Sunday, April 24, 2016

Boston Marathon, April 2016

It's impossible to talk about marathoning without talking about Boston. It's the marathon that serious runners all over the globe aspire to run, yet it's probably one of the toughest road races on the planet. But that doesn't matter. For so many of us dedicated runners, Boston is The One. And for those fortunate enough to be able to qualify with relative ease, going back again and again is a common theme.

In both 2013 and 2014 I ran in the Elite Women's Start (EWS) and finished with times that were fast enough to automatically get me back in there for the next year. In 2015, however, the weather on race day was fairly brutal and I finished with a far-too-slow 2:55. Despite going for broke (sub-2:50, that is) in Melbourne, I ultimately came up empty-handed last year and found myself assigned to corral 3, wave 1 of the general start for Boston 2016, my 5th attempt at the course.

After the alone-in-a-headwind debacles of NYC and Boston I must admit I was sort of happy about starting with the crowds - I figured it would be nice to have people around me for once, if for no reason other than to help break a headwind if one blew - and of course it would be fun to be at Athlete's Village with Joel for the first time ever. We only needed the weather to cooperate, really, but sadly that is quite a big ask for Boston in April.

The Training

Miles per week: around 87 miles (140km), averaged over the preceding 13 weeks;
Speedwork: at least once a week, sometimes as part of a long run, in which case speed = marathon pace, which was around 6:30 min/mile this cycle (4:02 min/km);
Other races: rather too many (ahem);
Taper: 2 weeks - 30% reduction then a one-week crash taper (see below).

Being a hopeless raceaholic and now married to someone similar, I've increasingly run races as part of marathon preparation, and in this cycle that included one full marathon (Wangaratta) and two half marathons. That wouldn't be such an issue if the second half (Canberra) hadn't been just 8 days before Boston.  Yes, 8 days. What on earth was I thinking? Was I thinking at all?

You'll have to click here to make up your own mind about that question, but suffice it to say that the lead-up to this year's Boston was far from conventional. After that questionable half marathon I made the surprisingly sensible decision to pretty much shut things down and as a result I arrived in Boston having run very little in 4 days and feeling as fresh as a daisy, or at least thinking that I was. What could possibly go wrong?

Race Weekend

We bowl up to the expo just a couple of hours after it opens on Friday and are amused to find ourselves bumping into Runners World forum (RWOL) alumni left and right; it's not too crowded and we are able to snag all the merchandise we need/want.

with Nick, of the sub-3:20 RWOL thread

On Saturday morning we again run the BAA 5K race - in the starting corral I am very surprised to find we are standing right in front of Rob de Castella, who is running today with his wife and daughter! His bib number is 1986, the year he won Boston in 2:07:51 (his personal best); how cool! I say hi and briefly chat with him about the marathon before it's time to start, and this year I manage to hold back much more appropriately than last year, finishing in 24:08 - once again hand-in-hand with Joel.

in the finish chute, both laughing and running a bit too fast (cough cough)

The usual hectic social roster sees us spending the rest of the weekend with a wide variety of running friends, and as usual this is ridiculously fun, involving quite a lot of beer and rather too little sleep. Sunday night is a fairly quiet affair (in contrast to the 2 nights preceding); neither of us has really adjusted to the new time zone and we are focused on trying to get to bed and to sleep as early as possible. Joel, with the assistance of his friend Jesse, has been providing me with frequent updates on the weather situation (“There’s been another shift!”) and it seems possible that the day will be warm, although nothing like the sauna of 2012.

I absolutely prefer heat over a freezing headwind - last year’s weather was my own personal definition of hell - so I am actually pleased with the forecast, since one of my biggest worries is freezing to death while waiting out in the corrals at the start.

I've already discussed my race strategy many times and have it fairly clearly set out: my time goal is “low 2:50s” so I'll aim to run the first half in 1:24-1:25 and then try to hang on as best I can after the Newton Hills. My RWOL friend Dan, who is in amazing (by which I mean 2:45ish) shape and has averaged something insane like 106 mpw this cycle, is worried about the heat and it's likely he will run the first half at least in my company. I'm glad about this but also a bit intimidated: his half marathon PR is a full 3 minutes better than mine so I'm concerned about going too fast in those exciting, downhill first few miles. He's reassured me this won't be an issue, so we make plans to meet somehow in the corral.

Race Day

We’re both awake before 5am and it’s not as tough as I expected to get ready and be out the door shortly after 5:30. I have my AG bib pinned to the back of my Chameleon INKnBURN tank, and I’m ready to crush all the other old chicks! Or at least I’ll look good whilst trying.

I love my INKnBURN

A short train ride has us dropping off gear bags and heading to the bus on time; a post-race meeting plan is made and agreed upon, and before we know it we’re on our way to Athlete’s Village. It’s pretty much as I remember it from 2012, so we pose for a photo with the famous sign and start getting ready for the race. Several fortuitous meetings take place – amazing really, with over 25000 excited runners in the one spot, what are the odds of randomly meeting my Canadian elite buddy Paula?? but I do, then we bump into Barry and he shows us where the RWOL contingent are camped – all this keeps us busy until finally it’s time to head up to the corrals.

So the photographer crops out the sign in favour of including our daggy sweatpants? bizarre

We end up directly in front of the Korean church where I’ve spent the last 3 years waiting with the other elite runners to start the race; it occurs to me that I’ve never really looked at the building from in front, having been dropped off out the back every year. It looks much more impressive from this aspect, you’d really never know how drab and dated it is on the inside.

Dan shows up as we stand there in the sun, and it’s obviously now way, WAY warmer than the supposed forecast 62F (16C). Heat is not Dan’s friend and he has had a bad time with the Boston course in past years, so he repeats his intention to run 6:30(ish) pace with me and we all wait together for the starter’s gun.

It seems like a long time before we start moving, first shuffling, then walking and finally running; then suddenly I find myself crossing the line (Garmin already fired up, for once) and Boston 2016 is underway! Here goes nothing.

Miles 1-4: 6:28, 6:21, 6:16, 6:18 (pace in min/mile)

OMG, the congestion. There are people EVERYWHERE! I know I have been waxing lyrical about how great it’s going to be to have other runners around me, but this is horrible and I hate it. Dan and I dodge and weave like maniacs the whole first 2 miles and I’m terrified I’m going to get tripped. Was I really thinking this was going to be so helpful? I must be out of my mind.

The water stations start and they are an absolute debacle: I’m either getting clotheslined, dodging collisions or missing out altogether. Dan generously shares one of his two water bottles with me so I can take my first gel at mile 2, and although we’re sort of going too fast right now there is plenty of time to get it right. Right? Sure.

By mile 3 it’s obvious we are going too fast. The 5K split (19:50) proves it and although I’d like to care more, right now all I want is for the field around me to thin out. Passing people does have that effect so I’m not about to slow down yet. Dan is right with me and seems to be having fun; the crowd is yelling support but I’m too busy finding a path through the other runners to notice much.

Miles 5-8: 6:21, 6:18, 6:25, 6:25

Finally I’m properly warmed up; the too-fast pace now feels great, and I look up to see another F45 bib not far ahead. I remark on this to Dan and we agree that we’ve got plenty of time to catch her. We’re both dumping cups of water on ourselves at every opportunity but funnily enough I’m not bothered much by the heat – it must be all the summer training and racing that I’ve done the past 4 months. At least I have that going for me.

10K split: 38:33

The 10K mark comes and suddenly I’m freaking out – our split is almost exactly the same as what I ran in Canberra last weekend. Holy crap, am I really on pace for a 1:23 first half? Dan makes the unhelpful remark that his HR is still fine – I know he’s fitter and faster (did I mention younger?) than me so I can’t really use his effort level as a yardstick against which to measure my own. Suddenly I’m very worried that I’m going way too fast and that it’s all going to blow up in my face later in the race.

For now though I keep this fear to myself and somehow my legs just keep turning. We ease past the other F45 and it feels good to know at least one of my competitors is behind me; all the faster ones are far ahead in the elite race and I won’t know how they did until much later.

Miles 9-12: 6:22, 6:29, 6:23, 6:24
15K split: 59:34

More water station mayhem, and it’s starting to get me really annoyed. At least I haven’t managed to dump a cup of Gatorade over myself yet – that would be the end. There are lots of spectators handing out water but I’m not thirsty and funnily enough my stomach isn’t too happy after my second gel at mile 8. I feel sort of a bit sick really; is this a confirmation that I’m running faster than I should?

I know my average mileage for this cycle is much lower than it was before any of my other sub-2:50 performances, yet here I am on pace for 2:48 or thereabouts. I know I shouldn’t have raced that half marathon last weekend: my quads already have that odd, achy feeling that I wouldn’t normally notice until around mile 20. All of this should add up to me slowing the bleep down and yet really I still don't.

I do however start expressing my paranoia to Dan, who is looking way too fresh and it’s driving me slowly insane. I tell him – not for the first time – to go ahead but he again refuses. Luckily he’s smart enough to realise that he is making my brain hurt, and wisely says “Just tell me if I’m making you crazy though”; my pointed silence is correctly interpreted as a firm YES YOU ARE, and over the course of the next mile Dan gradually leaves me behind.

Miles 13-16: 6:29, 6:21, 6:32, 6:21
Half split: 1:23:57

OK, that’s too fast, but it is what it is. The Wellesley scream tunnel has at least not made me deaf this year, and the second – infinitely harder – part of the race lies ahead.

Without the pressure of trying to stay with Dan I finally relax a little, but funnily enough I don’t slow down that much and he stays within sight until the pain of the Newton Hills starts at mile 16. Oh boy, I remember this from last year. Here we go.

Miles 17-20: 6:38, 6:43, 6:37, 6:53

Having run this course 4 times already means that parts are very familiar to me by now. The first hill is not too bad, I remember that, and it’s gratifying to see that I’m not slowing down too much yet. I pick up the pace again adequately (by which I mean under 6:40) after the first and also second hills, but I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be pleasant. The temperature is still not a big issue but my head is becoming a problem: negative thoughts are creeping in and I’m worrying about my physical condition.

This is no time for mental weakness, I tell myself sternly. Your legs are fine (even if they’re not) and your breathing is fine (ok, it actually is) so just put your head down and get on with it. I’m still passing people at this point and there are quite a few who are walking or limping along rubbing their legs – by comparison I’m in great shape.

yeah, I look unimpressed but that dude behind me has it much worse
photo credit: Clay Shaw, with thanks

But then Heartbreak Hill starts. God, I hate this mofo of a hill. My pace takes a nosedive and Scott – one of Joel’s Michigan running buddies – sails past me as I plough my way upwards. I actually thought he was way ahead already so I’m unfazed by this and focus instead on my own form: keep the arms pumping, keep the legs turning.

oh, the pain

I suffer in this fashion all the way to the top and on the way the rational part of my brain is screaming abuse at the part that wants to keep running fast. I tell myself “You am never, EVER racing Boston again. The most you’ll ever aim for is sub-3. No faster, period!” But why, then, am I trying like a madwoman to requalify for the Elite Women’s Start? I know; it makes no sense at all.

Miles 21-24: 7:06, 6:32, 6:35, 6:42

Where’s the archway that proclaims the end of Heartbreak Hill? It’s not here this year but I know when I’m there, and it’s time to see what I’ve got left. In 2014 I beat my 2013 time by 66 seconds and almost every single one of those was gained in the final 6 miles; how well can I hang on this time around? I know I’ve lost time in the hills - including one split over 7:00 pace - but 2:51-2:52 is still on the cards if I don’t fall apart. That’s an enormously big if, however.

The crowd of competitors has thinned a fair bit more and for the first time I’m actually alone for a brief period – it’s now that I notice the headwind. Seriously, really, a bloody headwind? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so unfair. Pretty soon I’ve picked the pace up again and am back amongst runners; one of them is my RWOL buddy Oleg who blows by me at mile 23 or so like I'm standing still.

As he sails past he taps me on the shoulder and I turn my head, but I’m so far gone now that I don’t have the energy to change my facial expression, which at this point naturally is one of deep disgust. End result = Oleg gets a fierce glare and a grunt from me rather than any sort of civilised greeting. Oops!

Hating every single second, but not quite as much as the guy behind is

My brain is chiefly occupied at this point in a bargaining match with itself, whereby I declare to myself that it’s time to give up RIGHT NOW and then agree with myself that yes, I can give up, but not for one more mile. I repeat this exercise from mile 21 onwards and it works nicely until mile 25 starts. At this point, says my brain firmly, you might as well just keep going until the very end. Sigh, ok then. I can see the Citgo sign but it seems so very far away still.

Completely on autopilot at this point 

Miles 25-26.2: 6:43, 6:55, then 6:19 pace to the finish

My legs are toast. My feet are fried. Since mile 10 in fact I’ve known that I was going to get a blister on my right little toe – something that occasionally happens but usually not until the final miles – and since mile 20 or so my left foot has also been pretty much numb. I’m fairly certain there will be blood visible through my right shoe when I stop, but somehow I’m managing to ignore the pain and keep running.

The crowd is deafening; more than once I hear my name being yelled with gusto, but I can’t respond. I know I've slowed a bit but I don't care; I just have to keep my legs going until it’s time to stop. Right on Hereford, left on Boylston – and GO!

I swear they moved it...every year they move it...

That finish line is So. Bloody. Far. Away. From some deep reserves I summon the energy to speed up again and now I’m charging down Boylston St with the last dregs of courage and determination that got me here in the first place. Inside my head an inane chant has started: “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!” Who knows why it is there, but it has the effect of keeping my legs turning over, and that’s all that matters.

As I approach the clock I know I’m around 70 seconds ahead (the time it took for me to cross the start line from corral 3 after the gun went off) and my mental arithmetic is never great when I’m in this sort of situation, but I think if I give it everything I’ve got, sub-2:52 may still be mine. Yes!!

Finish time: 2:51:51

Placement: 28th OA female, 3rd Master, 2nd AG (F45-49)

Immediately after crossing the finish line I am not sure if I want to vomit, pass out, fall over or perhaps all 3. At least one of these options seems imminent – so I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and pretending to the volunteers that I’m fine, because I really don’t want to end up in the medical tent. After about a minute I do start feeling better, until I try looking down at my right shoe and almost keel over sideways.

Yep, blood, right where I expected to see it. Of course it’s not the sight of blood that makes me stagger like a drunk, it’s the fact that my legs really don’t want to keep me upright much longer. I collect my medal, summon an exhausted grin for the photographer, and eventually plant myself on the kerb opposite the bag check to wait for Joel. Volunteers are telling people to get up and keep moving, but I’m not having it. My quads are in serious danger of cramping up so I sit massaging them until Joel appears grinning; he’s run a gutsy 3:07 and is very pleased with himself.

Amazing what a difference 15 minutes and finding my husband makes......from almost passing out to grinning like a Cheshire Cat

Despite the fact that it’s still quite warm, something like 60F/16C, my lips are blue and I’m shaking so we make the wise decision to head straight back to the hotel rather than to Loew’s (the post-race RWOL bar hangout) which had been our original plan. There I pick up my phone, check the BAA app and to my amazement find I’ve placed second in my age group! An email confirmation arrives shortly afterwards, inviting me to the official presentation at 5pm. How thrilling!

The presentation is every bit as amazing as you’d expect, and my fast friend Robyn has in fact WON her AG (F55-59) so we ham it up onstage together and all head out together afterwards for dinner and many drinks – our waiter gives us both free margaritas after we show him our awards – and thus ends my fifth Boston marathon. What an incredible ride.

AG winners, boooyah!!!

The Analysis

In retrospect I realise that going out as fast as I did was taking an enormous risk; I could easily have blown up completely and ended up walking or in a medical tent well before the finish. As it happens, I put every single bit of my training and ability out there on the road from Hopkinton to Boston, and I managed to hang on to the very end.

Only 11% of finishers in this year’s race requalified for 2017; it was therefore a slow year and this was probably due to the heat, which thankfully for me does not affect me nearly as much as it does many others. It remains to be seen if my 2:51 will get me back into the EWS but I think my AG placement probably won’t hurt in that regard.

Am I up for giving it another go? Yes, it seems that I am. Monday’s race showed me that I’m not quite completely washed-up yet; there’s at least another year in me perhaps. First, some well-earned rest! Then we’ll see what comes next. As long as it’s not another marathon next weekend!


  1. Great report Rachel and best joke ever: saying that you'll never ever run Boston again. Ha ha ha! Sounds like running with the regular field was 'different' - keeping your head together after your mate took you through 10k in 38 and change was pretty amazing. Well done. Hope the 2nd A/G and speedy for the conditions time get you back in the elite section for 2017.

    1. I said I wouldn't RACE it, Ewen, not that I wouldn't run it! There IS a difference. Well, for most people there seems to be - me, on the other hand.......

  2. Great job out there Rachel - it was a pretty nasty day (and I saw people cramping up all over the place)!

  3. That is so awesome about the Master's award! You ran an amazing race. Rachel 1, Heat 0. Also, a really great recap of the experience. I wish Heartbreak would have had an arch at the top!