Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Race

My first conscious moments of April 20th, 2009 were sometime around 1-2am. I woke up in the middle of the night as I normally do before a big race. My sub-conscious seemed to be pleading with me to be cautious - as my first thoughts were regarding the Miami half-marathon I ran in January. I ended up running with a marathoner for a few miles - and as I turned off to the finish I had pangs of guilt and sympathy as I realized he had many painful miles ahead.

Today, I would be switching places with that runner. The only thing that could at least buffer the pain I had in front of me was to be smart at the beginning. The start of a major marathon is like the beginning of youthful love. You want to throw yourself into it fully - not thinking about the consequences or the possible pain that your thoughtlessness might cause in the future. As those of a certain age know, the wisdom of maturity is born from pain that follows such foolishness.

My second awakening was at 5:20am. I drove to a T stop and rode it to the Boston Commons where I would catch a bus to the start at Hopkinton. The bus ride was another reminder to be cautious. The ride takes close to an hour - and has all the riders asking "I have to run all the way back?"

I found a relatively empty set of porta-johns. Not to be too graphic, but along with eating right - making sure that you are as "empty" as possible is a big key to having a good race. I quickly found my friends and we joked and laughed as we lay on the wet grass. The area eventually became so crowded that I decided to head for the buses where I would drop off my gear bag. In it was warm clothing, my training shoes, a little money and my cell phone.

I walked down with others to the start at the town square of Hopkinton (pop. <15,000). The area had the feel of a small town festival. I watched the women start at 9:30am - after some stretching and resting I walked over to my corral. Fortunately, my bib number allowed me to get into the first corral behind the elites.

As I sat, stretched, and sipped on some water a volunteer asked me if it was my first Boston. We chatted a little bit and she told me that the elites were going to pass right on the other side of the french barricades beside me. Apparently they used to bring the elites through the cemetery - but, some of them complained that it was bad luck. So, they changed the route so that they passed next to the first few corrals of runners.

10-15 minutes before the start I saw Hall, Cheriyot, Sell, and others comes towards me. Both Hall and Sell were very pumped - they high-fived us as they passed. Then my friend since childhood, Todd Snyder, came by - he was in the zone - and I had to shout his name a few times before he looked up and noticed me.

Several minutes later the gun fired and we were off. The first few miles were a blur - but, I stayed pretty relaxed. The road was crowded - but, I was able to run my pace without being blocked or pushed.

As the miles went by runners started to coalesce into groups like a stream of water forming droplets - these groups were formed, in part, because of the wind. People were less willing to run by themselves. I had promised myself that I wouldn't freak out if I found myself by my lonesome. I was able to do some drafting - but, I didn't surge to the next group when I found myself alone - I just tried to keep the same level of effort.

My first 10 miles were very close to my goal of 57 minutes. That first hour of running was spent running through small towns and longer stretches of woodlands, over creeks, and alongside small lakes. In more open areas near the lakes it was evident that the #1 opponent for the day would be the wind. It wasn't a blow you over wind - but, it did provide some drag.

Around the 12-mile mark was the infamous "scream tunnel" as Welleselley College. It was pretty crazy - they take their unofficial responsibility as the cheerleading squad of the Boston marathon pretty seriously.

The next major milestone was the halfway mark - 1:14:48. Although, I knew that I was about 30-40 seconds slower than I planned - I felt strongly that I could run a faster second half. Usually in a marathon, I'm questioning what I got myself into at the halfway point - so this was a good sign.

Since the 10 mile mark I had been 20-30 seconds back of a big group. My plan was to pass them by mile 15 - but, I hadn't made much of a dent. In the second half of the 15th mile there was a long downhill to the Charles River - a downhill that belies what's to come. The bridge over the Charles River was a bridge to pain - within a few steps after the bridge I was on my way up the first of the four Newton hills.

The group that I had stalked for the last five miles melted around me as I powered my way up the hill. I felt stronger after 16 miles than any other marathon I've run. At 17 miles was a slight downhill - I saw Melissa cheering off to the side of the road. She was one familiar face out of a sea of strangers - I went over to the side of the road and gave her a high five. In my distraction I missed the 17 mile mark - the only one I missed in the entire marathon.

I hit 20 miles in ~1:54:30 - just 30 seconds slower than I had planned. I felt strong enough at that point that I still thought I could edge under 2:30. Soon after came the infamous heartbreak hill - I've heard a lot of people say it's not that bad - but, I certainly wasn't disappointed by the challenge.

Yes - most of the last five miles is downhill - but, there are some rolling hills I didn't expect. I still thought I had a shot of running under 2:30 until I got to the hill at mile 23. At that point I knew it just wasn't in the cards. The wind worsened after heartbreak hill and my legs started to stiffen. I didn't completely throw in the towel - I tried to key off some other runners and finish strong - but, I slowed pretty substantially in the last few miles. Given that I didn't have a shot of sub 2:30 I decided it was better to enjoy the crowds and the experience instead of killing myself.

After crossing the line I slowly made my way to the buses for my gear bag. Every 15-20 feet a medical volunteer asked me if I needed any assistance. The Boston volunteers are the best in any race I've participated in - they love this day and give it their all to make a good experience for the runners.

Eventually I got a massage and a woman who thought her job was a good excuse to torture helpless runners drained and cleaned out my blisters.

Overall the day was a great success. Yea - it would have been nice to not have such a strong headwind - but, looking back on my first post outlining my goals - much more has gone right than has gone wrong since November.

Some people mistakenly believe that the marathon is an individual event. But, I've been lucky to run with a very supportive group of people without whom I could never have PR'd today. And of course everybody who has offered their support in the comments on this blog and in person. It's been a great adventure. Thank you.


alyssa said...

You forgot the part where Kara Goucher beat you by 10 seconds.

haha, jk! great job Ben! Now you should try your hand at Ultras...

Ben said...

that's so funny you say that - within the first 10 seconds I talked to Kendra she informed me that I had been "girled" by Kara Goucher ;)

As for ultra's - as wonderful as running a marathon twice or more in a row sounds - i think i'll go the other way for awhile. 5k-10 miles sound much better.

KLIM said...

Nice read Ben.

You bring up a great point about the volunteers. I had forgotten until now how good they were. They treat you (and everyone) like you're THE winner (not just A winner). I've heard it's very hard to become a volunteer there...it is a privledge.

I'll never forget the first smiling face I saw after i finished last yearr.

Great race. You should be very happy and proud of your stellar performance.