Like no other marathon I’ve run. I understand why people who love it, love it

This race is going to be remembered for a long time, and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve gone back and forth in my head about whether or not to post this Race Report. Most of y’all know my background (or at least a lot of it). Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing things (a useful skill if you are called upon to be an interim aircraft accident investigation board member when there are civilian casualties–like a four year old boy who happens to have the same name as your four year old son). This ability is a blessing and a curse. And now, a VERY long Race Report…

Boston Race Report: A quick disclaimer. I had finished the 117th Boston Marathon an hour and twenty-four minutes before the bombs detonated. In fact, I had already left downtown Boston and as far as I can tell figure out was on the subway or maybe even the rental car when the bombs went off. Prior to the attack, it had been an amazing trip. This report will dwell on things leading up to the race and the race itself.

The weeks prior to the Boston Marathon had been really busy. It included a “doubled” drill that was extremely busy: a farewell for our wing commander, a “fly-x” that saw me working a 16 hour day on Saturday, not be able to fall asleep, then the change of command on Sunday followed by my 9 hour drive home following drill. To make matters worse, I either got a light head cold or bad allergies; to the point where I actually took Allegra for a couple of days. Regardless, I knew I was going no matter what.

For those unfamiliar with this story, it took me until my 9th marathon to qualify (the first time) for Boston. I couldn’t go. I couldn’t use my 2nd BQ either. My 3rd BQ was put to use. I would be in corral 9, wave 1. My bib number was 8981 (wave 1 went from 100 to 8999). I was finally going to go to Boston.

I met my traveling companion and we drove to Huntsville, flew to Atlanta then to Boston. Got a rental car and drove to Dedham (southwest of Boston) where our hotel was. Why so far? It was at least half the price of the downtown hotels…maybe less than that. First thing I noticed was how friendly the people were. We asked for a good local pizza place and were directed to one, the place was very good and we had a good time talking with the staff there. I found myself translating (I was born in Pennsylvania) between the locals and my friend (born in Alabama). They explained the appeal of Bruins hockey (Go Pens!) and we explained the appeal of SEC football and NASCAR. After dinner, bed.

Woke up early Sunday and went for a shakeout run. Met a guy from Detroit (staying with a friend in Dedham) who was doing the same thing. We ran together for a bit and talked. A former Marine, doing his 7th Boston. Really interesting guy and I went a bit further than intended. No worries from my standpoint, I had less congestion issues but still had some snot rockets/coughing. Back to the hotel, showered, then my friend and I were off to the expo.

Wow! All I can say about the expo. Some highlights (I’ll forget stuff): Finally meeting Feetdontfailmenow (Kate). We were supposed to meet at Marine Corps in ’08 but weather delayed me and we couldn’t get together. She’s as lovely and gracious in person as her posts reflect. The various vendor “booths” were quite impressive. Debated getting a jacket, finally did. Asics had some socks on sale. All in all, a very interesting time. In the “it’s a small world” category, another Florence running friend “crashed” our photo taking at the expo. Then my friend and I headed out of the expo and walked down to the finishing area. Took photos of the finish line, grandstands, etc.

At this point, the Boston Common is several blocks away. So we start a walking tour of Boston. I’m a bit of a history nerd, so I had a great time. My friend put up with it, but was concerned about what it would do to his race (he had tapered pretty well). So many highlights, but my favorite was touring the USS Constitution. Amazing that up to 500 men would go to sea on her. That said, she was larger than I expected but still quite small. It was a thrill to walk the decks of a commissioned naval vessel that is undefeated. Other highlights included the Old North Church, the Boston Massacre sight, Paul Revere’s house and all of the very old cemeteries that the high rises are built around. We probably walked close to 10 miles. Ooops! Then we went to the pasta dinner. Very well done, especially for all the folks that go through. The Sam Adams 26.2 brew was quite tasty. Then we walked back to Hynes Convention Center (part of the 10) (the car was there) and headed back to the hotel. Put together my stuff for the next day and went to bed. Actually slept fairly well, but the wake up came early.

Race Day. Woke up early, gathered what I thought I needed, and we headed to the end of the Orange line on the T. We got on and a couple of stops later a young lady go on also carrying a yellow turn-in bag. Glad she got on because she got us to a closer stop to the bus pick up point at the Common. During the subway ride, I realized I had somehow left my Garmin in the hotel. The organization at the bus pickup point (and elsewhere) was top notch. We got on a bus and were convoyed to Hopkinton. The police actually blocked the on ramps while we passed. Got to athlete’s village and waited for the race to start. Athlete’s village was quite cool. Beyond the multiple port-o-johns, there was coffee, bagels, the Gatorade “One” packs, powerbars, etc. I ate an entire blueberry bagel and over half of a French toast bagel (very tasty). Coffee, water and Gatorade and spoke with quite a few of the other runners. Changed for the race.

The weather that morning was very good. Temps in the low 40s, partly to mostly cloudy and the wind was fairly tame. I wore a singlet, compression undershorts, race day shorts (they have the large pockets in the back), calf sleeves, Wright distance socks, Saucony Guide 5’s, sunglasses, a visor, throwaway shirt and throwaway gloves. My plan was to run by feel and just enjoy the experience. That began with dropping my bag at the appropriate bus and walking to the starting area. That was a lot of fun with the excitement and even trading Clint Eastwood movie quotes with a guy on the way over. Got to my corral and waited. After the national anthem, the race began. I was towards the back of the last corral and it took us almost 7 minutes to get to the starting line. Then we were off.

It’s not often an event lives up to the hype. The Boston Marathon exceeded my expectations. I tried to write down events from each 5k block (since I have the times from the timing mats) but some things may be out of sequence. Some things were just continuous the entire race. I’ll start with the spectators. Unbelievable. The entire 26.2 miles had crowds lining the course. And all cheering, high-fiving, etc. Another common theme was the water/Gatorade stations along the route. Every mile. The volunteers were all great. Combine all of these items with an immense number of people who will be running at about the same pace. Plus I had no expectations of myself based on events of the last couple of weeks.

The first 5k is downhill (mainly) but rolls, so there is some climbing. Breaks things up nicely. I do have to stop for one final bladder evacuation. I remember the guys giving beer out to anyone who would chug it. One guy takes them up on it as I go by. I also see the first autistic runner with two guides. Reminded me of the 5k I did with DS#1—my time of 1:12:01 tells you how that went! So that was quite inspiring to see that. In addition to the autistic runners (I saw two), there were the people pushing kids (mainly) with CP and other maladies and several soldiers “rucking” the course. My time in the first 5k (including the pause) is 24:02. Not bad for running by feel.

5k to 10k; terrain still rolling downhill but not as steep. I’d settled into my pace and was always surrounded with other runners. Seldom was passed, but I was passing folks. I passed a guy dressed as Tinkerbell and a guy dressed as a hamburger—made a mental note to not get passed back. I also remember seeing a hook and ladder fire truck with the ladder extended over the course. Firemen were climbing back down to make room for two others. Time is 23:17.

10k to 15k; the course is now a level “rolling” (if that makes sense). Settled in and see ahead of me a guy in a pink fairy costume. He’s running with a guy in a hotdog suit. I catch up on them slowly, draw even, then slowly move ahead. I don’t think Tinkerbell will catch me (barring a complete explosion) but this guy is a different matter. I’m still not pushing the pace and feel pretty good….but then I usually feel good the first 16 miles or so! Towards the end of this 5k, you can hear Wellesley in the distance. Time is 23:10.

15k to 20k; flat but still rolling, can hear Wellesley in the distance toward the end. Pass the second autistic runner here. Time is 23:07.

20k to 25k; Wellesley is the highlight here. The “tunnel of sound” is well named. I’ve spent a few years on the flightline around F-16s. This rivaled that noise. Can’t say I approved of all their signs, but the enthusiasm is palpable. I hit a few hands but no, I did not stop to kiss anyone. That seemed sort of a creepy thing to do as a 47 year old. The adrenaline from the noise and enthusiasm carries you a few miles. As I approach the half marathon mark, I see a guy ahead in a white shirt. Handwritten on the back is “Don’t pass me, I’m not in your age group!” As I draw even I turn to tell the guy I like his shirt…and it’s a fellow Florence runner known as Bigfoot. We chat for a few seconds then I move on. I fully expect to see him again. Time is 22:49, my fastest 5k split. My time at the half is 1:38:31. I’m still feeling pretty good but Newton is coming.

25k to 30k; images are a blur—crowds, the other runners, holding on to my water/water/Gatorade with endurolytes every 30 minutes and a shot block every 3 to 4 miles. Still feeling good, even with the road turning upward. Time is 23:21.

Heartbreak Hill

30k to 35k; Heartbreak Hill, actually meet Meka going up the hill and while neither of us knew it, it was in front of a race photographer. We get captured together on a couple of snaps. An amazing coincidence! No time to talk. Something I hadn’t mentioned before this. Race day was also the 27th anniversary of my father passing away. As many of you know, I dedicate miles starting at mile 21. Today mile 20 (which includes Heartbreak Hill) was dedicated to my dad. I really felt like he helped carry me up that hill. At the top my left leg decides to try and lock up. I determine to try and run through it so I shorten my stride and drop my pace a bit. I get through it and my pace doesn’t seem to fall off too much, but there is 5.2 miles to go and I know (this is my 20th marathon if you don’t count the 2 ultras) that leg cramps have a way of coming back with a vengeance. The downhill from Heartbreak doesn’t help me because of the possible cramping issue. I also decide to change my hydration strategy, I take Endurolytes a bit earlier and my 2 water/1 Gatorade ratio (water at a stop, water at the next stop, Gatorade at the stop after that) went to 1 water/1 Gatorade. For the first time, I wonder where the pink fairy and Tinkerbell are…. Time is 24:16, could have been much worse.

35k to 40k; not quite in survival mode but I am thinking the fade has to be coming. It doesn’t. Probably a combination of the crowd and the fast field. I’m constantly monitoring my legs now, alert for pretty much anything. Watching pace, turnover, any sort of twinge. Either the field is getting faster or I’m fading a bit. Not passing as many people, getting passed more often. More people walking by this point (I’m not one of them…yet). Pass a female elite (F51 I think) who is walking/running at this point. The Citgo sign is visible. Time is 24:35, faster than I thought I was going.

40k to 42.2k; still not quite in survival mode, but I’m convinced I won’t hit the 3:20 mark. Down and under the tunnel then to “right on Hereford, left on Boylston.” The trip down Boylston Street seems to not end. I’m looking at my watch and realize I’ll be missing the 3:20 mark (to get the 5 minute “head start” on next year’s sign up) by seconds. Still I’m getting to the end, the crowds are even larger and everyone seems to be cheering for you. I don’t generally finish with my arms up, but I did on that day. Time is 9:24. I did want a BQ because I determined during the race I’d like to come back, next time with my wife and kids (hard to call them kids when the youngest is 20).

My official time was actually under 3:20…by a whole second! 3:19:59, my fourth BQ. 5843 overall, 5011th male, 712th in the age group. Considering how I felt for the 10 days prior and at the start, this was a great race for me.

A lot of people come through the finish area quickly and the volunteers do a great job of making sure you are ok, getting you water, mylar blanket, medal, protein bars, etc. Then headed to the bus for my turn-in bag (buses were well marked) and I changed my shoes/socks and put on a long sleeve shirt. Then grabbed my phone, sent a text to my wife, then looked for my buddy. We found each other quickly and decided to go ahead and head back to the T and the car. We got on the subway and headed out. When we got to the car, I was using my phone to navigate back to the hotel when my friend’s phone just went crazy. That’s when we found out about the bombs. We got back to the hotel and watched the coverage while assuring friends and loved ones we were ok. We went to dinner later. There was no lock down or other issues in Dedham.

The next morning I got up early enough to get in a run (about 3 miles) then we checked out. Our flight out was in the afternoon, so we went to Lexington and Concord to see some of the highlights in those towns (Lexington Green and the Old North Bridge in Concord). Then to the airport for the trip home. Got back to the house about 10 PM that night.

The coverage of that Monday plays on a loop in my head. The initial response was outstanding (that’s my professional opinion as a 24 year military officer). My thoughts and prayers for all those people whose lives were directly impacted by the blasts and subsequent events.

Post Script: I wrote this about a week ago and am re-reading it tonight. There were some things that I’d like to add. At the expo, on a large screen, there is a continuous loop of the course playing. As my friend and I watch it, I pull out a Boston Cream Doughnut and eat it. The reaction of the others around me was priceless (the “are you kidding me” stares). I just looked and, with a mouthful of doughnut said, “What?” The pink fairy didn’t pass me….but it was close. He was about a minute behind me. Thinking back on it, I didn’t walk during the race. That’s not a first, but it’s not a feat I pull off too often. The hill work I did in Jan/Feb seemed to pay off dividends. I’ll have to do it more often. Finally, I’m not sure I said enough about the city of Boston and its residents. Beyond how nice everyone is, the entire city and region are tremendously supportive of the event. It was like no other marathon I’ve run. I understand why the people who love it, love it.

Greg Halen
Florence, Alabama
April 15, 2013
Age – 47
Bib # 8981

Originally posted on “Runners World On Line – Master’s Forum” on April 26, 2013.