I apologize for how late this is; after the marathon, I was on vacation for a while and only had my phone. Composing a full-blown race report by phone was not going to happen. Plus I was really busy overeating and overdrinking.
Saturday morning we took a fairly early direct flight between Portland and Boston. I was expecting that there would be other marathoners on the plane, but I wasn’t expecting just how many. It was the skinniest plane-load of people I’ve ever seen. Alaska Airlines should have given us all a refund on their fuel costs. Here was a picture one of the flight attendants took; everyone standing or leaning into the aisle is running the marathon. You can just make me out at the farthest back, right side, light blue shirt.
It was after five by the time we checked in at our hotel. (We stayed at the Back Bay Hilton, which was a pretty good location, but I think the perfect hotel would be a little farther east, and thus closer to both the finish area exits and the place where you catch the school buses in the morning.) The rest of Saturday, we had time only to rest up a little, go out for dinner, and get some sleep.
Sunday morning, I got packet pickup out of the way early. Like many large marathons, you went over to one person handing out a certain numeric range of bib numbers. It being so early, most of them had no lines at all in front of them. Mine had five or six people though. Grumble grumble. The volunteers doing this were so nice, congratulating everyone and shaking their hands good luck.
Once I got my bib number, it was a short walk to the t-shirt pickup area. Which had the best idea right next to it:
All races should have this. I started with a small, and it was too tight, so I traded up to a perfectly-fitting medium.
I have heard that the expo at the Boston Marathon is a real zoo, so crowded you can barely move. Shortly after nine on Sunday, though, it was easy enough to look around. I had no interest in buying clothes or anything though, so I kept it pretty quick, just grabbing an impromptu breakfast of free samples (Greek yogurt, and, oddly, saffron-flavored rice) and a few other free goodies. I did enjoy Brooks’ M*A*S*H-themed tent:
Business done, I strolled back to the hotel then we spent the rest of Saturday having a little fun: cannolis at Mike’s Bakery and enormous lobster rolls at Neptune Oyster (both in the North End), then the Isabella Stewart Gardner art museum. Yes, too much time on my feet. We lounged around in the late afternoon and retired early after a light Italian dinner, though.
The marathon starts at 10, but I had to get up at 5:30 to go catch one of the school buses that take 20,000 people or so out to the start in Hopkinton. Not that I got much sleep that night, anyway. The buses were lined up on Tremont Street alongside the Boston Commons, more than a mile from my hotel. I took the T (Boston’s subway) to get there. At my station, they were letting marathoners on free, but there had to be an attendant around to do that, so I’m not sure how much it could be relied on. I had bought a seven-day transit pass anyway; it was fairly inexpensive and it was one less thing to worry about. It was just before six and there were only a handful of marathoners in my subway car, so I thought maybe I’d missed the rush, but when we got out at Boylston station, there were already big crowds. The buses board between the Boylston and Park T stations (on the Green Line). From what I could see, getting out at Park would have been better because the lines were shorter on that end.
Anyway, the buses that were sitting there were already full, but enough walking eventually got me into a short enough line that I was able to board in the second wave. It was a short wait, but it was cold in the wind. The weather was sunny, cool, and quite windy — but it would be a tailwind for the race. Even in several layers of throw-away sweats, I was glad to get out of the cold.
The bus ride was very long. Twenty-six miles is a long way. We seemed to be deep out in the country by the time we were finally let off at Hopkinton High School, whose grounds were transformed into the “Athlete’s Village” for this one day.
Big damp lawns, enormous tents, plenty of portable toilets, and the world’s longest line for free coffee: that was athlete’s village, my home for the next three hours. A lot of that time was spent in that coffee line. If you wanted water, Gatorade, bananas, or bagels, it was easy… but coffee was the A-ticket ride. I talked to one Michigan guy originally from the Ukraine and one Wisconsin gal originally from Bulgaria while waiting. His second Boston, her first. Here’s the picture the race photos guy took of me in line:
I guess I was pretty excited. Like me, everyone carried around the official bag-check bag with their bib number prominently displayed on it. The bib numbers aren’t arbitrary: the faster the qualifying time, the lower the number. My 7604 is squarely in the “mediocre male runner” range. People with numbers under 300 were scary. I got to thinking about how much different regular life would be if we all had to display numbers like this — maybe SAT scores or something.
Eventually the first wave of runners was called down to the start line. From athlete’s village, that’s a 3/4 mile walk. I know, cruel, right? Well, what can you do?
I was in the second-to-last corral of the first wave. Here’s a picture looking backward at the start, toward the front of last corral:
A few more minutes of standing around and we were finally off, for the 115th running of the Boston Marathon.
The actual race thing, itself
I think it may have been too long since the race for me to give any sort of accurate mile-by-mile recaps, so bear with me if this gets kind of stream-of-consciousness.
At the start, I felt good, and I felt confident. I wasn’t sick or injured. I felt well-trained, rested, and ready to go.
The pack wasn’t as crushing at the start as I had feared it might be, and I had no problem running my own pace down the long steep hill out of Hopkinton. As I had planned, I warmed up through that first mile in a super easy eight minutes. Switching to 7:40s for the next four miles was easy too. I liked the crowd in front of the biker bar in Ashland, all in their leathers cheering while “Highway to Hell” blasted out of their speakers. The first half of the race also had plenty of spots where there weren’t roaring crowds. That wasn’t a bad thing — by the end of the race, I’d be feeling some crowd fatigue.
My main impression of the first 12 miles of the race is that it was longer than I expected. I know that sounds dumb. It’s just that it’s so easy to say “Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley” and I just kind of felt surprised by how long it actually took to make it through each of those townships. Between miles five and 15, I was aiming for 7:25 miles. I brought them all in between 7:20 and 7:26, but they definitely got harder as it went on. The Boston course has few extended level sections. Almost every step is a little bit downhill or a little bit uphill. It took its toll on me. The tailwind was great, but the sun blasting down was also a problem. I had sunscreen on, but I didn’t put it on my forehead — having it drip into my eyes is death — and maybe not enough elsewhere. I totally should have worn a cap.
The famous Wellesley college girls around mile 12 were loud but not unbearable. I saw one “kiss me I’m from Oregon” sign, but I wasn’t stopping for kisses. (Actually I don’t think I saw any runners around me do so. We’re all so serious. Well, all except for the guy running in the gorilla suit. Or the guy in the tutu. Or the ones in the crazy wigs. But generally, you know, serious.)
By mile 13, I noticed a little pain in my quads. Isn’t that too early? Isn’t that a bad sign? Yes, and yes, as it will turn out.
Miles 15 through 21 were the Newton hills, a series of four extended uphills culminating in Heartbreak Hill. In between the uphills were some moderately steep downhills as well. This is a lot of hill work at this stage of a “fast” road marathon. My race plan had me dropping back down to 7:40 miles for it.
I came pretty close to that through mile 20. The first hill was easy, the second was a tester, the third was tough, and the last — Heartbreak — was torture. Huffing and puffing hard, the best I could do for mile 21 was 8:06. Far from a disaster. Now all I had to do was “coast” to the downhill finish. Right? Ha.
There’s a serious downhill after Heartbreak and it hurt my legs to run it. My left knee had also started to bother me as I made my way through the hills, almost certainly because my tightening left quads had been pulling it out of alignment. I did some exaggerated high-kick steps to try to stretch it out, which helped a little. My knee wasn’t really the problem, anyway — it was the pain in my quads that was going to break me.
Somewhere after mile 22 I grabbed a cup of water at an aid station and slowed to a walk to drink it, instead of gulping on the run as usual. It was an act of psychological capitulation: the race had beat me. I got to running again pretty quickly that time, but I was also thinking this: “if I jog along slower, it will hurt less. I’m not going to meet my goals. I just don’t want to hurt as badly.” My discarded race plan called for 7:25s, but my split for mile 22 was 7:36. Mile 23, 7:54. Mile 24, 8:37. Then it got ugly.
I walked a lot in the last two miles and let me say clearly: that sucks. It sucks tenfold at Boston, where people in the crowd scream at you, picking you out by bib number: “Hey! 7604! IT’S THE BOSTON MARATHON! You Can Do This!” Such pressure works — I would lurch into a jog and get a cheer out of them, while I muttered “bastards” under my breath.
Jog. Walk. Jog. Walk. Sucks. Mile 25: 10:30. Mile 26: 10:42.
Finally we rounded the last two corners and the finish line was in sight, maybe a third of a mile away. With a fixed target to focus on, I was able to jog the rest of the way in. With my goals shot and feeling a little boosted by the crowd, I decided to take my phone out of its armband and snap a few pictures of the crowd and the finish line.
Much later I looked at the pictures and saw shots like this:
I wasn’t mentally there enough to point my phone the right way to take a picture. I remember pointing the screen at what I was photographing, instead of — say — the lens. What I don’t remember is smirking for the official finish-line shot:
After that, I stopped running
Then I was through the finish line, out of hell and into… purgatory. There was a lot of congestion in the finisher’s area. And I wasn’t feeling OK. This surprised me. I had thought that I had more-or-less just psychologically failed this race, or at the most any problems I had were in my legs. But after a few minutes of standing around in the finish area crowds, I was feeling pretty wonky. “Am-I-going-to-pass-out?” wonky. I considered going to the medical tent. But sweetie was waiting for me. I kept moving. I kept conscious. Good enough. I did get lost trying to find the family reunion area, but I still say that wasn’t my fault.
The smirk stuck around a while.
Ah well, all’s well that ends well. My problems were nothing another trip to the North End that evening for some marvelous red-sauce Italian food and plenty of red wine couldn’t fix.
Here’s what was in the mail when we got back to Portland.
3:27:45. A 7:56/mile average pace. You know what, that’s still my second fastest marathon. I’ll stop whining now.
- If it’s sunny, wear a cap.
- 40 miles a week might be enough for me for a flat marathon, but if I’m going for a goal time on a rolling one, I probably need more.
- Boston’s fun, but not life-changing. I’m sure your local marathon is awesome too.