So here we are. The last of six World Marathon Majors in 365 days - a return to Boston Marathon.
Going from Uganda to Chicago means a temperature differential of 30°C and a change from summer short shorts to winter short shorts (a difference of around an inch). I arrive three weeks out from Boston to allow my body to get used to the weather and time zone. As I move into my marathon taper, I have to admit my legs aren’t feeling as fresh as I’d like and I’ve been experiencing some light headedness. I don’t think I’ve over trained as even though I’ve increased my weekly mileage and done a lot of hill work, it’s been in a calculated, gradual fashion with the necessary recovery days/weeks factored in. Having said that, I know I’ve dropped more weight than normal whilst I’ve been in Africa and my diet/calorie intake hasn’t been where it should (mostly due to the lack of cake) - these are things that have caused me issues in the past. I hope that it’s maranioa and not something else.
Boston scholars suggest that checking the long range weather reports are a waste of time as the climate is so changeable. What Boston scholars have to remember is, a lot of us are travelling a long distance or don’t have a fixed base so we need to know in advance if we need to purchase and pack extra ‘disposable’ gear for extreme weather. With less than a week to go, it's not looking good and the runners receive a similar extreme weather warning from organisers to last year. This fills me with dread. Time to find some extra layers, dig out the emergency poncho, grab a few carrier bags to use as shoe covers and we’re off.
The dreaded email arrives. Surely not again?
Last year, I arrived into Boston the day before the race and it was all a bit of a stress so this time I fly on the Saturday night to give me an easier day on the Sunday. I arrive at my AirBnB across the Charles River in Cambridge at around 10pm. I discover that there is another solo Boston runner staying there, Dan from Sweden. We compare our back stories and share thoughts on the task ahead. It’s always nice to have some pleasant company when you’re negotiating a marathon weekend alone. Especially when your own company isn't up to much.
On a warm & bright Sunday morning, I decide to stretch my legs and walk the 5km to the expo. As I cross the Harvard Bridge across the river, there are hundreds of runners out on their shakeout runs. Some alone or with friends, some in large organised groups. The marathon truly takes over the city for the weekend and unlike some other cities, the residents here absolutely embrace it. ‘Boston Strong’ daffodils adorn window sills and local veterans from previous years proudly sport their t-shirts and jackets. The city is awash with bright yellows and blues. I arrive at the expo half an hour after it opens and it’s busy with a long line snaking upstairs toward the bib collection area. The line moves quickly and once we reach the hall and separate to desks assigned for batches of numbers, the whole process is completed in seconds. I end up walking back to Cambridge and decide that’s more than enough exercise for the day before a marathon. I put my feet up for the remainder of the afternoon, grab some cheap pasta in the evening and get an early night. The nice lady at my AirBnB wishes me luck and lets me know that she has sent some positive energy my way during her afternoon meditation. I’ll take all the energy I can get.
When I say 'EX' you say 'PO'. 'EX'... Oh forget it.
Marathon Monday. I wake at 5am, quite the lie in compared to last year. I give my best wishes to Dan (who’s in the wave after mine so leaving later) and begin my race day. There has been rain throughout the night but at the moment it has paused. It’s surprisingly warm but I don my poncho anyway, the weather here can change in a second. I jump on a bus toward Copley Square and chat to another runner from Wisconsin. We disembark together, walking in the dark toward the bag drop, a long line of yellow school buses parked up along the main street near the finish line on Boylston. The moment you drop your finish bag at Boston, all you have on you is what will protect you against the elements for the next six or seven hours.
I join the hordes making their way to the buses beside Boston Common. As I move toward the queues for the transport (yellow school buses as far as the eye can see), the skies open and a huge rainstorm erupts. I pull up my hood, try to work out which bus queue looks the smallest and wait in the rain. Fortunately it only takes me a few minutes to get on a bus with space so I’m now sheltered from the heavy shower. I peer out of the window and see that hundreds of others are not so lucky and hope for their sake they have clothing that will keep them dry. My feet are soaked to the skin but unlike last year, a) I have a dry pair of shoes & socks in reserve and b) it’s not freezing cold.
We begin our journey west to Hopkinton and the rain smashes off the windows. Above the noise, I notice the spirit on the bus is markedly better than last year. Then, it was mostly utter dread. Those who have done Boston before share their memories and advice with first-timers as hopes and aspirations for the day ahead are discussed. An hour later, we pull into Hopkinton and the rain has become lighter, the bus driver misses a final speed bump and the passengers fly into the air, scattering them and their belongings around the bus. Hopefully no-one has picked up a comedy bus injury at the last second.
A stream of people moves toward the school hosting the Athlete’s Village. As expected, the heavy rain has made the fields like a festival site again but I feel like there is more covered space this year. It’s hard to say, as I just stood in one spot shivering last time and had no plans to move until I had to. I help myself to a coffee and a bagel and take a seat on the grass amongst the crowd at the back of one of the larger tents.
With thirty minutes until the call time for the first wave, I switch to my dry, race shoes, join the sizeable toilet queues and hear gasps and cheers. At first, I figure there's some portaloo related hilarity but no, out of nowhere, a bright fiery ball has appeared in the sky. That was not expected. Moments later, the first group of runners are called to make their way to the start line. As several thousand of us edge forward through the residential street toward the starting pens, two F15 jets fly over the crowd to much applause. I notice a couple of runners who live in this area casually leaving their house at 9.45 and hopping over the fence to join us, no 5am wake up calls for these lucky folk.
I’m quite a way back in the wave one corrals as my qualifying time meant I was closer to the rear of the qualifiers. After some pro runner introductions, the race gets underway and it takes us a couple of minutes to pass the start line. We’re packed in pretty tightly and whilst it’s not quite elbow to elbow, moving around people is difficult. Several runners jump onto the pavements to try and make faster progress and end up having to avoid spectators. The first chunk of the race is downhill and the advice from Boston vets is always to ensure you don’t get carried away here to try to ‘bank time’ for the tough parts later on (as well as running the risk of destroying your quads). I’m wary of that but also that I’m running too slowly to be around my target pace. I spend a while considering whether to stick or twist then decide to move to the outside to try and move up a little to run with those moving at a similar pace. I start by ‘zig zagging’, trying to move around those running at a slower pace than me but it’s difficult to make much headway so I move to the outside. The roads are narrow and there is a lot of standing water from the rain so this means hugging the edge of the road and then moving back in to avoid the puddles. Someone in front of me is trying something similar but misjudges a kerb and trips, flying into a group of onlookers who help him to his feet. A chap behind sees what I am trying to do and pulls up behind to draft me and get to where he wants to be. I was attempting to make my way up calmly and politely but he starts shouting ‘COMING THROUGH’ and loudly muttering about needing to run at ‘proper marathon pace’. I’ve had enough of both weaving and him so decide to pull back amongst the crowds and leave him to it.
We move en masse through the outlying towns that lead to Boston and the undulating sections between miles 4 and 13. At the top of some of the rises, I occasionally catch a glimpse of just how many runners are in front of me. I don’t have a problem with that, I’m very aware of my level, it’s more that I’m impressed with the sheer number of talented amateur runners that gather at Boston Marathon. There must be several thousand people set to run under three hours*. That's the thing about this race, it's a serious runners marathon that doesn't take itself too seriously. There's still the colour, music, interaction with the crowds, the family-run aid stations, comedy signs and general celebration of running, community and the achievement of running 26.2 miles.
* In 2019, 2635 runners completed Boston in under 3:00:00 and the race had an average finish time of 3:53:01. To give some context to this, London Marathon has ~14,000 more finishers than Boston and 1139 people ran under 3:00:00 in 2018 (with an average finish time of 4:50:27).
The temperature rises and I begin to notice the humidity. Then, something odd happens. I’m running at the right hand side of the road, around a metre from the kerb and spectators when I see an object fly from the crowd out of the corner of my eye. I don’t have time to react (and am moving quickly with people around me) so decide it’s probably best just to close my eyes and hope for the best. Something then strikes me in the face. From what I can tell, it appears a child had either been drumming or waving something on a stick and it flew out of his hands into the runners. I can hear his father is absolutely mortified as I move away. In the unlikely event that you’re reading this dad (unless you’re one of my readership of nine people) - don’t worry, no harm was done!
Around miles 11 & 12, I notice the first signs of fatigue and negative feelings begin to bubble to the surface. I realise I’m starting to feel uncomfortable and begin to drop off the pace a little. I try to think positively and picture the crowds around Wellesley College at halfway as I know it will help lift my spirits. I remember the screaming tunnel being loud last year but this year I hear the murmur from hundreds of metres back, the cheers getting gradually louder until you hit the long row of girls waving their witty signs and bellowing at the runners. At the halfway mark I’m going along ok despite not quite feeling right. I move past 13.1 miles at 1 hr 28 mins, a little slower than planned but I’m still in control. However, in a quiet moment beyond the Wellesley noise, I notice a rising heaviness in my legs and the amount of extra effort it’s taking to try to turn them over quickly and keep my arms moving. My pace drops again and I’m slipping into a negative mindset, I’m beginning to dread arriving in the Newton Hills.
It sounds dramatic but as soon as I reached 16 miles and the first of the four Newton Hills, I knew that the race was over for me in terms of a ‘landmark’ time. My legs just didn’t want to play along right from the first step upward. As someone who is normally able to make light work of hills, I was finding each one an arduous task and it was demotivating me further. I had been watchful of my heart rate throughout and was slowing down to make sure I was not dipping into the red zone, conscious that I would make a difficult task even harder. The support on the Newton Hills is absolutely outstanding. If you’re struggling, there are people who will seek you out and scream at you until you make it up the hill before moving on to cheer the next runner. That encouragement is the closest thing to being picked up and dropped at the top of the hill (if only). By the time I reach Heartbreak Hill, I know that I need to forget about any pace targets and just do my best to try to make it home in one piece. The huge crowds lining Heartbreak Hill are rallying anyone they spot who’s having a tough time, I try to channel their positive energy, lean into the hill, grit my teeth and work my arms to the top.
I work hard over the crest of the hill and try to convince my body to kick on but as I hit the descent, my quads are stiffening rapidly and I’m seriously struggling for energy. My breathing and heart rate are absolutely fine but mentally I’m not in a good place. With five miles to go, I’m fighting to maintain some semblance of form and pace but any rise or fall on the course adversely affects me. I make it to two miles out, the number of people walking increases. I’m seriously thinking of joining them. I spot the famous CITGO sign in the distance signalling one mile to go and just figure if I can drag myself the last mile or so and use the energy of the crowds I can still come away with a BQ (Boston Marathon Qualifying Time) for 2020. My brain is not playing along and is currently serving up the enticing image of moving to the side of the road and walking along with some nice dinner jazz.
I’m convinced that some joker is holding the CITGO sign and jumping across the roofs of buildings away from me. As I'm running, it just doesn’t appear to be getting any closer. After what seems like an age, I’m finally past it (and the person who was moving it). One. Mile. To. Go. My pace has dropped off dramatically for the last three miles, I’m utterly disheartened and know that stopping now would be a terrible idea. I grit my teeth once more and desperately try to get some momentum back.
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The finish line is there in sight. The crowds and noise on the final straight are massive and utterly deafening, it’s such a wonderful moment and I feel a huge rush of adrenaline and emotion. I look sideways to take in the crowd but feel myself becoming light-headed, decide that’s a bad idea and just concentrate on getting home and not careering sideways into them, unwittingly being the subject of a viral marathon video. I try to open up to see if there’s any hope of a sprint to the finish to get this dealt with quickly but can feel myself starting to veer to the side with each step so think better of it and adopt a smaller stride length, just trying to stay straight and upright. I wearily raise my arms and cross the finish in 3:04:19, instantly swerving to the right where a member of the medical team asks me if I need help. I just need somewhere to stop and take my weight off as I’m feeling dizzy and sick. I pause by the side and try to gather myself but am politely moved on as other runners are coming through. Feeling utterly exhausted, I perch on a kerb for a couple of minutes before realising I’m starting to shiver and figuring it’s best to get a space blanket and get some warm clothes on. I haul myself up and move uncertainly through the finishing funnel, noticing and appreciating but not quite managing to acknowledge the brilliant support from the volunteers as they hand over medals and blankets. I’m sorry folks, I was feeling a bit wonky, thanks to you all.
I find a pub where I can sit and rest with the standard post-race Guinness and have a moment of quiet reflection. I’m disappointed. I’d worked hard over four months to try and get into condition to post a ‘special’ time and had fallen short for the second year running. In my exhausted state, I’m over analysing the ‘why’. Why was I feeling so tired? Had I over trained? Was I underweight? Did I balls up on the fuelling? Do I have to consider that perhaps I’m not Peter Pan and ageing is actually a thing that happens?
Once I’ve had the opportunity to rest and reflect further, I soon come round to the mindset that this marathon lark is much more than a time on a clock. This is reinforced by an unexpected round of applause and cheers as I leave the pub. Maybe if I was an elite athlete who’s sponsorship deals and livelihood depended on performance it would be a big deal but I’m not (obviously). The closest thing I have to sponsorship is my mate Jake having a staff discount in a sports shop. Once the initial despondency dissipates, I find myself thinking about the occasion: the phenomenal support, the colours, the constant noise, the number of children lining the route who will have been inspired to run (or throw sticks). I recall the history of this race, it’s importance in people's lives and reading others special moments and successes from the day restores my perspective of what it means to have the opportunity just to be part of such a special occasion.
Thank you Boston and as long as my BQ makes the cut, I hope to be back for another crack next year.
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