Sunday, April 30, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Mt. Charleston Marathon

Yesterday, I ran the Mt. Charleston Marathon in Las Vegas, NV.  This race is sponsored by Revel, which specializes in steep downhill races where you can run fast.  I chose this race to give myself the best possible chance to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon.  The rest of my race schedule isn’t conducive to training for fast marathon times, so I wanted to get it done here.

The race starts in the resort town of Mt. Charleston at an elevation of 7,600 feet.  The finish line is in Las Vegas at an elevation of 2,000 feet.  That’s a net decent of 5,600 feet, or roughly 214 feet per mile.

I had hoped to do a significant amount of downhill training by either running hilly routes outside or doing downhill runs on a treadmill.  I got in a couple of downhill training runs, but then my training was disrupted by injuries.  Since the Boston Marathon, I’ve done most of my training on a treadmill that can simulate downgrades of up to 3%.  Two weeks isn’t enough time for my body to adapt, but I was able to get comfortable running on a 3% downgrade.

I flew to Las Vegas on Friday.  After checking in at my hotel in Summerlin, I went to pick up my race packet at Las Vegas Indoor Soccer.  When I registered, I had my choice of a T-shirt or a tank top.  I have lots of T-shirts, so I opted for the tank top.  I’m much more likely to wear it.

While I was at the expo, I stopped by the booth for the pace team.  I recognized the guy in the booth from the Rock ‘N’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon.  I was a pacer for that race in 2014.  He said their 3:35 pacer always comes in right on schedule.  That’s the time I was shooting for, so I kept that in mind.

Later I had dinner with two friends at a restaurant near my hotel called Aces & Ales.  I had a pizza with spaghetti on it, so I had pre-race pizza and pre-race pasta at the same time.

I went to bed early, and I was able to fall asleep quickly.  I slept well for about four hours.  Then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.

I had to get up early to park near the finish line and board a bus to the start.  The buses started loading at 4:00, so I set my alarm for 2:30.   I was already awake, so I got up at 2:15.

For breakfast, I was planning to eat a protein bar that was in my race packet.  I ate about half but just didn’t feel like eating, so I saved the rest for after the race.  I also had two cups of tea.

I got to the bus loading area and parked my car.  I didn’t want to be on one of the first buses, so my plan was to wait in my car until about 4:30.  Then my digestive system finally woke up.  I needed to find a bathroom, but nothing nearby was open this early.  Then I learned that the buses to the start were motor coaches with bathrooms.  That was a pleasant surprise.  I was expecting school buses.

The bus left around 4:15.  I was relieved to be able to use the bathroom, but now I was going to get to the start area earlier than I planned.  That presumably meant a longer wait in freezing conditions.

Revel races always present challenging weather conditions.  Because of the difference in elevation, it’s always much colder in the start area than it is at the finish.  That’s a price you pay to run one of these steep downhill races.  Inevitably, you have to endure waiting in freezing cold conditions before you can start running.  By the time you finish, however, you’re hot.

The overnight low in Mt. Charleston was 29 degrees with strong enough winds to make it feel much colder.  In Las Vegas, the forecast high was 77, and I expected it to get into the mid-60s before I finished.  That made it difficult to decide what to wear.

I’ve done two other Revel races.  The first time I did the Rockies Marathon, I dressed for the cold temperatures at the start.  By the time I finished, I was overheating, but I was able to hang on for a strong finish.  When I did the Big Cottonwood Marathon, I dressed more for the conditions at the finish.  I started that race with a light jacket, but my legs were bare.  After several miles, my legs felt like they just quit on me.  I think I was suffering from a decrease in circulation to my legs in reaction to the cold conditions.  That’s a problem I have.

For this race, I compromised.  For my legs, I wore tights, knowing I’d have to wear them for the whole race.  For my upper body, I wore a Tyvek jacket over my T-shirt, knowing I could take off the jacket as I got warm.  I also started the race wearing two pairs of gloves.  The second pair was included in my race packet.  It also included a Mylar blanket.

When the bus dropped us off, I had another pleasant surprise.  The lodge at the start area was letting runners come inside.  They aren’t normally open at this hour, but they decided to open early just for us.  Instead of waiting outside, we got to wait inside where it was warm.  They had tables and chairs, so I could get comfortable while visiting with friends who were doing this race.  We were also able to use their bathrooms.  The race provided about 60 port-o-potties, but it was much more comfortable indoors.  The line for the men’s room was never long.  The line for the women’s room was another story.

There was a gear check at the start.  I wore extra layers, because I was originally expecting to wait outside in the cold for more than an hour.  About 20 minutes before the race started, I removed my warm-up layers and checked my gear bag.  After a few group photos, it was time to line up.

In contrast to recent races, I had a concrete goal for this race.  To qualify for Boston, I needed a time of 3:40 or better.  To be sure I actually get into Boston, I needed to be a few minutes faster.  Ideally, I wanted to break 3:35, which would allow me to enter during the first week of registration.

The first half of this race has a net decent of 3,100 feet, while the second half has a net descent of 2,500 feet, largely because it levels off in the last few miles.   Accordingly, I expected to run faster in the first half than in the second half.  My plan was to run the first half in 1:45 and the second half in 1:50.  That corresponds to an average pace of 8:00 per mile in the first half and 8:23 in the second half.

Although the course is mostly downhill, it actually rises about 65 feet in the first quarter mile.  Because of the high elevation at the start, even a small hill can be tiring.  Accordingly, I didn’t try to go too fast in that first quarter mile.  I would have plenty of time to make up for the slow start.  Even though I was going slow, I still got a little short of breath.

Once the road turned downhill, I quickly caught my breath.  I didn’t try to push the pace running downhill, but I quickly settled into a much faster pace without trying.

I checked my watch after one mile.  I ran the first mile in 8:24, despite the slow uphill start.  During the second mile, I caught up to the 3:35 pace group.  I considered running with them, but it seemed like I’d have to force myself to run slower.  Expending energy to slow yourself down is inefficient.  It’s also a good way to trash your quads.  I decided to stick with a pace that felt natural.  I wasn’t working to run faster, but I also wasn’t going out of my way to slow down.

My second mile was 7:14.  That seemed much too fast, but I continued to run by feel.  I was feeling relaxed, and I wanted to keep it that way.  I listened to my body and adopted whatever gait felt most comfortable.

I gradually settled into an average pace of 7:30 for most of the early miles.  That was faster than I planned, but it felt right.  The third or fourth mile had a short hill.  I let myself slow down.  I didn’t want to expend too much energy running uphill at this elevation.  I knew I would quickly make up the time when the road turned downhill again.

After a few miles, I searched for a mantra.  I told myself to relax.  Then I told myself to just float down the hill.  I finally found my mantra in the lyrics of a Beatles song:

            “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

I was worried the wind would be cold, but we were somewhat sheltered from it in the first few miles.  I took off one pair of gloves in the first mile.  As the valley got wider, I eventually noticed more wind.  At times, it was a headwind, but it didn’t seem to make running downhill more difficult.  The pull of gravity was stronger than the wind resistance.  I kept my Tyvek jacket unzipped in front, so it wouldn’t prevent the timing system from detecting the chip on my race bib.  As the wind began to gust, my jacket was acting like a parachute.  I stopped for a few seconds to zip it up, so I wouldn’t have as much wind drag.

As I resumed running, I started to get warm.  Having the jacket zipped made a huge difference.  I didn’t want to unzip it again, but it was too soon to take it off.  Instead, I took off the other pair of gloves.  Having bare hands compensated for the jacket.

Every two miles, there was an aid station.  As I finished drinking at the aid station that was just past six miles, I heard the chirping of a timing station.  That must have been 10K.  It almost caught me off guard.  I quickly lifted up my jacket, so it wouldn’t block my race bib.

After another mile, I caught up to the 3:25 pace group.  It seemed unwise to pass the 3:25 group when my goal was 3:35.  The road leveled off briefly, so I was able to comfortably run with them until the next aid station.  The pacer had to stop and use the bathroom, so he told the others to go on and he would catch up.  That’s when I ended up getting ahead of them.

I estimated the temperature was rising an average of 1.4 degrees per mile.  It was getting later in the morning, and we were descending rapidly.  It was a bright sunny day, and the sun was in front of us, warming up the whole valley.  The wind gusts were getting stronger, but after about nine miles, I decided it was time to take off the jacket and tie it around my waist.

Between nine and ten miles, we ran past some rock formations that seemed like a giant gate.  About this same time, we got to a section of the course where the grade was more uniform.  On average, it wasn’t as steep, but there was less variation.  I was able to get into a nice uniform rhythm.

I expected to slow down, since the grade wasn’t as steep.  I may have slowed a little, but not much.  Most of my miles were still in the 7:30s.

At one of the aid stations, there was a guy cautioning us to take short strides with a rapid cadence, so we wouldn’t overstride.  Realizing I was probably overstriding, I shortened my stride and picked up my cadence.  Instead of floating downstream, I was now conscious of everything I did.  At the risk of overstriding, I decided to go back to my mantra.

            “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

I reached the halfway mark in about 1:39.  My goal was 3:35, but I was on pace for 3:18.  Was I making a mistake?  I chose to listen to my body and trust that I was running the pace that felt best for my legs.  It was awfully fast, but I didn’t feel like I was working at all.  Gravity was doing all the work. I was just along for the ride.

In general, I wasn’t thinking too much about my mechanics.  I let myself subconsciously find the stride that felt comfortable.  The pull of gravity made it easy to run fast.  I just had to keep my legs moving fast enough.  That rapid turnover requires good hip rotation.  A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.  Today, the muscles around my hips are stronger.  Maintaining a rapid turnover for so many miles without my hips getting fatigued is a measure of the progress I’ve made in the last year.

I expected to slow down in the second half, but not until the course began to level off in the late miles.  As we ran farther through the valley, it got wider, and we were more exposed to the wind.  At times it was a tailwind.  Sometimes we had wind gusts so strong they pushed us down the hill.  I felt like greased lightning.  Now I had a different song in my head.

Somewhere around 16 or 17 miles, I started to see Las Vegas to my right.  As we got out of the valley, we were more exposed to the wind.  It was blowing from our left.  In a few miles, we would turn to the right.  Then we would have a tailwind.  In anticipation, I started to pick up my effort.  For the first time, I felt like I was working.  At this point in the race, that was OK.

I started to pass other runners.  I wasn’t actually speeding up.  They were slowing down.  We were at that point in the race where the people who went out too fast start to regret it.  So far, I wasn’t one of them.

At 19 miles, I could see the road beginning to gradually bend to the right.  As I made the turn, I felt more and more wind at my back.  We were running toward Las Vegas now.   For about a mile, it felt really easy.

I started to notice some tightness in my left Achilles tendon.  That’s the predictable result of overstriding.  It wasn’t a big issue yet, but I knew it would tighten up more after the race.  I wasn’t noticing many other issues.  I had a little soreness in my hamstrings, but it didn’t feel like an injury.  My quads still felt OK.  My back wasn’t bothering me, despite the impact of running fast downhill.

At 20 miles, I figured out how fast I would have to run to break 3:30.  I had known for a few miles that breaking 3:35 was in the bag.  Now breaking 3:30 was also in the bag.  I just needed to run the last 10K in 59 minutes.

Here, the road began to level off.  It was still downhill, but it sometimes seemed flat in comparison to the earlier miles.  The strong tailwind was the only thing making it feel easy.

By 21 miles I was getting noticeably hot.  My tights and warm hat kept me warm enough in the early miles, but now they were making me sweat.  Everything’s a trade-off.  I knew I would get hot.  At this point in the race, I could tough it out.

By now, I realized breaking 3:25 was also probably in the bag, provided I didn’t have a meltdown in the last five miles.

Shortly before 23 miles, we ran a short out-and-back segment.  It was about a quarter mile each way.  They had to add this section to compensate for another change to the course that eliminated a half mile loop.  Going out, this segment was slightly downhill, and the wind was still at our backs.  Coming back, we were going slightly uphill, and the headwind was strong.  It was only a quarter mile, but it was tiring.  During that section, I passed the 23 mile mark.  I ran that mile in 8:06.  It was the first time since mile one that my pace was slower than eight minutes.

I was relieved when we turned and got out of the headwind.  Then I noticed we would still be going uphill until we reached the next turn.  It was about two blocks.

There was an aid station at the corner.  I stopped to drink.  As I turned the corner and resumed running, I noticed it was still uphill for about two more blocks.  At least we had our tailwind again.

That section nearly broke me.  I was tempted to just run easy the rest of the way, but I knew I could break 3:25 if I ran nine minute miles.  This was the most difficult mile of the race.  If I could break nine on this one, I was confident I could hold the pace for the last two.

I never saw the 24 mile sign.  On the other side of the street, I saw the 11 mile sign for the half marathon.  That was 24.1 miles for us.  I looked at my watch.  My time for 1.1 miles was well under 10 minutes, so my pace was well under nine.  I picked up my effort.

I never saw the 25 mile sign.  It may have been right at the last aid station.  I was pushing as hard as I could, but I had no idea what my pace was.  I eventually heard a spectator say we were “almost there.”  I could see the finish line, so I wasn’t almost there.

After a right turn, I saw a sign in the distance that looked like a mile marker.  It was 26 miles.  In the distance, I could see what looked like a finish line.  I checked my watch again.  I had picked up my pace more than I realized.  I was easily going to break 3:25.  I would be closer to 3:22.  I fought hard to finish strong and crossed the line in 3:21:57.

After finishing, I eagerly accepted a water bottle from a volunteer.  After getting my medal, I started looking for the post-race food.

Race bibs often have tear-off tags for T-shirt, medal, or drinks.  This one had tags for pizza and pie.  I wasn’t that hungry, but the cherry pie looked awfully good, and I never turn down post-race pizza.

They had a results tent in the finish area.  Other races do that, but they usually print a slip that looks like a grocery store receipt.  The ones at Revel races look more like a post card.  It’s one of many small details that I like about these races.

At the expo, they had backdrops for photos with signs saying BQ or PR.  I didn’t take a photo there, because qualifying for Boston was still just a goal.  I had to do it first.  I was hoping they would have the same signs in the finish area, but I didn’t see any.

Sign or no sign, I qualified for Boston with 18:03 to spare.  This was by far the fastest I’ve run in the last two years.  I’d like to say I ran a really fast race, but it’s more accurate to say I ran well on a really fast course.  With the tailwind, it was ridiculously easy to run fast.

My time for the second half was four minutes slower than my time for the first half.  Based on the elevation profile, I was expecting the second half to be about five minutes slower.  That suggests I paced myself appropriately.  Accounting for the more gentle grade in the late miles, I ran the equivalent of an even splits race.

I had to catch a shuttle back to the parking area.  As I was getting in line, I started to notice soreness in my quads.  That’s to be expected.  I also noticed some moderate soreness in my lower back.  That’s also to be expected.  It wasn’t as bad as the soreness I felt after sitting on an airplane for three hours on Friday.

More troubling was the increasing tightness in my left Achilles tendon.  Since the race, I’ve been periodically stretching it.  It’s a concern, but I think I can keep it from becoming a major issue.

After a race, I usually have one or two “hot spots” on my feet, but I seldom develop bad blisters in a road race.  This race was an exception.  When I took off my left shoe, I saw a large blister in the inside edge of my foot.  My right foot had a large blood blister in the same spot.  Evidently, that’s where I was getting extra friction running downhill for so many miles.  They looked bad, but after I drained them, they didn’t bother me. They’ll heal in a few days.

I didn’t have to fly home until Sunday, so after the race I had time to have dinner and drinks with a few friends.  We started at a restaurant in Summerlin and then moved to The Strip.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:21:57
Average Pace:  7:42
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  333

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Boston Marathon

On April 17th, I ran the Boston Marathon.  This was my sixth consecutive Boston Marathon and my seventh overall.  I’m not sure how long I can keep my current streak going.  Qualifying is getting more and more difficult.  I’ve yet to qualify for 2018.

For years, I stayed in hotels that were within walking distance of the finish line.  Now the room rates are too expensive.  They seemed to take a big jump two years ago.  This year, I stayed in Cambridge, near Lechmere Station, which is the northern terminus of the Green Line.  The expo, the loading point for buses to the start, and the finish line are all near Green Line stations, so it wasn’t too hard to get around, even though I was outside Boston.

Boston is one of those cities where you should never rent a car.  Driving is a hassle, and parking is expensive.  It’s much easier to get around taking the subway and doing a little bit of walking.  I always buy a seven day pass, even though I’m only in town for four days.  I’ve never failed to use the trains enough to get my money’s worth.

I flew to Boston on Saturday afternoon and got to my hotel around 4:30.  After checking in and dropping off my bags, I went to JJ Foley’s Café to catch the tail end of a happy hour meetup with members of a group called Boston Squeakers for Life.

A “squeaker” is someone who has qualified for Boston, but doesn’t know if their qualifying time will actually be good enough to get into the race.  In recent years, the number of qualified runners who have tried to register has exceeded the number of available slots.  When this happens, some of the “squeakers” don’t get in.  Last year, the cutoff was about two and a half minutes.

I joined this group last summer when I didn’t know if I would even be able to qualify.  I ended up qualifying with 3:21 to spare.  That turned out to be good enough.  I used to be able to qualify with at least 20 minutes to spare.  Those days are gone.  Now I’m a squeaker.

By the time I got to the café, some of the runners were already leaving, but I joined several others for dinner.

Sunday morning, I went to the expo at the Hynes Convention Center.  On my way, I stopped by the finish line to take a picture.  All weekend, one block of Boylston Street is blocked off to traffic so they can set up the finish line scaffolding.

Near the finish line, there were memorials for the victims of the 2013 bombings and the police officer who died during the ensuing manhunt.

After picking up my race packet, I took the time to browse some of the booths.  I don’t usually do much shopping at expos, but I always bump into people I know while browsing the booths.  This year was no exception.

After the expo, I took the time to return to my hotel before going to lunch.  The race packet is bulky, and I don’t like carrying it around all day.  I also didn’t want to risk anything happening to my race bib.

Boston weekend isn’t just about the race.  It’s also a chance to get together with friends.  The rest of the day included meetups with two different running clubs.  At noon, I went to the finish line for the Marathon Maniacs group photo.  I’m not actually that much into group photos, but a lot of my friends are in this club, so it’s like one stop shopping to see friends in Boston.  After the photo, I joined a few friends for lunch at Durgin Park.  This is my favorite Boston restaurant.  I go there every time I’m here.  I don’t always order the same entree, but I always have Indian pudding for dessert.

In the afternoon, I went to Solas Irish Pub to meet with other members of the 50sub4 Club.  Last year, despite being a 50sub4 finisher, I didn’t feel like I really belonged.  At the time, I couldn’t even break five hours.  Now, having broken four in my last three races, I felt more comfortable wearing my 50sub4 visor.

Later, I had dinner at Babbo Pizzeria with some friends from California whom I first met in Paris.  The last time we had dinner together we were in South Africa for the Comrades Marathon.  It’s a small world.

The logistics of getting everyone to the start in Hopkinton is a big deal.  Hundreds of buses begin loading at Boston Common as early as 6:00, even though the first wave doesn’t start running until 10:00.  This year, I was in the third wave.  That meant I didn’t need to get up as early.  Runners in the third wave were expected to board buses between 8:00 and 8:40.  I was able to get a little extra sleep.  I also had time to eat breakfast at the hotel.

We boarded the buses along a different street this year, but it’s wasn’t far from the old location.  By moving the bus location, they were able to have two rows of buses side by side.  That really sped up the loading process.  In past years, I’ve waited in line for 30 minutes to board a bus.  This year, I walked right onto a bus with no waiting.

I was on a bus by 8:15 and got to the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton at 9:20.  My wave wasn’t scheduled to start until 10:50, so I still had to wait in the Athletes’ Village for until we were instructed to walk to the start corrals.

When I was fast enough to start with the first wave, I would arrive at the Athletes’ Village before it got too crowded.  In rainy years, I could find a spot under one of the canopies.  This year, the village was already packed.  All the runners from the first two waves were already there, but it wasn’t quite time for them to make their way to the start.  It was harder to find an unclaimed patch of grass to sit on.  Also, the port-o-potty lines were already long.

As soon I got there, I got into a port-o-potty line.  The line was long and didn’t move very fast.  When I got in line, runners in wave one were heading to the start corrals.  While I waited in line, they called for runners in the first two corrals of wave two.  Then they called corrals three and four … then five and six … then seven and eight … then the first two corrals of wave three.  By the time I got through the line, it was already time for runners in my corral to leave.

You used to be able to bring whatever you wanted to the Athletes’ Village and then check a gear bag before walking to the starting line.  That ended after the bombs in 2013.  If you want warm clothes at the finish line, you can check a gear bag, but you have to drop it off in Boston Common, before boarding a bus to the start.  If you want an extra layer of clothes in Hopkinton, you need to bring clothes that you’re willing to donate.

You spend a long time at Boston Common, on the bus, and in the athlete’s village in Hopkinton.  I wore a cheap pair of sweatpants and the disposable jacket I got at the Cowtown Marathon.  It was warm enough that I really didn’t need them.   As I left the village to walk to the start, I dropped them in the donation bags.

On our way to the corrals, we passed a booth that had large dispensers of sunblock.  I applied sunblock before leaving the hotel, but a lot of runners stopped here. It was a bright sunny day.

It was a hot day for running a marathon.  By the time my wave started, it was already in the low 70s, and it would warm up a few more degrees during the race.  We also had a strong wind out of the west.  On the plus side, that meant we would be running with a tailwind.  Unfortunately, that also meant the wind wouldn’t cool us off as much as if it was coming from another direction.

Because of my recent back injury, I went into this race with low expectations.  I’ve lost a lot of training time, and I’m still not fully recovered.  My longest run since hurting my back was only seven miles, and that was at a cautious pace.  I didn’t expect to have back discomfort during the race, but I also didn’t want to push my luck.  I viewed this race as one to enjoy the experience.  I wasn’t gunning for a fast time, but I also wasn’t worried about finishing within the cutoff time.  If I felt good, I might try to break four hours, but qualifying for next year would have to wait until another race.

A lot changed after 2013.  The most obvious change was not being able to check gear bags in Hopkinton.  There were also subtle changes.  You might not notice if you weren’t looking, but there were soldiers on a rooftop overlooking the start corrals.

It’s easy to say you’re going to start at an easy pace.  It’s harder to actually do it when all of the runners in your corrals had qualifying times that are faster than you can currently run.  It’s even harder when the early miles are downhill and you have a tailwind.

I ran the first mile in 8:31.  It seemed easy enough, but I knew it was too fast.  My second mile was 8:15.  I knew that was much too fast.  I would be happy to average nine minutes per mile for the race.  That would bring me in under four hours.

While the pace seemed fast, I didn’t have any issues with my back.  It never bothered me during the race, and I quickly put it out of my mind.

Although the first two miles are mostly downhill, there are a couple places where the road briefly turns uphill.  Each time, I felt myself beginning to sweat.

After two miles, we reached an aid station.  I was so thirsty my throat felt bone dry.  I drank both water and Gatorade.  After that, there were aid stations every mile.  I drank more than one cup at several of them, but I always felt thirsty.  It was that kind of day.

I ran the next two miles in 8:28 and 8:21.  I knew that was too fast, so I forced myself to slow down a little.  I have a tendency to stay with the runners around me, but they were too fast.  I started to let them go and drift backwards through the field.  After that, my mile times ranged between 8:30 and 9:00.

At seven miles, I took a drink of water and accidentally splashed some of it on my face.  As the water dripped into my mouth, it tasted salty.  Yeah, I was sweating.

I’m sure the tailwind was pushing me to a faster pace, but it wasn’t doing much to help with the heat.  You just don’t get much cooling effect from a tailwind.  Occasionally, a strong gust would cool me off, but it never lasted long enough.

By the time I reached 10 miles, I was starting to feel tired.  I never felt like I was working hard, but the pace was fast enough to make me overheat.  That, in turn, made me feel fatigued.

Two miles later, I got a psychological lift, when I ran through the Wellesley “scream tunnel.”  After another mile, I got another psychological lift, when I reached the halfway point.

My half marathon split was 1:52.  That put me on pace for a 3:44 finish.  That’s when I knew for sure I was running too fast.  I’m not currently in shape to run 3:44 on a nice cool day.  I certainly shouldn’t have been trying to do it on a hot day.

The next three miles were all downhill, so I enjoyed it while I could.  Just before 16 miles, I crossed the Charles River and entered Newton.  The easy part of the race was over.

There are four hills in Newton.  None of them are huge, but they come at a difficult time.  If you’ve been running too fast, this is where you usually pay for it.

The first hill is the most gradual.  My concern here was that if I worked too hard on the hills, I might overheat.  At first, I let myself fall behind the other runners.  Then I saw a spectator with ice.  I put some ice cubes in my hat.  That gave me confidence that I wouldn’t overheat on the first hill.  I didn’t intend to pick up my effort, but suddenly I was keeping pace with the other runners.  Then I started to pass them.  Then I backed off.

Between the hills, the road turns downhill again.  I used these sections between the hills as opportunities to recover and regain my composure.

This course has only four sharp turns.  The first one comes between 17 and 18 miles.  As soon as you make the right turn onto Commonwealth Avenue, you begin the second hill.  This one is the steepest of the four.  Here I just wanted to keep running the whole way. I didn’t care if I slowed down, but I didn’t want the hill to break me.  For the first time in the race, I was breathing hard.

Because it’s one of the World Marathon Majors, the Boston Marathon has a large international component.  This year, there were runners from 99 different countries.  In Newton I saw a runner with a flag on the back of her shirt.  I’m familiar with a lot of flags, but I had never seen this one before.  I got closer, so I could read the writing underneath the flag.  She was from St. Lucia, an island in the Lesser Antilles.

At the 18 mile clock, I saw my friends Alison and Elizabeth, who were volunteering.  That gave me a lift. At the 30K clock, I saw my friend David, who always comes down from Maine to volunteer.  If any of you are reading this, thank you for volunteering.

At 19 miles, I checked my watch.  At this point I just wanted to hang on well enough to break four hours.  With 7.2 miles to go, an average of 10 minutes per mile would be good enough. I even had a few minutes to spare.

The third hill is the smallest of the four, but I still found it to be tiring.  About halfway up this hill, another runner asked me if this was Heartbreak Hill.  I said, “No.  That’s the next one.”  Her friend made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sigh.

The fourth hill is “Heartbreak Hill.”  It starts out gradual, but gets steeper.  About halfway up this hill, I saw a spectator holding a small cup and yelling, “ice cold beer.”  I told myself before the race I wouldn’t do any beer stops today.  Halfway up a hill on a hot day was a bad place to have a beer.  I reached for it anyway.  That got a big cheer from the crowd, which was the whole point.  I took it on the run, so about half of it spilled on my hand.  I only got a small taste.  That’s just as well.

I struggled with the rest of the hill, but it didn’t break me.  Then I regained my composure on the ensuing downhill.

I saw a spectator with a sign that may be my all-time favorite.  It read, “High five if you’re just doing this for the pizza.”  I gave her a high five.  It’s like she knows me.

At 21 miles, I passed Boston College and drank some Gatorade at an aid station.  For several miles, the water and Gatorade at the aid stations seemed lukewarm after sitting in the sun.  Here, they ran out of luke.  It was just plain warm.

After Boston College, the road turns sharply downhill.  I was able to pick up the pace.  The last five miles have a downhill trend.  You can make good time here if you’re feeling good.  I wasn’t feeling good, but could still push myself.  The Newton hills didn’t break me.

In the late miles, the wind picked up.  Those occasional strong gusts became more frequent.  As a result, I didn’t feel as hot.  It’s also possible the temperature was beginning to drop.  I was no longer in danger of overheating.

With 4.2 miles to go, I realized I could break four hours just by averaging 11 minutes per mile.  I wasn’t slowing down, so I knew I had it.

I saw some spectators offering cups of water.  It had been a while since the last aid station, and I was getting thirsty, so I grabbed a cup.  It was nice and cold.  After another block, I reached an aid station.  Having just had cold water, I skipped the warm stuff.

Somewhere between 23 and 24, I saw the iconic Citgo sign.  When you reach it, you have one mile to go.  My goal now was to get to that sign.  Just before getting there, I had to run up a small hill to cross a bridge.  I focused on getting to the “One mile to go” point.

The last mile was tough. I just needed to keep running, but it was getting tougher. 
I had run out of downhill.

In the last half mile, you make the two most famous turns on road racing:  right on Hereford and left on Boylston.  Hereford is slightly uphill, but it’s not enough to break you unless you’re already broken.  I wasn’t broken.

When I made the final turn onto Boylston, I was conflicted.  On one hand, I wanted to pick my effort and finish as strong as I could.  On the other hand, I knew I could afford to just coast in.  I did neither.  I maintained the same effort, finishing in 3:51:29.

My average pace in the first half was 8:33.  My average pace in the second half was 9:07.  I slowed down, but I would have been happy if my average pace for the whole race was 9:07.  I held up much better than I expected.

The finisher medal for Boston always has the same basic design.  They make small changes in styling, but it always features the unicorn logo of the Boston Athletic Association.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This is always my favorite medal.  I bagged my seventh unicorn.

At any race, they always hand you a water bottle when you finish.  I usually decline, knowing there are better beverages as you move farther through the finisher chute.  This time I took the water and immediately started drinking.  Later, after getting a bag filled with snacks, I saw bottles of Muscle Milk.  I didn’t think I would have room for that much liquid, but I took one so I could get some protein.  I finished it before I reached the train.

At 6:30, they had a post-race party at Fenway Park.  It was free for runners, but $25 for friends and family.  I’m not sure why they think it’s worth $25.  Basically all you’re getting is admission to the stadium.  It doesn’t include any food or beverages.  If you want to eat, you need to buy overpriced stadium food.  You get a chance to see the ballpark, but you couldn't go into the bleachers until 8:00.

I wasn’t impressed, so I went across the street to have my post-race pizza at Boston Beer Works.  I didn't just run for the unicorn.  I also ran for the pizza.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:51:29
Average Pace:  8:50
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  332
Unicorns:  7