Boston is one tough marathon course. Reading about the route and even driving the course doesn’t really prepare you for what it is like to race at Boston. Everybody who struggles with the Boston Beast can take some solace in the fact that even four-time winner Bill Rodgers dropped out of his first Boston race at twenty miles. I often caution people in training for the marathon to remember the saying, “You have to respect the race, you have to respect the distance.” This goes double for Boston. After completing my first Patriots Day race, I developed a whole new reverence and respect for the Boston Marathon.
My little quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon began as a New Year’s Resolution in late 2004. Over the next sixteen months (or sixty-five weeks) (or five hundred plus days), I ran three marathons, a couple of ultra-marathons (plus another half dozen thirty mile training runs) and a dozen shorter-distances races. I lost twenty-five pounds along the way (actually I probably lost more, gained them back, and then lost them again). I went through about fifteen pairs of running shoes, Asics Nimbus’. I ran at least three thousand miles. I consumed gallons of gels and goo’s, sucked back barrels of Gatorade. I ranted and raved, sulked and pouted, strutted and swaggered about, sniveled and whined and shouted my story from the mountain-top by way of a blog entitled “BOSTON OR BUST – One Man’s journey to the Mecca of Marathoners.” [Along the way my Blog – all 282 Posts – kept me honest. It kept me motivated and it gave me a place to vent my spleen and exercise my demons. The Blog was been a little bit like being a Pace Group Leader for a really, really, really big running group. I loved getting comments back. They were an interesting mirror to gaze into. I even started getting regulars which was a bit of a surprise. In the end, the Blog took on a life of its own, a cause for occasional friction and hostility in Vince World when I struggled to balance the time requirements for training, working and writing. And the Blog found its own identity, getting noticed in places and venues that rather surprised me.]
I have to say two of the highlights for me on this Boston journey have had to do with Bill Rodgers. I met Bill in person at the 2005 Las Vegas Marathon. I started out curious and ended up being an admirer and a huge fan. Bill Rodgers is a class act. He autographed my race bib and a copy of his book (my second). He was gracious and sincere and utterly down to earth and speaking with him was just a delight.
When I told him I had just qualified for Boston, his enthused response took me a little aback. “Wow, that’s great! That’s tough, you know, to qualify for Boston. I raced at Boston a few times and Boy!, that race… Congratulations! You can’t just do Boston once. You need to race it a few times. Boy, that race.” And Bill just shook his head and grinned. It took me a second to realize Bill was being perfectly genuine. All this from a four-time winner at Boston. In this moment we were just a pair of runners with a shared passion. I had no sense we were separated by talent, or speed, or achievement. My book inscription reads, “Vince, Run Forever! Have fun in your 1st Boston Marathon! ’06-’07 Bill Rodgers.” There it was in ink, an invitation, a command no less, from one of Mount Olympus’ marathon Gods to run Boston more than once…
We chatted for a few minutes about running as you get older and how he was coming back from an injury and was running half marathons in favor of marathons, and I couldn’t help but think of his incredible string of marathon victories and his equally incredible volume of races and training. And at the end of his string, Bill Rodgers still thinks of and hungers to race.
Once we arrived in Boston and had secured our rental car at Logan Airport, Hugh, Luisa and I checked into our hotel and immediately made a bee-line to the Bill Rodger’s Running Center. If Boston is Mecca, then Bill’s store was Holy Ground. The place was filled with memorabilia from his racing career. I had been checking out the marathon gear from Adidas online and knew exactly what I wanted. I shopped for five minutes and admired the decor for an hour. I also picked up some t-shirts for the guys back home, and some for myself. The Bill Rodgers’ quotes on the t-shirts would prove eerily prophetic, “the marathon can humble you” and “If you want to win a race you have to go a little berserk.” The first goes without saying, and the second applies just as well to finishing the last 10K strong. If you want a time at Boston, you have to be willing to go a little berserk…
There is no way to sugar-coat it. I got slapped around in Boston – but good. The sheer numbers of people running and the ever changing grade make it nearly impossible to find a “groove” and stick that pace for any length of time. You always have to be vigilant about your pace. The downhills lure you on and the uphills catch you unawares. “Pace” is almost impossible to achieve.
I went out “easy”, but still reeled off a 24 minute 5K and a 48 minute 10K. If you look at my heart rate chart you will see I actually did start out relatively easy. I did not get my heart rate up for at least the first thirty minutes. I was thrown for a bit of a loop, when in the first two hundred meters I was jostled by someone and one of my Gel bottles squirted from my Fuel Belt and was lost in a nano second in the crowd. There was not even a suggestion I could stop and recover it. In a flash, I had lost half my fuel supply for the race. I was going to have to use my initiative and ingenuity in the field to make up for the loss. Needless, to say, that was going to be a stretch…
Hugh was not happy with the pace at 10K and passed me, saying as he breezed by me, “This pace is not going to cut it.” I didn’t have a reply for that and I tried to stick with him, but I finally had to let him go. My heart rate was rapidly leaving the zone I had picked for my race strategy. At several points, he had to be at least a few hundred meters in front of me and I completely lost sight of him. I panicked a little because I have so much respect for Hugh and his experience and ability. But I also knew I had to run my own race.
The next 10K sped by, water station by water station, mile by mile, and outstretched hand by outstretched hand. I felt good at the Half, and I had reeled Hugh back in – we crossed the timing pads together – but I knew my 1:41 would take a beating in Newton. I had driven the course, seen the Hills and read all the books. Frankly, I was dreading this part of the race. I thought the key for me in Boston was to survive to the top of Heartbreak Hill and not blow my brains out. I usually run a negative split and I am a strong finisher. I knew I had put enough miles in the training bank to – at least in theory – be able to draw down on them at the end of the marathon.
The hills are insidious and often preceded by a sneaky little downhill. People would gather speed and momentum and try and maintain their speed up the hill. The crowd made it worse by urging everyone on. It was a recipe for disaster in my reckoning. It took a huge amount of discipline on my part to keep my ego and my heart rate in check.
I heard and watched all kinds of people going anaerobic as they crested the hills. I knew it was going to take a toll as we approached 32K. I had dropped at least five minutes by the top of Heartbreak Hill. And once again, it took everything I had to keep my heart rate in a zone I could maintain. This time it was not a case of me slowing down, but a case of willing myself to keep going.
At mile twenty-three my muscles cramped so badly I had to walk them out. And this was a whole new kind of pain I had never experienced before. I think even when you are speeding downhill, there must be a momentary quad contraction to maintain your balance. My quads were screaming at this point. Up until Boston, I had only ever encountered cramping and muscle spasms in my calves and hamstrings. Unfortunately, when I went to the training mileage bank to make a withdrawal, the bank was closed! (Perhaps it was the Patriots Day holiday…)
I abandoned any idea of a 3:20 by about ten miles, and then had my heart set on a Personal Best at Boston (3:29:39) for the next ten miles. From 32K on, my only goal, and a desperate attempt to salvage something for the day, was to re-qualify for Boston IN Boston. I almost didn’t make it. I have never suffered muscle cramps before like I did towards the end. You name the muscle group, and it probably seized up on me: quads, calves, hamstrings. Twice I thought seriously about just walking it in.
Truthfully, knowing Scooter was out there like the Great White Shark in Jaws, and that my running buddies were all glued to a computer screen somewhere, kept me going. In the end, I had to go a little berserk.
You wanna talk about respect? Boston is DA MAN! I bow down! What a race.
I consider myself incredibly lucky and fortunate to have come away with a 3:30:38 in Boston.
A highlight – or lowlight – of the trip occurred at the Expo when I picked up my bib and chip. I was going to get my Boston Marathon shirt and as I walked past the “Smalls,” I angled towards the “Mediums,” and “Larges.” A trim elderly man, all five-foot-five and a half of him and a hundred and thirty pounds of him soaking wet, took one look at me and chirped, “The shirts for the football players are at the end,” and he pointed to the “Extra Larges.” For the record, a Large fits me like a glove, thank you very much. But I must confess on the day before the marathon, I tipped the medical scale in the hotel Fitness Room at 185-186 pounds. I was fully carb-loaded to say the least.
Small comfort. I started the race in Corral Ten, proudly wearing Bib Number 10,486. This meant in part I was in the very last starting pen in the First Wave, and, in theory at least, there were ten thousand four hundred and eighty-five runners who had qualified to run in Boston with a quicker qualifying time than me (my Personal Best of 3:29:39). That is, not to put too fine a point on it, I was racing 10,485 runners who were faster than moi. I finished 6,315 Overall, which I take it to mean I passed or finished ahead of 4,171 other runners who qualify as stiff competition. For once, I punched above my weight!
Glimmer of hope. I was proud of my ability to reassess my goals in mid-race and realize I could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by re-qualifying in Boston. By the same token, I finished within 59 seconds of my PB on what most would consider a significantly tougher course. I am very happy with my time.
There are a large group of people I owe thanks for helping me get to Boston, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Jeff Galloway. I am a staunch proponent of Jeff’s training methods and philosophy. He’s the closest thing I have to a running guru. I have probably gifted several dozen people with his excellent book, “Marathon” and I am a tremendous disciple of his long run pace theories. Jeff has answered a number of my e-mails personally, and he has been an ongoing source of both inspiration and knowledge. [Check it out at www.jeffgalloway.com]
And finally, you simply can’t say enough about Boston’s race organization, the race volunteers, and the people of Boston. The atmosphere and ambience in Boston is amazing. The Expo is incredible and the Marathon itself is a spectacle. It’s like going to the circus or a side-show carnival for three straight days. Runners are feted and treated like Kings and Queens. Boston, you Rock!
If you’re a runner who loves the marathon, you owe it to yourself to find a way to get to Boston. Nothing I read nor imagined prepared me in the slightest for running in Boston. You simply have to experience it.
I would run the Boston Marathon again in a heartbeat!