"The marathon can humble you." - Bill Rodgers, winner of four Boston Marathons
It only took one trip to Boston before I shared Rodgers' view. After last year, without question I was humbled by the Boston Marathon. It beat me physically and mentally. It would take somewhere around six months before I was ready to jump back on the horse and get after it.
As a way of life, the rewards of running far out distance the drawbacks. However, there are two unforgiving obstacles that often times trip us up. By far the most common issue is running related injuries that serve as painful reminders to those always pushing the envelop- we aren't immortal. A hard pill to swallow, but those that love the sport accept the setback and return in hot pursuit.
Equally frustrating are the emotions that come with running a bad race. For those runners that take preparation serious and seasoned competitors these episodes are less common, but when they do occur- they leave a solid mark on one's ego. The good ones learn from it.
Last year, as I boarded a bus out to Hopkinton with a big smile on my face. I was naive to what lied ahead. A little over 3 hours and 19 minutes later, I found myself crossing the finish line of the 2017 Boston Marathon utterly defeated.
Heed this warning- the Boston Marathon course is brutal on the best weather days. A quick glance at the course profile, leads us to believe it's not all that complex- a gradual downhill start for the first 6-7 miles followed by a series of short hills in Newton before again enjoying a downhill finish into Boston. I learned that the course combined with the uncertainty of the weather is what makes Boston stand apart from other marathons and other Major marathons. Don't worry the crowd, the energy, and the history of the race all work in our favor to provide some balance in this universe.
It took a long time after the '17 race to commit to marathon training- especially charting a course to return to Boston in 2018. Hopefully what I learned from racing a sub par performance in '17 and how I adapted my training will save the next Boston rookie from repeating these same mistakes.
A Steep Learning Curve:
If the marathon is anything, it is a complex beast. To run one anywhere near your potential, you are forced to navigate an inexhaustible list of variables that can derail your race both leading up to the event and at any point during the race. Based on my limited experience, marathoners must pay close attention to six areas. In no particular order:
long run distances or duration
hydration and nutrition needs
nailing pace goals
adequate training rest/recovery
As I mentioned Boston has a few additional variables as the weather is unpredictable and the downhill start requires dedicated training to build strength in your legs- necessary to run well on the later parts of the course.
If we (Aysha and I) were forced to identify one aspect that we overlooked leading into the '17 race, it was easily not training on long downhills to help develop the strength necessary to carry you across the final 6 miles of Boston. We agreed that we wouldn't find ourselves in the same position this year.
To prepare for the '18 Boston Marathon, we incorporated four basic elements. First, we ran considerably more volume or mileage leading up to the race. Previously, our approach combined a balance of running and cycling. This concept was a product of my triathlon training and worked well to stay relatively injury free in previous marathons- but, it wasn't very practical for a tough course like Boston.
The second element of our '18 training was running a lot more hills- both up and down. It is a bit challenging to find long hills around Annapolis, so our best option was a 1/2 mile segment that was very similar to the gradients found on the course (3.8% gradient).
Along with hitting higher mileage goals, we wanted to compliment our training with more long runs of 20+ miles. We were able to nail five or six of these efforts leading up to Boston. Many were negative split tempo runs. It served as a way to simulate the final half or 5-6 miles depending on the day. I still feel running a 9-day cycle for long runs vs one every 7 days is key for the aging distance runner, but it didn't always work out for us. Life, work, and weather all played a part in ensure we remained flexible throughout the cycle.
And, my final piece of advice is to consider the climate and weather when you are training. I'm comfortable saying we both despise cold and windy running conditions, but we discovered that is the hallmark of a Mid-Atlantic winter in Annapolis. Although we slid workouts from time to time or fled south on the weekends to SC and NC, we stayed committed to running in all conditions. Unlike last year, the weather never warmed up leading into Boston. Across the course of the last month, we patiently waited for warm weather. It never came and most days greeted us with 20 mph winds and sub 40 temps.
It is important to note, we didn't just double down and increase the workload in all these three areas (distance, long runs, pounding downhills) without giving up some other elements of our training. The last 10 weeks of our training cycle only had minimal high intensity sessions and most of those were part of a long run or tempo. At my age, high intensity workouts present the most risk for injury and the extra stress we applied to our body from hard downhill running was a good trade off. Additionally, we raced a little less this cycle and used two 1/2 marathon races at 8 and 3 weeks out from Boston to tune-up.
As you can see from the training graph, we approached our build-up with small mini cycles that include 3-4 weeks of increased volume followed by a week of less volume. The goal was three weeks of increased intensity with one week of recovery. Of course that was the plan and some small injuries and life made the application less than perfect.
Our high mileage weeks was targeted between six to two weeks out from our race. The general goal was to push up in the high 70-80 mile range for a three week period. And, start a gradual taper into Boston vs the huge reduction of miles we did in '17. Also during this period we incorporate a day off each week (mainly due to weather) and traveled to Cary, NC for the Tobacco Road 1/2 marathon as our last tune-up race. As you can see from the training log, it was a pretty consist period of running. The taper was a little more drastic as we wanted to stay in the 60 m range for our first week and drop to 50 for the final week, but it turned out to be mid 50s followed by 40ish- which worked well.
"Seriously- 28 mph headwinds?"
On Saturday, we took a easy early morning flight from BWI to Boston. Similar to last year, we were able to check into our hotel and make it to the start of the 5K race. The weather was perfect with no wind and temperatures in the high 50s. The forecast predicted that the storm currently slamming the midwest would head our way and by race day it would only be in the lower 40s with a 28 mph sustained headwind. Rain sucks, cold weather can be annoying, but sustained headwinds in the 20-30 mph for 26 miles is just hard to wrap your mind around.
The reality is those temperatures never reached 40 degrees- it remained around freezing the entire day. This is important distinction because running in the low 40s is not the same as running soaking wet in the 30s. The later can introduce hypothermia into the mix rather quick.
It became evident during our bus ride to Hopkinton as we noticed snow on the cars passing by that today was about to get real tough real quick. I wasn't alarmed until we de-boarded at the athlete village and even layered in sweats, it was freezing. As I jogged with Cameron from the athletes' village to our corrals, I started to consider changing my plan to focus on just finishing the race. I wasn't confident my body would react well the first few miles and wanted to avoid a DNF. I remained optimistic, but I was also acutely aware that all the training and preparation I had done leading up might go out the window in the first few miles in these conditions.
As I entered the front corral just behind the elite/professional runners, it was evident no one was prepared. I got out of my sweats with about 5 minutes left before the 10am start and the vast majority waited until the last minute. It was just a surreal scene as this group includes roughly a thousand runners with PRs in the 2:20-30s. As the race started, I realized my feet were numb and I focused mainly on planting my feet to ensure I didn't roll an ankle. The first mile was 5:59 with the next 10-15 miles around the same or a littler faster. While the conditions sucked beyond anything I have ever raced in, my body seemed to react well. I regained the feeling in my toes, but lost the feeling in my hands. I struggled to get my nutrition gels out of my back pocket. However, my legs felt great and I just focused on finding the next runner to block some wind as I moved up the field.
Around 5 miles I passed Ironman World Record Holder, Tim Don, who recently suffered a broken neck while out on a training ride in Kona. In the days leading up to the race, the NY Times did a great (read the story here) article on Don and it is an understatement to say I have a tremendous amount of respect for his sacrifice to return to a world class level. His stated goal before the race was to run a 2:50 at Boston- he finished in 2:49:50. It's really hard to feel sorry for yourself when the guy beside you has taken a much tougher path to get to the same place at that moment.
A few miles later, Michael Wardian passed by serving as a guide for a blind runner that was trying to run a 2:30. There were a ton of guys latched on to Wardian and they were going a little too fast for me to jump on. I maintained my pace but was again humbled by what those two were accomplishing tethered together by a small rope.
If you watched the pro race- it wasn't necessarily the cold weather that wreaked havoc on the field. There were wind gusts in the 40-50 mph range and the sustained winds held constant at 30 mph. On top of that, it seemed like every 3-4 miles it would go from a constant downpour to a blinding sideways tropical storm effect that wasn't doing much to improve morale.
Around 10 miles into the race, two runners from a quirky Bay Area Running Club, That's Fine Track Club, rolled by chatting like it was a Sunday recovery run. Although they were moving a little faster than I wanted to commit to this early in the race, I thought man this is my chance. Running side by side, chatting, delivering high fives to the crowd, borrowing elite hydration bottles that were of no use to the pro field today- I found myself enjoying what could have been a miserable day.
I could tell by our pace they were set on negative splitting this race which is normally unheard of in Boston. I held strong albeit not doing much of the work for the group that had grown to 4-5 runners. At the start of the hills around mile 17, I took a quick assessment and realized I was cold but otherwise felt great. I pushed the pace up the hills but had a hard time staying with the group on the downhills. Around mile 23 as we start the final 5K into Boston, I wasn't able to maintain pace. Later I would see their data and they dropped 5:40s across the final three miles- too rich for my blood.
I held strong until the end and kept the pace around 6 flat to PR in 2:38:11. That's correct- I returned to Boston to set a PR on a miserable weather day in Boston. I believe racing poorly in '17 played a big role in not giving in and running to the line in '18.
Hot showers, medical tents, & good food:
Immediately after the race things took a different turn. I did well to maintain composure during the race, but once you slow down it got extremely cold. After some challenges changing clothes in the single tent- I was off to the showers. A quick hot shower can change your demeanor.
I was enroute to catch Aysha after her finish when my phone rang (I may have been standing in line at a Starbucks). It was a doctor from the medical staff and he want to inform me Aysha was ok but they were going to keep her in the medical tent for observation. They asked me to come get her number and go retrieve her clothes from the bag drop area to allow her to change into something dry.
I knew she would be ok once she warmed up and off I went. After I retrieved the clothes, I passed them off to a volunteer as Boston blocks most of the side streets and doesn't allow family within the medical facilities. Once we are reconnected, I was assisting her on the long walk back to the hotel. And, she began to cry.... she never received her medal after crossing the finish line. They took her straight to the medical tent.
There are likely some unwritten rules to securing a Boston Marathon finisher medal. Up there on that list is not giving two medals to the same person- even if they have a convincing story. I was extremely lucky twice that day.
Order was restored when we were offered a free lunch by my new favorite place Dig Inn. We had grabbed food there the night before and were both craving it after the race- but didn't expect the kindness they offered. Seek them out and enjoy their food. https://www.diginn.com/
Feel free to reach me to talk racing anytime @ email@example.com
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