[ Ed Note: As is often the case, this marathon tale is longer than my usual postings. As I usually say, deal with it! ]
Rocket John was absolutely convinced I was going to hammer this one. Not just sub three hours, but he went so far as to predict a Boston, if not a marathon PR for me. I wish I’d had his confidence going in. Then again, perhaps I’m glad I didn’t. Then again, maybe I secretly did.
No denying that at both Stu’s 30K and the Tri-Valley 15K, I clocked in with very confidence-inspiring results. But without a truly strong twenty-plus-miler under my belt, my nagging fear was the high miles, the classic fear of every marathoner, the fear I’d conquered at Bay State in 2007 with buddy Ron’s famous, “You’re going to speed up!” comment at mile twenty three. Quite frankly, in my post-surgery days, that fear was back. I fully expected a strong eighteen miles, a-la-Stu’s, and a mighty struggle beyond.
And as it went, that’s pretty much what I got. While the end result wasn’t as dramatic as Rocket John called for – there were no PR certificates being handed out at day’s end – it was as satisfying as I could have hoped for: a return to the sub three zone, and fully intact at the end, to boot. There was no face plant this time, though it took a lot of will to assure that didn’t happen again.
But here’s the funny part. While my confidence in being strong through those high miles was close to nil, my confidence in being able to cope with them was as high as ever. That’s the confidence of age, experience, and perhaps a few grains of stubborn stupidity. I knew I’d been there before, and save the Wineglass tragedy, come out the far end not much worse for wear. It was that confidence that allowed me to go with the flow at the start, go stupid fast, put some time in the bank, and make that 2:58 possible.
And that’s how it went. Stupid fast at the start, followed by three Mighty Struggles. A Mighty Struggle to get my pace under control. A Mighty Struggle to survive even the mid miles. And a downright Heroic Struggle, if one is allowed to attach the word heroic to one’s own exploits, to withstand the final three or four miles. Yes, you’ll notice that I didn’t attach the phrase mighty struggle to the famed hills of Newton. They were there. Yeah, so what?
Boston never offers rational weather, and Monday was no exception, with the exception that it was gorgeous for a change, high 40’s, sunny, though with a fairly stiff cross breeze. Near perfect, but still, standing in the starting corral, surrounded by bodies, sun shining brightly, Kelley green club shirt on, I was downright hot. And within two miles, sweating far more than expected. Boston strikes again. But once underway, the temperature resumed ideal range under delightful sunny skies which politely turned somewhat overcast at some point late in the race – a change I didn’t notice until somewhere around twenty or twenty one when I realized just how comfortable it was, and how hydration never became a problem.
The wind, on the other hand, was both fickle and divine. It’s interesting how twenty four hours supplements and solidifies one’s memory. At race’s end, I remembered that a nasty headwind hit me just as I started up Heartbreak Hill, and how that seemed such a Boston-appropriate insult, yet how each time I felt at my lowest and weakest, there always seemed to be a not-so-subtle kick in the pants from what I termed the Divine Wind. These memories were strong enough to make me question how much of my sub-three was delivered via this gift. Twenty four hours later, however, I remembered the rest of the race, the long miles through Framingham, Natick and Wellesley where I repeatedly wished for someone handy to tuck in behind to escape the frequent frontal gusts, and how those drafting opportunities never arose. Divine at times or not, I’d have to call the net effect nil, or perhaps even in the minus column.
Last year’s first corral start meant getting out of the way. This time, I was there to race, though knowing that I most likely still wasn’t really up to first corral standards, I wasn’t stupid enough to put myself in the front of the corral. Even three-quarters back in the corral, the first mile was a crazy 6:14. Did I mention that for my 2:56 in 2008, I went out in 7:03 in traffic and made it up? Did I mention that as a four-time Boston runner, I know how everyone gets sucked up and goes out too fast? Did I mention that I was smart enough not to do that? Yeah, right. OK, don’t panic, it’s downhill, you’re strong, it’s early, just slow down. Mile two, 6:17. Yeah, that was slower, but not the 6:40’s I was targeting. And thus began the strangest – from a pace standpoint – marathon I’ve ever run.
My goal in a marathon is to set a steady and strong pace, a little ahead of target, and stick to it as long as possible, knowing that either I end up with some time in the bank to give back as needed in the high miles, or, on those rare days, bring it in consistent or faster. My worst case scenario is a slow degradation of pace, an apparent weakening, dying on the vine, slower, slower, slower, until… But here I was in a situation that through two, three, four miles (mile five clocked in at three-hour target pace only due to an, umm, pit stop), struggling to fight the excitement of the pack, struggling to get the pace down without making my body feel like I’d broken it by forcing it into a slow pace so early on. Had I felt comfortable early on, this might have been possible, but fact was, I was toast in this race from about mile five onward. It wasn’t the fast pace, it just didn’t feel quite right. There was never a groove. It was work the whole way. I reminded myself of Buffalo 2008, when at around mile nine I had to remind myself that it wasn’t going to feel easy, it was going to be work, that’s just the way it was, get used to it. That day in Buffalo turned into my PR. It was a good lesson to relive. Mighty Struggle Number One resolved itself over time, but in doing so instilled fear, because by gradually bringing my pace back to sanity, which was good, I knew I was gradually slipping slower, slower, slower, which was not good. My pace graph shows it remarkably consistent. Was it a gradual regaining of control? Or was it a twenty-five mile fade?
Thus Mighty Struggle Number Two, just getting through the bulk of the race. This one was never easy. It was fun, but it wasn’t easy. This being Boston number four, I was surprised at the expansion of my “fan base” – both those I knew would be out there and a number of surprises. More than a couple of times I heard people shouting my name, and no, my name wasn’t emblazoned on my shirt or any other body part, nor was the crowd thick enough in my part of the pack for there to be any mistaken identity. Often I never found the source of these calls, on occasion I did yet couldn’t place the face, but every one was appreciated. Meeting my family – er, pardon me, my Ace Support Team – in Newton Lower Falls at sixteen, I hollered that I’d gone out too fast even though I knew there could really have been no other way.
The hills of Newton? The famed, feared, dreaded, hills of Newton? A non-issue. Not a mighty struggle. Sure, my pace poked above 7, even as high as 7:20 on Heartbreak, but the hills didn’t kill me. The building heaviness in the quads, the knowledge of five and a half to go after Heartbreak, that darn near killed me.
I denied myself the pleasure of the mental exercise of calculating the pace I needed to make the three hour barrier until I was over Heartbreak. Don’t even think about it, because if I only needed eight minute miles, I couldn’t assure myself that I had eight minute miles left in me. But over Heartbreak, crossing the mile twenty-one marker, the mental gyrations began. Thirty-eight and three-quarter minutes left. Allow almost two minutes for that last 385 yards. That leaves nearly thirty seven minutes for five miles. About 7:25 per mile. Not a foregone conclusion.
In my mind, I’d slowed to somewhere between Dog Slow and Thick Lava. But despite my mounting agony, twenty two dropped back into the 6:40s, and the next two hovered near 7. Math time again, not that the math gears were working all that well by then. At mile twenty four, eighteen minutes to go. Eight minutes a mile. Again, simply not a foregone conclusion.
Memories of Wineglass floated through my head as my legs grew so heavy, so weary, and my being became not quite wobbly as it did at Wineglass, but clearly in a place where wobbly wasn’t far away. Between prayers, I found myself actively willing myself to remain upright. Coming to the final insult – the tiny incline at mile twenty five where Beacon Street rises and crosses the Massachusetts Turnpike, I looked at my watch and decided I had enough in the budget to avoid disaster and take a tenth of a mile walk. No Wineglassing today, thank you.
While the break probably saved me, it certainly didn’t make the finish seem easy. Only a mile point two, through Kenmore, dipping under Massachusetts Avenue, the famed right on Hereford left on Boylston zee, and everlasting agony. Each minute checking my watch, four and a half left, three and a half, even halfway down Boylston I could not say it was a foregone conclusion that I’d make it in under three hours, that I’d make it in standing up. It was that much of a Mighty Struggle.
Over the line, a minute and a quarter to spare, handed off between four red-jacket medical volunteers to keep me walking, back to lucidity, back to sanity, back to full functionality, back to the sub-three zone.
[ I’ll recount some of the fun anecdotes and tales of the day in a future posting or two ]