26 April 2014

Brilliantly Stupid

Let’s cut right to the chase. Based on everything that led to this point in cosmic history, I was supremely less than confident about how Monday’s Boston Marathon would turn out. Three-thirty was my re-qualifying time. Three-twenty made it safe, considering the way the registration system works. Three-ten was a stretch. Three-flat? Surely, you jest! (Or, as I like to pose to waitresses when they dangle the prospect of dessert, “Shirley, you jest!” Sadly, the current young generation doesn’t get that old Airplane crack.) So do you go for the safe bet, re-qualify with time to spare, or do you roll the dice and see what comes up?

By any sense of sanity, I ran an intensely stupid race on Monday. Blast early, suffer late. But if questioned under oath, I’d have to admit that I did it quite on purpose. Had I penned in advance the expected outcome based on this reckless plan, I would have predicted it to turn out pretty much as it did, though a bit slower. And mind you, despite the title of this post, I’m not claiming brilliance for doing this. I’m just saying that given the circumstances, stupidity may have been the most brilliant option.

There was no way in the place below Purgatory that I’d come anywhere near last year’s personal best. My goal was far more plebian: just stamp my ticket for next year’s dance. Under the system, once you’re in, you can still improve your seeding with a better race after registration. So the smart strategy would be simple: don’t push it, don’t flame out, just get it done. Notch a three-twenty, a hair under seven-forty pace. Barring disaster, that should be a breeze, right? After all, we cranked out twenty-four at seven-fifteens three weeks ago, and seven-fifteens buy you three-ten. So run seven-twenties, even and steady, just get it done, room to spare.

But anyone who’s run Boston knows it’s nearly impossible to run even and steady. The downhill start makes a giant sucking sound, drawing you like flies to, um, sticky goo. And anyone who’s ever started in an up-front corral knows it’s nearly impossible to avoid the pace of the pack. There wouldn’t be soul in corral two running seven-twenties. Or corral three, or for that matter, probably four. Besides, I figured I had more in the tank than that uber-conservative three-twenty, and if I really went out uber-conservative, well, you’re not going to get all that back. So live a little, right?

You can see where this is going. I willingly gave in to the power of the Force. Just let it go…

I could have written this story in advance, or just paraphrased the one my old friend Chris Russell wrote years ago during my first marathon: You can run your even [fill in target pace] and get your [fill in target time], or you can go out hard, suffer mightily, and still get your time. Which results in better stories afterward? And that’s pretty much what I did and how it went, except that it bought me ten minutes on the good side, turning that three-colon-one-something into a rather pleasing three-oh-seven-flat (yes, the first time in twenty marathons that my official time ended in zero-zero).

Given the shape I was in, of course I was a bit off in the head going out in six-thirties, but I thought if it as restraint, considering the pace at which I’d thundered out of Hopkinton in previous years. From corral two, that leisurely amble left me treated to a constant stream of frontrunners passing by. But the dismay of riding the slow lane was tempered by reminders that life is getting better since last fall’s train wreck. I hit five miles in the same time as I’d run the entire Freezer Five back on New Year’s Day, and seven in the time of my seven mile leg at Hyannis in February. That was progress, and this was – really – restraint. But then it was time to get real. OK, you banked some time, now just back away slowly, don’t make any sudden moves, and nobody gets hurt.

By mile eight, Part One, the stupid part of Brilliantly Stupid, was done. While I enjoyed a steady stream of teammates catching me, chatting it up, and leaving (our new Greater Boston singlets conveniently have our club name on the back as well, which makes it a lot easier to distinguish our red from everyone else’s), I got a hold of myself and dialed it back closer to sevens. But by then, it was obvious that Part Two of Brilliantly Stupid, the “Suffer Mightily” part, was absolutely coming. I was already feeling it and knew the next two hours would be a long haul. Amusingly, I mentioned to one of my passing teammates that it was the kind of day I’d be taking walk breaks. I say amusingly because that never actually happened, as certain as I was of its inevitability.

What did happen, while nobody was looking, was that an expected cool day changed character entirely. The forecast of fifties and rising wasn’t entirely wrong, but the sun turned up the heat far more than anyone expected. Later I’d learn that this insidious sneak-it-in-when-nobody’s-expecting-it heat would be the comeuppance of numerous comrades. By Framingham, it was apparent that while this wasn’t the Bakefest of 2012, it was another day for constant dousing. By Natick, I was a moving Poland Spring, nylon togs shining with complete saturation. It’s an art to douse yourself while avoiding your shoes. It’s also an art I haven’t entirely mastered.

The next eight miles held together as the only “normal production” part of the race. The half crept by at two-fifty-seven pace, though I’d already slowed and didn’t for a moment think sub-three was an option. By the time I blew my family, tossing my bottles (but not my cookies) in Newton Lower Falls – conveniently at the end of a serious downhill so they see me at a good moment – I knew the grind was on. Into the hills, slowing another half-minute per mile, and tellingly, starting to grunt. The crowds in this emotional year were exceptionally loud, an enormous relief: in a crowd like that, nobody can hear you scream…or grunt.

By then I was already doing the mental math, figuring the pace needed for each stacked goal, anything to distract, grunting mantras like, “Fifty-one for six-two” and other mindless machinations of measures. At seventeen, over the first hill, teammate Joe caught me and commiserated, “That was just the warm-up for the coming eight-mile jog.” It’s testament to the mental fog setting in – for both of us – that neither noticed we had our math wrong. Hello! Seventeen and eight don’t make a marathon. Briefly I was pleased with my prospects of hitting stretch goals, when along came eighteen and the realization that I was, in fact, a confused soul. Yeah, suffering mightily.

But considering my expectations way back at eight, what surprised me most was that somehow, whether by gritty determination or just utter foolishness, those expected breaks never materialized. It was the frog in the pot of heating water syndrome. One thing after another kept pushing off the moment that my will would break. Just get over the Newton Hills. Just get through the Graveyard. Break after Cleveland Circle…crap, can’t do it now, my Greater Boston team will be out cheering near twenty-three, can’t be walking when they see me! But there went twenty-three, haven’t found them, maybe they’re at twenty-four? Still missed them? Twenty-four and a half? Oh, fer cryin’ out loud, almost at Kenmore, why break now? Just grind it out…

None of my previous nineteen were easy. They were all marathons, every one of them, and they all hurt. Yet somehow this one seemed more determined, more grinding, more utterly, ridiculously, stupidly, over the top. That, it has to be said, is the essence of the marathon run competitively. Based only on time, Boston number eight was middling, hovering just around the mid-line of my previous races. But based on the feeling of redemption, the boost of confidence of getting back in the game, throwing Brilliantly Stupid at this one turned out to be just the ticket.

[Ed. note: Random stories from the day will follow in a future post.]

Thanks to Rich Blake of Coolrunning.com via jimrhoades.com for the photo from mile 19.


  1. "If you want to win a race, you have to go a little berserk" ~ Bill Rodgers

  2. Very nice recap! You are superfast my friend!!


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