On to Boston!

Boston! Hey! We’re talking Boston here!

For many marathoners, qualifying for and running in the granddaddy of all marathons – the Boston Marathon – is the goal and the dream. For most races, anybody can plunk down the entrance fee and run – unless there is a limit on the number of entrants.  For Boston, you must “qualify.”  For each gender and 5-year age increment, there is a specific compulsory qualifying time that you must validate by running in a certified marathon within the previous two years.

Luckily, as you get older (or you are female) the qualifying times are slower.  I was able to meet my qualifying time of 3 hours, 50 minutes on my second marathon finish. Many younger people spend many years trying to reach this goal.  Lucky for me the old lady category isn’t nearly as challenging.  There’s finally something in running where not being in my 20s or 30s is an advantage!

Now that I’ve qualified, I’ve plunked down my entrance fee, reserved a hotel room and I’m currently training for my Boston debut.  The course promises to be challenging: there are the 20,000 other runners I’ll be wading through, as well as “Heartbreak Hill” and the Cemetery Mile downhill stretch that follows.  My goal is to re-qualify and leave open my option to run Boston again within 2 years.This year’s Boston Marathon promises a much hoped-for bonus: I will finally have the opportunity to meet my online coach in person!

Look here later for my full race report after April 18th, 2005 — the 109th running of the Boston Marathon.

Boston 2005—This is it!

The Boston Marathon is an event like no other and the people of Boston, as well as those who come to watch, hold this race in high regard.  Want to be a mini celebrity for a few days?  Run Boston. Our official marathon jackets and shirts made it easy to pick us out of a crowd.  When you talk to a local, or ask a question, they always pause to ask if you ran the marathon.  When you say yes, they ask how you did then give lots of positive feedback on your accomplishments no matter what your reply.  Even on the plane home.  As I was filing to my seat, someone saw my jacket and asked me if I ran.  When I affirmed, a dozen nearby passengers clapped loudly for me.

Hurry up and wait

The logistics of this race are difficult to imagine.  They bus most of the twenty thousand runners from downtown Boston out to the start in Hopkinton, 26.2 miles away.  So, our group (me, coach Jay, Mike and Pam) met in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30 AM and made our way, with the crowds, to the subway so we could get in line to load on the busses.  Waiting in line would be a common theme for the day.

We had heard that marathoners ride the subway for free on race day.  Yet, as we entered the train, everyone seemed required to pony up a transit token.  The conductor just  sat there, mute, not encouraging anyone to take a pass.  That is, until Jay got to the front of the line. Jay just shrugged his shoulders and displayed his open tokenless hands to the conductor who just turned his head and let Jay pass.  We who followed him continued to place our tokens in the meter, like the sheep we seemed to have become.

Experienced and bold companions are a must for navigating the logistics of Boston Marathon.  Arriving at the bus loading area, we met another mass of people standing in lines.  Jay cunningly snaked us into the middle of a loading line and in the chaos, no one “behind” us seemed to notice (or care). We loaded into a bus fairly quickly so we didn’t have to stand around in the Boston Commons for a prolonged period of time.  By this time we’ve already done a fair amount of walking and standing around.

The bus ride takes about an hour.  We passed through several toll stations without paying, then exited the expressway to find ourselves at the last toll booth troll who refused to let us pass without paying a toll.  The driver seemed as flabbergasted as we were … even as other arriving busses passed through other lanes without stopping, there we sat arguing with the troll.  After about 5 minutes of haggling, some deal was struck and finally off we went.

The bus dropped us off not very close to the Athlete’s Village and we had to walk uphill quite a while to get there.  Already the day was growing warmer; but there was still a breeze cool enough to make me glad I was wearing my warm up pants and that I brought along my jacket.

The Athlete’s Village is a holding ground for all the runners. You can think of it as part Woodstock and part refugee camp.  There’s a large stage from which a few speeches were given and a few musicians played to keep us diverted for the several hours we had to wait.  The sound system was marginal and most of it was indecipherable.

There were booths where folks were handing out free stuff to feather our drop bags with (power bars, fold up rain jackets (?!), etc).  There was a big tent in the middle and it was already full of waiting runners.  Every one staked out the piece of turf where they would pass the time.  Just like at the beach, you could see all manner of reclining equipment.  We had a few Mylar blankets spread out for us to share.   But others brought real blankets or folding chairs or, believe it or not, blow up mattresses!  We found a spot in a more remote corner near the shade (but not near enough, we would realize after sitting out in the direct sun for more than an hour).

Helicopters flew in low, probably shooting film for TV.  Planes trailed indecipherable message banners.  It was a carnival atmosphere without the rides. And we were the main attraction.

After claiming our space, we made the first of several walks to the port-a-johns. Here are a few helpfuls for using port-a-johns in a crowd of 20 thousand or so:

  • Never stand in line at the first port-a-john you see.  Look for a more remote location where people are less likely to venture;but … balance this with the extra walking required to find the most remote one.
  • Stand in the shortest line (no brainer) but …
  • Pick a longer line if the shorter one has lots of women in it.
  • Wish for good luck.  I stood in a remote, short, men only line at my last trip and it moved slower than all the others around me.  Go figure.

After traipsing back and forth between the waiting grounds and the bathroom lines for several hours, we moved to the starting corrals to wait some more.  We all paused long enough to apply sunscreen and write on ourselves.  Honestly, the Boston marathon is a mass of running billboards.  As people wrote their names and favorite slogans and symbols all over themselves with marking pens, they reminded me of warriors adorning themselves with fierce-looking war paint just before battle.

I lost my group while getting in our last pit stops before corral placement.  I walked back to my drop bag then joined the throng of runners making their way past the drop bag busses and into the corrals.  I met a couple of other runners in corral 14 and we decided that to try to stick together for moral support.  So there we stood, waiting, again, for something to happen.

The folks of Hopkinton must be a patient lot.  Or a resigned one. Many runners took liberties—using any area, private or not, for a last minute pit stop.

Loud speakers on all the telephone poles blared to give us an idea of what was happening up at the starting line—someplace around the corner and so far ahead of us that we couldn’t even see it.

There was a moment of silence for Johnny Kelley, then the national anthem. Fighter jets roared overhead on their 4 minute trip to Boston.  We would be much longer in getting there.


Finally the starter’s pistol went off and the race began! Well, for some people anyway. We just stood there like traffic at a gridlocked intersection.

Some people are known to moo in the corrals.  I didn’t hear any mooing near me but we were packed in like cattle in a feedlot. The rising temperature made me worrythat I would soon be off to the slaughter.

Eventually the crowd lurched ahead and we began to walk.  Then we stopped.  Walked. Then stopped again.  Several minutes after the starting gun, we could finally keep a steady walk, then a little faster until … we turned the corner and everyone around us started to run!

Not me.  I could see that the starting line was still about 50 yards ahead and my new companions and I reasoned there was no sense  making the race any longer by running before  we actually got timed.  Once we hit the starting mats we took off running the first downhill.

Running seemed pretty effortless at the beginning, as it always does for the first few miles of a marathon.  As usual I had to keep our pace in check as the obligatory mass of people ran around us.  I figured we’d be seeing them later.  It wasn’t too hard to find a spot to run, but weaving in and out got to be pretty dangerous.  I even saw a rear-end collision when someone unwisely stopped dead in the middle of the road to drink at an aid station as another runner sped toward her while blithely taking in the sights.  BANG! OOF! OUCH!

Within a few miles people were already peeling off to pee at the side of the road–men and women alike—in plain view.  None of the rest of us had any interest in gawking.  They were focused on getting where they needed to be and so were we. And there was still a long way go.

From the very beginning, there were plenty of spectators lining the streets yelling their encouragement.  They had BBQs and one biker bar seemed to be having quite a party themselves.  Music greeted us from many home stereo systems set out on the lawns.  Before long there were generous spectators offering all manner of sustenance.  I partook of water, Gatorade, popsicles, oranges, bananas and most welcome of all, ice cubes.  There were also plenty of high-fives to go around.  Whole lines of kids begged runners to slip them some skin and most of the time they were obliged.

Not the best of all possible starts

I was annoyed that there were no aid stations until about mile 3.  The sun was already oppressive and I was feeling parched.  I could sense that, although I was feeling capable, I had serious doubts that I could hold my goal pace through the Newton hills.  By mile 5, I already felt a hot spot on each foot where blisters were starting to form.

Once we hit the aid stations I started taking water and Gatorade.  I developed a routine: One cup of water in me, one cup over my head, and/or over my chest.  I tried to avoid dripping into my shoes for fear of worse blistering.  Folks with hoses provided us with a welcome spray now and then.  Within the mile it took to run between aid stations, my soaked head completely dried out.  It was pretty dry out there.

After the first hour I lost my new friends. Now I focused on my own race, which, by this time, was starting to feel pretty bad.  We passed by a lake and I really wanted to jump in for a swim.

The road rolled up and down, then down and up, but i twas rarely flat.  The mass of people in front, like cars of a roller coaster, predicted what was coming next.  Sometimes they dropped out of sight above us then reappeared below as we crested another hill.  At one point I looked behind me and saw the freight train of people stretch on into the distance.  This was reassuring as I was starting to feel that I must be near the end of the pack.

The scream tunnel

At the 13-mile point comes the famous scream tunnel at Wellesley College and true to every account I’ve read, this was a highlight of the run.  They yelled with all their might, it seemed, for each of us individually.  If your name was visible, you got personal encouragement to keep going and respectful comments that you were something special just to be there. I expected it to be “lame” and didn’t think it would affect me in the way some people had reported; but despite myself I swelled with emotion.  I remembered all the hard work I’d done, alone almost every day out on the road, suffering or joyful all by myself with only my own desire to push me to achieve my place in this race.  All the suffering seemed worth it.  I had to choke back the tears and as I headed down the hill away from their cheers I noticed my pace had dropped by a full minute.  Whoa!  Time to rein it in.

Until now I had been able to maintain my pace pretty well.  My first splits were 849, 842, 844, as I purposely held back as planned.  After this I tried to keep even pacing.  Since it was hotter than I preferred, I decided right away to pace conservatively, knowing that by 16 miles there was no way I would be “feeling good” and able to pick up the pace. (832, 837, 815, 824, 830, 822, 831, 828, 830, 835, 831, 843, 833 – mile 17). I stayed within about 2 minutes of goal pace until the Newton hills.

By this time I was grateful to find the ice cubes to keep me cool.  I put one in each hand to let them melt over time, then searched for a new supply.  I was feeling the effects of the heat draining me.  Weaving in and out to get to the aid stations cost me time and added distance to the race.  Yet, I didn’t do any walking except to grab water and drink and then, only after I hit Newton. Obviously, I was already spent, however and my splits show it: 918, 928, 911, 942, 957! (to mile 21).   The hills in this section are, each taken separately, not difficult, but after a full 17 miles of up and down, they really slowed me down.  I knew that all I had to do was get to mile 21 and it would be essentially all down hill from there.  This thought kept me going.

Once I hit the Newton hills I tried to stay in the middle of the road and just looked down instead of up.  “Just keep moving, just keep moving,”  I repeated to myself, as though it were my mantra. Eventually I found myself running lockstep with some other fellow up the center yellow lines and we ran in silence (other than our gasping) for quite a while.  After a while we started a clipped conversation.  “where you from?” “Mississippi.” “me, Oregon.”  Not much depth to it but we made our introductions.  Having someone to run right at my side to share in the misery made all the difference.  Silently we urged each other to keep going.  At one aid station I even waited for him to finish getting his drink so we could continue on together.  Once we reached the top, I lost him (but he found me at the end and I thanked him for his help).

The 21-mile mark

As I saw the sign indicating the 21 mile mark, I knew we were at the top but wondered just how I was going to bring it home the final 5.2 miles. By then I was pretty spent and had to just fight the urge to lay down and die. No, not really that bad, but I was darned tired.

“Just keep going, just keep going.”

All around me, people were walking.  By this time the seeds of doubt that I planted, even before starting, hit me (“Don’t plan on a PR at Boston”; “Just have fun — enjoy the experience”; yadda yadda).  I lost my concentration and, with that, I could feel myself giving up. I even quit checking my splits once I saw I was 6 minutes over my goal. 837, 859, 943, 931, 937.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure, but I suspect that I could have pushed harder if I hadn’t succumbed to defeatism.

I passed an awful lot of people in those last 5.5 miles, even at my diminished pace. I even passed a few runners who were being attended in the street or on the sidewalk by medical personnel.  That’s a sobering sight. Those last 5.5 miles seem as long as the whole rest of the race.

Fortunately, the crowd support nearly doubles in this section and it really kept me going.  My parents and husband apparently were at the last turn onto Boylston street but I never saw them. They saw me, but I never heard their shouts above the roar of the crowd.

The last mile

As I hit the Citco sign indicating we had arrived at the last mile of the course, I kept thinking… if I just run a little faster I’ll finish sooner and this agony will end.  So I “sprinted” in the last few blocks. My finishing time was 3:54:41, a full 12 minutes slower than I had trained for.  As I neared the finish line I raised my arms over my head and crossed over. Finally, things would be better.

But I didn’t feel better.  I still felt horrible.  Hours passed before I felt halfway human again.

And, as soon as I finished, the hurry-up-and-wait started all over again.  Walk a few steps,  stand in line to get water.  Walk a few steps, stand in line to get Gatorade (by this time, lemon-lime Gatorade is NOT my favorite).

All I wanted to do was lay down and rest.  I paused and bent over to rest with my hands on my knees only to attract the attention of the medical personnel.  “Are you o.k.?”  I just nodded and, thankfully, they left me alone.

Even though I was in a sea of people, I felt completely alone.  Everyone was engrossed in their own agony or elation and there wasn’t much chit chat.  Most of us just looked stunned.

Still waiting for the pain to stop, to start feeling better, I stood in line and got my Mylar blanket, then stood in line to have my timing chip removed.  By the time the medal was placed around my neck, I was too tired and sore to really care that much.

At least I wasn’t gasping anymore.  Eventually, I found the right line to stand in and got a bag of potato chips!

Tasty chips, resting body

I looked around for a place to sit and eat. But this wasn’t a sitting area; it was designed to keep you moving through.  No thanks. I found a stretch of curb beside the barricades where a few others were sitting or laying.  I found an empty spot next to a big garbage truck that was parked by the curb.  I balled up my Mylar blanket into a maksehift pillow and laid down to eat my chips.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up again but that was a worry for another time. Right then, I didn’t care.

None of the other people around me were talking.  Most were hardly moving.  But, after I ate my chips I found my second wind and my legs didn’t seem quite as painful.  I got up under my own steam and (you guessed it) stood in line to get my drop bag.

After some more wandering, I miraculouslybumped into Pam and Mike and we made our way back to the hotel.  Rodney and my parents were waiting in the lobby Starbucks with the laptop open displaying my splits and final time.  They had been able to track me all day and knew just when to make their way down to the street to see me run by.  Now I could sit and admire my medal and share all my war stories with my family.

Next year

I’m disappointed in my performance but contrary to first appearances, I am in no way dissatisfied with my experience.  As with my two prior marathons, I have already started planning for next year, plotting how I will return and redeem myself.  Regardless of the pain it inflicts, finishing a marathon, especially Boston, imparts a huge sense of accomplishment that is down-right addicting.  It’s no wonder so many people strive and work and push themselves to be able to bask in the glow of a 50-cent bag of potato chips and a mylar blanket.  Well, and the medal is nice, too.

Meanwhile …

My summer plans are to complete the Mount Hood 50-mile trail run at the end of July.  Then it’s on to a fall marathon where I hope to improve my qualifying time so I can move up a corral or two at Boston next spring.