Considering that race recaps are the last lingering content on this little blog, you’d think it would be easier for me to put words to my experience at the 120th Boston Marathon. In a lot of ways, I should be ecstatic to talk about it: I ran a 4 minute marathon PR (3:25:39), and I showed up on race day an entirely different runner than when I was in Boston two years ago. I had the best training cycle I’ve ever had, and I ran the race nearly exact to my planned strategy. So why the hesitation to share?
We spend the months of training for a big race picturing the finish line; winning the hard-fought battle that’s taken so many early mornings, daunting long runs, and gut-busting workouts to get to. I know I do. Picturing the sweet majesty of the real-life finish line gets me through all the adversity that comes with a marathon training cycle. It’s what I keep in my head to get me out of bed, to finish the final interval, to prepare for the mental challenge of racing 26.2 miles.
I didn’t get that finish line experience at Boston. I finished the race, but the glory I’d visualized so often wasn’t there. That’s because immediately upon finishing, I was put in a wheelchair and proceeded to spend two hours in the medical tent, followed by an additional hour at the hospital.
99.9% of my race was everything I’d hoped for, and unfortunately I’ve allowed the final 0.1% to overshadow what was an amazing day. In a lot of ways, I’m still feeling a bit blue over it, but I’m hoping that writing about the whole experience may help lighten the load a bit. And if nothing else, a little catharsis never hurt anyone.
So, to the best of my abilities, here’s my Boston recap – the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.
We had an exceptional amount of difficulty leaving Denver on Saturday before the race, and it was actually a small miracle we made it out at all. A rogue spring snow storm swooped in on Friday night, and flights out of the city were being cancelled by the minute. Our flight was not, luckily, however it was delayed by nearly 5 hours – which after connecting through Dallas landed us in Boston around 1 am. We were so happy to have actually arrived there that it didn’t really matter, but my plans for a nice long pre-race eve sleep was kind of shot.
Regardless, the show had to go on, and we spent Sunday brunching with my best friend Anna and her boyfriend, going to the expo, checking out the finish line, and generally soaking up the pre-race atmosphere. The city was electric, and I was so excited to let it rip the next day. As stated, I went into this race with superb training. My mentality for this training cycle was all about embracing fear: when a workout of a prescribed pace scared me, it meant that’s what would make me better. I incorporated track workouts, hill repeats, trail running, tempo runs and fast finish long runs all throughout my training, and I have never felt fitter than I did when it came time to taper. Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit to run a great race.
My A goal for Boston was to run around (ideally under) 3:25. Truth be told, on a different course on a colder day, I felt in shape to run a low 3:2X, but considering Boston’s complexity and my experience with the toughness of the marathon, 3:25 felt just right as an “A” goal. I had “B” and “C” goals, but honestly I came up with them very last-minute for the sake of having some saving grace if something went wrong. There was very little doubt in my mind that I was capable of a 3:25, and I’ll admit that part of me believed that something even faster could happen as well.
I thought that mayyyybbeee I could pull off a good night of sleep the night before the race, especially considering the late night of travel beforehand, but alas…my nerves were high and I was restless most of the night. To be expected, but slightly discouraging.
We were up and at ’em around 5:15 and headed into Boston with plenty of time to catch my assigned bus. I had brought a lot of throwaway clothes (and a blanket) to have with me in Athlete’s Village, but even before arriving in Hopkinton (the start of the race), I could tell I wouldn’t need a lot of it. I sat next to a sweet older man on the bus who was a marathon veteran and Boston local, and although I thought I’d spend the bus ride visualizing the race…we chatted nearly the whole time.
Athlete’s Village was a-buzz with the usual hoopla of porta-potties, coffee, old mylar blankets, and sunscreen. I situated myself in the shade, drank half a cup of the free coffee, and tried to relax while nibbling a bagel and drinking a big water bottle. I was really pleased with my pre-race hydration, as I’d paid adamant attention to it for the 3-4 days beforehand. I knew the temperatures would be warm, so I wanted to give myself as much of an advantage over hydration as I could on the front-end.
Sitting in Athlete’s Village though…it was hot. I tried hard to focus on what was controllable: I needed to start drinking earlier than normal, I needed to grab ice if I saw it offered, and I needed to douse myself with water whenever possible. Focusing on these things kept me from worrying about the heat, but looking back…I wish I would have allowed myself a little more concern.
Once they called our wave, everything happened really fast. There’s a moderately long walk to the start line from Athlete’s Village, and as we walked along I focused on taking deep yoga-style breaths and narrowing my vision: it was game time. One last pee-stop, a few more swigs of water, and I made my way into my start corral. I did notice, right as we were getting ready to start, that my throat was dry, and I resolved to grab water at every possible opportunity.
The gun went off, and we were running Boston! I was running Boston! AGAIN! This time with so much more working in my favor and with a goal that two years ago would have been a pipe dream.
I vowed to not start fast. Boston loses a lot of elevation in the beginning, and I’ve run enough marathons to know that the easiest way to kill a race is to try and bank time early on. I kept an eye on my watch for this reason, and since I planned out my paces pretty specifically, I just needed to stay under control.
Mile 1: 7:55
Mile 2: 7:50
Right on pace. I wanted these first few miles to stay above 7:50s, and 1 and 2 felt veryyyy easy. I felt light and sharp…and happy! I’d forgotten just how great the crowds are at Boston right out of the gate, and I smiled and soaked in all the great energy. It was hot though, and everyone was feeling it. We were ALL grabbing water right away, and I remember thinking the volunteers had their work cut out for them that day. I would grab two waters, drink as much as I could out of one, and dump the other one on my shoulders and head. My shirt was already soaked just a few miles in, and I knew I could expect some bad chaffing by the end, but it didn’t really matter since it was helping.
Mile 3: 7:45
Mile 4: 7:48
Mile 5: 7:45
I was really happy with the consistency throughout this section, especially considering I still felt like I was holding back. I continued to take liquids (both Gatorade and water) and tried to stay relaxed. In the early miles of marathons, I’ve adopted the mantra, “Stay boring.” Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t think about the what ifs, and don’t get cocky. I was starting to get hints of side cramps though, which was a little unnerving. I knew it had to do with the extra liquid I was taking, and I tried to just focus on altering my breathing to fend them off. I also grabbed a big cup of ice somewhere in this section and put half of it in my sports bra and the other half in my hat. Heaven! I could feel a huge cooling effect from this, and I knew to keep my eyes peeled for more ice along the way.
Mile 6: 7:34
Mile 7: 7:43
Mile 8: 7:43
Mile 6 was a checkpoint of sorts for me, as I knew the course would flatten out a bit through the next 10 miles. This was the section of the race that I planned to drill down to my marathon goal pace, around 7:45s. I knew I’d be seeing my cheer crew around mile 6 as well, so my head was on a swivel for a lot of this section. I got a big boost when I spotted my people with their “Run Birdie Run!” sign in hand, and I felt strong and in control.
Mile 9: 7:40
Mile 10: 7:36
Mile 11: 7:44
I continued to fend off the faint onset of side cramps, which seemed to pop up when I was on a downhill. But, I knew I needed to keep up with hydration, so it was a delicate balance between getting in water/Gatorade and keeping my stomach happy. I was slightly concerned that I didn’t have to pee considering how much I’d been drinking, but again…”Stay boring, don’t freak out.”
I remembered that around mile 10 last time I ran Boston, my quads already felt pretty tired, so when I cruised through the 10-mile mark and still felt peppy, I was highly encouraged. I really counted on my year-ish of consistent trail running to help me through the hills of Boston, and it was proving successful so far at this point. My next “check point” was mile 13, Wellesley, where I wanted to high five as many of the screaming girls as I could. What’s amazing about the Wellesley scream tunnel is that you can hear it thundering from at least a half mile away. The sound hits you smack in the face when you finally run by all of them, and it’s pretty fantastic. I gave a ton of high fives and smiled and laughed at all their signs.
Mile 12: 7:32
Mile 13: 7:32
Mile 14: 7:33
I was moving well at this point; I felt like I was working, but not too hard, which is exactly how it should feel. I continued to take water as often as I could and dumped cups on my head and shoulders. I didn’t love the extra effort this was taking, but I knew it was necessary to ward off the heat. When I drop into 7:30s on standard long runs, I get a little nervous about maintaining the pace, but I felt great. If I were to define the point of the race where I felt the most like I was in the marathon-pace zone, it was miles 10-16.
I knew the hills would start during mile 16, but I was more focused on my next checkpoint – the November Project cheering section at mile 18. Focusing a little further out helped ease me into the hills a bit, and this was the part of the race I wanted to focus on effort rather than my watch. After each uphill, I tried to relax and recover on the following downhill, so on and so on. The wind had picked up a bit too, and while I’m the first person to complain about a headwind, it felt SO good to get a breeze. I continued to drink a good amount of water, but I stopped dousing myself as often since the wind seemed to be cooling. Hindsight, probably not the best decision.
Mile 15: 7:37
Mile 16: 7:19
Mile 17: 7:53
I was scanning for the November Project crew for a while. Along the way, I was amazed (once again) by the hoards of people that were out to cheer. It was unreal! I definitely think there were more people out than the first year I ran, and surely the sunny weather was pleasant for viewing.
I heard the shouting pick up, and there they were! Tribe members from Boston a-plenty, but also NP representation from all over. It was amazing! I gave a ton of high fives and smiled so wide throughout this section.
Seeing everyone gave me a definite boost, but I was also starting to feel a bit fatigued and nervous for the climbs to come. Truly, Heartbreak isn’t that bad, but the back-to-back hills on top of a lot of miles already run has a compounding effect that makes the otherwise minor climbs pretty difficult. However, focusing on effort rather than my watch helped a lot, as did watching other people start to walk while I kept pressing on.
Mile 18: 8:03
Mile 19: 7:38
Mile: 20: 7:55
Mile 21: 8:27 <- Hellloooo Heartbreak!
My pace was kind of all over the place throughout this section, which was very planned but also throwing me off a little bit. While I knew generally what sort of min/mile would yield different finish times, I’d entered the point in the race where mental math was way too difficult.
I felt wiped by the hills, but ready to cruise down into Boston. I kept trying to remind myself to relax: my arms, my jaw, my hands…anything that could help save a little energy. I think I took a final Shot Block between miles 22 and 23 (I’d been eating these the whole time), but I don’t really remember. I know I was still taking water, mostly out of habit at this point, but I’d completely stopped cooling myself off and just zoned in on one foot after the other.
Mile 22: 7:32
Mile 23: 7:50
Now, the course profile appears to be all downhill between Heartbreak and the finish line, but there are actually a few rollers that are unrelenting during this section. I was hurting, but still in control. My left hamstring specifically was ridiculously tight, so I kept interspersing some faster strides to shake it out a bit. It helped for sure but only for a short period. I considered pulling over to stretch it, but I was too scared of stopping and having to start again. I’ve run this distance enough to know that starting to walk or pulling over to stretch can be a little bit of a death sentence. Not to mention I knew walking wouldn’t feel much better than running at this point, so on I went.
Mile 24: 7:50
Mile 25: 7:50
Admittedly I’m impressed with my consistency through miles 23-25. Everything felt so far away during these miles. I spotted the Citgo sign during mile 24, and it took for-ev-er to finally get to it. Once I passed Citgo, and knew there was 1 mile to go, I started talking to myself a little bit.
Keep it together.
Again, everything was in slow motion. It was less of hitting a wall and more of my vision narrowing. It was a finale I’d imagined over and over and over again throughout the past months of training, but all I could focus on was simply moving forward.
We finally, finally, turned right on Hereford, and things started to feel a little dream-like, and unfortunately, it wasn’t in a good way. When I pictured turning left on Boylston during my training, it was a triumphant highway to the finish; the final stretch of all the miles I’d run to finally get to this point. Looking back on it, I don’t really remember turning left on Boylston.
I remember some photographers and a lot of noise. I remember raising my head to look toward the finish line, desperate to kindle some kind of magic feeling, but all I could think of how vast and far away it looked.
Mile 26: 8:18
I kept my head down, I was too overwhelmed by how far away the finish looked. I was moving, but I don’t really recall feeling my legs. I knew I was so close to being done, and the only thing I could think about was getting over the finish line and being done.
I could see the finishing mats. I could hear the crowds roating. I remember looking down and seeing the three painted blue lines in the middle of the road. Just follow the three lines.
I was moving in the slowest motion of the entire day, and in the blink of any eye, everything sped up.
I mis-stepped. It might have been a trip, it might have been my brain surrendering, it was probably both. My feet stumbled and I fell straight to the ground, as if my body were craving the pavement if it meant being done running. No, no, no. I remember my chin hitting the ground, and I remembering hearing the resounding reaction from the crowd when they saw me go down. I remember feeling so irrationally angry in that moment. Fuck, not again. I remember refusing to stay down without a fight.
I hoisted myself up on legs that had already given up, immediately to be helped by police officers that were guarding the barriers. Everything that happened next is fuzzy. I was helped to the finish line, I put my feet down to finish my race on my own, and immediately I was put in a wheel chair and taken by people in bright pink jackets into the medical tent.
I proceeded to spend two hours in the medical tent, being treated for severe overheating. A lot happened in there, most of which I remember, but a lot of which I’d care not to remember. I threw up twice immediately when we got in there, I was put in an ice bath to lower my 106 degree temperature (yep), I experienced my first time being in shock and my first panic attack, and I spent a brief period of time thinking that my running career was over. I was so scared of my family being mad at me, of Adam being mad at me. Of course in hindsight this was irrational, but long time readers know that this is the second time this has happened to me. I was so upset that I had given all of them another reason to be scared about what would happen to me, and all the while I was completely swept away by the turn of events that had happened so fast.
I was having the race of my life. I felt strong and in control and happy and determined. Within a matter of minutes, that control and joy fell from my grasp, and I let my pride lead to this place…again. Why?
You were running the Boston Marathon. You were doing everything you planned on. You were having the day you dreamed of.
You’re staring at the ceiling of the medical tent. You have strangers asking you questions that are hard to answer but they shouldn’t be. You have never felt this terrible.
You’re done. You can’t do this anymore. This isn’t what it’s supposed to be like. It’s time to find something else. You can’t be a runner anymore.
There’s a pit in my stomach remembering those thoughts, but for the sake of honesty, that’s where my head was at while I was being treated after the race. Medical volunteers kept telling me how well I’d run and asking me about the race, and all I could say was that I didn’t want to talk about it. I thought about Adam and Anna who had been there for me that day and who were waiting for me and how ashamed I was to have let them down. I wondered where they were and if anyone had been in touch with them.
The worst of everything, speaking physically and mentally, happened during the ice bath and the 20 minutes after they took me out. I went from being dangerously hot to dangerously cold, and my body felt utterly and completely depleted. I couldn’t move at all (numbness) which really, really scared me. The entire time, there were 5+ people tending to me and talking to me and trying to keep me composed, and I can clearly remember when one of the MDs on site looked me in the eye and said, “You’re at Boston, you have the very best volunteers in the world, you’re going to be okay.”
Once they started wrapping my in blankets and got me out of my wet clothes, I started to feel immensely better. My color returned (or so I’m told), I became much more lucid and calm, and I was finally able to call Adam. They gave me chicken broth, which to this day may have been the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. One of the volunteers went and got my medal for me, and another one literally gave me the sweatshirt off her back so I wouldn’t have to put my wet tank top back on. To say that this team was exceptional would be an understatement; I am in complete and total awe of the care and expertise I experienced for those two hours following the race.
To make an already long story a little shorter, I left the medical tent and was able to finally walk through the finish line area. I was wrapped in thermal blankets, walking so gingerly on my sore legs and blistered feet, and generally I was a-gasp at everything that had just happened. I met up with Adam (who at this point had been in contact with both me and the medical volunteers) and we headed immediately to Tufts Medical Center to get stitches in my chin where I’d fallen. That was another impressive medical-team experience, and eventually, after what felt like the longest day I’d ever lived, we made our way back to our lodgings and salvaged what was left of my “celebration.”
You probably guessed this, but I didn’t feel celebratory. I felt like a fool, to be quite honest. I knew better than that. I’m an experienced marathoner who has had made race mistakes before that I vowed to never make again. I couldn’t figure out where or what went wrong. I felt completely in control of my race until mile 26, and seemingly out of the blue all that control and training and success was gone.
I had 35 text messages after the race from wonderful friends and family who had been tracking me, along with a ton of emails and facebook messages. I felt like a fraud though; no one had seen what really happened. Officially, I had finished the race. But in a lot of ways, I didn’t feel like I had. I had pictured my return to Boston ever since the last time I was there two years ago, and the stronger I got and the better my training became, the brighter that picture became. I didn’t feel bright and shiny after the race, and I really only started to feel some pride after some heart-to-hearts with my family and friends.
So why can’t I help but be hard on myself? I ran a 3:25 marathon, precisely what I said I wanted to do 5 months ago. I ran consistently, smartly, and very aware. I thought I was considerate of the conditions, but clearly not enough precautions were taken.
Initially, the thing I was most upset about was knowing that I knew better. Considering a similar thing has happened before when I was a much less experienced runner, I was certain I knew my body and my capacities much better. I’ve played the “what if” and “if this” game so many times in my head. And truly, there are probably 100 different tiny tweaks I could have made that would have led to a different outcome. But the thing I’ve finally allowed myself to accept is that my mental game is both my greatest strength and greatest liability as a runner. It’s easy in hindsight to imagine myself walking at a few more water stations or slowing down a bit when it was feeling so hot, but in the moment, with a big goal pounding in my brain, settling for anything less than my best wasn’t even an option.
Truthfully, and I’m saying this in the least-boastful way possible, I actually think my exceptional (for me) fitness going into this race worked against me a bit. Not only was I unable to recognize what was too much to handle, but mentally…I knew I was running what I was capable of. The problem was, however, that just because I was in shape enough to run the way I was didn’t mean I was impervious to the rough conditions. I literally had the thought in my head before the race, “I’m in shape enough that the weather won’t really matter,” which in some ways is bold, but in a lot of ways…this mentality was my kryptonite.
There are several lessons to take away, namely how to readjust goals according to conditions. I’m not the kind of runner that likes to let months of training be dictated by small things like weather, course difficulty, and race start times, but, much like life, uncontrollables are inevitable. And, much like life, we need to prepare to navigate the uncontrollables just as much as we prepare for the things we can control. After some time of reflection and recouping, I know this experience will make me a smarter runner and more seasoned racer, even if it did take some pouting and tears to get to that place.
When all is said and done, though, I am proud of myself. I wasn’t, initially, but as a coworker of mine (and fellow distance runner) put it: point blank, I showed up on the biggest stage in running and ran the time I hoped to run. Like I said in the beginning, a 3:25 at Boston was a pipe dream just two years ago, and I’m thrilled with the training and running I’ve been able to do in the months ahead of this.
I have utmost respect for the marathon, and while I may have sworn them off immediately following this race – I have an unwavering, albeit volatile, relationship with this distance. I’ll be back at some point; it likely won’t be very soon, as there are other (dirt related) goals in my mind right now, but someday. If this race taught me nothing else, it reminded me that the joy is in the journey – not the ending. I put too much focus on the finish line of this race, when in fact every step that was taken before that finish line, and before the race even started, was the real accomplishment. It’s a lesson I believe transcends running, and it’s something I’m grateful that Boston helped to remind me.