So here we were at last, standing amongst a big mass of runners in Hopkinton, Massachusetts waiting for the Boston marathon to get under way. It had been quite a weekend so far, meeting up with Internet friends from the Runners’ World Online forums. I should mention particularly the posters to the 3:20 marathon training thread, and Flo who comments frequently here. Ron, who posts as Ex Soccer Guy had thrown a party for us on Sunday afternoon. It was great fun to meet my online friends in the physical world. Thanks also to Stevi, who arranged the transportation.
The original plan was to run this race for fun without focussing too much on a particular goal. My training cycle had been an irregular one, helping a group of runners train for the Oakland marathon, then running that race as a pace leader. Latterly, I had been getting some good results in training sessions so had decided perhaps I should try for a PR. 3:15 seemed reasonable. In hindsight this was hubris. I should have aimed at 3:20.
The Boston course is something of a pacing enigma. There are no massive hills but enough small ones to punish over-aggressive pacing quite severely. The standard wisdom is to take it easy on the early downhills, leaving enough in the tank for the rolling terrain and the series of uphills in Hopkinton. A more mathematical approach suggests taking some advantage of those early downhills and running the first half about a minute faster than the second, a positive split. But going just slightly too fast in the first half will result in a dramatic fade. So here I was setting myself up for failure on a notorious crash-and-burn marathon course!
I got up to pace just in time to cross the start line, about six minutes after the elite men. B.K. of the 3:20 group was alongside and we ran together for most of the first mile. He moved ahead on a small ascent and I let him go. Easy does it. Those first two miles took 7:34 and 7:18, putting me fifteen seconds ahead of my pace band. Careful! Then I found the pace ‘groove’ which seemed sustainable. The problem was that I was now going a few seconds slower than the pace band schedule. I pushed a little bit, hoping to find a higher gear but by mile 6 I knew that 3:15 was not going to happen today. At the current rate of loss, the ‘B’ goal of 3:17 seemed to be in reach, but I seemed to be working a little too hard still.
The aid stations in this race are every mile, which is great because you don’t have to worry about missing one. This, plus the experience level of the runners means that things go quite smoothly with no collisions. I caught up with forumite F.B. and we spoke briefly, then he slowed to grab a drink. I did not see him again for a while. We were running through some very attractive little New England towns – Ashland, Framingham, Natink – with the trees in blosson and the populace leaning against barriers. They were applauding, holding up signs and calling encouragement. Some of the signs were funny.
“Getting up early to make this sign was hard work too!!”
“DRUNK” (with an arrow pointing down at the smiling woman holding it up).
F.B. caught me up again and we compared notes. he seemed to be more comfortable than me and moved on ahead.
At the halfway point the course passes Wellesley College. This is the famous “scream tunnel” where the students (all women) screech at the runners and lean over the barriers to get kissed. I ran close to the side with my hand out, slapping the outheld palms. Then came a cluster of hotties holding signs like “Kiss Me!”and “I Majored In Kissing!”. I took aim at “Kiss Me I’m Southern!” and gave my lips over to Wellesley tradition. Unfortunately I kicked the barrier leg while accelerating away, took two big steps, and hit the asphalt. I jumped straight up again with no harm done but suitably embarrassed. Cathi later observed “Oh, Didn’t I tell you about the spell?”
More cute scenenery, more spectators, more dropped seconds. I stopped worrying about the pace band and started worrying about the Newton hills. These are spread along the course from mile 16 to 21 and are not big, but if you are running a little short of gas they can do quite a bit of damage. I was indeed running a little short of gas. My watch became the bearer of bad tidings. On the middle hills I was dropping a quarter minute every mile compared to my pace band. Another runner asked “Excuse me, do you know if this is Heartbreak Hill?” “Don’t think so”. The hills are indeed hard to count off because of the smaller rollers. I just had to keep track of the mile markers, nowing that Heartbreak hill crests at about mile 21. Heartbreak was not the steepest, but did seem to go on for a while. This was my slowest mile at 8:37, a full 40 seconds off my 3:15 schedule. A slight bend in the road, then a cluster of spectators holding up printed signs: “This Is It!” The top.
Anything left for the downhills? Not a lot, but I did speed up. We passed into Brookline and the scenery became more urban. The spectators became more numerous and noisier. The famous Citgo sign came into view, and stayed in view for some considerable time. We went uphill (Ugh!) for an overpass, and the sound level started to go way up.
The people of Boston are mighty proud of their marathon. This had become apparent while riding the ‘T’ the evening before the race. Anyone wearing any marathon paraphernalia (I was still carrying my expo bag) would get double-takes and sometimes attract cries of “Yay runners!” from locals who plainly had been celebrating the three-day weekend with a few drinks. Now they were standing four deep behind the barriers and emitting a continuous banshee scream, cutting through my fog of exhaustion. My god, have they been doing this since the elites came though? I knuckled down to the task at hand, turning right, going up a slight rise for two blocks, then left onto Boylston Street. It was getting even louder and the finish line was in view. Nearly…there…
For me, the most uncomfortable part of marathoning is the final stop. The wheelchairs looked mighty tempting, but I shuffled past them knowing I would feel better in a few minutes. My time was 3:24:11. Not what I’d hoped for, but not the disaster I possibly deserved. An extraordinary experience all around, and one of these days I’ll return and do it right.