Friday, May 1, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Boston Marathon

For the better part of the last five years, the Boston Marathon has been something on my radar.  Initially, it was a goal to work toward a qualifying time, then it became a goal within reasonable reach, before ultimately being a goal to chase and capture finally at the Shamrock Marathon.  Thousands of miles run, 6 marathons prior to qualifying (though Boston would be my 9th), and who knows how many shoes; and it was finally here.  My chance to toe the line with the most fit people in the world, yet somehow it felt surreal as though I didn't belong.  I did afterall qualify just like everyone else, but seeing people all around you with year after year of qualifying for Boston humbles you a bit.  I went into the race with an open mind, both due to my lack of experience on the course and also because I wanted to run this race the one way I would be proud no matter the result - fearless.  Somewhere along the way as the weeks inched closer to race day, I developed a mantra: never settle.  So while standing on the start line with everyone else drew feelings of questioning whether or not I belonged there, I knew it my head that no matter what, I was going to race the Boston Marathon with all I had and never settle for anything less.

So let me back up a bit and start with the beginning.  Running the Boston Marathon means heading toward lots of friends and family, so we decided to make a longer trip of it all and make our way up north on Wednesday, stopping in Philly to cut up the drive north by a bit.  This was our first trip as a family of four, so we knew the driving part would take time and didn't want to force the kiddos in the car for too long at one time.  Our hotel was right in Independence Square in the old city, which proved nice for some short sightseeing with the limited time we had.

Family of four selfie!
 The next day, we made the rest of our voyage north by way of western Massachusetts to see some family.  While there, I got in some taper runs on seemingly never ending hills, including my last workout of 3 mi at marathon effort.  This basically amounted to running up and down a mountain to the bottom of a ski resort and back.  It would have been great training for Boston, if only I wasn't tapering and looking for some more flat.  Trust me, there wasn't much of any to be found.  Amazing as it sounds, I also got to see some areas that still had snow!  Nevertheless, I still got the work in and we enjoyed our time in the Berkshires.

Checking out the finish line!
Next stop on the tour was our final destination - Boston!  Technically, we were staying outside of Boston with friends in Natick, but shortly after arriving, we made our way into Boston to the expo.  The whole area, from the finish line out to the expo and the several streets that parallel Boylston were just a mob scene, but in a good way.  So many people out to support the marathon festivities and soak in the atmosphere.  There were kids races, photo ops, vendors, etc.

Packet pickup was a breeze with virtually no line, despite the place buzzing with people all around.  The BAA did an excellent job with staffing sub groups of number ranges so nobody had to wait to get their number or shirt.  After grabbing the essentials, it was time for the expo.  Now, with two little kids including one 8 week old, I was not planning to spend much time at the expo.  From doing some previous scouting, I only had a few places I wanted to hit up, including the official Adidas store.  Amazingly, the lines moved quickly and I was in and out in only a few minutes.  The rest of the expo was crammed with vendors and honestly, not impressive compared to other expos I'm used to.  I had heard such great things of the Boston expo, but I wasn't impressed compared to NYC or Marine Corps.  Major nutrition vendors were only selling their products rather than sampling and there was little room to walk.  Intersections of people caused mass chaos simply to move and based on what I saw, it simply wasn't worth the time, so we left.  I'm sure I missed a few free things here and there, but it wasn't worth dragging the kids all over the place for it.  The end result was less time on my feet and I think everyone was happy to get out.

The rest of the day, as well as Sunday were largely spent hanging out locally in Natick, eating carbs, and giving the kids a break from the constant car trips.  I made one trip to the local Marshall's to pick up some throwaways given the downward spiral of the forecasts, which I thought was a good choice of attire (kids xl Bruins hoodie in below photo).

Race ready!

I woke up race morning before my alarm (as per usual) and felt great.  We had arranged for a friend to drop me off in Hopkinton, which was only a short 15 minute drive from Natick vs trying to head in to Boston for the buses.  While I missed out on some of the pre-race experience, I also got to sleep much later.

Just trying to relax, stay warm and dry
I arrived at the Athlete's Village a little after 7 am, which was around the same time the Wave 1 buses would have been arriving.  When I got there, it was pretty empty, which gave me plenty of time and space to find a good spot to hang out for the next few hours.

As I discussed in my last training update, I had found a crew to run Boston with that was all shooting for around the same time goal (sub 3 hours).  We agreed on a meeting spot, so I found a spot that allowed me to sit undercover, against a pole, and also view our meeting spot.  Somewhere along the way, it began raining.  While the announcers said it was a passing shower, everyone in the vicinity of the planned meeting spot was gone because it offered no cover from the rain.  It was at this point that I started to think I might be running the race solo.  I had been chatting with a few of the people sitting near me under the tent, so that helped pass the time as I continued to scan the athletes entering the village to look for my friends.  Only a short while later, I got up to use the portapotty and found my friend Erin (who I qualified with at Shamrock) along the way.  We waited together for a while and started to wonder if we'd find the three others that were part of our group.  He and I both had Wave 1 assignments, but we were planning to move back to Wave 2 to start together, since one of our group was in Wave 2.  We agreed that if we couldn't find them, that it would make more sense to start in Wave 1 since the weather would get worse as time passed.  It was only 5 minutes later that Nicole found us and we met up with the rest of the crew - all set to start together in the front of Wave 2.

We took advantage of first call for our Wave and made our way toward the start line, knowing there was another block of portapotties awaiting our arrival.  The next chunk of time was spent  continually in lines to get "everything" out.  Once we all felt clear, we made our way to the actual start.  By the time we got into our corral, there wasn't more than 15-20 minutes until the start.  With about 5 minutes to go, I removed my throwaways.

Quick tip - hold on to your throwaways as long as possible.  There were collection bins starting with the exit from Athlete's Village all the way into the corrals, which would mean an extra 30-40 minutes hanging on to those extra layers.  On a day like we had, you'd burn an awful lot of glycogen shivering.  Best to hold on to them as long as you can.

Before I go into the actual race, I want to cover my race plan.  Going into the race, I knew my fitness was at an all time high after the simulator long run our crew ran and a handful of other workouts.  The goal of the crew was sub 3 and I felt I had it in me on the right day, but I was (rightly or wrongly) hesitant.  However, I had an opportunity to see if I had it with a group I knew vs trying to run my race solo within my comfort zone.  In the days leading up to the race, I repeated my mantra to myself over and over - never settle.  So my plan was to go out with the group, hold on for as much as I could, and see how the day goes.  Their plan was to start the first 2 miles close to 7 to ease into the race and then run close to 6:45/mi, factoring in the extra weaving of the course, to net a sub 3 time.

Before we knew it, it was the final countdown - we all gave each other fist bumps and started the 119th Boston Marathon as a pack of five!  The first mile was a bit of a cluster, more so than any other marathon I've run.  Starting toward the front of Wave 2, you'd think people wouldn't be taking it out super slow, but there they were.  We didn't panic, so we each sort of found our own paths through while remaining in contact with each other.  By the time we hit Mile 1 our split was 7:30, which was pretty far off our plan of 7:00, especially considering Mile 1 had 100+ ft of elevation drop.  By the time we hit Mile 2, we started to find some openings as we rolled along the course, still keeping everything in check coming in at 6:59 and essentially just writing off the first mile.  I think what surprised me the most about the first 10k or so was how rolling they were.  Sure, there was a net downhill, but each mile had some sort of uphill if not a few of them.  While I studied the elevation map and saw some bumps in there, I really don't recall many race reports mentioning them, so I feel it important to note it.  You can't just cruise that first 10k effortlessly downhill like many advice articles claim - there's some work in there.

By the time we got to Mile 3 (6:43), we were on pace and running as a pack, still weaving around people, but with more space to move.  I believe it was around this point that it started to rain and the winds became more notable.  And while the most direct route on the weaving course was typically the middle of the road, I tried my best to stay away from the dreaded yellow line, which when wet, proved to be slick.  The challenge with the wind was that it never seemed to be coming from a specific direction.  I tried drafting off others around me from every angle and never seemed to find the right spot, which meant I was working a bit more.  Additionally, as the next few miles ticked by in a blur, I started to feel the effort become a bit more than comfortable at this point in the race.  I wasn't sure if it was to earn back some time from the slower than planned Mile 1 or because the weather conditions weren't as bad as they will soon be, but the next several miles felt a bit over my head - 6:40, 6:46, 6:42, 6:40.  As we clocked the 7th mile, I made the decision to pull back a bit.  I still wanted to be aggressive, but I listened to what my body was telling me for the past several miles.  The combination of the quick miles while running into a headwind was starting to push me over the edge.  In hindsight, I wish I would have listened a bit earlier, but its difficult to define the line between racing a marathon to your potential and crossing over the line to blow up.  Unfortunately, you only find out much later when its too late, which of those two options it was.

Cracking a smile for the cheering squad
 Mile 8 made our way into Natick (6:48), where I knew I'd get to see my family and friends.  At this point I was only a handful of seconds back from the pack, but I split off to the side of the road to make sure I'd see my cheering squad.  It was uplifting to see them all out there in the rain and I have to give them credit for sticking around to see me - it was pretty miserable!  With a number of little ones in tow, they left to go inside right after they saw me come through.

Not how I was hoping this would turn out, but you see me at some point
I was still clocking steady miles (6:50, 6:58, 7:03), while we began the slow and steady rise in elevation, which is another element of the course rarely mentioned.  Miles 9-11 are a slow false flat rise, where you can easily cause some worry in your head as your paces start to slow a bit with a touch more effort.  This didn't worry me, because I felt the effort steady within my zone.  It was around this time that I started chatting with a girl who had been running at my pace for a bit now.  She noticed our pack and the =PR= Race Team singlets and was asking where they went.  I told her that I had to back off, but was happy to find a running buddy for a while.  We stayed together for at least 4-5 miles I believe, crossing the 10 mile (?) mark mid conversation, but somewhere along the way, she pulled ahead for good.

Chatting away the miles
The next notable landmark was running through Wellesley.  Now, I've watched the marathon on tv a million times and heard others speak of how loud it is, but I can say without a doubt it was the loudest I've ever run through and that includes any point of the NYC Marathon.  Their screams were deafening and I think my ears are still ringing!  I saw some people around me really pick up the pace here, but I just held it steady.  As I neared the halfway point (7:03, 6:57, 6:59), I actually felt really strong and used some positive affirmations to compare how I felt now to how terrible I felt at this point during Marine Corps.  My 13.1 split was 1:30:40, which was about 4:00 faster than at Marine Corps (and my PR) and felt I had the energy to keep it going.

Pretty sure this was somewhere early in Newton
The next few miles were really just mental prep for the Newton hills.  You knew it was coming soon, but you weren't there yet, so I just cruised along to gather my strength.  Miles 14 and 15 (7:00 and 7:10) were a gradual uphill.

Nasty downhill before the start of the hills
But then came the sharp downhill in Mile 16 (6:57) to bring us to the start the hills.  It was on the downhill during Mile 16 that I got my first sense that those early miles had done me in.  While I was still moving without restriction, I started to feel the onset of some cramps.  I tried to push it out of my mind and focus on the start of the hills, hoping that the uphills would be fine.  I think of the four Newton hills, the 1st climb was the worst.  It's a double climb - first over 95, then a less severe up, before a 2nd bump up to finish up the long hill, the longest of the 4.  I ran a 7:34 mile, which included the climb and the downhill after and was content with the split.  I didn't push up these hills - I simply kept the same effort in the hopes that I'd be able to make time on the downhills.  Unfortunately, that is where I ran into trouble.  It wasn't so much the going up part that caused my hamstrings to tighten, it was the going down.  It's funny that everyone talks about their quads being shot, because they were doing just fine!

The other unfortunate timing was the rain.  Right in the thick of the hills is when the rain really started to come down.  One of my most clear memories on the day was grinding up Heartbreak Hill, with the winds whipping the rain into my face like giant pellets.  There was a point where I wondered if it was sleet, because it was stinging my face as it hit me.  Nevertheless, I pushed on the ups and settled for a slower decent on the downs.  During this entire section, I never once glanced at my watch, even as it beeped for each mile, because I knew they'd be slower but I didn't want to get discouraged in the midst of the toughest mental and physical point of the course.  My splits through the Newton hills were (7:34, 7:29, 7:26, 7:43, 8:09).  As you can see - Heartbreak, the wind, and the rain got me.

Grinding up Heartbreak in the pouring rain
 After cresting Heartbreak, I had a huge relief and knew the end was near.  Of course, I now had to navigate a ton of downhill, which was the least kind on my body now.  I did my best to push when I felt I could, but it certainly wasn't what I wanted to be putting out at this point.  I knew I was still close to PR pace, but each steep downhill forced me to back off even more and I slowly saw the PR time slip away from my grip by the time I hit Mile 24 (7:42, 7:54, 7:57).  I never let my mood sour however, because of where I was and the amazing crowd support as we went through Boston College and began to enter Boston proper.

Wishing I could run just a bit faster on these downhills!
The rain was really coming down at this point and there was nowhere to run but puddles everywhere.  I never felt cold the whole race, but in the last 5k I started to lose some feeling in my feet as they began to feel like ice blocks with each soupy puddle I'd land in.

Attempting to outrun the T
The last few miles were a bit of a blur, but I (literally) soaked it all is as much as I could.  About .5 mi away, I was finally able to spot the Citgo sign, which was a blessing because I didn't have to spend 2 miles staring at it.  I quickly came upon it, while navigating the last of the hills and the crowds began to thicken.
The dream is almost over

A few more minutes passed and I found myself entering the last moments of the race by turning right on Hereford (and up the hill nobody talks about), left on Boylston.  Now typically, that final turn leaves you in a slow motion state where you feel like the finish line will never come any closer.  Not the case for me - this part of the course went by in an instant.

Keeping a smile the rest of the way!
While I'm doubtful I was running the 5:55/mi pace my watch claims I was doing (but I'll take it!), I did pick up the pace.  And as I ran along, I looked at the crowd and made sure I had a huge smile on my face to soak it all in and thank them for being out there on such a tough day to spectate.  I made note of the 2 places where the bombs went off and said a little prayer for those still suffering from that day, but also felt thankful that people can still come out in full force, even on a crappy day, to celebrate our sport and all that the Boston Marathon stands for.

Official Time: 3:11:09

A much deserved celebration beer!
So while I didn't PR or even come close to my goal, I was proud to have raced this course aggressively and never settle.  For someone who has it nailed into their brain that the only way to run a great marathon is to negative split, I was initially disappointed to finish the way I did, but I have no regrets for the way I raced it.  Like I said earlier, hindsight would have me back off a bit sooner and perhaps salvage my race with a slight PR, but otherwise I am ok with how it went.  Heck, I managed to run nearly 2 minutes within my PR on a crappy day, on a tougher course, and oh - while managing life with a 2 month old (and a little maniac of a 3 yr old).  Some of my crew went on to finish sub 3 and I am over the moon happy for them and their well deserved accomplishments, but I need to put my race in my own perspective with my own life constraints.  And while I wish I could have PRd and/or run the race with them, my body wasn't ready for that yet.  I know my fitness is there.  I just need to execute better and likely enter the race under slightly different life circumstances.  Their performance in that weather on that course shows me that I have it in me, which is the motivation I need going forward to do it.  My overall stats also show me that I fared better than most of my peers relative to their fitness, as I started the race with a bib number ranked 7065 and finished 4886 overall.

A hard earned, but well worth it medal
I am thankful for the opportunity to race Boston and hopeful to return there soon and race the crap out of that course again!  Below are my full splits for those that are interested:

Monday, March 30, 2015

Nailing The Final Marathon Long Run

Yesterday served as a breakthrough day for me and my training for Boston - I nailed my final long run. For those who have been grinding away through winter and the extended cold into early Spring, it feels like the monotony of bundling up, mustering enough excitement to go out there in the cold and run hard for an extended period of time has dragged on.  Like any training cycle, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as it nears the end, but you just have to get those last few weeks of hard work done before you get there.  And while that is where you find the "sexy" workouts, they are often the most difficult both mentally and physically.

I've written before about creating the confident athlete, how these big workouts play an important role, and this workout (which I'll describe below) certainly served its purpose.  Depending on a runner's experience level, the last long run can be anywhere from the most miles you've ever run, to the duration of your goal time, to a run that simulates the marathon race.  All of these runs are something you only do once in a marathon cycle, but a runner doesn't typically do all of them.  Newer marathoners are more likely to go by time or distance, whereas more experienced runners focus on simulating the marathon race by running a significant portion of the run at marathon pace.  However, it is important that a runner progress to this point before tackling such a workout.  Consistently logging long runs throughout the training cycle is a requirement.  If incorporating lots of marathon paced miles, its best to have done other shorter long runs where you've also done marathon paced miles.  The reason is simple - you don't want this run to take so much out of you that you can't recover.  If you are prepared and you run at appropriate paces, this run will be extremely challenging, but it should not leave you on the verge of collapse or not being able to function.

At the end of the day however, the final long run cannot determine how the actual race will go, either good or bad.  It is simply another place to connect the dots toward peaking for your race.  But with that said, I had a GREAT run and certainly one that I hope correlates to an amazing race day.

Sunday morning I set out with a crew of some speedy (faster than me) runners, all of whom are training for Boston as well.  We had agreed on the basic structure of the workout, which was the 1st 10 miles out starting around 7:30/mi and running steady to around 7:00/mi, then sub 7 all the way back, with the last 5 around 6:45/mi.  The course profile was 2 miles downhill, then 8 miles out on a slight uphill grade, before turning around and doing the reverse.  This meant miles 19-20 would be all uphill pushing hard, kind of like how Boston will be.  So how did it go?

1st 10 - 7:32, 7:11, 7:28, 7:25, 7:15, 7:10, 7:09, 7:05, 7:11, 7:09 (7:15/mi avg)
Last 10 - 6:56, 6:56, 6:47, 6:57, 6:49, 6:43, 6:42, 6:38, 6:50, 6:57 (6:49/mi avg)
Final Stats: 20 miles, 7:02/mi avg

We all ran together basically until about 12 miles in and then a few people started to throw in some surges.  Being the conservative runner that I am, I just held it steady, because I wanted to save my legs for the final 2 miles uphill.  Some would surge ahead, then float back, until we got to 16 miles and I pretty much got dropped.  I was right on pace with the plan, but these people were more fit than me and pushed faster.  They never got out of my sight, but I had no desire to try and close down the gap.  Since this was a marathon simulator, I wanted to run these miles as though I still had another 6.2 to go at the end.  And while I'm thankful Boston won't have a 2 mile grinding uphill (at least the Newton hills have some breaks in between them), I came out of this workout knowing that I can grind uphill at sub 7.  It was a very solid day and without a doubt the best long run I've had.

So where does this leave me for Boston?  Well, it leaves me knowing that I can shoot for a PR.  I have the utmost respect for the course and the unique challenges it will bring, but I am hopeful that the work I've done will lead to the results I know I've worked hard for.

Do you have any favorite last long run workouts to share?  
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