10:19 a.m., April 15th. I was looking down compulsively at my Garmin. I had activated the satellite location finder a few minutes before and it had sprung into action faster than anticipated (it usually takes 5 minutes), so I was worried that it would shut off before I could initiate the timer as I crossed the start line.
Lined up in corral 7 of the 2nd wave, my Garmin was my most pressing concern. At that moment, the Boston Marathon was still just the Holy Grail of races for marathon runners, an impressive race for some non-runners in the know, and for most people in the world, an event with little to no importance. In fact, I imagine that very few people outside of Boston or the running community had any idea at all that some 24,000 runners were nervously lined up in a small Massachusetts town called Hopkinton, waiting to embark on possibly the most coveted 26.2 mile journey in all of road racing.
I wish that was still the case. But, we all know what happens next.
I’ve seriously contemplated whether or not I should write a race recap. After a lot of encouragement, I decided that while these people hijacked our lives and thrusted us into the era of successful “soft target” terrorism in America at 2:50 pm, I won’t let them have a second more.
So, let’s talk about the Boston Marathon as it was at 10:19 a.m. A simple yet momentous road race that signified determination and achievement to runners across the world.
Aaron and I flew into Albany on Thursday and explored three different states (and two counties) with stops in Saratoga Springs, Burlington, Hanover, and Montreal before making our way to Boston on Sunday.
We checked into our Cambridge Hotel, and took the “T” (Boston’s public rail transportation system of which I am personally not a fan) across the Charles River and over to the Copely Square station for the Expo. The historic town of Boston slowly came into view as we emerged from the underground, and we were greeted with a sea of blue and yellow jackets…2013 jackets…walking in all directions. Apparently, in Boston, wearing the current year garb before the race is more than acceptable. It is expected. It was here that I got my first glimpse of the famed, brightly painted finish line from the other side of the barriers.
The expo was held at Hynes Convention Center right on Boylston which is apparently a different location than it had been held in years past. The expo is a 3 day long endeavor, but it seemed as if most people decided to go right when we went…at 1:30 on Sunday. The bib distribution was held in a hallway and the process was pretty painless, but I was sad that they were out of my t-shirt size. TIP: Don’t wait until the last minute to go to the expo.
When we entered the main expo and I was immediately overwhelmed by the hoards of runners crowding the narrow aisles, snatching up free samples and Boston themed merchandise (EVERY company has special Boston themed merchandise). Luckily, the Adidas store was the first exhibit, so I was able to locate the Unicorn Jackets and buy myself one. They were well stocked, and none of the sizes appeared to be in danger of selling out.
In a moment of non-run nerdery, I didn’t look up when any of the elite runners would be appearing (I only obsess over Kara Goucher every day, yet apparently I have no desire to actually see her), but we did come across Katherine Swisher, known as the first woman to (illegally) run the Boston Marathon. As can be expected, she had a ridiculous line of fans waiting for her autograph, so I snapped this stalker type photo and moved on.
We exited the expo, and hopped back on the “T” to get to Cambridge. We took the “T” twice during our time in Boston and both times it took far longer than it should have to get where we were going.
Because of all the driving we’d been doing (from Vermont to Montreal the day before, and from Vermont to Massachusetts that morning), I wanted to do a shake out run (I do this before every race). Our hotel was right on the Charles River in Cambridge, so we ran a lovely two miles with great views of the city. All of my body parts felt ok, and overall it was a run that at the very least, reassured me of my ability to run 2 of the 26.2 miles required of me the next day.
We headed back to the hotel, showered at the speed of light, and met Jon, Ellie, Adrienne, Mike, and Susan downstairs for drinks. If Jon wasn’t my first ever blog friend, he was pretty close, so it was one of those situations where you kind of forget that this is your first meeting. They all ran the B.A.A. 5-K that morning, and I think just about everyone PR’d! We had a wonderful time talking about Boston (I complained a lot about the “T” to my captive audience), and I hope to meet up with everyone again should we make it back next year!
After drinks, Aaron and I headed across the River to Boston’s North End which is exactly like San Francisco’s North Beach…an entire neighborhood made up of small, family-owned Italian restaurants, aka, carb-load heaven. I had made reservations about a month in advance at Panza on the recommend of Hyedi. The place was small and packed, and about 10 parties walked in with 7:00 reservations which they obviously couldn’t accommodate, prompting some of the locals to get quite heated. I love the people of Boston, but they can be quite… high strung? We actually had to share a table with a couple from Sacramento (he qualified at CIM). It was nice to sit next to our fellow Westerners who were refreshingly laid back.
I ate the linguine carbonara with sangiovese (I don’t think that is a recommended wine pairing, but whatever). The meal was perfect, and my glycogen felt sufficiently stored as we headed back to Cambridge to settle in for the evening.
Despite my 10:20 start time, the logistics of the morning required a typical 5:00 a.m. wake-up call. I’ve never participated in a race that started after 8 in the morning, so I had to plan nutrition, water, bathroom, and supplies accordingly. At the hotel I drank a glass of Nuun, but held off eating. I showered, got all of my stuff together, and headed out the door at 6:10. Aaron went with me into the city because the last thing the world needed was a nervous, sleepy runner trying to navigate the Boston public transportation system by herself. Plus, he was planning on walking the Freedom Trail while I ran.
I had made arrangements to meet Beth and her friend Sheliah, also from Albuquerque, in the bus line. She said to look for the tall blonde lady wearing a black baseball hat and throw-away clothes which easily described 30% of the population. When we emerged from the underground,we were met the with sight of thousands upon thousands of runners waiting for the bus (it took us over an hour to get through). In some sort of miracle, we were able to find Beth and Sheilah, and we hopped in line. Sheilah has run Boston multiple times, so she was a great resource.
At 7:30 I ate a Luna bar, and was mindfully sipping water throughout. Somewhere in there, we came upon a group of porta-potties. They were emitting a pretty rancid smell, so I was hesitant to use one, but Sheliah assured us that even after we got to Hopkinton (an hour drive), we’d still have a long wait, so using it now was a really smart choice. I heeded her advice, and it was absolutely the right decision. TIP: Use the porta-potties in the bus line.
By my estimation, school buses from the entire state were being used for marathon transportation. They would load about 10 at a time, those buses would drive off in unison, and 10 more buses would drive up. The whole thing was being run by MIT students, and it worked like clockwork. I sat next to a man from Utah. He had run Boston in 2008, and this time he’d brought his brother with him. They both qualified and they were going to run and cross the finish line together! I hope they were able to do it.
The drive was pleasant. I got to see some of the Boston suburbs and multiple crew teams training in the river. You could feel the excitement on the bus as we reached the town of Hopkinton and pulled up to our final destination, the Athlete’s Village. As a seasoned pro, Sheliah led us away from the herd and up toward the bag check (there was a lot of uphill walking) toward a second set of porta-potties with less people (still about a half hour wait). TIP: Bring toilet paper because there was none to be found. Luckily I noticed with enough time to make necessary adjustments, but I can imagine there were some uncomfortable situations.
In a moment of desperation, I decided to pop a couple of ibuprofen. My calf had been giving me issues for weeks, even driving me to see a specialist, and I had lost my most valuable training weeks trying to rest it. It hadn’t been bothering me during our last few shake out runs, but I didn’t want to get a few miles in and be in pain. This isn’t something that I think you’re supposed to do, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that marathon runners aren’t particularly rational when it comes to racing. And, of course, the pain relief starts fading right at about 3 hours when you need it the most.
I had opted to stop drinking water aside from small sips after 9:00. I ate a banana at about 9:20 (1 hour before start). We started organizing our stuff, peeling off the layers (it was comfortably warm at this point), reapplying sunscreen and body glide (apparently I did a good job…no chaffing!), and prepping to head to the start line. Gear drop off was fast and easy, and with little time to spare, we started on the LONG walk from the Athlete’s Village to the start line at about 10:00, and we had several Wave 1 runners (10:00 start time) frantically run past us. I’d heard that there was an epically long walk from the Athlete’s Village to the Start Line, and turns out this was not an exaggeration.
Much to my surprise, a whole colony of porta-potties was situated at the start corrals. These ones had toilet paper and the lines only 1-2 people long which was a miraculous sight! They also had what I can only describe as “out in the open” urinals…so that was awkward. TIP: Be prepared to see lots of peeing men.
I parted ways with Beth and Sheliah as we headed into our respective corrals. I got my Garmin set up, tried to focus my energy, and attempted to pump myself up (I forget what song was playing) as I heard the gun. AND WE WERE OFF! I remember smiling, completely satisfied, as I started running and waved cheesily at the start line video camera.
Every course guide tells you to start Boston slower than you want to because it starts at a steep downhill. For the most part, everyone started off slow, and kept that pace for the first half a mile. But then, half a mile in, we got our first taste of spectating, Boston Marathon style. And that resolve to keep a reasonable pace disappeared as every runner got caught up in the energy of the crowd.
The First Half
In my head, the first half of the race is a series of snapshots strung together. It seemed jam packed with new sights and a new town every few miles. Highlights include:
1) The huge “All in for… (insert town here)” signs as you exited each town. I liked being able to check each town off a mental checklist as I ran through the course. And each town takes great pride and pleasure in making sure you remember THEM as the best. I don’t remember why, but I have Framingham in mind as my favorite.
2) Having about 10 kids jumping on trampolines with inspirational signs, and one at the end, holding up a giant Sam Adams cut-out. Because what’s Boston without a Sam Adams cut-out?
3) The sheer number of people handing out wet towels/oranges/water/snacks/Popsicles, alcohol, Vaseline, etc. along the course. These people literally spent their money on supplies for the runners and their day off handing them out. While Chicago spectators were more entertaining, Boston spectators were far more functional.
4) How “amateur day” the whole thing felt. Considering this is the marathon of seasoned professionals, I saw many rookie mistakes, like people just coming to a complete stop in the middle of the course (I literally ran into two people who did this). I also saw more people stop to walk in the first few miles and along the entire course than I saw stop in the last 6.2 miles of Chicago. And men were peeing everywhere. If we ran by a slightly wooded area, guaranteed there were male runners peeing in it.
5) The fun college kids. We passed by several college campuses, and a lot of areas where students lived. You could easily identify them because the whole place started smelling like beer. They were loud and enthusiastic cheerleaders. I don’t remember any groups handing out beer specifically, but some girls were handing out jello shots, and cheered wildly when one runner slurped it down with experience in the earlier miles.
6) Noticing how different a race feels in the back. For Chicago, I was near the front and the course was relatively clean. In Boston, about 15,000 people had already gone through the water stations by the time I came through. It was like running through a sticky Gatorade river of yuckiness. I was sufficiently grossed out by the feeling of having Gatorade splash ups on the back of my legs. And the cups. They were everywhere. I had visions of slipping on a cup and breaking my leg.
7) People with homes along the course used the occasion to host big BBQ’s and parties in their front yards. Marathon Monday is truly a day of celebration, and I was impressed at the atmosphere for the entire race.
8) Running by the Hoyt’s. This is a father/son team who runs the marathon every year. The father pushes the son (who is in a wheelchair), and they are easily the most popular (and maybe even the most famous) runners on the course.
All through this, I was keeping a pretty good pace and I was on track for a 3:35 finish time. It didn’t feel as effortless as my last few races, but I didn’t feel like I was pushing it to the point of epic failure toward the end either, and I was having fun.
I will say this though. If I had never heard that this was a downhill course, I wouldn’t have described it as such. There was downhill and, especially at the beginning, it was severely steep downhill. But for the most part, the course was full of rolling hills. I had done plenty of downhill training and quad strengthening, but I hadn’t done really any rolling hill training (mostly because it is impossible with the Albuquerque landscape). TIP: Train for rolling hills.
Somewhere between miles 11 and 12, I started hearing a humming noise. As I ran on, the hum increased in volume. I started looking around at my fellow racers, and we all started smiling. So this is what thousands of screaming girls sound like from half a mile out! And sure enough, in a few minutes, we entered the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, a stretch of road in front of Wellesley College where, what appears to be the entire student population, lines up with their “kiss me I’m from (insert home town/state/country here)” signs. The energy was incredibly motivating! I actually ran my fastest mile of the race during the Scream Tunnel. If only every race could include one.
The Second Half
We hit the halfway point, and I was starting to get worried. I wasn’t feeling tired necessarily, but I felt a blister forming (my shoes were soaked from the aid stations) and my feet were staring to ache. As we passed the half marathon timing mat, I heard a man say, “Oh, you all know the second half of this race is the easier part, right?” We all laughed because we knew the worst was about to come.
I don’t recall how we entered Newton exactly. I remember that most of the towns had beautiful signs announcing your entrance, so I’m guessing Newton was similar. However it happened, I remember getting butterflies in my stomach. Despite the fact that the entire course had been littered with hills, I knew these were different. All of the hill repeats and elevation gain during long runs would come down to the next 4 miles.
The Newton Hills are a series of four. The first one is long. The next two are steep. But it’s the last one that gets you. This one has been infamously named Heartbreak Hill because, not only it is both long and steep (though to a lesser degree than the other ones), but by the time you get there, you are 21 miles into your marathon and not in the mood to deal with any shenanigans.
The first hill felt long, but I managed to keep up my pace. Just when I was feeling good again after the downhill, I spotted the sea of runners winding their way up the next hill. This hill was steeper, but it was shorter, and the downhill portion felt like a wave of relief. But the relief was temporary as the next hill came into view. I was starting to run out of steam, and my fellow comrades were losing it even more. As much as I was slowing down, I was the person passing people. In fact, several people started to walk.
My mind starting getting fuzzy. I had studied the course, but I suddenly couldn’t remember how many hills there were. Three? Was that Heartbreak? Four? Or were there five? I didn’t think I could take much more of this. I approached the base of the next hill, and started wishing with all my might that this was Heartbreak because I was done with these hills. This was my slowest mile. I remember looking down at my Garmin and seeing my slower pace, and not even caring. I didn’t have the will to push forward with any sense of urgency.
I reached the top and I was looking for the giant inflatable Boston College arch that let me know that Heartbreak was over. I didn’t see it. I immediately panicked, wondering if that wasn’t it. The prospect of the largest hill looming ahead was frustrating. But then, probably half a mile after that last hill, I spotted the arch. I had survived! Like most people say, Heartbreak Hill wasn’t all that bad. But my legs had been fighting hills all race and I didn’t train well enough to not have it affect my pace, so it was a little bit heartbreaking for me.
Someone yelled, it’s all downhill from here! And I had a sudden resurgence of energy.
But that person lied.
The hills just kept going. They weren’t big ones, but after Newton, I hadn’t really counted on having to use more energy on more hills. The last four miles felt really long. I remember deciding (again) that marathons were stupid and I was especially stupid for running them. I was incredibly envious of the drunk Boston College kids and how unmiserable they looked.
I also knew that Aaron would be somewhere around here. I started looking back and forth, but we were now in Boston, and the streets were packed with spectators. It turns out that looking back and forth for someone requires a lot of energy and focus. More energy and focus than I wanted to use. My calf was hurting, my IT band was hurting, my blister was hurting, and my feet were screaming in agony. I could tell that the ibuprofen was wearing off.
At mile 24, I gave up looking for Aaron and instead switched to focusing on the finish. (Meanwhile, Aaron was at the 40K mat, chatting with none other than Bart Yasso. He didn’t see me pass by, and started back toward the finish area when he got the notification that I had passed the 40K mark). I was tired, and I really didn’t feel like running another 2.2 miles. I had to dig deep and focus on my mantras and remember the wounded warriors from Bataan and how any pain I was going through was insignificant. Except in my head it sounded more like “THIS ISN’T PAIN,” and I knew what I meant.
I remember seeing the Citco sign, another noted Marathon landmark, and knowing that I was supposed to be excited, but not remembering if that meant I only had 3 miles or if I only had 1 mile, and that you could see it from deceptively far away, so I might still have 4. My brain was done with the thinking.
Luckily, somewhere right around here, someone was blasting Don’t Stop Believing, which is my jam for life. I owe much of my ability to finish to that person!
The course took a sharp turn to the right. I looked down at my Garmin, and realized that, with only about half a mile left, I had officially taken THE right on Hereford. Hereford was short, and I could see the next turn (the big one) directly in front of me. In my head, I was screaming something like “The left! The left!” The left turn onto Boylston. I remember my first sighting of the finish line and being so happy that I was so close to it. And I also remember thinking that there was STILL so far to go (I think almost half a mile).
I passed the 26 mile sign, and looked down at my Garmin. I was at something like 3:38, and I was sad that my 3:35 had gone so far out the window during Newton, but if I hurried, I could get there in under 3:40. So, I pushed as hard as I could. I remember reaching the famously painted finish line, looking down in excitement, and realizing that the mats weren’t there, but several feet ahead.
I crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 39 minutes, and 52 seconds. 6 minutes slower than my Chicago time, 5 minutes slower than a Boston qualifying time, and about 5 minutes faster than what I was expecting. I was elated, but I also felt slightly dizzy and weak. I started noticing runners collapsing all around me. There were so many people, and I was starting to hyperventilate a little bit with claustrophobia.
I heard someone call out my name, and I looked over and was surprised to see my childhood neighbor Brandon (he guest posted here last summer!). He works for ESPN and lives on the East Coast now and had gone to watch a couple of other friends run. We said a quick hello, but I knew I needed to keep moving. The finisher’s chute had all of the necessities for tired runners. First space blankets, then water, then Gatorade then little snack packs with some amazing dinner rolls, and at the end, the medals. I’m not sure if there was one of those backdrop photo stations. If there was, I didn’t see it, but a photographer was standing there snapping as many people as he could. So, my finish line photo was kind of gross with my space blanket.
Gear check was at the end of the chute, and after a few minutes of waiting, a volunteer handed me my bag and I made my way back the opposite direction (walking against the crowd was pretty hard), and to the next street over from Boylston toward the family reunion area. I called Aaron and he said he was waiting for me at the “L” sign (they had signs with all the letters of the alphabet). The letters were lined up on both sides of the street, and it turns out that “L” was pretty much the farthest back down toward the finish line, which felt pretty annoying at the time since essentially I walked the distance of the finisher’s chute twice. The annoyance turned to excitement as I spotted Aaron and he handed me a rose and let me know that I had a giant ClifShot goober on my face. Lovely. I had talked to my neighbor, taken my finish line photo, and talked to a bunch of other runners and volunteers with a giant poo brown goober. TIP: Use those wet towels handed out along the course to wipe your face.
I wanted to rest for a bit and munch on some items in my snack pack, so we walked down the street until we found an empty spot on the curb. Aaron took my victory picture and texted my mom before coming to sit down next to me. She replied back at 2:48 saying that I looked quite burrito-esqe, wrapped in my space blanket which was a pretty accurate statement. We were still laughing about my resemblance to a burrito when the first explosion went off.
Once we got back to the hotel maybe an hour or so later (I had no concept of time), we sat downstairs in the bar watching the news. I forced half a cheeseburger down, really the first thing I’d eaten since the Luna Bar at 7:30, and ate a wedge salad much later at about 11:00 p.m., definitely not the post-race fuel I’d normally go for, but I wasn’t hungry.
I actually recovered much faster than I did after Chicago which I attribute to the 2 mile walk to Cambridge after the marathon.
Even though I truthfully enjoyed almost everything about Chicago more, Boston is still a world-class race. With so many potential logistical nightmares like busing 24,000 people 26 miles out of town before 10:00 am and setting up a course that runs through multiple municipalities, the execution ran like clockwork. And the spectators had so much heart. They did an amazing job of taking care of the runners, and I really think they, along with the dedicated volunteers are what makes this race so great.
From the social media interaction over the last 4 months, the “Unicorn Television” YouTube videos, the walking down the street and seeing a sea of blue and yellow jackets, and running from one historic town to the next, you aren’t going to run a marathon that will make you feel more special and more appreciated as a runner. And while I was a bit worried about potential Boston run snobs, the general attitude from the runners was one of support and joy. I had a wonderful experience (even during the miles when I wanted to punch the man who ran the first marathon…those are the miles that show you what you are made of).
I do want to make it clear that in no way do I feel cheated, and in no way do I feel like my experience or my achievement were taken away from me. I got to finish (an estimated 5700 runners were stopped before crossing the finish line), I got to get a medal placed around my sweaty, goober-covered face, and I even got to celebrate with Aaron before the marathon became a national headline for all the wrong reasons. I fully intend to run this race again, because in the end, there is nothing quite like crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Finish time: 3:39:52 (8:24 average pace)
Fuel: Luna Bar and banana pre-race, ClifShot (with caffiene) at miles 7, 14, and 21
Hydration: One glass of Nuun and one water bottle pre-race, alternating between water and Gatorade at every aid station (located almost every mile)
Gear: Brooks Adrenaline shoes, ProCompression socks, Lululemon Pacesetter skirt, Lululemon cool racerback, Nike Visor, LOTS of sunscreen and Body Glide
Favorite Moment: The Wellesley Scream Tunnel
Least Favorite Moment: running through aid stations and getting splashed with stickiness
Biggest Piece of Advice: Thank EVERY spectator and volunteer that you can