Boston Marathon 2012: Overview
Sufferfest. I can’t get that word out of my head. It’s the only word that keeps coming to mind as I reflect on my experience. My whole approach to the event changed in the starting corral and the first few miles as dealing with the heat became my primary focus. It’s an odd feeling when your legs want you to tear it up but your body won’t let you. Every race gives you an opportunity to learn something new and this one was no different.
I made the drive up to Boston solo this year since my family had commitments this weekend. Both my boys gave up their spring break to serve on mission’s trips with their school and were coming home on Saturday and Sunday so Mom needed to stay home and play catcher. My oldest was working on building homes for Native Americans dealing with extreme poverty out in Arizona while my youngest was working with at-risk kids in our nation’s capital. I’ve been congratulated a lot for finishing Boston this year and I’m proud of my accomplishment, but I’m more proud of the men my sons are becoming. Is it weird to think of your kids as your heroes?
For the marathon I drove up from South Jersey Saturday morning and got to the hotel around 5PM. After checking in I decided to take a walk and snap some photos before heading to the Dailymile meetup. A big thanks to Brian Adkins for organizing the event, it was a lot of fun.
I had monitored the weather for race day and when I woke up on Sunday to head over to the expo to pick up my bib, I checked the weather again and read my email. The BAA had issued a weather warning for Monday. Their last email took on an almost alarmist tone. Some of it read:
- “Only the fittest runners should consider participating.”
- “Do NOT assume that any experience you have in running a cooler marathon will be a reliable guide in making the decision in whether to participate or defer.”
- ” you should adopt the attitude that THIS IS NOT A RACE. It is an experience. ”
As the reality of the conditions for Monday sunk in I had a pretty strong emotional reaction. I had taken some big training risks in the past 16 weeks to get ready for an attempt to get under three hours. I had also spent close to a grand on a hotel, food and gas while being away from my family. Defer? Not race? I put my thoughts down quickly while they were still fresh and raw. I apologize for the length but I didn’t want to leave anything out:
I’m sitting here in my hotel room at about 9:30AM on Sunday morning, getting ready to head out to the expo to pick up my bib and all everyone’s been able to talk about is the weather. Monday’s forecast is currently looking at 87 degrees for the high which would make it one of the hottest Boston Marathons in history. Gun time is 10AM tomorrow so the temps will start in the 70’s and climb from there, getting close to peaking right around the time I’m climbing Heartbreak Hill in Newton.
Since I got here yesterday afternoon I’ve heard talk of runner deferments to the 2013 race, lowering of expectations and huge chunks of time being added to everyone’s goal pace. Last night when asked what I was shooting for, I half kidding responded ‘I WAS looking to sub-3, but…’ and I would leave it at that. After checking the forecast weather this morning and seeing no changes to the heat forecast for Monday, I have just one thought that sums up tomorrow’s weather for me. I don’t care.
I’ve taken nothing but risks the past 5 months to get me to this point. I’ve changed my footwear and form. I’ve run longer and harder than at any point in my life. I’ve sacrificed my time, my money, my energy and time away from my family to be here. I’ve spent too many years letting fear of failure drive my decision-making. It’s not happening this time.
I’m well trained and I know my body well. After years of deployments to the Middle East (along with runs on the Arabian Peninsula) I know the warning signs and how my body responds to heat stress. I’m not about to put my health at risk for a race, but what I am willing to risk is my pride. From here on out any finish time above 3 hours holds no meaning for me. Whether it’s 3:01 or 4:01, it’s all the same. I’d rather drop out and not finish reaching for a 2:59 then play it safe and conservative just to finish. I’ve already got plenty of medals and certificates on my wall.
What I don’t have is knowing where my running is taking me. As I’ve mentioned before someone knows but He’s not talking. I know He won’t until I’ve given everything I have, until I’ve put it all out there. Because during our 21 year relationship I’ve always found Him when I’m empty, poured out, and have nothing left. And that’s all that I want, to find Him.
I got two things wrong there. The weather started out around 80 degrees and peaked at 89.
I can’t remember the last time an alarm woke me the morning before a marathon. I set my alarm for 5AM but woke around 3:30AM. I just lied there in bed in the vain hope of trying to relax and doze back off. By 4:45 I knew that wasn’t happening so I got up, showered, got suited up and headed out to the buses on Tremont Street. One of the benefits to being up and out early is I was on one of the first buses to arrive at the athlete’s village. I wound up getting some prime real estate under the big tent where it was nice and cool. At around 7AM it was hard to believe it was going to get in the 80′s that day but once 9AM came around and you stepped out into the sun you could feel the intensity.
I got to my corral at about 9:50AM and as I’m standing among the other runners I noticed I was sweating. Standing in place and sweating. Now I consider being under 5’6″ an advantage here because I immediately started looking for a 6 footer in the corral where I could stand close enough to block the sun. The real funny thing was I wasn’t the only guy doing this.
I was in the back left corner of corral 6 near the fence and there was I guy I saw who was a dead ringer for Dean Karnazes. A bunch of guys were talking with him and sure enough bib number 5996 was Dean. The guy looked like he was in incredible shape, 2% body fat tops. I kept an eye on him at the start, curious about how I measured up to the legend.
When the gun goes off the ropes for the corrals get removed and you start moving up to the start line in a huge mass. I was watching in disbelief as runners from the corrals behind me were rushing to move up as much as they could as we moved forward. My attitude was just the opposite, I chose to get in the back of the corral to use the crowd to force myself to go out slow, to keep it close to my Game Plan target of 7:00 min/mile splits at the start and then evaluate from there.
Miles 1 thru 4
The start at Boston is a complete traffic jam for the first few miles. You’re basically locked in to whatever pace those around you are running. There is a big downhill drop the first four miles and the key to the rest of the race it to take this easy and focus on good form to conserve energy. My mile one split was 7:16, slower than planned but considering the crowd it was nothing I couldn’t make up if I needed to.
I spotted Dean Karnazes again around mile one and thought about pacing him. As I came up near him though, in what will be a quote that I will be repeating until my dying day:
“I had to drop Dean Karnazes after mile one, he was just going out too slow” (I also beat his finish time by 19 minutes, just saying…)
Mile three was my only split of the day below a 7 minute mile (and only two tenths of a second below at that). As I ran the steep downhill, with some shade on the road in places, I noticed I was working a lot harder than I should. My legs were feeling great but I was breathing harder than my pace would dictate. I recognized right away my body was struggling to cool itself. We had about an eight mile per hour tailwind on race day and if you’re running about 8 miles per hour that means you’re running in stagnant air. In fact I only remember two or three times during the race where I felt any breeze at all and then it was only for a few seconds.
Miles 5 thru the scream tunnel (mile 13)
This part of the race was about heat management and trying to measure my level of effort against my pace. I hit every water stop and kept taking my gels to keep up my fluid and electrolyte intake. It was a continual struggle to find a pace where I wasn’t over heating. I continually kept pulling the pace back from 7:10′s to 7:20′s and then 7:30′s as I worked the easy half of the Boston course. Between miles 6 and 8 was when all thoughts of coming in under three hours were officially abandoned. Subconsciously it happened well before that point but I never throw in the towel until the math says so. I hit the halfway mark at 1:35:53 knowing that a negative split wasn’t in the cards given the rising temps. At this point I wanted to finish with my best effort and ran with that as motivation.
Miles 13 thru 16
All thoughts turned to Newton, I dropped my pace further in preparation. Above all else maintaining good form would require the least effort and provide the fastest ascent to the coming hills. The plan: maintain form, maintain effort, manage the heat, hydrate.
Miles 16 thru 21
I don’t mean to be anticlimactic but the heat was way more of a concern at this point in the race than the ascents. The Newton hills are challenging but not apocalyptic. All that form work paid BIG dividends as I was able to keep the splits in the 8:30′s on this section. Cresting Heartbreak was very rewarding but I didn’t bother taking a moment to celebrate as I still had over 5 miles left while working my way through the teeth of the furnace.
Mile 21 to the Finish
The downhill stretch to mile 24 is a welcome respite after heartbreak. In an overly fatigued state the temptation is to over-stride to use gravity to pull you down the hill. This is always counter productive as the over-striding produces a heel strike with an accompanying braking action and trashing of what’s left of your quads. In contrast to how good my legs felt, the heat was really starting to take its toll on me. I had no clue what my splits were at this point, It felt like 10 mins/mile or higher but looking at my Garmin info I was between 8:15 and 9:10 the rest of the way in. The last two miles are deceivingly difficult as the course flattens but your perception is skewed because you’re coming off 3 miles of downhill.
It was at mile 24 I was getting a noticeable cramp on my right side that I could feel when I inhaled. It had been there since Newton but it was becoming more of an irritant. At mile 25 this cramp spawned another on my left side that was even more uncomfortable. Every time I inhaled I could feel it. At this point I just wanted to be done to finally end the torture. I didn’t even look at my watch when I hit the finish (a first for me) but checking later I had crossed with a time of 3 hours, 28 minutes flat.
After crossing the finish I was feeling a little light-headed and a tad queasy. This wasn’t a first but since I had driven myself to Boston my plan was to drive home after the race. Considering what I had just been through I didn’t think that was a good idea until I got looked at by the Medical Staff. So I checked my pride, grabbed hold of one of the medical volunteers and headed over to the medical tent as a precaution. I got my vitals checked and while my blood pressure was solid my temp was a little high and my heart rate was elevated as my body was still struggling to cool down. The staff handed me a few ice bags and I hung out in the air-conditioned tent for about 15 minutes. I started to feel like myself again and after thanking the Doctors and staff for supporting the runners I headed back to the hotel to get my things and get on the road.
After the crossing the finish my first emotion was disappointment. As runners we so often grade ourselves based on time that we can lose the sense of achievement if we can’t look past the clock. I spoke with about a dozen fellow Boston finishers at the hotel and on the trip back and there was this wonderful feeling of camaraderie above and beyond what you would get at a typical marathon. There was this immediate friendship and closeness you could sense when we discussed the ordeal we all had just been through. By the time I got home I was almost bubbly (never thought I’d use that word) when I spoke to my wife and boys about the race.
I got online this morning to check out my stats because I’m a numbers guy and no matter what the emotions and struggles a race entails, I want to see the math. I finished 2789 overall and 279 in the Male 45-49 age group. That puts me in the top 13% overall and in the top 13% for age group. If you count all the entrants, I’m close to top 10% (let’s go with that). At the Boston Marathon, where many of the best runners in the US and the world are in the field testing their metal, that’s an accomplishment I’ll always treasure. Even if it doesn’t come with a plaque.