Finishing Boston Strong
“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.” — Bill Bowerman
I had run five marathons before this year’s Boston Marathon and up until then I thought I had figured out the science of running achievement. After a few years of marathoning experience, researching and experimenting with multiple training plans, and picking the brains of my running friends who are way more hardcore than me, I figured that the formula to run faster marathons boiled down to three things:
- Run more or the same amount of mileage as in the past (in my case 60–70 miles per week),
- Introduce more speed work (such as interval track workouts and tempo runs at or faster than your desired marathon goal pace — 6:30 miles per minute for me), and
- Ensure you do several tough long-runs (E.g. 20 miles with the last 8 miles at goal marathon pace) throughout your training cycle ideally on similar elevation profiles as your race course
In Stephen Covey’s best selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People one of his insights is that we should control the controllable and let go of everything else. In marathon training, the three activities above are the controllable and most high-impact things a marathoner can do to get faster.
So over the last four months I focused deliberately on those areas with the goal of running this year’s Boston Marathon in 2h49m – very much a stretch goal given my marathon PR is 2:56 and the reality of diminishing returns to training particularly for sub-3 hour marathoners.
One of reasons I love about running is that the amount of effort one puts into training is directly correlated to one’s improvement in speed and fitness. Marathon training in particular rewards those who are disciplined, persistent and patient.
So for this training cycle I carried over the good habits I developed from my previous training and controlled the controllable to maximize my chance of running a faster marathon. I maintained my training volume at roughly 60–70 miles per week, added tough speed workouts and long runs into my training, and, after reading Anders Ericsson’s book on peak performance, started working with very well-respected running coach in New York.
During the four months of training leading up to the Boston marathon I logged over 100 runs, 1,000 miles of running and spent over 140 hours alone executing my workouts. The physical and emotional tolls were high but I wouldn’t let that diminish my commitment to training and achieving my goal.
Then race day arrived and I was humbled. I pushed my body to its limits and succumbed to walking the final miles of the race.
Leading up to mile 21 of the Boston Marathon, home of the infamous uphill climb named Heartbreak Hill, my quad and calf muscles went numb, my finger tips were tingly, and my breathing went to overdrive. The unabating sun, 70F degree heat and rolling hills took their toll on my body.
Once I reached the summit of Heartbreak I gave into the mind-numbing pain and stopped running. My body finally won the debate with my ego that had started a few miles earlier. After 2+ hours of running at 6m35s/mi pace, I gave up and shuffled slowly to the medical tent for care.
I sat down and after a few minutes of getting rehydration with Gatorade and controlling the inflammation with some ice I asked the medical attendant: “Should I keep running?”
The medical attendant was a friendly young man named AJ who seemed wary to give me advice. I sensed that he was torn on how to respond to my question — if he told me to quit the race the marathoner in me may rebel defiantly out of pride, but if he told me to run he would be liable for any injuries that I sustained. With no word from AJ after a few seconds I got up and tried to do a light jog on the grass but a jolt of pain sent an immediate reminder that my legs were toast.
Shit, I thought. It’s over. My goal of running a sub-2h50m today isn’t happening.
It took a minute to sink in. Then I asked AJ to borrow his phone so I could call my wife. I told her that I was okay but I was going to call it quits. I asked her to inform my mom so she wouldn’t be worried and said that I was planning to take the medical bus to the finish line.
The 4 months of hard training, the 4:45am wake-up times for long runs in the dark, the maniacally healthy nutrition choices I made every day, and the hundreds of hours away from my wife and 8-month old baby were for nothing. The negative thoughts flowed in and burden of disappointment felt weighed heavily.
Then something unexpected happened. Soon after I ended the call with my wife and I was done beating myself up I took a few deep breaths to be present. I looked at my watch and quick math in my head led me to realize that I could still make it on time for my Bolt Bus back to New York at 3:30pm even if I walked the final 5 miles of the course.
At that moment it was as if the proverbial lightbulb in my head went off. I had a new perspective of what was possible which suddenly switched my mindset from defeatist to optimist. I had seemingly told myself:
F@#% it, let’s do this. I won’t run a PR today but I am going to enjoy what’s in front of me right now: the final 5 miles of the Boston Marathon, the beautiful sunny weather, and the inspiring people on the roads and sidelines. I am going to enjoy the rest of this day. Let’s finish this race and earn that medal.
This turning point in my attitude led to the most enjoyable marathon of the six I have completed to date.
By shedding my attachment with my goal time, being present in the situation, and transforming my relationship with the race, I found a new joy in marathoning that I hadn’t made myself available to in the past.
I shook AJ’s hand and thanked him for his help before I started walking to the rest of the marathon route. Ten minutes into my walk I saw a police officer slouching over a runner who was lying face down on the asphalt. I stopped to ask if I should get medical assistance but the officer said that the runner still wanted to finish the race.
“A brother in my walk to the finish!”, I thought excitedly. I introduced myself to the fallen runner and as he got up I offered to walk with him to the finish line. He agreed and we were on our way to get our medals one step at a time.
His name was Kerry and he was running his first Boston marathon as well. His legs had cramped up early on but he kept pushing through the pain to the point of muscle failure . After a few minutes of walking together Kerry and I were both feeling better so I suggested we try some mini-speed bursts between traffic lights. We would run the length of two or three traffic lights then walk for a bit. We’d repeat this game for a couple miles and it ended up being a lot of fun plus it made me feel good that my legs could manage to jog at least a few hundred meters again.
Along my walk to the finish line I also used this as an opportunity to thank 100+ volunteers and spectators who lined the final miles of the course. It takes a thousands of people to make a marathon such an incredible experience and if I wasn’t going to race the rest of the way I made sure they knew how grateful I was for their service and energy.
For the first time in my marathoning experience, my interaction with volunteers wasn’t minimized to me grabbing cups of water and Gatorade from their hands. Instead, I got to slow down, be present, and connect with many of them through brief words of gratitude.
As the final hundred meters of the course appeared on Boylston Street I couldn’t help but be inspired by the raucous crowds to muster up the energy to sprint to the finish. When I crossed the finish line, I looked at my fellow finishers and time seemed to move slow. I gave high-fives, hugs, and words of congratulations to the few who would receive them. Then in a moment of exhaustion I slouched down, placed both hands on my knees, and found myself sobbing in a brief moment of relief and gratefulness.
By the end of my first 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, my body was spent, but my spirit was full. I failed miserably in my run that day, but I walked away from the finish line feeling alive. Life, like marathoning, is not about how we start, but how we finish. And no matter what happens throughout our journey we always have the choice to finish with dignity and grace. Here’s to finishing better than we started.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:7
I chose to use running as a platform to help raise awareness and funds for the millions of people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s, including my dad. Thanks to the incredible generosity of family and friends we were able to raise a total of $10,000 (incl. a $5,000 match by Google) this year to fund research and care provided by the Alzheimer Society of Ontario, a leading non-profit organization that provides care, support and research funding for dementia. This brings the total amount raised from my last two marathons to $19,604.77. My goal is to raise $100k in my lifetime. Thank you for all of your continued love and support.