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

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