Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Final Postscript: The Boston Marathon 2016

Is it I then that keep saying there is an hour Filled with expressible bliss, in which I have  No need, am happy, forget need’s golden hand, Am satisfied without solacing majesty, And if there is an hour there is a day,  There is a month, a year, there is a time In which majesty is a mirror of the self...---Wallace Stevens

There was a lot of luck involved in bringing me to the start line of the Boston Marathon in 2016.

I was lucky to be there because a snowstorm in Colorado nearly thwarted my travel plans. When my originally scheduled flight was cancelled, I booked myself another ticket under the guidance of my good friend Cynthia. She was ready to drive me to Denver to get a bus if I had to, but my replacement flight took off at 6:55 a.m. the Saturday before the Monday, April 18, race, one of the few planes to leave the Denver airport that day. So I made it after all, sitting on my connecting flight to Boston with two of my friends from the Boulder Striders.

I was lucky to be there because an unhappy hamstring and an unhappier right foot had sidelined me much of the previous summer. Thanks to a good physical therapist, a good podiatrist, smart coaching, some cushy shoes and my foam roller, these injuries had worried me but not stopped me from getting to Boston or from running some confidence-building races leading up to it.

I was lucky to be there because I didn't actually make it through the registration process back in September 2015, when my Indianapolis Monumental Marathon qualifying time of 3:43:25--though technically faster than the 3:45 required of women between 40 and 44--wasn't enough due to the immense swell of runners trying to enter the race. This had happened to me the year before, when I tried to enter Boston 2015 with a not-quite-enough qualifier from the Chicago Marathon. Thanks to Clif Bar, which hosted a contest for people like me who qualified for 2016 but didn't make the final cut, I found myself at last standing on the start line in Hopkinton, warm sunlight pouring down on me, my dream course laid out before me.

I was lucky to be there because I am not fast. I had been trying to get to Boston for six years, spending what some might call far too much money and far too much time on improving my running to the point that I could qualify. And while I had at last accomplished it and I was proud of having worked so single-mindedly at it, being there wasn't the definitive triumph that I had imagined. I had never smashed through the barrier of my qualifying time. I had edged under it, chipped away at it, hovered just below it. Hence the need to win a contest in order to actually toe the line. I wondered, standing there on that start line, in a little internal whisper of doubt, if I actually belonged there.

Yet there I was. The beginning was beautiful, just as I had known it would be, a narrow country highway in a quiet New England town. The weather was a bit warmer than I like, but really nothing to complain about. My head was full of scenes from the prior two days, the bombing survivors I'd seen honored at Fenway Park, the ribbons and banners in shop windows, the yellow daffodils in blue planters, the pre-race pilgrimages to the finish line, Amby Burfoot in the hotel elevator wearing a T-shirt with Joan Benoit's photo on it, Boston colors everywhere, my husband telling me of passing Meb Keflezighi going the other way on his run on the Charles River....I had spent my time pre-race in the Athletes' Village with local running friends from Boulder, snacking on white rolls my husband Dan had bought me the night before because he couldn't find bagels. My friends laughed at the rolls, but they made it into my pre-race photo, as they should have.
Pre-race, with rolls.
Soon the race was on, and I was running. I told myself that I would be happy with anything this long-awaited day brought, but thanks to that doubtful little voice, I still had something to prove. I wanted to run a personal best, to qualify for Boston 2017 at Boston 2016. The time goal I had in mind was 3:39:59, more than three minutes under that Indianapolis time that was still my personal record.

To do that, I needed to run smart, to save the emotion for later. My coaches and other runners had warned me that the rolling downhills of the first half of this race can take a toll on the legs that becomes excruciating when it manifests itself in the second half's infamous hills (even non-runners know those hills). As we began the first steep descent and I could tell my heart rate was low and my legs wanted to go, I kept in mind how years earlier Dan had told me before a 10K that I should pass no one in the first mile. That advice seemed even more important today. I imagined his voice saying that--"Pass no one"--and then, summoning the South African accents of my coaches, I imagined Colleen saying "mid-foot strike" and "quick feet" and Darren telling me that he is proud of me.

Mid-race, happy to be running in Boston
I also kept the need to stay cool, hydrated and fueled in mind. I got water at every aid station, one cup to drink and one to pour over my head and shoulders, and I usually got a cup of Gatorade, too. Stuffed into my bra were several Clif Shots and two packs of their Shot Bloks; I ate these every four miles. At no point in the race did I enjoy these breaks to eat and drink--I wanted to keep the rhythm of my pace uninterrupted--but I took them anyway, never walking but slowing to make swallowing easier and to avoid smashing into other runners.

I wore my Garmin GPS watch, but I turned off the auto-lap function and all of the sounds, and hit the lap button myself at every mile marker. This removed the stress of seeing my auto-laps not matching the course markers, which are the markers that matter. I also chose to glance at the watch only occasionally, never allowing myself to look at the total time elapsed.

My splits for the first third of the race ebbed and flowed with the hills, according to Garmin data:
Mile 1: 8:33
Mile 2: 8:18
Mile 3: 8:26
Mile 4: 8:18
Mile 5: 8:34
Mile 6: 8:23
Mile 7: 8:21
Mile 8: 8:28
Mile 9: 8:29

The half-marathon mark led to a little rough patch for me. I'd made my way through the Wellesley girls and into the little downtown area, and suddenly it felt....uphill. I still had half of the race to go. But this brief lag in optimism didn't last, and as the miles continued to click by I realized that for the first time in a marathon I was entering the late-teens without feeling fuzzy-brained, heavy-legged or out of control. My manual laps confirmed this: my pace was holding steady.

Mile 10: 8:23
Mile 11: 8:29
Mile 12: 8:17
Mile 13: 8:21
Half-Marathon Total Time: 1:50:50
Mile 14: 8:32
Mile 15: 8:24
Mile 16: 7:59
Mile 17: 8:25
Mile 18: 8:19

After this point, the data become dubious--only the slow 21st mile seems to match how I felt. Because after running through a refreshing spray-tunnel at the base of the infamous Newton Hills, I began the climb, still feeling good but definitely (or so I thought) slowed by the inclines. At one point, running on the left-most side of the road, I managed a grin at a spectator, who responded by saying, " look good! You look really good!!" Which gave me a lift.

Mile 19: 8:02
Mile 20: 8:30
Mile 21 (Heartbreak Hill): 8:56

In Newton tackling the hills; thanks to my high school friend Martin Peters for the pic
When I realized I had conquered Heartbreak, I found it in me to speed up again. My legs still felt decent, peppy, all the way until Mile 25, when I suddenly, really, truly did not want to run any more.

Mile 22: 8:01
Mile 23: 8:17
Mile 24: 8:03
Mile 25: 8:53

It was at that point that I saw Dan. His face, his voice, were like a steroid shot. I reminded my tired legs that we had just a mile to go, that Colleen had told me one can "always run one mile" and besides...I was there, running the Boston Marathon, about to experience the most storied homestretch in running.

And then almost too soon there it was, that right turn on Hereford and that left turn on Boylston and the beautiful flat straightaway to the line.

...and left on Boylston....
Race officials had painted a set of parallel blue lines down the middle of the road; it was like one of those moving walkways at the airport, accelerating each of my steps. Introvert that I am, I actually waved my arm to get the crowds to cheer. I imagined wings on my feet, diamonds on the soles of my shoes. I imagined reeling that finish line in like an elusive prize trout on the line of an obsessed angler.

That beautiful homestretch!
I forgot to lap my watch at Mile 26, but the split for the last 1.2 miles was 7:32. My final time: 3:40:40, an 8:25 pace. Though not the sub-3:40 I wanted, it was a decisive Boston qualifier and the marathon I'd always imagined, not only because it was Boston but because of how good I had felt for most of it: just two short rough patches that I'd easily overcome. I don't deceive myself that there wasn't luck involved in that, too; the marathon is a fickle beast and there will be bad races for me in the future. But I do feel I proved that all luck aside, I belonged there on that day and can belong there next year, too, if I choose to.

Finish line!
Will I choose to? No. It is my hope that the bib I could have gotten for Boston 2017 will go to a first timer who might otherwise be squeezed out due to supply and demand as I was for both 2015 and (until Clif Bar helped me out) 2016 too. I hope everyone who truly wishes to be there can run the Boston Marathon.

Someday I will go back. For now, though, it's time to move on to other goals in running and in life. There are many mountains to climb and a dwindling amount of time in which to ascend them.

What, I wonder, should I try for next?