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home > community > viewpoint > boston – 04 “miserable”

Boston – 04 “Miserable”
Heat trumps training for New England runners.

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By Christopher J. Russell
Posted Wednesday, 21 April, 2004

It was a typical Patriots day in Boston. The Bruins got humiliated by the Canadiens in the playoffs, the Red Sox beat the Yankees when it didn’t really count, and the Boston Marathon kicked my butt again.

The marathon gods were angry on Monday. We knew it was going to be a long day when the weather forecasts started stabilizing on “unseasonably hot and sunny”. It turned out to be a beautiful day to watch a marathon. It was a miserable day to run a marathon.

Like it or not, that’s part of the mystique of Boston. You never know what the weather is going to bring. On paper it doesn’t look like a difficult course, but it always is. I can’t explain it rationally. Like being in an inexplicable, dysfunctional and abusive relationship, the more it kicks my butt, the more angry I get and more likely I am to come back and get my butt kicked again.

The silver lining, if any, is that most of us were able to psychologically put away our ‘race time’ expectations by Saturday when it became clear what we were in for. This freed us from those stressful “I hope I do well” worries for the remainder of the weekend.

I had time to buy a white hat at the expo in preparation. I cut holes in the top in imitation of Dick Beardsley in the ’82 ‘duel in the sun’ with Alberto Salazar. Those of us who’ve run Boston before knew what we were in for.

Most of my experienced Boston running buddies switched to a “Go out slow and see how it turns out” attitude. The way it turned out is that we all survived, we were all uniformly miserable and we were slowed by 5-10% versus our expectations. There was no joy in Beantown on Monday. My salient comment afterwards was “How could I run so slow and still feel so awful?”

Standing in the 5th corral in Hopkinton surrounded by the crush of mid-packers it was already full sun and Mid-eighties. My thoughts turned to “OK, don’t look at the watch, just listen to your body and keep it slow”.

Usually there is a palpable energy in the corral. You can almost smell the adrenaline racing. Usually people can barely stand still as they chomp at the bit to get going. Not this day. Runners sat on the ground trying to conserve energy and keep cool, like Bedouins lazing in the Saharan sun.

The palpable feeling was not quite ‘dread’, but definitely there was a taste of ‘worry’. The guy sitting on the curb beside me had a large tattoo of the B.A.A unicorn logo on his shoulder. I could see it because everyone was in singlet and shorts. No tights or long sleeves here.

The ‘stupid’ award goes to the idiots in the full-length superman costumes or other hot, pointless, self-serving costumery. I bet they got plenty of that attention they were craving as they were administered to by the EMTs.

In a portent of the misery to come, a guy sidled up between me and the guy next to me and, mumbling something cheerful about using us a ‘screen’, began filling a Gatorade bottle with ‘used Gatorade’. He surprised himself by overflowing the capacity of his container and dropped it, baptizing my shoes. I wasn’t really upset because I knew that compared to what was coming this sprinkling was a minor annoyance.

Now, those of you from Atlanta, So-Cal or Australia may say; “Eighty degrees? What’s the big deal? We train in that every day!”

The answer is apropos and talks to the inexplicable difficulties encountered in this race. Like those pesky hills in Newton, it’s not the degree of difficulty itself; it’s where they fall in the course. The heat on Monday, while not terribly hot in the grand scheme of things, was devastating because of where it fell.

Two weeks ago I was training with snow on the ground. We have only had short sleeves on once or twice. I donned a singlet for the first time this year on Monday morning. I risked terminal sunburn on my Pillsbury dough-boy body. (by the way, whatever that sunscreen sample they included in the race packet was, it worked great. It stayed on me through approximately five thousand gallons of sweat and water splashing)

We transitioned from winter to summer and skipped spring! I ran my last long training run in a forty-degree drizzle. That’s a forty degree swing in two weeks. Bottom line; we were unprepared.

We were prepared for the distance. We were prepared for the hills. We were prepared for the intensity and the unique character of the race. We were given no chance to prepare for the heat.

And so it was, at high noon in Hopkinton, with the F-15 fly-over, we were off. Usually you can tell how the race is going to be at some point after 10-15k. In this one I knew it was going to be miserable from the start. Despite training well and feeling strong coming into the event, I never felt comfortable and never fell into a pace that worked.

There was none of the usual friendly banter for the first 10-15 miles while everyone sorts themselves out in preparation for the hard part of the race. All was heads-down silence and struggle.

I started at 20 seconds slower per mile than my race pace and held that for the first 10k. After that I backed off another 20 seconds per mile. Even with this substantial nod to negative splits, by the hills in Newton it was all over and I was crawling in. Only my conditioning kept me from a long ‘death shuffle’ into the finish.

Everyone knew what to do and changed their race tactics to suit the day. We all forced fluids in the early miles. I had already gone through forty+ ounces of Gatorade and water by the six mile mark. I probably drank north of 200 ounces of fluids, and still lost 10 pounds. My teeth hurt all day Tuesday from the sugar.

I carry a bottle so I can avoid the early water stops because they are typically a melee with jacked up rookies trying to stop and grab-and-go veterans running up their backs.

Monday, for the first time, I hit every water stop, sometimes on both sides of the road. I poured 3-6 cups of water on my head, torso and legs each time trying to bring my core temperature within operating parameters. It was a losing battle. After 15k no one even pretended to run through the water stops. We all lingered at these oases, performing ablutionary rituals.

In the last 15k, to add insult to injury, the water and Gatorade had gotten warm and was sickeningly difficult to force. The combination of the crushing heat in overloading on fluids had everyone feeling nauseous and cramped for the majority of the race.

At the 10k mark I started wondering if I was going to finish. My usually positive inner monologue had been reduced to “Too hot, too hot, too hot…” keeping cadence with my stride.

On heartbreak I started smiling an idiot’s smile. I had the following conversation with myself.
“I think I’m losing consciousness.”
“Can you still do math?”
“I don’t know. Let’s try… hmm…five plus five is ten. Yup, still got the simple addition”
“How about the multiplication?”
“Hmm…fifty times fifty is two hundred and something…I think…”
“Well, let’s go a little bit further and see what happens”

Then I see the BC chapel on the right and I think with great celebration, “Hey, I’m going to finish this race.”

I am officially nominating the following people for sainthood:

  • The homeowners along the course who stood for hours spraying us with garden hoses.
  • The lady who gave me a handful of ice cubes that I put in my hat for a wonderful half-mile.
  • The town or state workers who rigged up those fire hydrants to spray gallons of high-velocity ice-water into the course.
  • Whichever God was responsible for the transporting tail wind in the last couple miles.

God bless you all. Each shower gave me hope for another quarter mile. In the final analysis that is what the marathon comes down to; making it through one more quarter mile.

By mile three my shoes were totally filled with water and my feet were sloshing around. I grimly made the executive choice of blisters over heat stroke. At the end my toes where wrinkled like pickled pigs feet.

The well meaning crowds were telling us how good we looked. The gallows humor on the course was “If we look good, I’d hate to see what looks bad”. On the back side of the hills I turned to the guy next to me and said, “I think it’s cooling down a little.” He replied matter-of-factly, “No, we’re just out of sweat”.

In the last three miles more than half of the runners were walkers. In that no-mans land around 23 miles where the finish seems unrealistically far away, they were dropping like flies. I changed my monologue to “One-Two, One-Two, One-Two” Keeping it simple for my over-cooked brain.

And then, the miracle happened again; I turned the corner onto Boylston Street and One-Two’ed through the finish. Got my hardware and decided whether or not it would be appropriate to throw up. What a miserable race.

I can only imagine how horrible it must have been for first-timers or for those who chose not to train well and ran anyway. I don’t know how many people dropped out, but it had to be a lot. For those who finished, you now have some to tell the grand kids about.

All the folks I talked to had the same basic experience. I met one nice lady from Tampa who came in third for the women masters with a 2:59 and, being from Florida, didn’t seem to mind the sun too much. Great job Kim!

The natural question that comes to mind is “Why do you people keep coming back to Boston every year?” For me the answer is because it makes me angry and I’m too stubborn to let this race get away with kicking my butt. It may be an ugly, miserable race sometimes, but gosh darn-it, it’s our miserable race and we love it.

So it looks like you’ll be seeing me out on the roads this summer at the crack of dawn and down at the track in the evenings. Because now I have to qualify again, pay my hundred bucks and prepare for a good butt-kicking in April ’05 at my favorite marathon.



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