Buildup Before the Race
My Boston Marathon experience started many years before I ever even qualified but I’ve largely already talked about a lot of that in my previous post. For this one, I’ll start with around the week before the race. For several weeks prior to the race, my coach had me doing a workout that included 10 miles at target marathon race pace. For these workouts I had managed to maintain an average pace of around 7:25 minutes per mile (well above my previous PR time of 7:53 minutes per mile). The distance was less, but the workouts were still giving me the confidence that it was definitely possible that I could get a marathon PR (personal record) at Boston. Knowing this, I was starting to get extra excited about the race and found myself starting to check the weather for race day. The first day I checked it I was dismayed to see that they were calling for rain and a high of 57 on Marathon Monday but the race was still more than a week away (and how often are weather predictions that far out accurate anyway?). I continued to check the weather almost daily and it still wasn’t getting better. I still maintained some hope that maybe the weather would get better or maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to run in after all.
Thursday night I packed for the trip including running clothes for Saturday, Sunday and a few options for race day itself. That night, I slept worse than I do before many races — for some reason I was already getting nervous. I had two nightmares related to running — one in which I was trying to do the code refactoring I was doing at work but to get it to work for a marathon training schedule and the other in which I’d flown home for an ultra and then couldn’t find the start line and ended up missing the race as I drove around looking for it.
Friday morning we got up early to drive to SFO and catch our flight to Boston. It was a direct flight and as we were waiting by the gate, I started to notice what became a theme all weekend. People were wearing Boston Marathon jackets from a variety of years. A little quick background — in 1991 Adidas started making jackets for the Boston Marathon (originally just for the volunteers) but they became so popular that they started selling them to the finishers. Each year they design a new jacket in different colors (although same basic style) that they sell. I overheard one person at the airport saying that they were wearing the jacket from their first Boston and I’m sure that was true for a lot of the people there since there was a rainbow of color. It was hard not to get excited seeing all of the other runners flying out for the race. It’s been a while since I was so excited for a flight. When we landed in Boston, they asked how many people were there to run and probably at least a quarter of the plane raised their hands. Granted, if you weren’t coming for the marathon, this would have been a terrible weekend to visit Boston with all of the runners raising flight and hotel prices.
We stayed for the first several nights with a friend in Dorchester and even though that was a slight train ride from downtown without many hotels, there were clearly runners staying there (we were guessing at Airbnbs). I’d never really spent time in Dorchester before and it was fun to explore. On Saturday, after a quick 7 mile run in slightly windy but otherwise great weather, we headed into Boston for packet pickup and the fitness expo.
Now I’ve been to race expos before. Some of them even for big races. This was by far the largest, busiest and craziest expo I’d ever been to — probably at least twice the size of any other. Our friend and my husband both came along as well and my friend mentioned that he had never felt so out of shape in his life and that it was making him want to get back into running. (I would never consider him to be out of shape either). The expo featured everything from the official merchandise, including stuffed unicorns (the mascot of the Boston Athletic Association, who runs the marathon), to all kinds of massage devices to every kind of electrolyte drink imaginable to protein snacks and clothing.
A few of my favorites included Saucony, who’s Boston Marathon shoe featured a Dunkin’ Donuts pattern, an instant muffin in a cup where you add water, microwave it and get a muffin!? and unicorn horn headbands. We used the expo as an appetizer round before we went to a late lunch of pizza (which was really good and predictably full of marathoners). After lunch we wandered around and tagged along with my friend for some errands. At one point we found ourselves in Marshalls, where I overheard two women who were clearly shopping for cheap clothes that they could wear and then get rid of at the starting line. For dinner, we took advantage of Dorchester’s diversity (apparently its the most diverse community in Boston) to get pho and che for dessert. That still counts as carb loading, I think?
On Sunday, the temperatures started to fall. I went for a final quick shakeout run with temperatures hovering right around freezing and some flurries in the air. Not something I see much as a California girl. Luckily I had packed clothes that worked. The run wasn’t bad, but it started making me worry about Monday. I somehow still thought I could do well but I was worried about being cold. We switched where we were staying from my friend’s place to a hotel that was right by the finish line. The hotel literally exited into the friends/family meeting area. The price for the hotel had been really high (thus why we were only staying there two nights) but it seemed worth it for convenience to the race. The hotel was pretty junky given the price we were paying but not bad otherwise and the location couldn’t be better. Somewhere during the day on Sunday it started to sprinkle a bit and the wind was picking up. Even though we turned up the heat as high as it would go in our hotel room, the temperature on the thermostat never got above 68 and it felt way colder than that. I was starting to really worry about the cold.
For dinner, we wandered up to the North End (Boston’s Italian neighborhood) and started with cannolis from Mike’s Pastries and then went to one of the many, many highly rated Italian restaurants. Predictably, even though the race itself was providing a pasta dinner, the restaurant was still full of runners getting their pre-race carb fix. After our pasta dinner, we headed back to the hotel and I tried to figure out what to wear.
The weather was now predicting 90–100% chance of heavy rain during the times I was going to be running with temperatures of 40–44 degrees Fahrenheit and 20–30 mph headwinds. I was worried about the headwinds slowing me down. I was worried about freezing between the rain and the temperatures and I was also worried about over-compensating for the cold and wearing too much. I started chatting via strava comments with another woman running — she was also worried about what to wear. Over the course of that night and the next morning I think I changed my mind 3–4 times and found myself greatly regretting that I had failed to bring my running mittens. I finally settled on long tights, a long sleeve shirt, a water resistant light weight jacket, a long sleeve pull over that I would dump at the start line and a ridiculous Boston Red Sox poncho (which was the only emergency poncho that didn’t seem to be sold out at the target we had stopped by). I’m also very thankful to the calming and sane comments offered by both my coach and Kelsey (a friend who had previously run Boston) in response to me freaking out. By the end of Sunday, I was no longer feeling super hopeful about the race and figured whatever was going to happen would happen. As a result, I actually slept fairly well compared to how I usually do before a race.
Monday morning came and after getting dressed I headed out around 7:15 to walk the half mile or so to where the buses were loading to take people to the starting line (Boston starts in Hopkinton and finishes 26.2 miles away in Boston). The minute I stepped out of the hotel, I was slammed with a gust of wind so hard that I almost lost my hat (my ponytail was the only reason that I didn’t) and it tried to blow away my poncho. It was also raining pretty hard — much more than the drizzle I had been hoping for. My hopes immediately sank. I walked over to the area between Boston commons and Boston gardens where they were loading buses and was slowly joined by more and more people — mostly in trash bags or ponchos and mostly looking slightly miserable. They had barricades around the section with the buses and they made us show them our bibs to get inside and they checked to make sure that we were caring nothing except the clear plastic bag they had given us at the expo for exactly this purpose. In mine, I had water, a few snacks and an extra plastic bag in case it came in handy for anything at the start. Once inside, they herded us to two lines of buses that were stretching nearly the entire length of the park. They were loading all of them at once and as soon as a large chunk were full, the kept the people back and released the whole group of buses to start driving. We had our own coned off lane until we got onto the highway to help us avoid the traffic that was building up in the area. I was struck by how we must have looked like a long line of yellow ducklings as we rode in our yellow school buses. I found myself also thinking that this was likely the warmest and driest that I was going to be before the end of the race, so I was in no hurry to get to Hopkinton or to unload. Some people on the bus were chatting excitedly about the race, others were quiet. I think the woman next to me fell asleep.
Eventually we got to Hopkinton. They unloaded chunks of busses at the same time and I followed the hoard of people onto the high school’s athletic fields. I couldn’t help but wonder how the school copes with having their fields trampled/destroyed by 30,000 people every year. There were several large fields, each lined with porta potties and with one or more very large tents in the middle fitting 100s of people each. I made my way to one of the tents. As I walked across the field, I realized that while there mostly weren’t puddles, the ground was so saturated that as I stepped on the grass my feet sank in and my feet were almost immediately soaked with freezing water. Given the small patches of snow still on the field, I’m sure the water temperatures weren’t far above freezing either. Inside the tents, we were out of the rain and the wind but the ground was still soaking. I tried to find some high ground and stand there but most other runners had the same strategy and there wasn’t much extra space to begin with. Some people had brought bags or tarps or yoga mats to sit on but they seemed to be having mixed results and I decided I was just as happy standing. I got there around 9am and they started calling my wave to head to the start around 9:45. In that time I spent most of the time in the tent but unfortunately had to brave the wind and rain to stand in line for the bathrooms. The woman behind me was talking about calling her husband to just come pick her up instead of running. I was shivering and was starting to feel sure that I no longer had a shot at a PR and probably not even qualifying for Boston again. The other runners around me seemed to be thinking the same thoughts.
When they eventually called my wave to line up, I waited in the tent a bit longer chatting with another runner in a later wave just to avoid standing outside longer than I had to. I made my way towards the start line. We went through another checkpoint where I again had to lift my layers to show my bib and stared the 0.7 mile walk to the start. I quickly realized that I couldn’t really feel my feet and soon found myself jogging to the start mostly to try to get some feeling into them. It felt like running with two weights at the ends of my legs that I was really just hoping would land the right way. I have never really warmed up before a marathon(with the only exception of San Francisco where I almost didn’t make it into my corral before the start). There were a number of volunteers collecting clothes as people discarded layers in preparation for the start all along the 0.7mile stretch. At one point I thought I was getting close and stopped to take off some clothes. I must have looked cold because the high school girl holding the bag I was stopped in front of told me there were collection points further and when I thanked her, she told me ‘stay warm as long as you can!’ I finally made it into my coral and stripped off my top two layers with about 30 seconds to spare. At that point I was positive I wouldn’t do well in this race but I really wanted to start running so that I would hopefully warm up. I also decided that since this might be my only Boston I was going to try to ignore everything that had gone wrong and instead try to soak in and enjoy the experience.
And We’re Off!
I was in the seventh coral of the second wave, so when they started our wave, there was still quite a bit of walking before we actually crossed the start line. Normally with a race that large even with starting corals, I seem to find myself dodging people walking. At Boston, it was more crowded than many of those races. While I might have wanted to go a little faster, with my still numb feet and the fact the corals are all done off of qualifying times, I found that the pace was fine. I was immediately struck by how many people were out to cheer us on. I’m sure the numbers were down given the weather, but even so, many people had tents set up in their front yards that they were standing under and cheering. Most of them seemed like people who lived along there too, not just people out to cheer specific friends or family. I found myself almost getting choked up over their dedication and the gift of support they were giving to all of us. The other really neat thing I noticed was that in addition to the signs on the sides marking the mileage, the road itself had interruptions in the center double yellow line for the Boston Marathon unicorn and the mile markers.
I still couldn’t feel my legs for much of the first five miles. At some point in there I found myself wondering at what point I should worry about frostbite. I mean, I was dedicated to this race, but not so much that it was worth losing some toes over. I also spent most of this time running with my jacket covering my bib and I found myself vaguely worrying about BAA’s threats of disqualifying anyone with even part of their bib obscured. I was still too cold to care that much. When I started to warm up a little, I unzipped my jacket halfway so that my bib which I had pinned on top (unlike my usual bottom) for just this reason was at least partially showing.
At the 10k mark, I crossed my first RFID checkpoint and knew that my friends and family following the race from afar would be notified and knew that my husband and friend who were planning cheer at the 10 mile mark would use it to find me. I spent between miles 6 and 10 trying to decide if I wanted to keep my jacket or toss it off to them. I decided to get rid of it and took it off in preparation for tossing it at them. As I approached 10 miles though, I realized that the course was still packed with runners and the sides with spectators and I had no idea which side of the road they were going to be on or even what they’d be wearing. Given that, I tried to stay toward the center and scan both sides without slowing down too much in the process. Even still, I almost missed them. Luckily, my husband saw me and called out right before I passed them.
I usually run towards the outside because you’re less likely to get boxed in and it’s easier to pass people from there. I was finding that this was a questionable strategy in this race. It was still true that it was easier to pass on the outside but it was also true that there were more puddles and you were less protected from the wind by the runners in front of you (and it was enough to make a noticeable and real difference). I’m not sure I ever quite figured out the optimal strategy.
The People of Boston
I was now just wearing my long sleeve shirt.
On the suggestion of a friend who had run Boston a couple of times, I had used sports tape to tape yellow rectangles on my stomach and back and had used laundry marker to write my name on those. I’m so glad I did because a lot of the spectators who saw my name would then cheer for me specifically. At one point along the course there were even a handful of college guys who turned my name into a chant. Even when you’re tired, it’s hard not to smile and get a little extra boost when total strangers get excited and start yelling for you.
It was raining the entire time — solidly rain, not sprinkles and every so often the sky would open up and really just dump. Even so, there were an incredible amount of fans along the entire course. There were a few spots that were a bit empty but there were still usually a few people and they never lasted for long. In addition to the official water and Gatorade aid stations every mile (on both sides of the course at each!) there were a number of people handing out everything from water to orange slices to energy gels to one woman handing out dry socks. At the point when I passed her, I thought, who would want to take the time to change their socks mid race!? When I was maybe a quarter mile past her it occurred to me that dry socks would make great mittens and I was a little sad I hadn’t taken them.
There were kids of all ages along the course. Many holding signs or trying to get high fives from runners. Some handing out water or lemonade. Some without even rain coats (I found myself wondering how they weren’t totally frozen).
I haven’t even mentioned the volunteers yet! Apparently there were 9,500 volunteers for the Boston Marathon helping with the expo, pre-race and post-race. There were police out blocking the course, many people handing out both water and Gatorade on both sides of the course, people holding signs with arrows, people handing out cliff shots (which I didn’t take and instead ate the Huma I had brought with me) and many, many people at the finish. They were all friendly and seemed surprisingly happy to be there. I kept thinking that as cold as I was, at least I was moving. They must have been freezing. Getting up early and then standing in the rain for hours holding out little dixie cups of water isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Yet they were all out there.
When we passed Wellesley, there was a wall of students with police making sure they stayed behind the barricades. When approaching I could hear all of the shouting they were doing well before I could see them. Many of them were offering kisses on the cheeks and more runners than I would have guessed were taking them up on it. Their signs were disintegrating, they were all soaked, but their enthusiasm was infectious.
In addition to soaking in the amazingness of all of the spectators and volunteers, I found there were two things that kept going through my head when I got tired. “Those who trust in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint” from Isaiah 40:31 and in a completely different direction, the thought that the faster I ran, the sooner I could get a hot shower. Interestingly, I found them both highly motivating. I also found myself wondering if maybe God had made the weather bad for my first Boston to show me how special the race and the fans really are.
The End is Near
A couple of miles in, I had stopped looking at my watch. I didn’t think I had a real shot anyway. They did have official time clocks fairly often on the course (I think they were around every mile as well as many of the major kilometer marks). I knew I crossed the start line around half an hour after the start of the first wave (when the clocks were counting from), so I found myself doing some fuzzy math to see what kind of time I was making. Because of that, I wasn’t caught totally by surprise when I realized that I might still have a chance to BQ if not PR. That said I was only doing fuzzy math and I was trying hard to not get my hopes up just in case.
There’s this hill in the marathon that’s infamous and known as heartbreak hill. As I had heard before, it’s not even the worst hill in the race, it just comes at the worst time — between miles 20 and 21, right when most people are also hitting the wall. So I’ve been running hilly ultras recently and I must say that when I saw the measly 90ft gain on the elevation map ahead of time, I scoffed. Actually I was very unimpressed by the series of three hills leading up to heartbreak too — at least on paper. In the actual race, I found that true to my predictions, heartbreak wasn’t that bad but the second and third hills got me much more than I was expecting. They actually weren’t all that bad either but it was just one more challenge on top of the wind and the rain when I was already cold and tired. This would be an argument for heartbreak being hard too, but somehow the knowledge that it was the last one and that it was all basically downhill from there made it much easier for me. I did notice that other people had no such luck and it was one of the first points in the race when I saw anyone around me walking (another testament to how well good starting corals work).
For the last five or so miles I was telling myself that I just had to get to one mile before the end and then it would be smooth sailing. One mile out is Kenmore Square, where I had always watched the marathon in college. I could remember us lining the course on both sides and all of the excitement. Not to mention, at that point there’s only one mile left. Unfortunately, around 2–3 miles out my legs started cramping up. This has never happened to me before and I have to assume that it was at least partially due to the cold. I told myself I just had to keep moving. I know I slowed down at this point and I was just trying to finish. I was still excited to come into Kenmore but was a bit disappointed to see that it was fairly empty in front of my sorority. I’m sure the rain affected turn out. A little further down the road, there’s an underpass that had a lot more people — I think the people who did come out were trying to hide from the rain.
Then we got to ‘right on Hereford, left on Boylston’. There’s a strava segment titled this and I had read an article in the participants guide interviewing a runner who had run nearly every (if not every) race since 1968, who said that if he could run that section in every training run, he would. And I could see why. Starting at that point you’re under a half mile from the finish and even in the rain, there were crowds at least 3–4 people deep on both sides of the course. The runners, while still thick on the course had finally started to thin out a little bit, so there’s just this wall of cheering and with my name, it felt like it was all for me. Or at least that’s what I pretended. I turned onto Boylston and could see the finish. They had the clock up there counting down from the start of the first wave and given the time on it, I was fairly sure I was close to my PR but probably wasn’t going to catch it. I tried to speed up anyway with mixed results thanks to my still cramping legs.
Across the Line
I crossed the finish line so thankful to be done. I could finally go get that warm shower I had been dreaming about for the past 26 miles. I walked through the finishing shoot and actually stopped for some of the finisher pictures. Unlike the normal mylar sheets normally at the finish, they had actual poncho type things complete with Velcro to keep them on and volunteers helping us to put them on. The volunteer turned out to be necessary since my cold fingers were kind of useless and I somehow totally failed at finding one of the arm holes on my own. Since I was so close to my hotel I stumbled my way back there and took at least a minute trying to get my key card out of my pants pocket. Never did a hot shower feel so good.
As I found out after I got warm, I finished only 39 seconds slower than my previous marathon PR, with a 3:26:48, well under the 3:35:00 I needed to qualify and under the 3:32 or so I will need to actually register. Given the weather conditions I’m ecstatic with this outcome. I was able to enjoy the race (even with the misery) I was able to qualify for Boston again with hopefully much better weather next year and I was able to come close enough to my PR that I know I would have crushed it with better weather. What an amazing race and incredible fans.
The Boston Marathon truly is something special.