For long distance runners the Boston Marathon is a very special race. Since 1897 it has been run annually, making it the world’s oldest annual marathon and arguably the world’s most famous road racing event. Unusual for most marathons, you need to qualify by running an approved marathon within a certain period of time, unless you are one of the 1,250 people who agree to raise a certain amount of funds. I qualified in the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2007 with my 3:26:51 which was just under the 3:30 limit. So on April 21, 2008 I found myself at the start line for my first Boston marathon.
The race is run on a Monday which is the “Patriot’s Day” holiday in Massachusetts. This commemorates the first battles of the American Revolutionary War at Concord and Lexington in 1775 – events which were immortalized in the midnight ride by Paul Revere to warn the colonials that the British were coming:
- Listen, my children, and you shall hear
- Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
- On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
- Hardly a man is now alive
- Who remembers that famous day and year
Lis and I flew up Thursday evening and stayed with Sharon and Brian Warren. Sharon was in Lis’ nursing class in Australia and they had recently moved here to join Brian for his new job. On Friday we went to the ‘Race Expo’ where I collected my bib and race shirt-which I gave to Sharon who was very caught up with the enthusiasm of the marathon. It was by far the largest expo I’ve even seen and it was fun to walk around and try the free samples and see the latest gear. I bought some socks while the ladies each scored themselves nice green t-shirts for free.
The race is unusual insofar as it starts in the small town of Hopkinton well outside of Boston (some 26 miles to be exact!). The map below shows the route that we ran. All the roads in the area are two-lane roads, so it is difficult to get handle the logistics for 22,000 runners and supporters. They therefore put on buses to take the runners from downtown Boston to the race start. Since we were staying some 30 minutes north of Boston, I wasn’t keen on this as it would mean leaving by 06:00 to get the early buses, and then waiting several hours to the 10:00 start. Since Sharon was going to accompany Lis for the day they agreed to drop me off near the start and then they would drive to some points to see me during the race. I was pleased since this meant we didn’t need to leave until 7:30+.
We took the interstate 495 south towards Hopkinton and we found to our dismay that the exit we wanted to take was closed to traffic because of the race. We had somehow missed the earlier signs to that effect. What we found truly amazing was the 2+ mile long queue of buses stopped at the side of the road leading up to the next exit. The buses were from all over and clearly one advantage to running the race on a public holiday was the ready availability of school buses for hire! It was funny to see all the runners by the side of the road relieving themselves-another good reason not to get up too early and catch the bus!
We decided to do a large circle and exit towards the west at the Hopkinton exit as that was open. We then noticed signs towards parking and found that they had established parking lots and were offering shuttle buses to the start. We did a quick change of plans and the ladies decided to accompany me to the start area and watch the beginning of the race. They would then shuttle bus back to the car and head out to a few viewing points where we hoped we would somehow meet up.
Hopkinton is a nice small town and so it was totally overwhelmed by the runners and their supporters. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind – at least the one who I chatted with. I got the photos below with my support crew.
I had decided to wear my Canadian running shirt which proved to be a good call as there were over 2,000 Canadians in the race so I got lots of support as I ran the race. The Montreal Canadians were also playing the Boston Bruins in the quarter-finals of ice hockey’s Stanley Cup so I got some jeers from Boston fans. One very keen fellow ran the race in a Montreal Canadians ice hockey jersey. Talk about commitment as they keep you warm on the rink in winter, and are not designed for running a marathon in sunny weather! Still, it mustn’t have hurt as Montreal eliminated Boston that night 5-0 in their final game.
There is always such a positive atmosphere at the start of a race and I enjoyed soaking it up. We watched the start of the women’s elite runners – they don’t run, they float (Digression: there was 2 second difference between the first and second place women). They sang the national anthem and the air force flew over which evoked a cheer. Sharon had made the interesting observation that in Australia (and elsewhere) everyone signs the anthem whereas here it is sung to them. Hadn’t thought about it.
We headed over and I joined my corral for the race. We were the tenth and so there were over 10,000 people ahead of me. The photo to the left gives you an idea of what the start looks like – or at least the wait before the start!
I had more reservations about this race than usual since I had been battling an injured hamstring for a few weeks. Fortunately, my sports masseur Paul managed to find me a few hours and gave it a good work over, and I had been fastidiously stretching every chance I got. This meant that for the two weeks before the race I had done very little running, the most important being the easy 3 miles Sharon and I ran the previously day. After the race I found the quote below from Lance Armstrong who ran the race in 2:50:58 for 488th place: “Every time I [run a marathon], I swear to myself I’m going to train harder for the next one. But I never do.” I was undertrained but more importantly not in the right frame of mind for the race. Endurance races are as much mental as physical in many respects.
The race started at 10:00 and we gradually shuffled forward towards the start line. It took 7 minutes for me to reach the start line but that doesn’t matter as we wear timing chips on our shoes which automatically record when you pass the start, and the finish. They also have several intermediate stations during the race which helps to ensure that runners actually complete the entire race. This avoids the famous problem from 1980 when Rosie Ruiz achieved the third fastest time ever for Boston and won the woman’s race – even though nobody recalled seeing her on the course. She was disqualified and the win went to Canadian Jacqueline Gareau.
As shown to the right (courtesy of my phone camera) there was a solid phalanx of runners from left to right across the road, and as far as I could see in the horizon. However, in spite of the numbers we were maintaining a good pace, helped by the fact that this was one of the downhill parts of the course.
As shown below, which is the elevation profile for the race courtesy of my GPS watch, the course is anything but flat. In fact there are so few flat sections you are always running either downhill or uphill (ignore the uphill bits at the end – they are due to the buildings interfering with the signal). The famous ‘Heartbreak Hill’ is at mile 20.5 and is preceded by two smaller hills. None of the hills-even Heartbreak-are particularly hard of themselves, it is just the continuous challenge of having so many without any respite. Heartbreak also comes at the point where you have “hit the wall” as a runner-your muscle glycogen is severely depleted.
Many of us had been waiting for some time and if there is one area where men have a definite advantage over women it is the area of relieving a full bladder. About 1 mile into the run I passed a solid line of men. I do feel sorry for women who are not anatomically equipped as we are. This is especially true if you are an elite runner like Paula Radcliffe who holds the world record. In the 2005 London Marathon she had to make a toilet stop which was done in plain view of the crowd and TV cameras which broadcast the incident live. In November 2006, the incident was voted top running moment in history from a choice of ten ‘unforgettable moments’. If interested, the photo from the Sun newspaper is here.
Another thing which accompanies the race start is the shedding of superfluous clothing. It was quite cold when we first lined up and I was fortunate to have Lis and Sharon take my jacket and warmup trousers. Others put them into their race bags and handed them into the organizers-they would be waiting at the other end. The third solution is to bring along an old shirt and then just throw it off on the side of the road. As you can see here, there were a lot of clothes discarded along the road. Lis told me that it is collected, washed and donated to charity so at least it doesn’t go to waste!
One of my problems is that I always start out too fast. Part of it is to burn off your pent up energy but another is that I just like to run fast. This race was typical and after doing the first mile in 7:58, I did the next two in 7:16 and 7:17. So much for my deciding to take it easy and stick to 8:30 miles for the whole race to save my leg. I was out here doing the Boston marathon so I’d give it my best shot. A 3:45 was the most likely best performance I would have, but if I could do better I would.
In all my races I have never experienced the crowd support of Boston. It was simply amazing. As you ran along many children lined the roads cheering you and holding their hands out for a ‘high five’. I felt honour bound to do this at every opportunity so after about 10 miles my hand was aching! As I mentioned earlier, there were many Canadians about flying Canadian flags and cheering like mad when they saw a fellow countryman/woman.
I found myself running for quite a while with Jim who was from the DC area. He was trying for a 3:30 and I told him that at my pace-by now 8:07’s-he wouldn’t do it. He said that was OK as the temperature was getting to him. It was nice to have someone to chat to and since this was his fifth Boston he was able to advise me about what was coming up – not that I wanted to know!
As it warmed up the running became more of a challenge. I was very grateful for all the water stops they had along the course. Every mile there were tables set up on both sides of the road with Gatorade and water. They also had a Powerbar stop where you could get energy gels. Since I find Gatorade not fit for human consumption, I carried with me some gels and energy chews, which were replenished when I caught up with Lis. I was probably a bit undernourished for the race, but at least I was well hydrated with a drink at every station. The photo to the right gives you an idea of the mess that arises at the stations. I was also glad that I had my Endurolyte electrolyte tablets as by the end of the race I was quite salt stained from sweating. I have found that Endurolytes and ‘Sport Legs’ calcium/magnesium supplements are essential for endurance events in warm weather.
There are several famous sites along the marathon course, but for me the Wellesley College “Tunnel of Screams” is the most memorable. Wellesley is a woman’s college and so the road is lined with females cheering and screaming their hearts out. You hear it about half a mile beforehand and when you are in the tunnel it is absolutely deafening. Kind of like being next to a jet engine. Someone shot a video which captures a bit of what it is like and you can find it here – although I can tell you that it was MUCH louder. The women also held signs to inspire the runners, some of them were quite provocative. One woman had a sign ‘I love sweaty runners’ and the fellow in front of me called out “In that case” and grabbed her and gave her a kiss!
One advantage to having a cell phone – besides taking photos – was that I could stay in touch with Lis and Sharon. They were waiting for me just after Wellesley college and so I took a short break to grab a kiss, some more energy gels, and a couple of hugs. Sharon also took the photo of us together. Lis commented that this was very unlike me since I’m very competitive, but I figured that I wasn’t going to set a course record so I may as well enjoy the day.
By now it was fairly hot and we were soon into the hills. I was very grateful for the coaching that I received on how to run hills – especially downhill wherein you lean forward and increase your turnover rate. This saves you from totally trashing your quadriceps on the downhills, which can be worse than uphills. I had few chances to actually train on hills with my travel and injury so I was pleased that I didn’t find them as troublesome as I had expected. No, I was not particularly fast on the hill sections, but I also did not need to stop and walk. Just before Heartbreak Hill I met up with Lis and Sharon again where they got the photo to the right. I was still smiling, although I had lost most feeling in my legs by that point. Probably the reason why I was smiling.
From there things got hard, but the crowds really helped to inspire us along. It was up and down, up and down, and then for a change … up and down. Then Heartbreak Hill was behind and it was essentially downhill, with intermediate rises, to the finish line. In places the crowds pushed into the road so it was very narrow with only space for a few runners, while in others we had the wide boulevards. I passed a few runners being carried off the course and I could relate – my legs were kind of into automatic mode where you just will them to keep going. I felt that if I stopped and walked it would be impossible to start again. Mile 24-25 was really hard and I was struggling, but once I hit Mile 25 I knew that from here on it didn’t matter and I could give it all I had (which wasn’t very much!). I passed a woman runner being picked up by some police officers just after Mile 25 and I really felt for her – to be so close but yet so far.
The final run to the finish was in downtown Boston and I don’t recall much of it. I just focused on the large blue sign in the distance with ‘Finish’ on it and pushed myself as best I could to make it. As a sign of how trashed I was, I was not able to markedly pick up the pace to the finish and struggled through to an 8:46 for the last mile. Normally I’m about a minute faster.
My final statistics are below, with a finish time of 3:40:06. This gave me 9,308/21,693 overall. 7,030/13,263 men, and 2,808/4,644 in my age group. It was interesting that with my 3:36 in the Marine Corps Marathon I was
For those who are a bit ‘geeky’ when it comes to training the following may be interesting. This shows my pace by mile but of most interest is the average heart rate. Based on my VO2 test, my aerobic capacity (Zone 5b) is 167-173 bpm. In 5b theory says ” lactic acid builds up quickly, so this intensity cannot be sustained for long periods. At this intensity, the aerobic system is working at 95 – 100% of maximum.” I spent the entire race after mile 3 in Zone 5 and the last 7.5 miles in 5b? I must find out from my coach more about this … something doesn’t quite work out.
I was completely trashed at the end of the race and managed to stagger through towards the exit. You know you are in bad shape when seven race volunteers ask if you need help/a wheelchair/to sit down/etc. Totally self inflicted. Fortunately, they had lots of space blankets to keep us warm. It was like an assembly line. First they got us to physically move past the finish line to clear the way for others – not an easy task. Then we were given a blanket. From there we moved, or in my case staggered, to get our medals. The problem here was that we needed to remove our timing chip which entailed bending over. I managed to do so and was suitably rewarded. Then it was down through the almost stationary runners to get some food. I would have loved to exit and avoid the congestion but they had up fences which made that impossible. I skipped the food and continued towards the exit where they had parked buses with the bags runners had given them at the beginning with their clothes. This was followed by the medical tent which was very busy.
I called Sharon and found that they were having problems getting to the area due to road closures, but eventually we connected and by then I was smiling again.
It was then back to Sharon’s where I had a snooze and the airport to head back to Washington. There were a lot of people at the airport wearing Boston Marathon T-shirts, with their medals around their necks in regular clothes, or just staggering about. I fell into the latter category. Still, it was worth it and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to run in such a challenging race.