Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Race Report: 2021 Boston Marathon

I’ve often said that every Boston Marathon is different.  Sometimes it’s extreme weather, like the heat in 2012 or the rain and wind in 2018.  Sometimes it’s something completely unexpected, like the bombs in 2013.  This year’s Boston Marathon was different in many ways.  For starters, it was held in October, instead of April.  It was also the first time the race was held in person since April of 2019, so it was a two and a half year wait.  Finally, there were a number of COVID-19 safety measures.

This year’s race had a reduced field.  Usually, there are more than 30,000 runners.  This year, the field was limited to about 20,000 runners.  The actual number of runners was probably closer to 16,000.  Because of travel bans, many of the runners from other countries couldn’t get there this year.

Every year, Adidas sells a Boston Marathon celebration jacket.  They change the colors each year.  I’ve always wanted to get one with the same blue and yellow colors as the B.A.A. logo.  This year, for the first time since 2013, they used those colors for the celebration jacket.  I ordered one as soon as they were available.  I tried it on, and then I put it in my closet until this weekend.

Some people won’t wear the jacket until after they finish the race.  I don’t look at it that way.  It’s not like a finisher medal, which you only get after crossing the finish line.  They call it a celebration jacket, and I wanted to wear it all weekend to celebrate finally being able to travel to Boston and run this race after last year’s race was cancelled.

I flew to Boston Saturday morning.  I woke up at 1:00 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, but my day got better when I got to the airport.  The TSA agent saw my Boston Marathon shirt and thanked me for representing Minnesota in Boston.  He has family in Cambridge. Shortly before boarding my flight, I was pleasantly surprised with a free upgrade to first class.

Many other passengers on my flight were also traveling for the race.  I saw several who were wearing Boston Marathon jackets or shirts.

Finding an affordable hotel on marathon weekend can be difficult.  Finding one within walking distance of the finish line can be next to impossible.  I got lucky this year.  Before the B.A.A. announced the date of this year’s race, I made a hotel reservation for this weekend based on a rumor.  My hotel was right around the block from the Hynes Convention Center, where the expo was held.  Not only that, but I got a fairly reasonable rate.  It was still somewhat expensive, but it wasn’t insanely expensive.

After my flight landed, I took the subway into town.  I arrived at my hotel around 12:30.   That was much earlier than the advertised check-in time, but my room was ready, so I was able to drop off my bags before heading to lunch.

For lunch, I went to an Italian restaurant and wine café on Newbury Street called Piattini.  Newbury is just one block over from Boylston.  Piattini was only a few blocks from my hotel, but just far enough off the beaten path that I was able to get a table with no waiting.  They had outdoor seating with space heaters.  They also had excellent pizza.

After lunch, I went to the vaccine verification and testing site at Copley Square.  Before you could pick up your race packet, you had to either show proof of vaccination or a negative result from a COVID-19 test.  I’m fully vaccinated, so I didn’t need to get tested.  Runners who needed tests could get them here.  I’m not sure how long it took to get results back.

After showing my vaccine card, I received a wristband.  You need the wristband to pick up your race packet.  You also need it on race day to board a bus to the start in Hopkinton.

Next, I walked over to the convention center to pick up my race packet at the expo.  Both the vaccine verification and packet pickup were quick.

Boston usually had a huge expo with dozens of exhibitors.  This year, the expo was scaled down.  There were fewer than 10 exhibitors.  I stopped by the Marathon Tours & Travel booth to ask if there was any news about international travel in the coming year.  I also stopped by the Samuel Adams booth to try a sample of their Wicked Easy lager.

After dropping off my race packet at the hotel, I went to the Trillium Brewing beer garden near Fenway Park for a happy hour gathering with the Boston Squeakers group.  We usually meet in one of the local pubs, but this year we chose an outdoor venue instead.

I had dinner with Robert Wang, who administers several maratrhon-related Facebook groups.  Robert wanted to go to Mike’s Pastry after dinner, and there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Italian Restaurants in that neighborhood.  We couldn’t find any that were still taking reservations, so we decided to start walking in the direction of Mike’s Pastry and see if we could get a table at any of the restaurants we passed along the way.  Most of the restaurants were packed, and some had long lines outside.  We found one that had a large outdoor seating area with tables available.

After dinner, I walked over to Mike’s Pastry with Robert.  I wasn’t planning to buy anything, but I was curious to see how long the line was.  It went to the end of the block and around the corner.

After not sleeping well Friday night, I needed a good night’s sleep.  I slept well for most of the night, but woke up at 4:30 and had trouble getting back to sleep.  I didn’t need to get up early for anything on Sunday, so after getting back to sleep, I slept in as late as I could.

When the Boston Marathon was postponed from April to October, it resulted in a quirt of scheduling that had the Chicago Marathon taking place the day before the Boston Marathon.  After eating breakfast at the hotel, I spent most of the morning watching a live stream of the Chicago Marathon.  I knew Shalane Flanagan was planning to run both races, but I was surprised to learn that Tatyana McFadden was not only doing both races, but was aiming to win the women’s wheelchair division in both races.  I watched her win in Chicago, but I would have to wait until after my own race to find out if she could win again in Boston.

At noon, I went to the finish line, where members of Marathon Maniacs were meeting for a group picture.  This was the first of three group pictures at the finish line.

Next, I joined two other Marathon Maniacs for lunch at an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street.  After a brief stop at the hotel, I went back to the finish line for two more group pictures.  One was with the Boston Squeakers group.  The other was with a World Marathon Majors Challenge group.

After the last group picture, I hurried to the Trillium beer garden on the greenway for a happy hour gathering with members of 50sub4.  While I was there, I met some runners who invited me to join them for dinner at another Italian restaurant in the North End.

There’s a long-standing tradition that the Boston Red Sox always have a home series on the same weekend at the marathon.  The regular season is over, but the Red Sox are in the playoffs, and by chance, they had home games Sunday and Monday.  After dinner, I watched the end of the game in the hotel lounge.  The game lasted 13 innings, so I didn’t get to bed as early as I thought I would.

Sunday night, my sleep was restless, but I got enough sleep to get by.  I was awake before my alarm went off, so I got up early to give myself time for a light breakfast before leaving to board a bus to the start.

In a normal year, the field is divided into four waves, and each wave is divided into eight or nine corrals.  Runners are dropped off in Hopkinton, where they wait in the athletes’ village on the grounds of Hopkin High School until it’s time to walk to the start corrals.

This was not a normal year.  This year, we had a rolling start.  Instead of being assigned to waves and corrals, we were assigned a time to board a bus to the start.  My bus loading time was 8:15.  As usual, we boarded the buses at Boston Common.

The bus ride to Hopkinton takes about an hour.  Masks were required while we were on the bus. And the windows were open.  When we got far enough east of Boston, I started seeing trees that had already turned color.  The autumn colors made the bus ride somewhat of a scenic drive.  As we arrived in Hopkinton, I saw a few houses with Halloween decorations.  That’s something else you don’t expect to see on marathon weekend.

We were dropped off outside Hopkinton High School, but instead of waiting there, we could immediately start walking toward the starting line.  There were rows of port-o-potties outside the high school.  The lines weren’t long, so made a bathroom stop there, before walking to the start.

It was 60 degrees and breezy, so I waited as long as possible before taking off my warm-up clothes and putting them in one of the donation bags.  There were more port-o-potties in the parking lot of CVS, which we passed on our way to the start.  I made one last stop there before walking the last few blocks to the start.

Temperatures were forecast to climb into the upper 60s by the time I finished.  It was cloudy, and I was expecting a fairly strong headwind for most of the race, so I wasn’t too worried about getting hot.  I was more worried about the possibility of fighting a headwind for most of the race.

There was one other very important way in which this Boston Marathon was different for me.  In the past, I always ran.  This year, I race-walked.  In recent weeks, I’ve been adding more running to my training.  My knee has been improving, but it’s still not 100 percent.  I would’ve been tempted to try running this race, but I didn’t want to risk aggravating my knee by running on a course that’s mostly downhill.

I’m generally more excited about running than walking.  In 2018 – when I was starting to get good at walking marathons – I was looking forward to seeing how fast I could walk the Boston course.  Unfortunately, the weather that year was absolutely horrid for trying to walk fast.  I ended up running that race, even though I wasn’t really trained to run.

This year, I got another chance.  I’m not as fast now as I was in 2018, but I broke the five hour barrier three weeks ago at the We Walk Marathon, averaging 11:17 per mile.  More recently, I walked a 10K race with an average pace of 10:07.  Those two races gave me a better idea of how fast I could expect to walk this race.  I was fairly confident I could handle a pace of 11:15, and maybe as fast as 11:00.

The first 16 miles have a downhill trend, but the grade is most noticeable in the first few miles.  As I started walking, the grade was steep enough to feel awkward for walking.  I couldn’t establish a stride that felt natural, and it didn’t seem like I could get into a consistently fast cadence.  I worked hard to get into a rhythm, but I had no feel for how fast I was walking until I finished the first mile.  As it turns out, I started way too fast.  My first mile was 10:12, which was about a minute faster than the pace I was shooting for.  In the second mile, I tried to relax a little.  That mile was slower than the first one, but it was still too fast.

After two miles, I reached Ashland, which is the second of the eight cities and towns along the route.  Ashland was home to our first spectators since leaving Hopkinton.  The spectators here are local residents who always come out to watch the race.  Ashland was also home to the first of 24 aid stations with water and Gatorade.  In between those, there were also a few with gels.

I wasn’t thirsty yet, but I didn’t have anything to drink since breakfast, so I drank a cup of Gatorade.  After that, I decided to only drink at every third aid station.  It would warm up eventually, but I didn’t need to be drinking every mile.

The third mile was still uncomfortable for me.  I still didn’t feel like I had a walking stride that felt smooth.  I slowed to 10:46 in that mile, but that still wasn’t a sustainable pace.  I needed to slow down by at least 15 more seconds per mile.

Mile four was the first one where I seemed to find my rhythm.  The grade was beginning to level out.  Unfortunately, I was still going just as fast, even without a steep downhill grade.  I think I was influenced by all the runners around me.  I was constantly getting passed by runners.  That probably effected my perception of how fast I was going.  Even when I was going too fast, it seemed like I was going slow.

In the early miles of the race, I was passed by several friends who recognized me.  They each greeted me as they went by.  I also got constant encouragement from runners who didn’t know me, but were impressed by how fast I was walking.  That continued for the whole race.  It was gratifying to know that runners who were going much faster appreciated that what I was doing was difficult.

I also got lots of shout-outs from spectators.  I’ve learned over the years that the runners who stand out the most get the most attention from the crowd.  Usually that’s someone with a colorful outfit.  In my case, I was a novelty.  I was the lone race-walker in a field of runners.  My gait looked so much different than the runners that everyone noticed me.

In Framingham, there was a DJ with a sound system.  As I went by, he interrupted what he was saying to exclaim, “We have a speed walker!”

The constant encouragement pumped me up, but it might have pumped me up a little too much.  It wasn’t until the fifth mile that my pace slowed to something that might plausibly be sustainable.  It was still under 11 minutes.

After drinking at an aid station at mile 5, I noticed spray hitting the backs of my calves.  Enough water was getting spilled on the road that it was like walking after it rained.  After that, I tried to stay away from the water tables as much as possible, especially at the aid stations I was skipping.

In mile six, I sped up to 10:47.  After that I finally settled down a bit.  For the next six miles, my times were all between 10:56 and 11:07.  This part of the course was somewhat rolling, although it still had a downhill trend.  Where it was uphill or flat, my form improved.  Going downhill, it felt awkward, and I started to notice blisters on my heels.  I couldn’t keep from overstriding when I was going downhill.

I was doing a pretty good job of drinking Gatorade without slowing down, but at the  mile 8 aid station, I spilled about half of my Gatorade on my shoulder.  I think I got distracted, because I heard my watch record a split just as I was lifting the cup to drink from it.  The good news is that it was yellow Gatorade, and I was wearing a yellow shirt.

By now, I was in Natick.  When I reached the 9 mile mark, I was coming alongside Fisk Pond.  Up until now, I was so focused on my pace, effort, and mechanics, that I rarely noticed my surroundings.  Here, I looked at the trees next to the pond.  Some were still green, but others were red or yellow.

By 10 miles, I was starting to feel hot and sweaty.  The headwind I expected never seemed to materialize.  I sometimes noticed a breeze, but it wasn’t consistent.  To make sure I was staying hydrated, I switched to drinking Gatorade every other mile instead of every third mile.

At 12 miles, I entered Wellesley.  I began to hear screaming in the distance.  I was now within half a mile of Wellesley College.  Wellesley is a women’s college that’s right along the route.  The students all come out and cheer.  They make so much noise, it’s called the Wellesley Scream Tunnel.

The Scream Tunnel begins right after the 20K mark.  I was so focused on Wellesley College, that I almost forgot to look for my friends Alison and Elizabeth, who were volunteering at the 20K mark.  I turned my head just in time to see them and give Alison a high five.

About a month before the race, the B.A.A published their health and safety plan for this year’s race.  It included the following advice for runners and spectators:

The highlighted portion is an obvious reference to the tradition of runners stopping to kiss the students at Wellesley College.  Usually, as you run past Wellesley, all the students are holding up signs indicating why you should kiss them.  I saw one “Kiss Me I’m Irish” sign and one “Blow Me A Kiss” sign.  Other than that, they had motivational signs that had nothing to do with asking for a kiss.

That didn’t stop them from making noise.  When I was walking within a few feet of the barriers, the screaming sometimes hurt my ears.

Going through the Scream Tunnel, I got so pumped up that I could tell I was speeding up.  As soon as I got past Wellesley College, I had to slow down to my previous pace.  I ended up walking that mile in 10:47.  I’m sure I was briefly going much faster.  I had other fast miles, but this one took something out of me.  For the rest of the race, I was working harder, but not going quite as fast.

My halfway split was 2:22:11.  That really shocked me.  I was paying attention to my times for each mile, but not my cumulative time.  I knew I was going fast, but I didn’t know I was going that fast.  I was already getting tired, so I knew I would pay for that fast pace in the second half

Fairly early in the race, I began to develop blisters on both my heels.  Now, I was feeling them constantly.  I used to get heel blisters from overstriding when I walk.  I’ve been doing better recently, but all the downhill walking forced me to take a longer stride.  I tried to shorten my stride and increase my cadence, but I was already too fatigued to get a faster turnover.  As I worked hard to sustain my pace, I continued to make contact too far back on my heel.  That made every step painful.

Mile 14 took 11:11.  Before the race, I would’ve been happy with that pace.  After so many faster miles, it now seemed discouraging.  What made it more disturbing was knowing I was really picking up my effort in that mile.  Mile 15 was five seconds faster, but I was really working hard to sustain that pace.  I was still on the easy part of the course, and I was already struggling to maintain my pace.

It was no longer overcast.  Now the sun was occasionally peeking through the clouds, which made it feel hotter.  Sometimes, I’d feel a cool breeze, but other times the wind wasn’t there.  It was turning into a hotter day than I expected.

There was one piece of good news in that mile.  I passed two people who were running.  I was hoping by the end of the race that I could pass someone who was running, but I thought it would be on one of the hills in Newton.  I didn’t expect to pass anyone when they were running downhill.

Up until now, I was still skipping every other water stop.  I wanted to skip the aid station at mile 16, because it’s in the middle of a hill, and I didn’t want to disrupt my rhythm.  With that in mind, I drank at mile 15 instead.

Toward the end of the 16th mile, I crossed the Charles River.  As soon as I crossed the river, I entered Newton and began climbing the first of four hills.  None of the hills in Newton are actually all that big.  They just come at the wrong time.  I was beginning the part of the course that punishes people who went too fast in the first 15 miles.  Guess what.  I was one of those people.

The first hill in Newton is a long gradual climb away from the river.  It’s fairly long, but the grade is slight enough that I was able to maintain a fast rhythm all the way up the hill.  As planned, I skipped the aid station at the 16 mile mark.  That was the last one I would skip.  Going up this hill, I noticed I was keeping pace with the runners.  I wasn’t passing any runners, but none of them were passing me.

The hill ended before the 17 mile mark.  I walked that mile in 11:04.  I was happy with that.  It wasn’t as fast as mile 16, which included a sharp downhill, but it was faster than miles 14 and 15, both of which were also mostly downhill.

I had a chance to recover on the downhill section between the first and second hills.  The second hill starts midway through the 18th mile, right where we made the right turn onto Commonwealth Avenue.  This hill is shorter than the first one, but the grade is more noticeable.

This hill wasn’t as steep as I remembered, but it was a little longer than I remembered.  I tried to sustain the same pace as before, but I couldn’t quite do it.  Here, I was almost keeping up with the runners, but not quite.  I passed the ones taking walking breaks, but everyone still running was gradually moving ahead of me.

After cresting the second hill, I started looking for the 18 mile sign.  My time for that mile was 11:17.  That was my slowest mile so far, but it’s worth noting it was an uphill mile.  It’s also worth noting that it was the same pace I averaged in my previous marathon.  It wasn’t exactly slow.

At the aid station, I spilled Gatorade for the second time.  This time it went on my wrist.  My wristband has already wet with sweat.  Now it was sticky.

By now, I was having a revelation.  The hills made me work harder, but I was actually more comfortable going uphill than I was going downhill.  The uphill sections were the only places where I could push hard without making my blisters hurt.  I tried to use that for motivation as I continued walking through Newton.

From 18 to 19 is a little bit of a rest break.  I tried to pick up my pace here, but I was only a few seconds faster.  At this point, the best I could do was to not slow down.  Just past the 19 mile mark, I started the third hill.  This hill is smaller than the others, and I’m never quite sure when I’m done with it.  You seem to crest it, then you come down a little.  Then you go back up.  Then it just levels off.  It was on this hill that I walked past someone who was running.

Just past the 20 mile mark, I started up Heartbreak Hill.  This is the fourth hill.  It isn’t unusually steep, but it’s longer than the previous two hills.  I was about halfway up the hill when I heard someone with a sound system playing “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.  That energized me, and I briefly pickup up my pace.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t sustain the effort all the way to the top.  On Heartbreak Hill, a lot of people took walking breaks.  I didn’t pass anyone who was still running, but I passed several people who were walking.

As I crested the hill, I heard a spectator say “It’s all downhill from here.”  That’s almost true, but not quite.  You begin descending, but then there’s one more rise.  After cresting again, you begin a long descent.

Miles 20 and 21, which included the last two hills, took me 11:18 and 11:19 respectively.  Those were my two slowest miles of the race.  I felt like I did a good job of limiting the damage.  My challenge now was picking up the pace again going downhill.  In theory, it should’ve been easier, but my blisters were intensely painful going downhill.  I was now at the point in the race where you ask yourself how bad you want it.

I raced down the hill from Boston College to Evergreen Cemetery.  It hurt, but I did mile 22 in 10:51.  That was the last time I got my pace down under 11 minutes.  The next mile was also downhill, but I couldn’t sustain my effort.

Just before Cleveland Circle, I passed another runner.  It was the fourth runner I passed, and three of them were on downhill segments. 

Navigating the turn onto Beacon Street, I had to be extra careful stepping over all the train tracks.  I never realized how many tracks go across the street here.  It’s easier to avoid them when you’re running.

On Beacon Street, I briefly left Boston to travel through Brookline.  This was the last of the communities I would pass through before returning to Boston near the end of the race.

I got my first glance of the famous Citgo Sign when I was about halfway through mile 24.  My immediate goal was to get to that sign, which was about a mile and a half away.  When I got there, I would have one mile to go.

The sign eventually disappeared behind the trees.  I pressed on until I reached the aid station at 24 miles.  I knew I needed to drink, but I didn’t want to drink any more Gatorade.  I felt like my stomach was close to cramping up.  I walked past all the Gatorade tables and drank water instead.

When I saw the Citgo sign again, it was only about half a mile away.  As I noticed the sign, I also noticed a small hill in front of it.  I recognized this as the ramp up to the bridge where we cross the freeway.  Halfway across the bridge, I reached the 25 mile sign.  At the aid station, I again drank water instead of Gatorade.

Right below the Citgo sign, there’s a sign next to the street saying one mile to go.  I was running out of gas, but I fought hard to maintain my pace.  About one block before turning onto Hereford, I started to see huge crowds on both sides of the street.  The energy of the crowd kept me going.

I made the last two turns and began the final quarter mile along Boylston.  The runners around me were all surging toward the finish.  I couldn’t put on a finishing kick.  I put everything I had into just maintaining my current pace all the way to the line.

I finished in 4:48:41.  It was only the fifth time I’ve walked a marathon in less than five hours.  It was only the third time that I broke 4:50.  I felt like I did it the hard way, going too fast in the first half and then having to work that much harder in the second half.

I managed to keep up my effort all the way to the finish, but as soon as I was done, I struggled just to keep moving forward as I continued through the finish area.  I staggered forward one step at a time.  My legs didn’t have anything left.

The first thing they hand you after you finish is a bottle of water.  I was thirsty, but I didn’t take a water bottle, because I knew there would be more beverages further ahead.

Next, I received a heat shield and a clean mask to wear on the subway for the trip back to my hotel.  Then I received my finisher medal.

As I continued slowly shuffling forward into the next block, I was handed a plastic bag with post-race food and beverages.  It included both water and Gatorade, so I really didn’t need to take water earlier.

I had to walk one more block, past all the trucks for people who checked gear bags.  Then I finally reached Arlington Station, which was the closest T station.  I had my Charlie Card ready, but an MBTA employee saw my race bib and waved me through.  On race day, runners can ride the trains for free.

After getting back to the hotel, I finally got a look at the blisters on my heels.  The one on my left heel was a huge blood blister, but it was fairly easy to drain.  The one on my right heel was much smaller, but hurt just as much.  It was deep under thick layers of skin, so it was harder to drain.  I didn’t realize it was also a blood blister until I drained it.

In happier news, I learned that Shalane Flanagan finished the Boston Marathon with a time that was six minutes faster than her time in Chicago.  Tatyana McFadden wasn’t able to win both Chicago and Boston.  She finished second in Boston, which is still pretty impressive.

I didn’t leave the hotel for the rest of the day.  It was all I could do to put shoes on and walk to the hotel lounge to have dinner.  My blisters were just too painful.

The Red Sox had another home playoff game, but this one didn’t start until 7:07 PM.  I watched the beginning of the game in the hotel lounge, but I couldn’t stay awake to watch the whole thing.  Fatigue from the race and lack of sleep caught up to me.  I would have to wait until morning to find out that the Red Sox scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to win the series in four games.

I slept well that night.  When I woke up, I found just walking to the bathroom to be painful.  My blisters made it difficult to walk, even for short distances.  Getting back into training won’t be easy.

This race taught me something.  Most of the races I’ve walked have had flat courses.  This race is only moderately hilly, but I now realize that even a slightly downhill course can be difficult to walk.

My flight home wasn’t until noon, which gave me time to enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel before packing and taking the T to the airport.  Walking to the station was slow and painful.  Going down the stairs wasn’t bad.  Most runners had sore quads today.  My quads were fine, but I had sore glutes and blistered feet.

I arrived at the airport a little early, so I waited in the Delta Sky Club, where they were giving Boeing 757-300 models to all the marathon finishers.  That was a nice finish to the weekend.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:48:41
Average Pace: 11:01
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  442
Marathons/Ultras Walking:  24
Unicorns:  10 (11 if you count last year’s virtual race)
World Marathon Majors:  20


    Have a speedy recovery...

  2. Great job David! Always like reading your race commentaries. I felt like I was right out there on the course with you. What shoes did you use for race-walking? Carmen’s Reshod is designed with a lower top to the heel vs a running shoe. I think you’ve used her shoes before? I any case CONGRATS on a great race‼️

    1. I've been using the same shoes for running and walking. They may not be optimal for walking, but it's more convenient.

  3. Congrats David! Always enjoy your race commentaries. Felt like I was in the course with you. My Boston Marathon running time was 4:43:52 back in 1999–the103rd running of the race.
    All the beat for a speedy recovery!