiers in about half the states.  I set a goal of eventually doing it in every state.  As I scheduled races, I looked for opportunities to repeat states where I didn’t have a qualifier yet.  I looked for races with certified courses that weren’t unusually difficult.

About the same time I finished 50sub4, I moved into another new age group.  By chance, it coincided with a change in the qualifying standards.  The BAA made them five minutes faster across the board.  For five more years, the standard for my age group would be 3:30.  I actually had to run faster now.  They were no longer giving me those extra 59 seconds.

By the beginning of 2013, I had fewer than 10 states to go.  I managed to work them all into my race schedule.  I wanted to finish by the end of the year.  For most of that year, everything was going well.  Whenever I had an opportunity to pick up a new state, I ran a qualifying time.

With three months to go, I just needed four more states.  Then disaster struck.  I pulled a hamstring during the Twin Cities Marathon.  I was in the middle of a 19 week period during which I had 29 marathons.  Besides qualifying for Boston in every state, I was also trying to run 52 marathons in 2013.

One week after Twin Cities, I had the Hartford Marathon.  I needed to qualify for Boston there to get Connecticut.  I didn’t know of another marathon in Connecticut with a certified course.  If I didn’t do in this race, I wouldn’t get another chance for a whole year.  Because of my hamstring injury, I ran that race wearing a compression wrap.  I had run other races that way.  It protected my hamstring, but it also made it harder to run fast.  It took everything I had, but I qualified in a time of 3:28:18.  I still don’t know how I did that.

After that, my schedule was horrifying.  The next weekend I had a double.  The weekend after that, I had another double … then a triple … then another double.  Each week, I spent Monday through Friday trying to recover from the previous weekend’s races.  Then on the weekend, I tried to somehow get through each race.  I had to accept slow times to finish races with the injury.

Finally, I had a weekend with only one marathon.  Naturally, it was in one of the states where I still needed a Boston qualifier.  It was the Richmond Marathon, which I needed for Virginia.  I was still injured, but by now I was able to run without the compression wrap.  I had to pace myself carefully.  If I ran too fast or made a sudden acceleration, I could aggravate the injury.  It was nerve-wracking, but I finished that race in 3:27:38.

I only had one marathon the next weekend, but the temperature never got out of the low 20s.  My muscles tightened up in the cold, and my hamstring got worse.  Next I had the Seattle quadzilla – four marathons in four days.

On the first day of the quadzilla, my hamstring started to hurt.  I had to stop during the race to put on my compression wrap.  On the second day, I wore the wrap for the whole race.  On day three, I felt a little bit better.  I ran that race without the wrap.  I also felt better on day four.  I also ran that one without the wrap, even though it was the hilliest of the four.

Next up was the Rehoboth Beach Marathon in Delaware.  I already had a qualifier at the Delaware Marathon in 2006, but I felt like that one deserved an asterisk.  That race was a loop that you ran multiple times.  At the end of each lap, you crossed a chip mat that recorded your time.  On the last lap, however, you were supposed to make a turn right before the end of the loop to run to a finish line that also had a chip mat.  I’m pretty sure this was in our pre-race instructions, but I forgot about it.

As I was finishing my last lap, I was looking straight ahead and following the other runners.  Nobody else was finishing, and I never saw the turn.  I ran to the chip mat that recorded our splits for each lap.  When I sprinted across the chip mat and suddenly stopped, an alert volunteer realized my mistake.  She led me back to the turn I had missed and pointed toward the finish line.  By the time I crossed the correct chip mat, the time it recorded was 3:30 and change.  At that time the BAA still gave you 59 extra seconds.  That would have been a Boston qualifier, but that was the furthest thing from my mind.  My goal was to break 3:30.  I thought I did it, and I was upset about the confusion at the end.  In one of my least graceful moments as a runner, I made a fuss about it.  The RD had the timekeepers make an adjustment.  They used the time that was recorded when I crossed the wrong chip mat, which was at least as far as I was supposed to run.  My official time was recorded as 3:28:47.

Despite my mistake, I still finished the full certified course, and I did it in a time that would have been a qualifier.  The official time that went the books, however, was for a distance that wasn’t the certified course.  Because of that, I would feel sheepish if that was my only Boston qualifier in Delaware.  I wanted a qualifier that was above reproach.  I wanted to qualify again at the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

I had once again recovered sufficiently that I could run without the compression wrap, but I had to be careful.  For most of the race, I was right on the pace I needed.  Then I tripped on a shrub while trying to go around a large puddle.  I lurched forward and had an awkward landing.  I immediately felt pain in my hamstring.  At first, I was limping.  I eventually forced myself to run without a limp, but I was no longer running fast enough.  I didn’t know if I could get back on pace.

A mile or two later, I saw a runner ahead of me who was dressed as Santa Claus.  He was moving through the field, passing most of the runners around him.  I told myself that if I could catch up to him, I could get back on pace.  This was another mental trick, just like the one I used in my first Boston qualifier back in 1990.  It worked.  I caught up to him.  I stayed on pace the rest of the way, finishing in 3:28:40.

Now I just needed Nevada.  My next race was the Hoover Dam Marathon.  This race is somewhat hilly.  At the time I scheduled it, I was confident that I could qualify there.  Now, I wasn’t in the same shape.  After two months, my hamstring was finally feeling better.  Unfortunately, I had gone too long without any quality training other than my races.  I was starting to lose some of my fitness.  In particular, I was getting weak on hills.  I ran the pace I needed in the first half of the race.  In the second half, I ran out of gas.  I finished in 3:49:38.  That was too slow by almost 20 minutes.

I needed another Nevada race.  I wasn’t going to reach my goal in 2013, but I still wanted to do it as soon as I could.  The next marathon in Nevada was the Running From An Angel Marathon in January.  That course is non-stop rolling hills, with roughly twice as much elevation change as the Hoover Dam Marathon.  If I couldn’t do it there, the next chance would be the Red Rock Canyon Marathon in March.  That was much tougher than Running From An Angel.  If I couldn’t do it there, the next Chance would be Labor of Love in May.  That was even hillier, plus it was at a higher elevation.  They just kept getting tougher.

I entered both Running From An Angel and Red Rock Canyon.  Then I started doing hill training.  It wasn’t easy, but I whipped myself into shape to qualify in a hilly race.  At Running From An Angel, I was on pace for about 17 miles.  Then I started to fall off the pace.  The toughest hill was still ahead of me.  It was a steep hill that comes at 20 miles.  I almost gave up.  The lead woman caught up to me.  As she started to go by, I realized that the field was pretty spread out.  If I couldn’t stay with her, it might be a long time before I found anyone else to run with.

I forced myself to stay with her until we reached a downhill section that allowed me to recover.  Then we hit the big hill at 20 miles.  I told myself I could slow down a little, but I had to limit the damage.  If I could get through this hill it would be mostly downhill to the finish.  After cresting the hill, I looked for the next mile marker, so I could check my pace.  I was still on pace.  I fought for it the rest of the way, finishing in 3:29:01.  I had less than a minute to spare.  That was cutting it close, but I qualified.

After the race, I told my friend Karen that if I didn’t qualify there, I would have tried again at Red Rock Canyon.  She laughed.  She knew how hard that race is, and she told me I’d never qualify there.  I dedicated myself to training for Red Rock Canyon.  I wanted to know if I could do it.  Karen was right.  It’s a good thing I qualified at Running From An Angel, because I was 11 minutes too slow at Red Rock Canyon.

There are several other runners who have qualified for Boston in all 50 states.  Most of them did it with faster qualifying times.  Most of my qualifiers came after turning 45, so I didn’t have to run as fast.  Looking back, the four qualifiers I had before turning 45 were in Washington, Minnesota (twice) and Arizona.  Since turning 45, I’ve had at least one more qualifier in each of those states.  I didn’t think to mention it when I was interviewed by Runner’s World, but I’ve qualified for Boston in every state after the age of 45.

If you can’t get faster, get older.  It worked for me.

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