27 April 2016
This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. By mid-race, I had already fallen into a mantra, seconds for miles, seconds for miles, seconds for miles. If that makes no sense, realize that’s not exactly what I was grunting to myself, just the template. I was in math survival mode early on: how many seconds I had in the bank to be spread over how many miles remaining, all with the aim of slipping down Boylston Street with another coveted two-colon-anything Boston finishing time.
At my stride cadence of about one-eighty, a breath per three strides (yes, after enough miles and with a high enough OCD rating, you figure this out), dropping each numeric value into two breaths, grunting out the status like, “Sixty…Nine…For-Two…Point-Two”, I’d remind myself about fifteen times a minute where I stood. Would I ever be able to mail it in? Or, more likely, how much margin of error did I have to just squeak it out?
At twenty four, it looked good. My example above was real: Sixty-nine for two-point-two. That sixty-nine seconds I had in the bank was down from somewhere north of one-eighty, but even after the hills had taken their inevitable toll, well, sixty-nine was pretty healthy. Give the nine to the last point two of a mile, the precise math on that part being more than my overheated brain cared to deal with, and with sixty left over that’d be a generous buffer of thirty seconds per mile, or the hint that holding seven-twenties would bring me home with a few seconds to spare.
But just a few minutes later, at twenty-five-point-two, when the cowbells clang gloriously and incessantly and someone perpetually announces, “One mile to go!” my watch inexplicably decreed that I had nothing in the bank. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Say what? If nothing else, I’m usually pretty accurate on mental timekeeping. This was a mark on me. How’d I screw that one up?
I didn’t make it in time. Eighteen seconds separated me from another notch in the two column. My math had failed me. Friends would later console me on the near miss, but it wasn’t even my closest near-miss – that one came five years back when the gap was only seven seconds. But really, I didn’t care. Given the day it was – a day described by one of my fellow race-day journalers as “sneaky hot”, a day not nearly so bad as the 2012 Bake-Fest but, similar to that year, a day when most of my compatriots saw ten, twenty, or even more minutes added to their expectations, three-colon-very-little was just fine with me.
You know you’re in for a tough one when you’re sweating while standing still in the starting corral. The forecasted low sixties start clearly felt closer to seventy before the party started, and with nary a cloud in the sky, and the New England early spring providing no foliage and no shade, ol’ sol had a field day. Seven layers of sunscreen (hey, I just kept slathering it every time it was offered!) kept the red out, but of course did nothing against the baking action. Within a few miles, I was cranking through bodily hydration at an alarming rate.
The forecast promised relief by the time we arrived in Boston, but as is often the case in life, be careful what you wish for. Cooling winds, which typically pick up as you top the hills in Newton, came early and made their presence known by downtown Wellesley. The heat abated, only to be replaced by a stiff headwind that seemed immune to the usual shielding thickness of Boston’s crowded field, somehow always catching me with an unlikely gap between myself and the next nearest tall person. But insidiously worse, like a desert zephyr, that wind carried a drying power far in excess of expectations, sucking moisture from all with dangerous efficiency. Having already enacted my heat strategy of head dousing at each water table, I’d find my hair already dry within a half-mile of each soaking. Only the geeky headband kept some cooling moisture in place.
As expected, all of this added up to a typical slow fade, though playing the experience card helped keep things under control, limiting that fade to an extra minute tacked onto each subsequent ten kilometers. While the desiccating power of the wind was unexpected, I return to my opening statement: This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. So besides pulling out the heat management stops, it was a day for math early and math often to stay in the game.
What puzzles me still is where I went wrong. At the halfway point, my bank account seemed to match my split time; showing a healthy balance that held a decent chance of tiding me through the positive second-half split that’s almost inevitable even on a good day on Boston’s course. But from there? Like a forensic accountant, I’ve scrutinized the data. One error was obvious and amateur: I had three hour pace pegged incorrectly in my head by a second. That might not seem like much, but times twenty-six miles, well, you do the math. That accounts for twenty-four of those sixty-nine seconds I thought I had left with two-point-two to go. And mile twenty-five was no gem, making another withdrawal of another twenty-two seconds over three-hour pace. But even that should have left me with twenty-something to spare. Instead, I had nothing.
I’ll never know what went awry, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Overall, it was a grand day with plenty of good moments that easily overrode the loss of a few minutes thanks to conditions that at least, unlike last year, didn’t threaten us all with hypothermia. And results need to be put into perspective. The local paper runs the results of all runners from the thirty or so towns in its coverage area (though this year they oddly omitted my own burg, burying it the next day in the cheap seats of the back section). The long listing – perhaps four hundred runners (I haven’t counted) – is heavily tilted toward the area’s high concentration of charity runners, so times are typically on the slower side, yet still the smattering of qualified, more competitive runners is easy to spot with a scan through the page. This year’s scan screamed, “Hot!” It’s telling that a mere eight sub-threes graced the page. It’s telling that my overall age-group placing rose from sixty-fourth last year to thirty-fourth this year, despite running over a minute slower, and my overall placing rose likewise. And it’s satisfying that somehow, like that year of the Bake-Fest, I fared fairly well under the sun, bad math and all. Rack it up, Boston number ten, we live to fight another day.
Number Ten! This was my tenth consecutive Boston Marathon, all run as a qualified entrant. Sadly, the days when ten years would grandfather you for life are long gone. Instead, as I understand it, I’m now granted early registration and exemption from the cut-off if my qualifying race barely squeaks in under the qualifying time. So far, I’m ahead of the qualifying standards by enough that neither of these offers a significant benefit, but there may come a time when I’ll be happy to have the bennies.
Welcoming The World: One of the things I love about Boston is the opportunity to welcome the world to my backyard. I love asking people where they’ve travelled from, and responding to their reciprocal request by saying, “Ten miles north of here.” I love being able to offer up course advice to those who’ve never seen the route. And I love hearing runners’ reactions to the course and their experience. This year’s top moment in that category came around the half-mile mark, a favorite spot of mine where you first get a glimpse ahead and can see the endless mass of humanity ahead of you, even when you start near the front of the field. The guy behind me let out a loud, southern, and genuine, “DANG!” I knew instantly what he meant.
New Team: Goodbye Greater Boston red, hello Central Mass Striders blue. The irony is that had I raced in red, I’d have finished second on their masters team and would have again enjoyed seeing my name in the team section of the results book for their fifteenth place finish. Racing in blue, I ranked only fourth for CMS, about a minute outside of the scoring top three, and lost out on that tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of ink. But the non-scoring members of a team are there if someone flags, an important mission, and that support was provided to a far better sixth place finish. Top ten. Cool.
And Finally, Abuse of the Cloth: Admittedly, this story is a bit longer than a tidbit… Avoiding for the moment the issues of security and the lack of baggage checks, it’s a given that you’ll dispose of some clothing before the race. Since our local Salvation Army store closed up, Savers is now the purveyor of choice for “rental clothing” that gets used, tossed, reclaimed, and re-donated, probably to be back on the rack for your next race.
As it turned out, my gang settled on a patch of grass at the Athlete’s Village next to a gentleman who happened to be from Gainesville, Florida, or to translate to people who live in places with hills, a Gators fan. Yes, to him the ‘Noles, as apparently they’re known, were also the enemy. Gleefully he joined me as we rent the offending garment asunder before tacking on a few good stomps as a final insult, then slam dunked it into the nearest waste receptacle, all of this documented by club-mate Dan for the satisfaction of said Floridian niece. Yes, it was a bit wasteful, but hey, it was fun.