Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Boston Marathon

April 16, 2012

The Boston Marathon -- When I started running, training and racing more seriously, I thought that qualifying for the Boston Marathon was out of my reach -- I didn't think it was possible.  I had heard of the many attempts that some runners make just to try and qualify and had visions of only the super speedy being fast enough.  As my training progressed, and my speed improved, qualifying for Boston seemed like it was within my grasp.  However, I held off running a marathon, until I felt certain that my fitness was at a point that, with the proper training I could make the cut.  I finally made the plunge in October 2010, running the Victoria marathon, and qualifying for Boston.

The training leading up to the Boston Marathon was tough.  I found it hard to slog out long runs in the cold, wet, wintery conditions.  I had much preferred training for a fall marathon, over the summer!  My training also took an interesting turn - because I was racing almost every second weekend between January and March, I had to fit in my long runs after my races.  I would race between 5-12 kms and then run an extra 15-30 afterwards to make up the long run.  This actually made it somewhat more enjoyable, as I was running in various different locations around the Island, and had the company of Shane for at least parts of most of those runs, as he was also training for Boston.

We left for Boston on the Friday before the race, giving us a few days to adjust to the 3-hour time difference and see a few of the sights around the city.  Boston was spectacular - I loved it! As we walked along the residential streets, I felt like I had just walked into the Cosby show - with the brick townhouses side-by-side, with the steps leading up to the entrance, the flower pots by the windows, and a few street-level enclosed patios.  I loved the way it looked, especially since it was so different than Victoria. We actually missed the turn-off to our hostel because we were too busy looking at the architecture. 

The next day we checked-in at the race expo and took in a good part of the city 'walking tour'.  Around Boston, there is a red-brick path that you can follow to bring you past most of the historical buildings and places in the city.  It's really well-laid out and easy to follow.  The highlight of the day were touring the USS Constitution, the oldest navy ship in the US, with a colourful and interesting history.  We got to see the depths of the boat, where the eating, sleeping and working took place.  This is also where battles were fought and won, as cannonballs actually bounced off the ship's wooden hull, giving it the name 'Ironsides'.  It was fascinating seeing the quarters in which the sailors lived, ate and slept - the rows of hanging hammocks that were beds - and hearing about their long 16 hours days that were truncated with eating and sleeping in 4 hour shifts.  In the same shipyard, we also saw a WWII warship, of a totally different design and nature - with small enclosed spaces. The Charlestown District of Boston was also very picturesque - again with very attractive townhomes and winding, narrow streets.  We also made our way up to the Bunker Hill Monument and climbed the 294 steps to the top of the tower.  It was beautiful to see across the Boston landscape and interesting to see how many of the homes had rooftop patios, with barbecues and stylish patio furniture.  

That evening we fit in an easy run along the river, and I was surprised at how drained I felt.  My knee was also twinging a bit, and I just hoped that the pain would not appear on Monday during the marathon. That evening for dinner we headed to the Chinatown district to try out a vegan Thai restaurant.  I had fantastic memories of the vegan Thai restaurants that I ate at in Bangkok, and was hoping for a similar experience. It wasn't quite the same as Thailand, but the dishes were still pretty tasty, and it was fun to have a huge menu to choose from, rather than just a few select items.  If I lived in Boston, I would totally return to try out more of their offerings.

The next day was expo round 2.  The expo was absolutely humongous - definitely the largest I'd ever seen.  I'm actually glad that we did it in two days, because after a few hours there it got a bit overwhelming.  There were people everywhere, and both days were just as busy.  There were lots of samples to try and lots of shoes to try on - I think I actually got a bit overloaded with sugar, with all of the shot blocks, gels, clif bars and shots, frozen yogurt, gatorade drinks etc. But it was fun to see such a huge event, and I managed to pick up a few pairs of shoes in the $50 discount section.  That evening we checked out the carbo-loading dinner with Chris Callendar and his wife Wendy, and even managed to share a table with runners from Vancouver! The great drama of the event was the heat.  Saturday and Sunday had been fairly warm, and the predictions were that Monday was going to be even hotter, with temperatures reaching into the 30s -- and for running on pavement, that's damn hot.  As such, the race organizers sent out emails and warned racers of the dangers of running in high heat, and encouraged people not to race if they were not very fit and well trained.  They even offered deferrals to the next year, for anyone who chose not to race this year - about 4,000 people took the offer.  Shane and I didn't even contemplate it -- we had come this far, trained hard, and were all in.  I figured it might affect my time, and lowered my expectations, knowing that the heat would likely cause me to slow down somewhat.

The big day!  Despite the actual race not starting until 10:00am or 10:20am for me, as I was in the second wave, we were up by around 6am, to grab some breakfast and make our way to the buses that would transport us to the start-line. It was an early start, and we'd been warned by many people to take extra clothes, as the morning can be cold, and you usually end up waiting around for an hour or more until it's time to make it to the start line. I didn't think we'd have to worry about the cold this year, but did take some of the extra clothes that I'd brought along, with the intention of leaving them for charity at the race start.  Despite our early start, once we got to the park where the buses were lined up, we had a 45 minute wait until we actually made it onto a bus.  The line-ups were a bit chaotic, and it was not clear which line was going where, or that they were in fact going in an orderly fashion.  To make matters worse, we had to go hunt down the port-a-potties, as they had been dropped off in the wrong location on the other side of the park.  We started getting a bit panicky, as we knew it was about an hour long drive to the start, and Shane was supposed to be leaving for his corral shortly after 9am.  Luckily, we were the last to hop onto a bus that left at 7:45, which should give us just enough time to get to the starting line.  With so many racers, it's definitely a big production just to get everyone to the start. 

At the start, Shane had just enough time to drop off his bag and make a potty-stop before heading off to his corral.  I was just 20 minutes behind him, and so just had a bit of time to seek some shade to sit in before heading over myself.  The temperature was already sweltering, and I was seeking as much shade as I could find, and has already started pouring water over my head and hat to try and start off as cool as possible.  The start line was about a 10 minute walk away from the Athlete's village, where the bus had dropped us off, and on the way to the start the evidence of the energy and support of the residents was already apparent - as we walked past a station that someone had set up on their front lawn offering a variety of goodies to racers: pins, hair elastics, vaseline etc.   It was soo great to see!

I arrived at the start, just as the first wave took off.  I made one final potty-stop - and this was the place to stop, as there were no line-ups, as everyone had been lining up at the Athlete's village instead.  I nearly began to sweat as I made my way to my corral, and stuck in the shade until the last moments before my wave took off.

I positioned myself near the front of corral '2', and waited out the few last moments before the gun went off - in nervous anticipation.  Soon enough we were off, and the road descended as we made our way through the first mile through the streets of Hopkington.  The Boston Marathon is actually a net-loss elevation course, and the majority of the first half is actually slightly downhill.  This can lead to fast times, but more often to thrashed quads that have taken a pounding in the early miles, making it hard to cover the final 10-15 kilometers, which includes the famed Heartbreak Hill. 

I found the entire race, but particularly the first 5-10 kilometers quite packed.  The pace started out slower than I'd expected, and although I would have liked to have ran faster, I was hampered by the crowds.  This actually probably ended up being a good thing, as I was stopped from starting out too fast on the course. My original goal was to finish in 3:15 or faster, but with the heat I'd readjusted my goal, and I'd be happy with just posting a PB, which would be anything faster than 3:22:45 - although I secretly hoped I could still break 3:20.  As we ran through those first kilometers, I tried not to focus too much on my time, and just enjoy the experience and focus on not overheating.  I aimed to run in the shade as much as possible, and picked up water and orange slices along the way from both the official aid stations and residents cheering along the side-lines.

The crowds were absolutely phenomenal.  I'd never experienced anything like it.  They lined practically the entire course, and were graciously handing out oranges slices, water and ice to the thousands of runners - and cheering loudly along the way and of course doling out lots of hand slaps.  It was great, and actually what got me through the race.  Without the generosity of the crowds, I don't think I would have fared quite as well. A few people brought out their hoses to spray the runners, and a few kids lined the streets with buckets full of water asking if anyone wanted a 'splash'.  I graciously raised my hands to indulge in a couple of those - which the kids were eager to comply with.  The race organizers also put together a few spray stations along the route and the fire department came to open up a few fire hydrants, but it was truly the ice that saved the day for me.  On numerous occasions, I grabbed handfuls of ice that I stuffed down my bra or under my hat, and it was lovely to help cool down the core and my head. 

The race took us through residential neighbourhoods, where we were running in front of people's homes, and through a few strips of commercial districts through some small towns.  Almost every step of the way there were crowds cheering us on.  Many people had written their name on their body or their shirt, and if the crowds could see your name they'd call it out, otherwise they'd take any bit of info they could gleam to cheer you along - so there were many individuals with Canadian flags or other markings, and I heard many 'go Canada' along the route.  But, the highlight was definitely running past the all-girl's college.  They lined the roadside and held signs saying 'Kiss me I'm...... French, a math major, from Mexico, speak Spanish ...'  They were definitely the most enthusiastic bunch along the entire route too.  So awesome.  They would get super excited if someone actually went over to get a kiss too! 

Despite the heat, my energy and legs felt pretty good throughout. I kept checking in as to how I was feeling, and if I had started to feel really bad, I definitely would have taken it back a notch.  However, while I was hot, I also wanted to get out of the heat and I knew that if I slowed down, I would actually end up being under the sun for even longer.  I split half-way at 1:38:48, which if I was able to keep up the pace would keep me within my revised goal.  Despite the kilometers of downhill, my legs were still feeling pretty good at this point, and I hoped that I would be able to hold on.

Most of the course runs together in a blur - with a lot of my energy spent on seeking the shadiest side of the road, the water stops or random offerings by onlookers and trying to stay as cool as possible.  Then came the hilly part of the course, which starts around 27 km and climaxes with Heartbreak Hill around 32 km.  I had been warned about how hard this section of the course can feel, even though the hills were relatively not that high. Heartbreak Hill only rises about 75 feet.  However, luckily the energy and legs stayed with me throughout this section, and I didn't find the hills too challenging.  I kept on wondering which one was the famed Heartbreak Hill, and was surprised when I'd surmounted it -- was that all, I thought?  I guess I had gotten used to doing much steeper and harder hills just running around Victoria and in the trails. 

From here on out, the course is pretty much downhill to the end. But, despite the 'easy' finish, it was anything but easy.  Just as in any marathon, the legs get tired, the body gets tired and you just want to be done.  Towards the end the racecourse got even more congested.  I had been passing people the entire way, but near the end the number of people walking increased tenfold, and I kept on having to weave here and there to pass them, as no one was moving to the side, but just started walking anywhere they chose.  The water stops also got a LOT slower, as many racers were walking through them, making it hard to quickly just grab a cup of water or gatorade. This weaving and stopping to get water cost me at least a couple of minutes.  But, finally the end neared, and the crowds became even larger and louder.  The last few miles of the course were insane -- I couldn't believe how loud the cheering was.  The last 2 miles also seemed to last forever.  I knew the finish was close, but it was still just a few more steps away, and I couldn't slow down now. So, I kept pushing, through the crowded streets, underneath the underpass and up the final little hill that at any other point in the course would have gone unnoticed - and then to the final corner.  Once I rounded that corner, I still had a good 700 meters or so to the finish line.  I couldn't quite read the clock, but tried to pick up my pace as much as I could.  As I got closer, I saw that I wouldn't make it under 3:20, but I could still make it within 3:20 -- and so I did, crossing the line at 3:20:39 - losing only 2 minutes on the last half -- which I was pretty proud about, given the heat.

After crossing the finish line, is when the real torture set in.  The road was in complete open sun without any shade in sight, and it felt like I had to walk so long before I was even offered any refreshment.  Then, I was able to grab a water, and was handed a food bag, and made my way along the long walk (probably about another 700 meters) to find my bus and my drop bag.  Next, I had to find Shane, which took me along another long route to our appointed meeting spot, but unnecessarily so, as I missed a turn that would have cut my walk by several minutes.  Finally, I found Shane and shade, and a spot of grass to sit down on.

It was great to have the race done, and I was quite pleased with how I was able to run, and was happy that I was able to get a 2 minute PB in these conditions.  The recovery was definitely slow, as my inner quads took their sweet time healing -- man I've never been in such pain before just to sit down on the toilet! I also ended up getting a bit of heat exhaustion, as I found myself having to dunk my head in a cold shower several times that afternoon just to get cooled off.  Overall, it was a fun trip, and I'm glad that I got to experience the marathon and see what Boston was all about. Shane and I had one more day in Boston after the marathon, and took in a few more of the sights along the walking tour, including Paul Revere's house. I'm glad to have done it, but will have to set my sights on another marathon one day to reach that 3:15 or faster goal! 

1 comment:

Rebecca O said...

Love this post about your Boston Marathon experience, Sonja! The details really made it come alive!

Thank you for sharing this!