When you ask runners about how they did in a race, the answer often involves acronyms: whether they achieved a PR (personal record), or in marathons a BQ (Boston qualifying time). It’s convenient to have a concrete benchmark against which to measure one’s performance, whether it’s your own standard (as in the PR) or a standard set by others for excellence (as in the BQ).
When I started training for this year’s Boston Marathon I had hopes of a PR (which would have been a time well-below my current BQ). This was a bit of lofty thinking as I’d earned my best time at the Chicago Marathon (almost 30 minutes faster than my previous PR, set 17 years earlier). Chicago is a wicked fast, flat course, and I had perfect conditions on race-day, with one of the best training cycles I’ve ever experienced. Chicago was one of those magical days where everything comes together.
As those who’ve read my blog over the past few months know, my training from Boston was a long way from perfect. I went into race day after training through 6 months of injuries, with little hill work and 16.7 miles as my longest training run. My right shin started bothering me off-and-on in the weeks leading up to Boston, and I had no idea how it would feel on race-day. Other than a couple of pool runs I took most of the last week off, thinking rest would do me more good than any last-minute training runs would.
I let go of my goal of a PR (or even another qualifying time) a couple of months ago, but was still tossing around goals as I roamed the streets of Boston’s North End the weekend before Marathon Monday. The course was going to be a challenge, so I spent my time formulating a mental plan for the race.
There’s a downhill start, which sounds nice, but can trash your quads if you’re not careful and I was afraid the pounding would irritate my cranky shin. If I made it through the first 4-5 miles without too much pain, I thought I’d be good until the Newton Hills, which start about Mile 16. Since this is around the point where I was going to start outrunning my training, things would be getting tough no matter what. I could look at the hills as an added burden, or just attribute any fatigue I was feeling at that point to the hills, and know everyone would be feeling it too. It was only a few miles to push through, because after Heartbreak Hill at the end of Mile 21 the course starts its downhill decent into Boston. As long as I was careful at the start, I’d be set once I got to that point on the course.
Pacing was another issue. I honestly had no idea going into the race what pace I was capable of sustaining given my training. If I went out too fast I’d run out of steam; if I ran too slowly I risked tightening up, which can be even more miserable. I talked it through with my coach and we decided to start out about 9:15-9:30/mile, then play it by ear based on how I was feeling. My training wasn’t ideal, but I know I’m strong and stubborn, and with a race-day plan I was more excited than nervous. I had two goals: to finish strong and to thoroughly enjoy my (likely) once-in-a-lifetime Boston experience.
To say the weather on race-day was sub-optimal is an understatement. It was cold (low 40’s), and the rain started just as I approached the starting line. Boston is a point-to-point course and there was a headwind the entire way. Wind gusts over 20 mph started just as I hit the Newton Hills.
I was wet and cold most of the way, and I’ve never had more fun running a race in my life. The crowds came out despite the weather; they cheered, gave out orange slices, candy, water, and dry paper towels. My cheeks were tired from smiling long before my legs felt the miles. I could hear the Wellesley girls over half a mile away; they were deafening as I ran past them on my way to the half-marathon mark. One coed pointed at me, made eye contact as she shouted “I believe in YOU!” She was so fierce in her support I had to believe in myself too.
Despite the weather, crowds, and excitement I ran the race according to plan. I started a little faster than I’d planned (closer to 9 minute miles than 9:15) but settled in quickly to splits between 9:10 and 9:30; I slowed down on the hills (and had a first-ever mid-race port-o-potty stop that cost me 2+ minutes), but kept my splits between 9:30 and 10 minute miles. Past the hills, I was able to get right back to my 9:15-9:30 pace. My last 1.2 miles were below 9:00/mile and were my fastest splits of the marathon.
My coach (who ran Boston) and trainer (who was there to support and cheer me on) had been texting one another in my last miles, concerned about how I was doing in the cold. When I finished they got my first text: “That was so fun!!!!!” It wasn’t until a couple of hours later when I’d warmed up and was toasting the day with them (and a few other friends) that I realized I never hit The (infamous) Wall.
I finished with a chip-time of 4:06:13. I didn’t get a PR (or a BQ). In fact, my time was significantly slower than at Chicago marathon 18 months ago. And yet, I’m more proud of my performance at Boston than any other race I’ve completed.
The course and conditions were the hardest I’ve faced, but I was able to rely on my coach’s advice and my experience to put together and stick with a good race plan. I ran well beyond my training, finished strong and had one hell of a good time doing it. I said before I started that I can’t control the conditions, but I can control how I respond to them. Anyone can have a PR under perfect conditions. But keeping focused with a smile on my face under tough conditions is an accomplishment that I’ll have a hard time topping.