Thursday, April 22, 2010

What Can I Say? It's the Boston Marathon!

It's the Boston Marathon and there is nothing about it that isn't legendary. People who have run with me, listened to me get nostalgic, or even just asked me "why?" have heard me tell the story about a goals list I made in high school. I don't remember much of what was on it, but I do remember that I had just sort of fallen in love with long distance running, and because of that had listed "run the Boston Marathon" as one of my goals. Through college, the goal remained. In the immediate post-college years, it seemed like it was probably unlikely. Running had fallen by the wayside. But, since moving to Charlotte in April of 2008, the goal had become real again.

In the four months leading up to Boston, my third marathon since February of 2009, I logged 1072.2 miles on the roads and the mountains, and on the greenways. I lost a week to a calf injury, and nursed every other ache and pain known to man with a mixture of ice, salt, massages and simple TLC. I steered clear of fatty foods, and attempted to eat well-balanced meals three times a day. I didn't eat fast food once. I changed my nightly average bed time to 10:30pm, making sure to get at least seven hours each night. I did not miss one scheduled day of work.

When the alarm went off Monday morning at 5:30am -- a full four-and-a-half hours before race time -- I was as ready as I was going to get. ( There were some things I doubted coming down the final stretch of training, but I will expound on those later on.) The night before, I had pinned my bib number (1334) to my singlet, and laced my timing chip into my Mizuno Elixers. I had packed a bag containing everything I needed or might need prior to or after the race. Gu, Body Glide, extra shorts, extra shirts, bananas. I made a full breakfast of a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter, a banana and a half-cup of black coffee to satisfy a caffeine dependency. From there it was to Boston Commons to board the buses.

Driving up to the park on Tremont Street, I saw something I had only ever read about. There was a man walking toward the pick-up point. He was wearing the Boston Marathon jacket, carrying the race bag and smoking a cigarette. The smoking runner. He does exist. He was just one of many in the collage of faces found in the massive crowd waiting to hitch a ride to Hopkinton (No one tell Ryan Hall he spelled it wrong in his recap). Waiting for the yellow school buses to come, I met runners from Washington State, California and Argentina. As the buses pulled off, every volunteer lined the curb waving, giving a thumbs up or both. It was powerful.

The ride to Hopinkton seemed to take forever. I didn't want to be anti-social, but I craved focus and time to go into my own bubble. So, even though the bus was jam-packed with no seats to spare, I put my iPod on and escaped for an hour. By the time we got to the Athlete's Village, I had time to think about what was right with my training, what was wrong with my training and what was questionable with my training. But, I had come to the conclusion that this was Boston and despite any mistakes, I was going to be happy to be a part of the most prestigious marathon in the United States if not the world.

The Athletes' Village was a site to behold. Tent next to tent. Blanket next to blanket. Porta-potty next to porta-potty. Everyone there had to get back to Boston proper, and they only had one way to get there. I made the obligatory stop at the porta-potty, then the second obligatory stop 30 minutes later. In between, I sat on a blanket Lauren had donated to the cause, stretched and did some rubbing with my Tiger Tail. (Note: Next time, I will charge to rent out my Tiger Tail. It was a hit with a Canadian team behind me, and other runners who spotted me using it.)

45 minutes before the scheduled start, I stripped down to a hoodie and shorts and made my way toward the starting coral. It was a 7/10 of a mile walk. On the way, I dropped my bag off at the buses. Heading toward the starting line with Kevin Creedon, Dexter Pepperman and Colby Schwartz, it was incredible how many people jogged past us as we walked at an leisurely pace. I kept thinking, "you've got 26.2 miles to do that."

I had to show my bib to get into the first coral. The first few minutes I was in there, it was a small crowd. But it quickly grew. I was side-by-side with Aaron Linz, both us rocking the Charlotte Running Club singlet and the red sweatband. His goal was to go sub 2:44. Mine was to go sub-2:40. About five minutes after entering the coral, a buzz swept through alerting us that the elites were about to make their way out. Nothing gets a group full of running nerds riled up like the prospect of getting to rub elbows with Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi. I positioned myself right along the gate hoping to get a high-five and was lucky enough to get one from both top American runners as they made their way to the starting line. The only downside to this was, such a crowd had built that I was no longer able to escape to take one final pre-race pee in private. This is where my extensive research came into play. I had brought an empty Gatorade bottle with me for just this occasion. What I had forgotten was to put body glide in a very important place; my nipples. Fortunately, someone behind me had a jar of vasoline which he was kind enough to let me use.

A man sings the National Anthem. The gun goes off. The first mile was a mix of dodging traffic, repeatedly telling myself that I was really running the Boston Marathon and trying hard not to go too fast. Many veterans of this very race had told me that it's a real danger not only because the first 13 miles or so are mostly downhill, but also because of all the adrenaline, you don't realize your speed. I felt like I was doing a great job of staying in control until I hit the 5k in 18:01. I tried to high-five Tim Rhodes who was standing on the timing mat. Too fast. I asked the guys around me what their goal was and they told me 2:34, so I let them drop me. I noticed early on, that unless you were running with a training partner people weren't here to work together. Throughout the first half of the race, I looked for someone to run with, someone to have a conversation with, but no one seemed game. I decided I was doing this on my own.

10k -- 36:34. Well, I'm not very good at this self-pacing thing. Again, I knew it was fast and let the pack I was with drop me. I knew the longer this went on, the more danger I was in come the end of the race. Shortly after the 10k, I saw my parents, my sister and her fiance Brian (they got engaged shortly after the race). They were in Framingham, carrying hilarious signs and wearing a T-Shirt that said "Team Holder" bearing a photo of me before the Beer Mile last fall. I could see them as clear as day, and it was some motivation to pick off some more runners.

15k -- 55:16. I am feeling better than I felt during my 10 mile tempo last weekend, but still aware that this is a little faster than goal pace...and we're going uphill. We are going through Natick, which contrary to what I learned on Family Guy, is not home to an indestructable Twinkie Factory.

As you head toward the half-way point in Wellesley, signs warn you of the noise. They tell you its deafening and to cover your ears. Boston Marathon legend has it, you can hear the students of the all girl's school screaming from a mile away. I am here to tell you that is absolutely true. It is certainly the high point of the course. It was like running through a football stadium, packed to the gills with nothing but screaming young women. Many of them holding signs, begging for a kiss. I only gave them high-fives. 1) because I have a girlfriend and 2) because I was on a mission. But, I did give a whole lot of high-fives..which might explain...

Half-Marathon -- 1:18:19. 11 seconds ahead of schedule. Not terribly fast, but by this point I had shifted my goal to 2:40 and was trying to adjust appropriately, still failing miserably. Everything else is going according to plan. I am alternating water with Gatorade, and have taken one Acel Gel. Plus, I am having the time of my life.

The time of my life stopped at mile 16. That's when the rolling hills begin. It's also where my left quad muscle tightened up something fierce. It felt like a row of very taught banjo cords. I was telling myself it was only 10 miles to go, but I couldn't help but think that was an eternity. I had been told the hills weren't steep, they were just consistent and that turned out to be the case. During this section of the course, as we rolled through Newton, I saw my favorite spectator sign. It said, "run like a recalled Toyota!" I thought that was clever.

30K -- 1:53:04. The hills have caused me to lose my once steady 6:00 minute pace. I am clearly starting to slip and really starting to hurt. It's incredible how quickly it comes on. I can say, I was totally comfortable through at least 15 miles. I knew Heartbreak Hill was approaching, and despite everyone in Charlotte's downplaying of it, given my condition, I was certain it would be a challenge to some degree. I could tell where I was when I got to the base, even though the hill was not clearly marked. The reason it's called Heartbreak Hill is not because it's a mountain by any means, but instead because it is strategically placed at mile 20 when your body is starting to get really pissed off at you.

The marathon is two races. It's a 20 miler and a 10k. I kicked the 20 miler's ass. The 10k kicked mine. I was hanging on for dear life those last six miles as my pace steadily dropped into the sixes. The hills never really quit at the end of Boston. When I crossed the 40K in 2:33:58 and hardly any energy left in my body, I knew breaking 2:40 was unlikely. If I reached my arm out, I knew I could place my hand flat on the wall. Anyone who's run a marathon knows what the wall feels like, and knows what it feels like when the wall is imminent.

Boston's iconic Citgo sign signals one mile to go. I was coming up on it when Aaron came up on me. "Uno Mas...let's go bitch" is what he said to me. It fired me up and I was able to open it up for about a minute or so, but at that very moment I smacked into the wall. He took off past me as we passed Lauren just after one to go and Megan Hovis shortly after. I crossed the finish line in 2:43:04, hurting more than I have ever hurt. I thought it was going to be a flood of emotion, but instead it was simply relief. There were no tears, just shock. I was shocked at how battered my body felt. I staggered past helpful volunteers who handed me a Gatorade, a bagel and a lunch sack containing potato chips. I could see Aaron in front of me hurting maybe more than I did. He had beaten me by 23 seconds. They put him in a wheelchair and hauled him off to the medical tent. That is when you know you didn't leave anything on the asphalt.

The finishing time was 1:31 second PR. Was it what I was hoping for? No. But, I can't be too disappointed. It's still the fastest and only the third marathon I have ever run and more importantly, it's Boston. There is so much more to say about the experience of being a part of that race, but putting it into words doesn't do it justice. You simply have to be there. I know there are things about my training that weren't conducive to such a lofty goal. I am not writing them as to harp on them, I am just writing them to acknowledge that there is always a way to do better and to point out that I will strive for that the next time. I don't think my plan included enough tempo and marathon pace runs. Those are more important than short intervals, which I relied heavily on this go-round. I also think the cycle was too long. I started upping the mileage in mid-December. By February, I was running better than I had ever run before, but by late March I was feeling zapped by the end of every run. That contributed to a lack of confidence going into the race. Caitlin Chrisman told me on the phone after the race that she didn't think I approached it with the necessary confidence and I truly believe she was right. Finally, the marathon can be a lonely race, but it doesn't have to be. I did every workout and nearly every training run with Aaron, but didn't run with him at all in the actual race. In a field of 26,700, we finished less than 30 seconds apart. How could we have benefited from running side-by-side?

As I said, the whole experience was amazing and I will likely give it another go. I could have never done it without the support, patience and cooking of my girlfriend Lauren or without the camaraderie of my teammates in the Charlotte Running Club. It meant so much to have my family there; mom, dad, Julie and Brian and to be there when the latter duo got engaged. And, I can't overstate the important role my old High School pal Raeanne Napolean played in all of this. When I asked her if I could stay with her for the race weekend, she let me know that all I had to worry about was what happened in the race. She would take care of the rest. And she did. Because of Raeanne, I didn't stress about any of the details that tend to bog down a runner's mind before and after the race and I can't thank her enough.

I'm not good at ending epics like this. So, I think I am going to just say that the recovery is just beginning, but recovery is the first step of the next training cycle.


  1. Wow! That was a moving recap Jay! You performed like a champ...enjoy it! Stephen

  2. I am in total agreement with Steve.

    Your description make we want to run it next year.

    Rest now, you have earned it.