I mean I only had nine seconds to spare…

Running the Boston Marathon was not my goal as a runner. I didn’t start running with that on my mind. I was a tri-athlete in 2008 and had completed several sprints triathlons, Olympics, and one half Ironman.

I wanted to do a full Ironman before the age of 50. To do that, I had to be able to run a marathon, AFTER swimming 2.4 miles, and riding a bike 112 more. I could do the first two stages of an Ironman but the 26.2 mile run afterward was something I would have to work on.

From some of my cycling friends, I had heard about Kenneth Williams: “Koach,” as most runners know him. They said he was a marathon guru so-to-speak, and could help me if I wanted to train for a marathon. I contacted him and scheduled a visit. Soon afterwards, I sat down in Koach’s office to discuss training for a marathon. A discussion of “the greatest marathon” came up, and while sitting there, I began to think how great it would be if I could run the Boston Marathon someday.

I asked him if he thought I could do it. He explained how hard it was to qualify and cautioned me not to get too caught up in qualifying; that it took tremendous sacrifices by me and my family. He told me to learn to love the joy of running because running any marathon is a huge accomplishment and only a small percentage of people can do it. And only a small percentage of those mmarathon runners actually can qualify for Boston.

It seemed like it was only a few days after meeting with Koach, I attended a high school basketball game, and noticed a guy with a cool running jacket. On closer inspection, I found myself looking at the prize for crossing the finish line in Boston. That ignited something in me and I decided that I would have one of those Boston Marathon jackets someday.

It took me three attempts to run a qualifying time for Boston and by “qualifying” I mean I only had nine seconds to spare! Most of my training runs are rural, but occasionally while traveling, I’ll run in a big city, and cross a street with one of those “don’t walk” countdown clocks. Whenever I do, I get chills seeing how close I was to never making the trip to Boston. Nine seconds! At the pace I was running, the distance I had to spare was probably around 90 feet. One corner too wide, a few steps slower at the water stops, an emergency trip to the port-a-potty, would have eaten up those nine seconds. I made it by just nine seconds but that worked just as well if it had been nine minutes. I can forever say I have a BQ!

During my training for the Boston Marathon of 2011, I remember all the good solid runs I had on our favorite running playground in Northeast Mississippi: Highway 350. I had my mind set on re-qualifying at Boston, which in hindsight, was a mistake. Due to the change in qualifying times, I was going to have to run much faster than my previous time of 3:30:50. Moving up to another age group, I needed to run a 3:30 flat but conventional wisdom told me I needed to run faster than a 3:25 to get in. I set a goal pace of 7:47 and trained for it so I would come in a little under 3:25. I still remember on particular Saturday out on Highway 350 during a good long run, I was running ahead of the pack. After the turn-around at Highway 25, I met John Aikin, AKA Bigfoot, and him yelling out: “3:20! You can do it!” I really felt like I was ready.

The trip to Boston started with a delayed flight in Memphis due to weather. Some of my friends, including Koach, had bigger delays than I did. My wife, sister, and mother accompanied me on my trip. We got to Boston late that Friday night. I didn’t do much on Saturday and Sunday, other than just taking in the Expo and buying a bunch of Boston stuff. I had my mind on one thing and one thing only.

We had a great dinner one night at Legal Seafood with a bunch of Koach’s running students. I think it’s a traditional get together that Koach has for all his students who make it to Boston; a way for us all to meet and socialize with others under his tutelage from near and far.

Monday morning we made our way to the runner pick-up location in Boston and then on to Hopkinton via the yellow dog school bus parade. After we unloaded, we made our trek to the athletes’ village where we hung out and waited for our corral group to be called. It was cold and muddy in the village. I didn’t have enough warm throw-away clothes or anything to sit on. The wind was howling through the village and I was freezing. I finally found part of a cardboard box to sit on to keep my bottom dry and did nothing but make several port-a-potty trips during the wait.

My corral number was finally called and our group made our way toward the starting line, which seemed like a mile or further. As I got closer, another call of nature hit me and I hopped in the potty line near the start. I was about to miss my corral time and I panicked. Finally I got that taken care of and ran to my group which was already moving toward the start line in the corral. I jumped the banister and got with my group which was walking toward the start. The walk became a jog, and at the start line, it became a river of human beings flowing down the long hill out of Hopkinton. To my left and right were runners with no room to spare. Off each side of the road, runners male and female alike, were relieving themselves with no regard for privacy.

I was running a good pace down the hill out of Hopkinton. The course kept going down and down and it felt effortless. I was superman. This was in the bag and I was just going to ride the river all the way to Boston, “bang a left” on Boylston, and cross the finish line. I ran in the middle of the road. I did not want to get distracted by the people lining the street. My pace was 7:40 and I felt fine. Maybe a 3:20 is do-able! As I neared Wellesley we began entering some rolling hills. I was still holding my pace and felt good. As I entered the “screech tunnel” constructed by the girls of Wellesley College, I stayed in the middle of the road, goal in mind, but noticed girls with signs that said, “You’ve got stamina, call me” and “kiss me”! Halfway there and I still felt good. The hills of Newton were ahead and I knew they couldn’t be worse than the hills of 350. I had eased back a little to my planned pace of 7:47, remembering what Koach had said, “don’t get greedy or pay X 3 in the end”. But I hadn’t heeded that warning when I was flying down the hill out of Hopkinton.

Something happened to me between Wellesley and Newton. Could it have been all that downhill running at the start ruined my quads or running too fast too early? I didn’t know, but I was beginning to have trouble with the 7:47 pace. It inched up above 7:50 and I started to see the 3:25 goal slip away. Maybe I could maintain a 7:50 pace, but Heartbreak Hill and all its friends were looming ahead. My pace continued to slow as I climbed each hill. I don’t know which one was Heartbreak, they all were to me.


With 1968 Boston winner Amby Burfoot

After mile 21 the course got a little better, but the damage was done. I adjusted my goal to 3:30. I don’t remember much from that point until I passed the Citgo sign with one mile to go, other than I just wanted to finish. Time didn’t matter, I was in survival mode. I have very little memory of what happened until I took the left turn onto Boylston. There I saw what it’s all about. Cheering fans six deep lined the street. With the finish line in sight, I tried to soak it all in as much as my brain would allow. Then I crossed the big yellow finish line. My finish time was 3:41:30, but I finished.

I met my family and we made the very difficult walk back to the hotel, not knowing if I was happy or sad. I showered and rested a bit. Then we went down to the Cheese Cake Factory for a nice meal. As we made our way back to the room, we decided to go back down to the mostly deserted finish line to encourage the last runners as they crossed the yellow line. Being Mississippi State fans, we don’t travel without a couple of cowbells, so we took them to the finish and rang our hearts out for every last finisher. I cried the whole time. I don’t know why, but I did.

This memory of running Boston will last forever, but the big accomplishment was qualifying, while running Boston was the reward! How I wish I had approached it like that, and not tried to race it. I regret I ran it so hard that I couldn’t take it all in, and can’t remember every town, feature, and face of the Boston Marathon. If there ever is a next time, I’ll high five the fans, stop and sip a beer, kiss the girls of Wellesley, and soak it all in. Today, that’s my goal. And my advice to any future runners is to do the same. You qualified, now enjoy the reward. That’s easy to say sitting here right now, but we are runners, and when we cross that starting line, we race.

Alan Smith
Corinth, Mississippi
April 18, 2011
Age – 49
Bib # 12206