Giving up a London Marathon place was hard to do but a family holiday in the U.S. and the tantalizing prospect of tackling the Boston Marathon was more than an adequate replacement. It’s odd being on holiday knowing you have to run a marathon at the end of it. You are in your taper period where you are running less. Being on holiday you tend to be eating more. Being in the US you are definitely eating more. As a marathon runner paranoia reigns supreme and you are constantly worrying about gaining weight, losing fitness, losing speed and, specifically in New York, not getting enough sleep!
Happily the walking and the sightseeing managed to keep the fitness up and the weight stable. I did manage to do a number of runs in Central Park, perhaps the highlight of which was turning up one Sunday morning to find the New York Women’s Half Marathon being staged there. The 10 000 women didn’t seem to mind too much that I was amongst them.
I could relax a whole lot more when we arrived in Boston. Finally we were in the place where the race was taking place, 5 days early but I like to be prepared. Boston is a great city, very proud of its history. It’s more colonial England than the cosmopolitan metropolis of New York.
The expo was straight-forward, nothing like on the scale of London but equally well organised and there was that real buzz and sense of anticipation for the race. The city was teeming with runners. It seemed like everyone was a runner.
Race morning came around soon enough and as ever it began with an early start. I arrived on Boston Common at about 6.15am to hand my baggage in before getting on one of those yellow American School buses for the 26.2 miles to Hopkington, the start of the race and the location of the Athlete’s Village. The bus ride itself lasted the best part of an hour, leaving you with the daunting realization that you had to run all the way back.
Onto the race itself: for those that don’t know the Boston Marathon is an iconic race, perhaps the most prestigious race in the US, possibly the world. It’s the oldest continuously run marathon in the world. 2014 was the 118th running of the race. What also makes Boston stand out is the need to achieve a qualifying time to be able to enter. There is no ballot or lottery system here. If you qualify on your times then you are in. For some it is the pinnacle of their running ambitions and a lifetime achievement of which they are rightly very proud.
I had researched the run and the route in some detail. I had scoured the internet for blogs from experienced Boston Marathoners and I knew that the course was net downhill (that is why it does not count for world records). I also knew that from mile 16-21 there was a series of hills, culminating in Heartbreak Hill. The perceived wisdom was that it was foolish to blast out from the start where the first three miles are downhill in an effort to try and bank some time for when you later slow down on the hills. If you took that tactic you were warned that your quads would suffer later in the race and your over all time would be adversely affected.
Having never run the route before, I was happy to accept the wisdom of others and set off relatively conservatively. There is natural congestion in the first couple of miles as the 33,000 field of runners find their space. I was happy with my early splits and felt that I was running within myself as advised.
That being said, it was hot, very hot. All of my training had taken place in the winter, through rain and strong winds. I hate running in the heat and I suspected it might cause me problems.
Water and Gatorade were provided on the course every mile. They are provided in paper cups, which are not optimal for getting your fluids in. The first cup of Gatorade went all over my face but as the race went on I improved my technique of pinching the top of the cup, tilting my head to the side and pouring the fluid into the inside of my cheek. Looks odd and feels odd at first but it works and at no point in the race did I feel thirsty. If anything I may have overdone the carbohydrates, more of which later.
The early miles were passing by at a decent race; the crowd support was the best I have ever experienced. There were no quiet patches on the route, which took us through a number of small American towns where the population were massively enthusiastic in their support for the runners. Given the horrific events of 2013, this race was very much about Boston reclaiming their run from those who thought they could destroy the joy that it brings.
I was wearing a union jack running vest and so was easily identifiable as a Brit by the crowd and by the other runners. I was joined during the race, on a number of occasions, by other Brits who were happy to chat which helped the miles pass all the more quickly. For the bulk of the run I was joined by an American runner from Massachusetts who asked me what pace I was hoping to run. When I told him, ‘Somewhere in the 6:40 -6:49s,’ he asked whether he could join me. He was 26, had a marathon PB of 2:56 and was hoping to better it during this run. I had no real pre-determined goal for the race. It’s always nice to PB and I was certainly in PB shape having had a good period of training in the build up to the race. I wanted to go under the 3 hour mark again to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke and I wanted to enjoy the race. It’s sometimes dangerous to go into a race without a specific goal but I was pretty relaxed about it all at the start. (The race photographs show that this certainly changed as the race wore on with picture after picture of me staring at my Garmin!)
I passed the halfway point in 1:27:08. I felt decent and I had hoped that I would be at half way in about that time so thus far everything was going to plan. It was however getting warmer, not a cloud in the sky. As well as drinking the water I began to pour it over me to help keep me cool. After the halfway point it was a question of keeping disciplined about pace and making sure I was not over extending myself, knowing full well that in 4 or 5 miles the hilly section was to come.
The hills begin in Newton. The first is by far the worst, perhaps because it lasts for half a mile of so or perhaps because it’s the first significant challenge of the run. The researched wisdom was to relax into the hills and not attempt to maintain pace, just the same effort level. I was happy with that advice and I relaxed into the hills allowing my pace to drop without worrying about it. At the top of the hill I maybe had lost 10-15 seconds so I was pretty pleased with that.
I adopted the same approach throughout all the hills, including the infamous Heartbreak Hill. In truth the hill was nothing significant, it’s just that it’s the fourth in relatively quick succession. I crested the hill, recovered as I was going down the other side and felt great. I looked at my watch (yet again!) and noted I was running at 6:20 pace. Ouch! I had read that after Heartbreak if you feel great that is the time to push on as the rest of the run is relatively flat or downhill. I did feel great. On the other hand Charlie Spedding had advised in his book, if you feel great in a marathon, wait. If you still feel great, wait. On this occasion Charlie was spot on. I should have waited. At mile 23 I was like a car that had ran out of petrol. I was empty, had nothing left at all. Even with only a parkrun to go I knew I was in trouble. My heart rate was too high and I was frankly exhausted. I had lost my running buddy somewhere behind me and I was alone with my exhaustion. I decided I needed to recover and so I slowed to a walk for maybe 15 -20 seconds. I watched as my heart rate returned to somewhere near normal and then I ran the rest of the mile.
I could tell that I was still on for a good time but when you feel like I did in the marathon you don’t care about your time you just want the race to be over. I had to walk about 3 of 4 times over the last 3 miles, which passed in a painful blur. My toes were sore and the arches in my feet were incredibly tight, a pain I had not experienced before. I kept looking at my watch over the last mile and knew I had 10 minutes to complete the 1.2 miles to still achieve a sub 3. Despite my walking, when I began running again I seemed to be running at a decent pace so I forced myself to ignore the pain in order to duck under the 3 hours. Had I been thinking a little more clearly and been able to do the mental maths I would have realized a PB was still on, even in the latter stages. However, even as I approached the finish with about 400 metres to go, I had to walk a few steps before running to the line. At the line I was helped by a medic, who clearly thought I looked unsteady. He was right.
I crossed the line in 2:58:43, some 13 seconds outside my PB but I was delighted with my time. It was the hardest run I have ever done and I had to endure more pain than I had previously experienced. I was not well at the end. The combination of the heat, the gels, the Gatorade and the sheer exhaustion was not agreeing with my stomach and resulted in periods of vomiting for about an hour and a stay in the medical tent. I was far from alone in that.
Having now recovered and taken some time to absorb the whole experience, I remain delighted with my time. You can see from the photographs that it was far from easy. The course is definitely challenging with its rolling nature but it is a challenge worth accepting. It is an absolutely fantastic race. If you ever get the chance to do it then you should grab that opportunity with both hands.