Boston 2019

All in – my  21st Boston Marathon

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Link  Boston2019.mp3

MarathonBQ – How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon in 14 Weeks -

I didn’t sleep great the night before.  Part of it was the driving rain and the thunder and lightning that shook the house.  Part of it was my ruminating brain. 

You might think that having such a great training cycle would allow me to rest easy. But, no, it somehow raised the stakes.  My trusty subconscious was chattering away.  What if after all this work I managed to screw up the race? What if the weather was bad? 

Of course I tied to let my big brain take over and talk myself down from the window ledge.  I am grateful to be here. Yeah.  I am happy to still be doing this 20+ years in?  Yeah.  I am blessed?  Yeah. 

Blah, blah, blah…

After 20 years you’d think I’d be able to rationalize.  Repetition doesn’t lower the stakes.  This is the Boston Marathon.  It matters to me.  I put in the work.  I qualify.  It matters. 

It matters to me.

I rolled out of bed reasonably refreshed and put on my throw-away clothes.  With the lingering rain I didn’t want to wear my race stuff, especially my shoes.  Stay dry as long as possible.  I had time to take a nice shower and have a bit of breakfast.  A normal day at the Russell house. 

My wife dropped me off at the local Starbucks where I caught a ride with some of the folks from my running club out to Hopkinton. 

Without incident I hopped the spectator bus to downtown Hopkinton and made my way over to the senior center to join Eric and the St. Louis runners.  My second year of avoiding Athletes’ Village. Call me soft, but warm and dry with a bathroom beats ankle deep mud and a 45 minute porta-john line. 

I stretched and rubbed and pre-gamed.  Got my race gear on and lubed up really well.  With the humidity and warmer temps I figured chaffing might be an issue. 

I ran in my old Hoka Cliftons, split shorts and a race singlet.  Nothing fancy.  I wore the Boston Strong hat I had bought at the expo.  I felt like that was an appropriate message for my training cycle and my race plan. 

Like Coach said in his pep talk to me;  it didn’t matter if it was 100 degrees or if there were 80 mile an hour winds.  I was not going to waste this training cycle.  No matter what happened I was committed.  I wasn’t giving myself any option to give up or to ease off.  No matter what I was all in.  I would control the only thing any of us really controls; my commitment to fight – to be strong. 

We watched the early waves start on TV.  We saw the wheelchair finish, which seemed a bit strange to see people finish a race you are an hour away from starting.  In the room were several faster, red-bib, wave 2 runners.  That seemed to be the demographic in general.  Lots of fit, young, fast runners in Nike Vapor Fly’s and a handful of us old war horses. 

Eric and I were in the same wave and corral.  3/3, which put us up the hill not far from the start line. Without hurry we made our way over when the time was right.

It’s an electric time.  Walking to the start of the Boston marathon.  If you could somehow drop an emotional energy meter into the center of Hopkinton Massachusetts it would be bouncing off the rails and maxing out. 

Thousands of qualified athletes stepping into the culmination of their training cycles.  Each one a story of dedication and perseverance and, right now, in this very moment, at their emotional peak.  This is it.  The big test.  The qualification effort is well in the past.  The months of training and sacrifice all leading in an inevitable emotional march to this day and this moment. 

The atmosphere buzzes like an electric field. 

Eric and I made our way out of the senior center in the misty, post-rain, cool, overcast morning.  The sun was struggling to break through the remnants of the storms that had passed.  We walked the short trek to Main Street and the bottom of the hill where the first half of the corrals take a turn back towards athletes’ village.

As we cleared security to access the melee of runners trying to find corrals I ran straight into Alett.  This is one of the alternate universe characteristics of Boston.  If you are trying to meet people on purpose, you can’t find them.  But, you randomly run into people you know, for no predictable or probable reason in the crowd of 30,000 athletes.  I gave her a hug.  We had a few words. 

Eric and I continued our hike up the hill towards the start line to find our apportioned 3rd corral.  Corral 3 is close to the actual start line.  We got to the opening just before our wave start time and ended up in the back of the corral just as they pulled the ropes and the corral 4 runners flooded in to fill the gap. 

And like that we were off again, bounding down the steep hill out of Hopkinton, heading towards another date with destiny. 

I went into my training cycle angry.  It was mid-October and I had just jogged off the course at Baystate after one lap.  I thought I would have the legs after that big training cycle volume over the summer training for the Burning River 100 mile ultra.  But, I could not hold the pace at Baystate and gave up. 

There wasn’t a lot of urgency in that race.  I was already qualified.  I could run another if I wanted to.  I let my big brain rationalize me off the course. 

Ultra-training was all about multi-hour runs in the trails.  Great for fitness, great for peace of mind, but not great for racing marathons.  While putting in those 90+ mile long training weeks I didn’t pay much attention to nutrition or flexibility.  I paid no attention to speed and tempo work. 

Coming into the late summer I was tipping the scales in the mid-180’s.  That’s not obese for me, but it is some extra weight.  I have discovered that as I age, I’m losing body mass in general so my old race weights aren’t something I can compare against.  Instead I look at body fat % as a decent proxy for excess.  Late summer I was up in the 12-13% body fat. 

The extra weight doesn’t matter when you’re ambling around in the woods, in fact it’s probably an advantage, but it sucks to carry when you’re trying to run fast circles on a track or hard charges up a hill. 

Trying to tune up for that race in the fall I noticed that I really struggled with speed and tempo.  My legs weren’t cooperating.  My turnover was pathetic, and I had no pop. 

That’s when I got a bit angry.  I knew I had work to do. 

Talking with Coach, after the race, he convinced me to not try to race again and to focus on Boston, still 5 months in the future.  I committed, to get lean, to get healthy and to go into my 2019 Boston training cycle with a higher level of commitment.  To see what I could do. 

Running a qualifying time has never been easy for me. I’m not that naturally talented athlete who glides by the standards.  I struggle and work to barely scrape by.  The BAA has helpfully lowered the standard by 10 minutes over the last few years and that struggle to scrape by is even more scrapier.  I need to meet the same standard today as I did two age groups ago. 

And so it began…I worked my diet and worked my plan through the holidays.  Dropping those first 10 pounds and working daily on my tight hamstrings and quads.  I came into this training cycle lean and fit.  By the end of this cycle I was hovering around 170 pounds and 9% body fat.  I was getting good sleep and I was healthy. 

Bringing this health into my training cycle enabled me to hit paces I haven’t seen in 10 years. It enabled me to attack workouts that I would have walked away from in previous cycles.  I had the quality, if not the volume, I needed to do well. 

Like I said.  I’m quite proud of this training cycle.  I feel like it was a major lifestyle change for me.  I’m also cognizant of the fact that I’m not a 20-year-old (or a 30-year-old…or a 40-year-old) anymore and this kind of intensity may not be the best choice for longevity in this sport. 

I was dead set on sticking to my plan.  I was not going to go out too fast.  I was going to stick to 8 minute miles or slower.  My strategy was to make it through the hills with enough juice left to close the race.

Maybe it was because we started at the back of the corral, but it seemed very crowded in the beginning.  We crossed the first mile mark at somewhere around an 8:24 pace, successfully resisting the pull of the hills. 

Again, from the random encounter files, Frank, one of my training partners tapped me on the shoulder and congratulated me for not going out too fast.  I was glad to see him, but I turned around and he was gone, running his own race. 

I say ‘somewhere around an 8:24 pace’ because my Garmin was off the mile marks from the start and got worse as the race progressed.  I ended up off my 3 tenths of a mile.  Which is a lot.  It’s close to 3 minutes discrepancy at the finish. 

The next few miles brought our average down to right around 8:03 official at the first 5Kmark.  Which was right where I wanted to be.  We were running smart.  According to the official BAA timers we were right on our target splits. At 5K and at 10K.

My legs didn’t feel great.  There have been times at Boston that early in the race I can feel that ‘pop’ in my legs.  This wasn’t one of those.  I knew it was going to be a work day, but I was committed to the work.  I wasn’t going to waste this training.  No matter what I was going to work my plan – all the way. 

The race felt very crowded this year, especially in the water stops.  People were bumping and pushing and getting knocked off pace in those early tables.  

Eric started grumbling about it ‘not being his day’ but I pushed back and said all we have to do is hold this pace and get to the top of that hill.  Hold this pace and make it to the top of Heartbreak.  That’s the plan and I was working my plan – come hell or high water – all in. 

We were taking water at every aid station because it was a bit warmer than it should have been and we wanted to stay ahead of it.  I got a couple endurolytes down at around the 10K point.  It was still overcast and wasn’t uncomfortable. 

I had a couple gels with me that I had tried to pin to the waistline of my shorts.  I had no ither way to carry them, except in my hands.  I was going to tuck them inside my shorts but that didn’t feel right so I let them hang outside and flop around.  At one point I had a guy say “You’re going to lose those gels” and one did break free, but I got the other one through the first hour and choked it down. 

With the warmer weather I was a bit concerned about my gut.  I knew I had to stay on top of the water and fuel but by doing so also risked nausea from too much.  Again, when you’re racing at your threshold pace your body doesn’t like to digest stuff too. 

Some where before the 10-mile mark I turned around and Eric was gone.  Off to run his own race.  Now I had to pace myself and execute my plan. 

Through the half I was right on pace, with even a couple faster miles.  According to my watch I was a bit faster than the race splits and that difference would end up being significant.  My watch splits were probably 5 seconds a mile off my race clock splits. 

We pulled through Wellesley and the scream tunnel.  I stayed to the middle of the road to not get tangled up.  I remember seeing some young men mixed in with the Coeds and hoping this wasn’t a trend.  I was pacing a couple guys around my age who looked like they were on the same mission.  But, one of them had this annoying habit of going much faster on the downhills and I moved on. 

Somewhere around Wellesley the clouds cleared and the full sun came out.  Not terribly warm, but full sun, calm and around 70. 

The weather was a big story this year at Boston as it usually is.  It wasn’t a major issue, but it was a big story.  A week out it was forecast to be raging thunderstorms, rain and wind like we had last year.  The race officials moved up the wave 4 start to get people out of athletes’ village and onto the course a bit sooner. 

As the race got closer the forecast changed to 60’s, rain and significant tailwind.  This forecast held right up to the race.  The only thing that changed as the days clicked by was that the temperatures were predicted to creep up to close to 70. 

Still, drizzly with a stiff tail wind sounded pretty good to me. 

The dynamic was, as it usually is, that Boston is the last stop for any storm train that rolls across the country.  Typically, these come through in waves, or fronts.  When you look at a weather forecast for New England it really depends on where these storm fronts are, how fast they are moving and what’s on either side. 

That’s why this year was so squirrely.  We had two energetic systems sweeping across the country and as good as our weather technology is it’s a guess as to when the fronts show up and when they leave.  The first traveler was a warm front with tropical downpours.  Then on the heels of that one was a cold front with another line of rain and high winds.  This is all in the same 24 hour period. 

Depending on a couple hours or a shift in the storm path you could get rain, wind, warm, cold or sunny skies and/or calm.  That’s why you’ll hear people say they got all 4 seasons during the race this year.  That’s why, even the night before, we didn’t know what we were getting. 

What we ended up getting was the tropical storm early with lots of rain, warm temps and wind.  That’s what woke me up the night before. 

As the out of town runners made their way out on the buses to Athetes’ village they had to deal with these tropical downpours, thunder and lightning. 

As the waves started to go off this weather calmed and it was overcast, wet and calm.  Still this early rain turned the Hopkinton Highschool fields in athletes’ village into a medieval mud bath again for the waiting athletes.  By the time my wave, wave 3 went off it was overcast, warmish and humid with very little wind. 

As I started the race in corral 3 wave 3 it was mid-60’s, calm, overcast and humid – not bad racing weather.  But, as we got into Wellesely and the hills in Newton the sun came out.  It was 70, full sun and no wind.  A bit warm for us but not horrible. 

Ironically, after all the storms and dire forecasts, all the New Englanders got a touch of sunburn on their virgin skin.  Those poor people from out of town who packed their winter gear in anticipation of Armageddon got a nice, warm and sunny New England day. 

Then that second front, the one with the rain and tailwinds, came through right after we finished.

By the time I finished the clouds were coming in again.  It started raining and gusting walking to the hotel.  When I left for the train a couple hours later (after a shower and rehydrating) the temperature had dropped and there was a biting wind in the city. 

All four seasons in one day. 

The net result was, at least for we wave 2-3 runners, we hit the gap exactly between storm fronts and ran on a clear, windless, slightly too warm, spring day. 

Did it impact my race?  I don’t know.  It was a bit warmer than I like and there was no tail wind.  It certainly didn’t help, and I’ve heard a lot of people blaming it, for poor performances, but it wasn’t awful.  Probably more of a convenient excuse than a causative factor.

That’s Boston. 

After the sun came out and we passed through the scream tunnel the next major landmark is the drop down into Newton Lower Falls and the start of the hills, with ‘hill zero’ climbing up over 128. 

It was in this section where I started to feel a bit funky.  I had a classic power loss moment and it freaked me out.  This is too early in the race to be having power loss.  All those negative thoughts started swirling.  I shut them off and recommitted to fighting it all the way. 

I took another gel and that did the trick.  I felt human again.  Just in time for the hills.  I worked my downhill form down the steep hill into Newton Lower Falls and refocused on getting to the top of Heartbreak. 

I did great job of reeling my mind in.  Each time my head started to go sideways I would refocus on what I was doing right now.  My mantra became “Run the mile you’re in”.  And I kept working. 

I lost 10 seconds or so on that slow mile but according to my watch I had a couple minutes in the bank for the hills so I wasn’t going to let up. 

And that’s the trick at Boston.  How do you go fast enough in the beginning that you don’t fall behind your pace and have a bit of buffer for the hills, while at the same time not burning out your legs in the process? 

I was right on my plan.  It was a work day but I was on my plan.  According to my watch I could give a couple minutes back and still make my time.  Maybe not my A goal but certainly my B goal.

Hill zero was hard but manageable.  After you get over the highway they are handing our gels again so I grabbed on of those for later.  I was keeping my water intake up, but not really drinking much of the F2C I was carrying in my bottle.  Mostly because it was warm by now and my stomach was a bit nasty.  I couldn’t summon the energy to dig my Endurolytes out but figured I was getting enough from the gels and occasional sip from my bottle. 

We turned by the Fire House and I was grinding away, staying on pace.  The uphills didn’t feel great but my downhill pace was nice a strong.  It was still work and I wasn’t having a great day but I thought I was managing it well.  I was running the mile I was in and focused on getting to the top of Heartbreak.

Hill one wasn’t bad and I ran really well off the back of it to recover.  This was very positive for me because many years this is the spot where the race completely unravels.  Around 18 miles in before you even get to Heartbreak. 

Hill 2 was a bit harder, but again I recovered well and ran smoothly on the back side.  Then we were into Heartbreak  I wasn’t looking at my watch anymore.  I was all in, working as well as I could and staying as close to pace as I could, looking to get to the top of that hill and reap the benefits of the downhills and flats into the finish. 

I took a quick walk of the water table before entering the hill to get my head right and started to climb. 

I raised my head and looked up that ½ mile climb and I got back to work.

My training and preparation were excellent.  The only blip was that I had a business conference in Chicago the final week of my taper going into the race.  I ate too much and drank too much beer, got bad sleep and spent way too much time on my feet.  That shouldn’t have been enough to unravel the total quality of my training, but it may have been one of the small factors influencing my race.

My legs were a bit tight and I was a bit jetlagged and heavy as I rested out the weekend before the race. 

Since I was flying back from Chicago Friday morning anyhow, I figured I’d swing by the expo and pick up my bib.  I usually go in Saturday, but this seemed convenient and I really wanted to get off my feet and rest for the remainder of the time I had left. 

I dragged my travel bags onto the train and made my way over to the Hynes at the Pru for the expo.  There was no line at the bib pickup.  I cruised right through without breaking stride.  When I turned into the shirt pickup room there was a long line. Luckily, instead of just joining the line I asked someone what the line was for.  Apparently, it was for people to take a photo of themselves in front of a particular wall banner. 

I skipped that line and cruised through shirt pickup without breaking stride. 

There were people and family groups taking pictures all around with their bibs and shirts. There were people immediately taking the shirts out and trying them on for fit so they could exchange if necessary. 

All these people were just so excited to be there.  They were clutching and fawning in the symbols and idolatry of the moment.  So many stories, all different, but all the same too.  They worked so hard to get here and now they were celebrating and in awe of the moment

I made my way over to the expo.  This is where the crowds were. There was a veritable feeding frenzy at the Adidas official gear booth.  Crowds of runners pawing through the over-priced merch and a line to check out that would make Disney proud. 

I didn’t see anything I liked.  I usually buy a hat, but all the racing hats had the logo as a stuck-on chunk of plastic, not stitched in, so I passed.  None of the shorts looked like anything I’d want to wear either, so I skipped that line too and moved on. 

The Expo seemed smaller than usual.  A bit underwhelming and disappointing. There were the usual big shoe companies and such.  There was the theater showing the race course run through video which is always popular.   On the negative side there seemed to be a lot of ancillary, what I might call, “late night TV products”.  Various potions and devices guaranteed by someone to do something. 

On the good side there were two beer booths.  The Sam Adams guys had a large presence and runners were happily consuming the 26.2 brew specially made for the race.  And Zelus, the beer for runners out of western Mass had a booth.

I might suggest that they consider the expo at Boston as part of the character of the race and find a way to do better.  Maybe get people and products in that fit our lifestyle.  I’m sure it’s just a financial thing, they fill the space with whoever is willing to pay.  How about setting aside booth space for something more intrinsic to our demographic? How about authors?  Important charities? Or maybe to good races? Or maybe some science-based products?  Maybe I’m over thinking it.

My legs were pretty shitty at as I went into the ascent of Heartbreak.  Even after all those awesome sets of hill repeats I had donei n training I couldn’t find that gear, that energy and strength, so instead of slowing to a shuffle I switched to a fast-hike, run cadence, an ultra-running trick, to save my legs and not lose too much time. 

My legs were really heavy and refused to climb well but I worked through to the top of the hill.  I figured that was my time buffer.  Now I had to hang on to close to race pace to have any chance of making my time. 

Coming off the hill I relaxed and again had good downhill form and effort.  I felt comfortable.  I figured I was really close to my goal pace and just had to keep hitting it. I kept running the mile I was in.  I thought I carried a couple minute buffer at least into the hills, so even if I lost a minute or two, I would still be close. 

The course started to take its toll on the runners.  The pack was looser here but runners would be stopping or weaving or sitting on the side of the road and you had to watch out or bump your way through.  I saw two runners being packed onto stretchers by EMTs.  I pushed on.

In my head I thought I could just stay close.  All in.  keep fighting.  It was work.  I wasn’t terribly uncomfortable.  I was able to maintain close to goal pace on the downs and flats in the that last 10K.  I felt strong rolling down that hill with the train tracks into Cleveland Circle. 

Then, I looked up to see the 24 mile sign, and, out of habit, looked at my watch.  My Garmin said almost exactly 3:20.  Even with my addled brain I could do the math.  I would have to run the last 2.21 miles in 15 minutes to get my time.  I had been battling to hold on to 8:10’s in these last miles, thinking I had some buffer.  But, battling as I was, there was no way I was going to lay down a couple sub-7:30’s at that point. 

The wind came out of my sails.  I let my foot off the gas.  I reminded myself to lift my head up and look around.  The screaming crowds, the Citgo sign, the mile to go, the right on Herford, the left on Boylston.  The crowd on Boylston like a living, screaming animal pulling you in to the finish. 

I let myself be in that moment.  I finished easy in 3:40:19 according to the BAA timer.  A full five minutes off my B goal time.  As near as I can figure, with my watch being so far off the race splits I did not have that 2-3 minute buffer going into the hills.  I probably only had 45 seconds to a minute. 

When I lost those 2-3 minutes in the hills, combined with a couple slower miles where I was 5 or 10 seconds off pace at the end I was in the hole coming off Heartbreak.  I didn’t have the juice to negative split it in.  In those final miles where I was working to stay close to race pace I really needed to be negative splitting.  Of those 5 minutes I missed by, ½ of that is real and half of that is me taking my time to enjoy the last 2miles of the race.


In these last few days since the race I struggle with how to write and talk about it.  I suppose that’s the defining characteristic of this race – that it refuses to play along and be categorized.  On the one hand I feel blessed and awed to be able to be part of this great thing.  On the other I have mixed feelings about how I haven’t had a great race there in almost a decade. 

That’s why I like to let these things sit a bit before I try to write it up.  Let something that makes sense congeal into narrative and form.  Come to some sort of conclusion.  Some sort of tidy summary to stamp a smiley face on the report before turning it in for grading. 

This week, since the race, I’ve been waking up early.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s the early rising sun of late spring.  Maybe it’s the damage in my legs.  Maybe it’s my unsettled mind.  I’m typically blessed with clarity in mornings so why not work on this report for you?  Let’s see if we can’t benefit from an early release of green, fresh thoughts still weeping sap from the fresh cuts.

The summary statement, if one can ever summarize a Boston Marathon race, is I’m happy with my training effort, I’m happy with my racing effort, I think I executed my plan well, but I’m a bit disappointed with my results. 

Here are the two sides of that coin; I missed my A goal by 10 minutes, and I missed my B goal by 5 minutes.  Now I’m out of qualification.  Flip that over and you find that I trained well, executed my plan, worked hard and didn’t give up.  Relatively I did very well.  But, relatively doesn’t get you entry into next year’s race. 

How can I say that relatively I did well?  That’s quite simple.  Since Boston is a seeded race all you need to do is to look at how you performed vis-à-vis your bib number.  For every finishing spot you beat your bib number by you finished better than someone who qualified with a better time than you did. 

I beat my bib number by 6,595 places.  Even if you throw out the outliers it’s obvious I had a much better day than many of my cohort.  It was my training, my execution and my pure stubbornness that enabled me to do so. 

Part of me wonders just what I have to do to have a break out race at Boston.  Part of me wonders if I have anything left I can do.  Part of me wonders if maybe I just don’t have the ability to pull it off anymore.  And, of course, part of me wonders why I care so much?  Really? What is it about this race that turns me into a neurotic mess once a year?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have a terrible race. I’m not jumping out the window with remorse.  I’m just stressed out, because I controlled everything I could, I did everything I could, and it still wasn’t enough for Boston. 

Based on my training paces I should have hit my A goal of breaking 3:30 and should have easily hit my B goal of 3:35.  But that didn’t happen.  I crossed that line with a hard fought 3:40:19.  I am beat up and sore.  I executed my plan but those training paces and that training fitness weren’t enough for Boston.

I worked hard.  I worked my plan.  And I never gave up.  I’m proud of the effort. There were times in this race where I was struggling and I was able to pull myself together, focus on the mile I was in, and keep racing. 

It was probably the depth and quality of my training that allowed me to fight back.  A positive spin on it might be that without that training and execution it would have been a real train wreck. 

So here we are, Dear Reader, out of qualification.  As my training buddies and I joke there is not way to gracefully disengage from Boston. If you have a good race, you’re qualified and might as well run.  If you don’t you’re pissed off and don’t want to end on a down note.  Either way you’re back on the neurotic Boston horse for another round.

I signed up for the Vermont Cities Marathon at the end of May.  I’m going to take this training and go up there and get my qualification on a reasonable course that doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate its dominance and extract its pound of flesh. 

And, I’ll see you out there.

Direct download: Boston2019.mp3
Category:Running -- posted at: 8:21pm EDT





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