|Course Map on display at the expo|
"Control the control-ables" was a phrase Donny Rumsfeld once muttered when fielding questions about the potential disaster the U.S. was getting itself into by invading Iraq in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The continued and persistently petty follies of the U.S. government since this time have soiled my perspective so much that I'm nothing more than cynic these days, so I don't intend to get into just how wrong he was about controlling the perceived control-ables, let alone the uncontrollables. Plus, this is not a political blog.
This phrase, however, has always resonated with me in terms of how it relates to running and racing. We have control of such things as our training, nutrition, gear, hydration, and mental focus leading into and during a race. It behooves us to be as prepared as possible in these arenas.
On the other hand, things such as bad luck, injuries, pain, and the weather will always have their wanton way with us. For the most part, we can not "control" these things. We just have to learn to suffer better and accept them as the uncontrollable realities of our sport, deal with them, and move on.
By any account, Saturday was a gorgeous day in Boston. Our little group started it off by driving in from Hopkinton, where we are lucky enough to annually stay at an idyllic location near the start line I call The Runners' Commune, and parked on Harvard's campus in Cambridge. After a quick train ride over The Charles River, we got off at Boston Common Park and immediately basked in the warm, sunny skies. There was a breeze, but not nearly as bad as forecasted earlier in the week. We meandered through the park and leisurely strolled a few city blocks to our first destination of the day, Flour Bakery.
|The grounds of The Runners' Commune. Frog mating pond.|
|Another pond on The Commune|
|Sign greeting us as we pull into The Commune grounds|
I had been coveting this place for a few years now and couldn't make it happen last year when I ran Boston. It did not disappoint. Although everything on the menu from the pastries to the sandwiches are tasty, the sticky buns are what made Flour famous (think the best cinnamon roll you've ever had, lathered with not-to-sweet, dark, buttery carmel sauce and toasted pecan niblets). To cap off the experience we were able to enjoy our delectable delights in a quaint little park across the street from the bakery as children and families capitalized on the nice day after a long, harsh winter.
The vibe, buzz, and energy of the downtown core the weekend of a major big city marathon is a feeling like no other. Bostonians in particular love their marathon, which further fuels the jovial spirit surrounding the city. It's addictive and invigorating, and for the second year in a row I found myself drawn by its pull like a moth to a flame every day of race weekend.
After a short jaunt up Boylston, where the race finishes, and Newbury Street, popping in and out of various shops, we hopped on the train back to Harvard. Being runners, it was time to do what we do...go for a run through Harvard's campus and along The Charles River. The Charles River path runs along both sides of the river for miles and miles. It's easily accessible, well-used, and complete with teams of rowers paddling along the river. Harvard's campus is also much like you'd expect, vast, immaculate, colonial, and teaming with tourists. However, I think it's safe to say the highlight our run was our visit "The Old Burial Ground" discretely tucked away on the edge of campus. I'm not sure what I expected, but as we walked through the gates it was as if we were immediately transported to another place and time. The sounds of city and passing cars seemingly slipped away as we silently sauntered into this sleepy hallow. As we glanced at the slender, weathered headstones resting upon the billowy ground, it was immediately apparent that the term "old" was not used lightly. Many of the engravings dated as far back as the 17th and 18th century, and were a unique mix of Old World English and cryptic period prose, for lack of a better term. When we returned to the Commune we came to find out rumor has it Ben Franklin is buried there. Not sure if I believe that one, but the place is certainly old enough, and it would have been fun to find out for sure had we known beforehand.
Me and Phil outside Harvard Law School. We did not get in.
|The Old Burial Ground - Harvard Campus photo by Art Kilgour|
|Photo by Art|
|Cryptic photo by Art|
Upon waking up Sunday morning to clear skies and calm winds, it was hard to believe the forecast for Monday - cold temps (high 30s to low 40s), rain, and 15-30 MPH headwinds. This is any runner's proverbial nightmare scenario. It's the kind of weather that would drive you to the dreadmill if it were a training day instead of race day. Rather than sit around and stew about conditions out of our control, constantly checking and re-checking wind direction and rain predictions, a small group of us decided to drive the course in from Hopkinton to Boston College (Mile 21), and then take the train to the finish area downtown. The ultimate goal of this particular mission was to drop off a change of clothes at a local Swiss chocolate shop, Teuscher Chocolates, a few blocks from the finish. This is not a common practice open to anyone. One of our club members, Stephen, has befriended the owner, and he kindly extended the offer of storing our dry clothes for after the race since it's basically impossible for anyone not staying in Boston to personally drop off their belongings at the official bag check on race morning, which is an unavoidable requirement since the 2013 bombing incident.
Since we were downtown and our group had splintered to accommodate individual agendas, I decided it would be prudent to take Stefan to Flour Bakery. He wasn't with our group the previous day, which was the only excuse I needed. We went with a coffee for the time being, a sandwich for lunch, and treats for later. While we were riding the train back to Boston College we noticed an Italian dude simultaneously following the course on his iPhone while reading a course description, and watching out the windows. It was an impressive display, and as we approached the Boston College stop he turned and asked if Heartbreak Hill was close by. We told him yeah, just keep walking the direction the train was going and he would come to it shortly. He replied, "Good. I want to see it before it sees me on race day." It was priceless.
|Visiting the Start Line on Sunday|
Monday is known as Marathon Monday in Boston. It's also Patriot's Day, which is a statewide holiday. The Red Sox always play an 11AM home game at Fenway, which conveniently lets out as marathoners are gutting their way to the finish down Commonwealth Avenue at mile 25. There's the biker bar at mile 3 with kegs, motorcycles, lots of black leather, and tons of spirit (we eat our post-race dinner here). Then there's the townships of Ashland, Framingham, and Natick complete with music, barbecues, yard parties, and kids handing out slices of oranges. After Natick, and just before the halfway point, comes Wellesley College with its infamous wall of noise and college girls offering up hugs and kisses to those in "need." Best to stay left here if you're on a mission and making good time. The race starts to get real after mile 16, at which point you hit the first of the four major Newton Hills you must contend with through Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. Just after Heartbreak comes Boston College with its fittingly raucous bunch of drunk college kids handing out beer to anyone who'll take it. In a way, the fired up sprit of the crowd through this section of the course mirrors that of the runners who just gritted and ground their way through the hills, up and over Heartbreak. It's an invigorating celebration of accomplishment, but there's still five miles to go. From this point forward you're basically in the city and the crowd just gets bigger, louder, and crazier as runners approach the finish. There's a sneaky tough blip of a hill on an overpass at mile 25, but as runners crest and come down the other side they've entered an earth-shaking frenzy of thousands of supporters who've descended on Kenmore Square from the surrounding apartment buildings, Boston University, Fenway, and seemingly everywhere else on the planet. Next, is the 1 Mile To Go sign, which always seems as if it should've come much closer to the mile 25 marker, and then the famous righthand turn onto Hereford Street. There's still a crowd of runners at this point and the turn can get hairy onto tiny Hereford. Finally, the last turn of the race is a left onto the dizzying madness of Boylston Street. It's roughly 600 meters still to the finish, and even though the sight of the finish line and the energy of the crowd prompt you to leg it to the end, it's best to leave a little in the tank until you know you can kick it all the way through to the finish.
Racing this point-to-point course through the small towns and municipalities in the suburbs of Boston into the city itself is what gives the Boston Marathon its special place within the World Marathon Majors circuit. This unique set-up manages to give a marathon of 30,000+ runners a small town vibe and hospitality with big city perks and amenities. What could be better?
On this particular Marathon Monday we woke up to near perfect racing conditions - overcast skies, cool temps, light winds, and no rain. I hate to belabor the point, but it was still hard to believe the dismal forecast for later in the day being broadcast on the local news as I entered the common area of The Runners' Commune. However, by this point I had stopped fretting and obsessing over the weather. It wasn't helping and it wasn't going to change. I had reassessed and did my best to relish the fact I was about to embark on a 26.2 mile journey along the oldest and most storied marathon course in the world for the second year in a row. It was an honor just to be participating and I took solace in the fact I put myself in the best possible position to perform at my best under adverse conditions on race day. After all, I did train through one of the coldest and most brutal winters Ontario has ever seen.
One of the many many perks of staying at The Commune is an "Official Vehicle" van escort to the start line on race morning. When our group of ten poured out of the van donning garbage bags, old sweaters, sweat pants, ski hats, and numerous other throw away items to keep warm, I immediately sensed I was in the right headspace. I could hardly contain myself - bouncing around, singing, and doling out high-fives to police officers.
We made our way to the holding area near the start, complete with dozens and dozens of port-a-potties. Then, we stood around and chatted for about twenty minutes because it was too early to start warming up. About thirty minutes before the 10AM start a few of us made our way over to a little strip of road about 40 meters long and started jogging in circles and doing various drills. We pretty much had the place to ourselves for a few precious minutes before the mass of Wave 1 runners (~10,000 people) made their way down towards the starting corrals. Our little oasis was no more, and our once vacant strip of road had been inundated by runners looking to warm up just the same. I felt like a salmon returning to spawn. The buzz was palpable though, and spirits were high.
After one last trip to the loo, I headed for Corral 6. I was parched (nerves) and without any water. Being desperate, I found a discarded water bottle sitting on the curb as I approached my corral. I gave it a smell test to make sure it was in fact water, and then dumped the remaining 3/4 of a bottle down my gullet. Perfect. Satisfied. Ready.
My corral was so packed full by this point there must have been a couple hundred of us wedged together outside the corral fences waiting to get in like a heard of cattle. This was expected, and there was no moving until the gun went off. Time to make niceties with the folks around me and prepare myself mentally for the first couple kilometers, which can be frenetic considering there's thousands jockeying for position on a narrow and curvy two-lane road.
National anthem...and the starting gun goes off. With nearly 6,000 runners ahead of us it takes a while to even start moving. It takes even longer to start sort of jogging, and longer yet to hit the start line. As I approached the start line doing the runner bounce-jog-warmup my wife, Karen, saw me on the TV screen (I obviously had no way of knowing this at the time), and I made a point of checking the clock to see how much time had passed. Nearly four minutes.
Finally, we were off and within the first thirty seconds one of the dudes in front of me dropped two packs of gummies, and I thought to myself, "how'd a rookie start this far up?" For a split second it was obvious he thought about stopping to retrieve them, but he wisely reconsidered. After a few hundred meters I was already doing better than last year when I had to pull of for a potty break. In fact, my main focus for the first couple miles was to continue to do better than last year by keeping it steady and easing into the race (tough to do on a downhill). There was too much yo-yoing last year and it was hard to find a rhythm.
My ideal goal pace for the race was 6:44 per mile, which translates to roughly a 2:56 marathon. I had trained for this and it was definitely attainable. A 6:51 per mile pace is the slowest you can average and come in under three hours. My "A" goal was sub-2:57, and my "B" goal was sub-3:00. My "C" goal was to set a new PB and beat last year's time of 3:05. I did not entertain the thought of any other outcome.
I aimed to hit between 6:44 and 6:51 per mile the entire race, with the possible exception of the first mile and the Newton Hills. If I felt good and had a few miles under 6:44 pace that was fine too. Dealing with a headwind and nasty conditions to come it was important to run this one by feel as much as possible.
First mile...7:00...that's just fine. In fact, it's almost ideal because it meant I was easy into the race just like I planned.
Second mile...6:49...right where I want to be.
Biker Bar check-in and mile 3...6:44...disco. All systems are firing well and I feel good. The weather is cold, but not too bad, and the wind is hardly noticeable running in a crowd of thousands.
I ran miles 4-8 between 6:34 and 6:57, not quite as evenly split as I hoped, but still within my overall pace range. Around mile 7, we got a taste of our first downpour and a good dose of wind as the course opened up a bit and runners "spread" out some. I also noticed two other things: 1) I was struggling ever-so-slightly and not running as smooth as I should've been, and 2) I had only drunk water to this point and had zero desire for a gel or Gatorade. Normally, I would have taken a gel by mile 6 just because, but I had trained very well on very little gels, so I went with my instinct up until this point. However, at the mile 8 water station I forced down a Honey Stinger gel thinking the honey would be easier on my stomach than my other gels, and it would give me a slow trickle of energy versus a quick hitting maltodextrin based gel.
Mile 9 was a bit of a struggle at 6:54. Some of this had to do with my water station gel stop (I pull off and stop briefly to drink), but we were also really exposed to the wind and rain through this section of the course as well. It was also at this point that I found my focus and drive wavering from hitting 6:44 pace to simply clocking anything under 6:51. Not sure if that's wimping out, or simply a smart racing adjustment given the conditions on the day.
My next two mile splits were right back where there needed to be in the mid-6:40s. However, approaching mile 12 my gut went south and I was dealing with some significant GI distress. I knew the Wellesley College "Screech Tunnel" was just around the corner and I wasn't about to stop. In fact, I could already hear it in the distance, so I fed off that energy and cruised by on the left as the girls went ballistic. They were particularly happy a very fit runner with his shirt off was stopping for hugs and kisses.
Often, GI distress will slowly dissipate if you drink water and tough it out. This was the tactic I chose. We were so close to the halfway point, and mentally it was imperative I went through under 1:30 to have a chance at running a sub-3:00. I forged ahead and crossed the midway point in 1:29:19, which gave me a glimmer of hope heading into the toughest part of the course, but it was over a minute slower than I wanted to go through halfway. On the plus side, I hit mile 13 in 6:43 and felt pretty good physically other than the GI issue.
I blew right passed the mile 13 water station in an effort to test what I had in the tank. Legs were there. Breathing was dialed in. Mental acuity back on point. Let's get it on! Unfortunately, the gut issue was just not going away. It had to be dealt with at the next water station.
Mile 14...6:47...perfect...but I had to stop for water and hope my gut righted itself. It was immediately apparent a visit to the port-a-potty was the only course of action. The closest set of potties was not only full, but had two dudes waiting outside. This was not happening. I scurried to the next set of potties and luckily found a vacant one. Details here aren't necessary, but I will say this task was made just that much more difficult considering I had gloves on and I couldn't feel my fingers.
When I went into the loo my overall pace average was 6:47, which translates to a 2:58 marathon. When I came out I was at 6:53, which was not good. My mile 15 split was 8:12, which meant I lost a minute-and-a-half to my little potty break. On the flip side, I felt much better and was determined to get that time back. I cranked out the sixteenth mile in 6:41. Unfortunately, the hills were coming.
Last year, the first major hill just after mile 16 took me by surprise and sapped my will heading into Newton. I was steadfast not to let that happen again this year. I focused on the top and dug in. I passed lots of folks at this point and was proud of my effort, but my mile 17 split was 6:53. I would only have one other mile split under 6:50 the rest of the way.
Two things other than the remaining hills worked against from this point forward. As we rounded the corner onto Commonwealth at the infamous fire station in Newton they were handing out gels. My plan was to grab one if I was down to one or zero in my pockets. I had two left, so I blew right by. Little did I know when I'd go for a gel minutes later my gloved, numb fingers wouldn't be dextrous enough to get it out of my pocket. The thought of peeling the gloves off, dealing with the gel, and wrenching the gloves back on was too much to handle at this point. Then, I thought of asking one of the thousands of spectators lining the street to take a gel out and open it for me, but that seemed silly. Although, I know for a fact the first person I asked would've helped me in a heartbeat. Finally, I just said screw it and decided I'd take the Gatorade they were handing out at the aid stations.
The more ominous factor working against me was the twitching taking place in my persistently pesky calves, which meant if I wasn't careful they'd seize and cramp and really do me in. My course of action, as it has been in the past, was to run as hard as I could for as long as I could until it felt like I had to stretch them or else. Preferably, these pit stops line up with aid stations.
Considering these mishaps and evermore present headwind, I am proud of my effort through the Newton Hills. I lost time for sure (a few 7:00+ miles), but passed a lot of people and ran strong on the uphills. Approaching the top of the fourth and final hill I had been so focused I wasn't sure if it was the last one. As we crested I caught a glimpse of the telling spire at Boston College. I turned to the guy on my right and shouted, "We did it! Let's go!" And, then I turned to the dude on my left and yelled, "Come on! We got this." They both looked haggard and defeated, but the second guy mustered a faint "go for it, buddy." I rode the wave and took off.
At this point, after doing some mental math (always easy 21 miles into a marathon) and barring a miracle, my goal of running a sub-3 had waved bye-bye. However, with five miles to go I had to giver one last time. If my legs responded well, then great. If not, I still had last year's time, my personal best, to take down. I hit mile 22 in 6:48, but I couldn't shake the calf issue.
I didn't totally implode, but the next four miles were between 7:00-7:10. They were a haze of screaming spectators, stretching, wind, and driving rain. At this stage you just focus on form (head up, shoulders back), maintaining effort, and passing as many people as possible. It's gut-check time and you seek out any piece of motivation possible.
Just after we turned right onto Hereford my watch ticked over three hours. As we turned left onto Boylston and hit the home stretch it still read 3:00:something. The wind was howling and the rain pelted our chests and faces as the finish line taunted us in the distance. I knew a PB was in order, so my final morsel of motivation was to finish in the 3:02s. I actually ran that last 600 meters pretty well at 6:13 pace, but in the end I finished in 3:03:07. All things considered, a two-and-half minute PB in less than ideal conditions would have to suffice. I was happy I fought to the end.
|Boylston Street - nearly finished|
I had time to briefly chat with and congratulate some guy from New Brunswick who finished just behind me before my entire body started to shake uncontrollably. Even my teeth were chattering. Up to this point, other than my numb fingers, I had not been been cold at all. We had to walk a block or so to get our thermal space capes. There was no stopping for medal pictures or messing around with loot bags. I grabbed a Gatorade recovery shake and a banana and made my way as fast as I could to our chocolate shop.
Unfortunately, as fast as I could meant nothing more than a scurry shuffle because every time I tried to jog various muscles in my legs seized. I trekked five city blocks like this. Dozens of passerby congratulated me and all I could manage was a grunt, or a moan, or maybe an inaudible "thank you."
When I finally made it to the shop the owner, Stefan, immediately ushered me to the back to "get warm." I had naively only packed a long sleeve running shirt and a hand towel to dry off. Seeing I was really shaking and lacking sufficient dry, warm clothes, Stefan promptly switched on a tiny space heater and kindly offered me his fleece jacket, which really helped. I sat as close to that little heater as possible; holding my hands out in front of me like I was sitting around a camp fire. The others started to trickle in, shaking as I was. Race experiences, finish times, and wounds (Art was sporting a nasty blister and Stephen was hobbling on one leg) were shared, and we were treated to some of the most delicious chocolate truffles I've ever had; timing is everything.
It took me half-an-hour to stop shaking and I'm positive it's the coldest to the core I've ever been. I'm equally sure that had any of the medical staff on-hand at the finish area seen me they would've quickly escorted me to a medical tent where our friend, Paul, and over a thousand others, were treated for hypothermia-like symptoms.
Our journey wasn't over yet, however. We still had to make our way five blocks back passed the finish to the buses (coach, not school of course) waiting to shuttle runners back to Hopkinton. If the allure of a nice warm bus wasn't enough incentive to venture back outside, there was the added appeal they happened to be parked right outside Flour Bakery. Three visits to the same bakery in three days? Yes, please.
We set off, but not before stopping for a group selfie outside Teuscher. It wasn't until I reached the warm - literally and figuratively - confines of Flour that I started to feel normal again. All my body parts, including mind and spirit, rapidly came back to life. The energy was palpable as runners, staff, and regulars co-mingled in the bakery's infectious embrace. True to the spirit of the Boston Marathon, they were handing out free cupcakes with yellow and blue icing (the adopted colors of the marathon) to those who had raced. We were easy to spot because we all had our Boston Marathon space capes on.
|Notice my makeshift towel turban to keep my head warm.|
After chatting with the owner (herself a great self-made Boston story), posing for pictures, and ordering pastries, sandwiches, cookies, sticky buns, coffees, hot chocolates, and chili-inferno triple lattes our group of four boarded the bus back to Hopkinton. Shortly thereafter, our larger group's three female runners from Guelph - Robin, Kelly, and Michelle - and our buddy, Paul from Toronto, joined us on the bus as well. We gave congratulations and swapped stories, which is when we heard of Michelle's PB, Paul's 2:59 and trip to the medical tent, and, perhaps most impressive of all, Robin's 3:11 and sixth place finish in the women's 50-54 age group. It was also on the forty-five minute bus ride to Hopkinton, sitting next to and chatting with Stefan (the runner, not the chocolatier), that I finally had a moment to reflect on what an amazing experience this entire day, and weekend, had been.
In my opinion, Boston embodies the true spirit and pinnacle of our sport. There's the obvious elements of the qualifying standards, unique and challenging course profile, and its history. However, over the past two years I've come to realize it's more than that.
New York has its sheer girth and its boroughs. Chicago has its flat, fast course and its neighborhoods. London has its elite field smackdown and its cultural history. Berlin has its record chasers. Boston has its people. Whether it's the thousands of knowledgeable and extremely helpful volunteers, or the diverse milieu of folks lining the streets along the way, or the MBTA train operator(s) who let you ride for free, or the random passerby wishing you luck and thanking you for running their marathon, or the bakery that offers free cupcakes, or chocolate shop owner who offers not only the use of his facilities, but his jacket and free truffles; Boston Runs As One.
I love it all. I'm starting to figure this course out and still have unfinished business to take care of. I look forward to the challenge and the opportunity to come back and soak it all in again someday soon.
Thank you Boston,