We crossed the start sensors, I hit go on my Garmin, and we were off. With such a large crowd I’d expected to be relegated to a couple slow miles in the beginning, but this is one race where everyone is seeded in the corral where they belong and race volunteers diligently police the crowd for cutters. As soon as corral 7 crossed the start we were immediately holding a solid 8 minute mile.
With Josh’s instructions in my head I very intentionally held my pace back and let those who wanted to pass do so. Pretty quickly the course heads downhill; I opened it up a little but tried to stay focused on a controlled and easy heart rate and gate. As gravity pulled us down that first decline, I tried to lean into it keeping my hips open and making sure to land on the center of each foot. I felt like I was doing well not riding my heels down the hill, but I also felt an unmistakable ball of undigested pain in my lower left abdomen. As I leaned into the descent it felt like gravity was tugging at an unhappy wad of calories.
Instantly I knew the Imodium had been a mistake. I didn’t need it that day – instead what I needed was to be able to normally process the huge glut of fuel I was going to be continuously intaking. Minding the pain in my side, and the difficulty our bodies have digesting when they’re working hard, I held my pace back even more. I was mad at myself for taking the Imodium, but I wasn’t too concerned yet – I felt sure that if I stayed slower the first couple miles, it would pass and I’d be able to open my pace up later. I frequently negative split* so really this approach felt natural. (*Mostly because I still don’t know how hard to go out the gate, not because of my brilliant race planning. Thankfully I now have a Josh to fix all these issues.)
Despite exercising extra determined restraint, and despite the heat and the burgeoning GI issues, my first 5k clocked in at 25:46 which I thought was perfect. I imagined Josh and Kim and my mom getting that tracking alert and thinking things were right on target. I could feel the extra gas in the tank just waiting to be burned as I continued my easy pace and I started doing the math. I was averaging mile times in the 8:teens and had big plans to pick up the pace – if not at the halfway point, at least after the Newton hills. I still knew it wouldn’t be a PR or anything in the 3:20s, but for my first few miles I was pretty sure I could turn in something in the 3:30s, and I also knew I would be thrilled with that.
Those aspirations were pretty short-lived as the day quickly heated up and the pain in my gut didn’t pass. It wasn’t so bad heading uphill – probably because my pace slowed when I climbed – but it reemerged on the few flat patches and really asserted itself on the downhill bits, which meant I couldn’t make-up enough of the time I lost on each ascent. Every time I tried to push a little downhill the wad of Imodium radiated pain through my belly and I pulled back. My second 5k average was nearing 8:30. I saw my 3:30something finish slipping away, but I still had big plans for a negative split and a giant final 10k. I imagined people tracking me wondering if things were starting to fall apart.
The third 5k was a little slower still, and then the ten mile mark hit and the day started to feel really hot. It became all I could do to hold my miles in the 8:40s as the pain in my left side replicated itself on my right. I was sweating and working really hard, and despite the bilateral pain I was also getting really hungry. The day started to feel scarily reminiscent of Chattanooga. That whole day the heat (not Imodium because I wasn’t that stupid during Ironman thankfully) made digesting impossible – but the inability to digest didn’t eliminate the need to take in calories. So here I was again: hungry AND nauseous with my heart rate up too high and the sun beating down too hard.
I still believed at some point I would be able to pick up the pace but at the same time I was growing concerned that I would just slow down the whole way home. So thank Sappho for the Wellesley Scream Tunnel around the halfway point. It was unequivocally the best part of the race. On a course filled with exuberant crowd support these young women are the stars. Their signs are hilarious , their screams are infectious, and I totally got kisses! (Not as many as an ecstatic guy a few paces ahead of me but I leaned in for a few – namely from the women holding “I voted for Hillary” signs.)
The Scream Tunnel section is also in a mercifully shady spot so between the contagious joy from the co-eds – well actually I guess they’re not “co”-eds? – and the brief heat respite I started to pick up my turnover. ‘Here it is!’ I thought. ‘I knew I would negative split! It’s all downhill from here!’
Except that it’s not. I did manage a stronger couple miles thanks to Wellesley, and more important than picking up the pace, miles 13-16 were just happier and more enjoyable. Those were the miles that fed my athlete’s soul. For twenty-some minutes I was pretty blissed out on the experience and confident that my difficult first half had broken through to a much more pleasant – and faster – second half.
Those good feelings even hung on as we hit the first of the famous four Newton hills between miles 17 and 21. The first one is about a 1/2 mile and I’d been anxious to get to it and see if it was as bad as some race reports make it out to be. Josh’s race plan had instructed that if I felt good over that first big hill I was in good shape for the rest of the course so I was hanging my negative split dreams on a good climb.
Near the mile 17 marker the path began heading up. I asked a man next to me if this was the first of the big four and he confirmed that it was. I felt pretty strong and generally I have faith in my uphill abilities so I thanked him, smiled and charged ahead. I let my pace drop to the low 9s to conserve for the next three climbs, but even at that pace I passed a lot of the field around me and I felt like I was making good on Josh’s race plan predictions. My sides were still stitch-city but that had been going on so long I was able to bury the pain below other more positive or at least neutral sensations. As I had all day – and do at all endurance runs – I stopped at every aid station and took in at least two cups of water: one to drink and one to dump over my dome. I also deliberately walked each water station, giving my high-up hot-day heart rate a few seconds to collect itself.
It was a long hill sure, but compared to the 16 previous miles of never-ending rollers it didn’t feel so extreme. I had been shocked by just how ceaselessly ascent-y and descent-y the course had been for 17 straight miles and here I was, without much fanfare, at the top of what was supposed to be such a terrible climb. With that first of the four done I felt – not Wellesley good – but solid and not intimidated by the three big (final?) climbs to come.
Immediately following the descent we started to hoof it over another hill. I was surprised that the first two of the big four Newton climbs were so back-to-back. It left little room to mentally and physically re-compose myself but on the plus side, at least we were knocking these bad boys out quickly. I did wonder how it could take five miles to fit these four in when they were one right after the other.
The obvious answer of course, which still took me several miles to work out, is that this second immediate hill was not one of the big four, but just another of the billion or so regular hills that comprise the Boston Marathon. This should have been immediately apparent to me given my aforementioned shock at the course’s hilliness but sometimes when I exercise I turn into a real meathead. And so my good will and optimism toward the big four dissipated some. I reassured myself though that this setback didn’t change the fact that mile 21 was a few miles away and then, surely, these brutal ups and downs would be over for real. (If you’ve run or cheered at Boston, feel free to laugh here.)
I pushed on, a few mental reserves still in tact. Hill-after-hill, up and down, never really sure which climbs constituted those infamous four. Until signs and mile markers let me know I was finally at the dreaded, anticipated, fabled, foibled, Heartbreak Hill.
My feet started treading uphill again at the same time as the day’s thermostat absolutely peaked. When I think about that day, this climb is the first memory that comes to mind and the sensations associated – proud and painful – will epitomize my first Boston. It was nearing 80 with no shade. I felt good-not-great and bad-not-terrible. The crowds were amazing. Screaming and proffering anything you could possibly want. They had fruit, wet towels, pretzels, ice, popsicles, beer, gummy bears. I sampled some of the offerings. (Not the beer. Never the on-course beer.) Most crucial were the hoses and sprinkler systems set up along the sides. I ran through every last one; at one point realizing I’d really doused my headphones I ran the cost-benefit of five more miles sans music vs. a few seconds of watery relief and even in the face of 45 silent minutes the hydration station won handily. I was slower than I wanted to be, but I managed to run it – which was better than a lot of the crowd, so I let myself feel good about that, staying wary of my way-over-threshold BPM.
The crowds at the top of Heartbreak rivaled the Wellesley women. Their support was race-affirming and I was ready for the kickass, fast, and comparatively easy last five miles that had been promised me. A few easier miles felt well-earned. Every race is a mix of happy and not-so-happy stretches. You know going in that you’re going to experience physical and mental discomfort but you also know there are those runner highs, those moments when the sport feels so transcendent – if we didn’t have those moments we probably wouldn’t do this. (Right? We’d stop doing this , wouldn’t we?) Miles 1-21 had been mostly discomfort and worse, it seemed 22-26.2 should be transcendent…or at least more comfortable.
Turns out they were transcendent in ways, but also the most uncomfortable-no-actually-agonizing part of the day. Cresting Heartbreak and heading down my quads were on fire – especially the right one. I thought to myself, ‘it’s a good thing these hills are done after this!’ (Hahaha, maybe now I will learn how to read an elevation chart!) The aggregate downhill slope of the first 21 miles tears the hell out of the fronts of your thighs and DC running makes it difficult to prepare for this. In that post-big four moment as the road flattened out I really didn’t think I could handle anymore descending. My right quad was actually twitching which I knew was the muscle breaking down. During strength workouts I aim for this sensation but mid-Marathon it meant that muscle would need a bit of reprieve to get over the finish line.
But as I’ve been none-too-subtly hinting for at least five paragraphs, the last few miles are not flat. I’ll give organizers and Josh that the hills at the end aren’t so steep or long as those that came before, but suddenly I was climbing again, and I immediately felt so betrayed. At least uphill I got out of my quads – or left quad since that’s only remaining front-of-thigh I had left- but now my glutes were starting to rebel too – right side in particular. I hadn’t been able to hit [solidcore] as often as I like over the winter and now I was paying the price for my resultant lack-of-ass.
At the top of this first roller the work transitioned back into my quads and my right leg just said NO. I realized I would have to stay as slow downhill as I’d been going up meaning as long as there were hills – whether going up or down I was rocking a 9 minute mile. To take pressure off my overworked right side I tried to run harder into my left leg which helped some but trying to correct this right-v-left imbalance in the middle of race day was too little wa-ha-ha-hayyy too late. (Not like I didn’t already know how much I favored the right before this, I just had ignored it not thinking it was such a big deal.) So I loped one-sidedly up and down hill-after-why-aren’t-they-over-yet-it’s-mile-22-23-24-25-26-hill.
One not-small mercy was that the temperature became overcast over the final 5k. I’d been hot since before the race even started, and had really overheated on Newton Hills, but all of a sudden with the sun dipping behind some clouds – probably looking at my miserable form and telling herself that she’d done sufficient damage – and the air becoming misty, I actually started to shiver.
The thermostat hadn’t dropped low enough to merit shivering, but when my bloods sugar is low I get cold and I knew that was happening. That seemed to be the final confirmation that I had done myself a real disservice with the digestion-disrupting Imodium.
I was a mess. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other as best I could: right-LEFT-right-LEFT. I knew I was really hammering my left leg and foot but that seemed like it could be Tuesday Liz’ problem.
Ah but no! By mile 24 it was Monday Liz’ problem as my left foot began to cramp. At this point I was “running” on willpower and nothing else. I was constantly doing the math in my head and checking my pace. I wanted to walk so badly – many people around me were walking – but I knew if I could maintain this 9 minuter I would still be sub-4. I also realized if I could dig some 8s out I could potentially still finish in the 3:40s. So I tried to pick it up, but uh-uh, I didn’t have it. My belly still ached, my right quad no longer existed and my left foot was threatening a similar exit. So I grabbed those 9s and death gripped that pace counting down every hundredth of a mile and reminding myself, “this is Boston, this is BOSTON!”
The minutes limped by in a blur and finally we were turning right onto Hereford meaning we were almost to Boyleston and almost done with this nightmare. I’d be allowed to walk soon! The crowd was pumped in the final mile and screaming and my iPod had just dropped The Score’s “Where Do You Run” on me in a moment of shuffle brilliance and kismet. Between the screams and the beat and lyrics I was interpreting very literally I finally felt the adrenaline and inspiration I’d been desperately seeking.
I was able to pick up my feet a little faster – not much faster but a touch – as we turned left onto Boyleston and I could see the finish line ahead. My “sprint” the last few blocks was somewhere in the 8:40s but that small surge felt like a victory. I kept reminding myself, ‘it’s Boston, it’s BOSTON’ and tried to smile through pain and tears and overwhelming feelings that were somehow both physical and emotional as I crossed the finish line.
I dropped to the walk I’d wanted for miles but with muscle breakdown like I’d never experienced before, even as I picked up my medal and water I had to keep focusing on right-LEFT-right-LEFT. I wondered embarrassingly if I was about to join the several people being wheel chaired out of the finish area…but whatever happened and however I left Copley Square, I was a Boston Marathon finisher!