Boston ’06 - Brilliant!
Once in a decade weather makes for a perfect Boston.
Posted Wednesday, 26 April, 2006
That’s what I like about the Boston Marathon; it never ceases to surprise me. Just when I had reconciled myself to being miserable every Patriot’s Day we get a beauty of a race. It wasn’t the fastest if my 9 Boston’s but it was the most fun I’ve had in years. It was a great day. The weather was darn near perfect. The new changes that McGillivray and crew made this year worked well, and the elites broke the course record. If you ran Monday, you hit the lottery.
It really hit home when I was resetting my watch to go for a swim at lunch on Tuesday. The chrono was stopped at almost exactly my chip time. I cannot remember ever crossing the finish line at Boston and having the cognitive ability or desire to actually stop my watch. Usually it is stopped at some random time during the race or four or five hours later when I come out of my funk. I’m usually so focused on staying conscious and vertical that stopping my watch never occurs to me.
All this pleasantness was not what I was expecting. I was very afraid of this marathon. I had not trained well. I pulled up lame in March and had to take three weeks off right smack dab in the meat of my training. The last decent long run I got in was Martha’s Vineyard. This lack of miles coupled with my history of going out too fast at Boston had me thinking ‘DNF’ thoughts. But, true to the adventure that is marathoning, it all turned out differently than I expected.
I guess Boston owed me one after all those times I trained well and ended up shuffling, bleeding and woozy on Boylston Street. I’m becoming an avid connoisseur of irony.
The day dawned partly cloudy and cool. It was in the 40’s and I could see my breath when we left Littleton around 8:00 AM. My wife had stuff to do this day so she dropped us off at the Hopkinton exit early. The shuttle bus from EMC into Hopkinton was stuffed with runners, volunteers, workers and fans. A lady on the bus called out to see if anyone had any extra tickets to the race after-party. Four or five of us dug into our red plastic BAA laundry bags and produced the desired booty for her. I’ve never been to an after-party and wasn’t planning on using them.
We all got funneled into the ‘athletes’ village’ which is like a cross between a camp meeting and a detention center. Brian and I were early so we found a nice big patch of lawn and staked out a space blanket. There were probably 1,000 runners or so already in attendance. Some runners had actually pitched tents. The ‘big tent’ was already full and people were queued up for the free stuff being given away in the infield.
This year they tried to split the runners up into two groups. 10,000 and lower were blue bibs and above 10,000 were red bibs. Faster runners and slower runners. Speed of course being relative, there were thousands of fast-for-their-age-group-qualified runners in the 2nd wave. Ostensibly the faster runners were supposed to go on one side of the field and slower on the other. In reality there was some segregation, but a fair amount of happy osmosis as well.
On our little oasis of calm the tide was coming in. Unwittingly we had homesteaded in the path of the port-john lines and by 10:00 we were subsumed in a sea of legs. (We were a good 100ft away, but the lines fill fast.) Someone unwittingly stepped on my banana. Bananas in general don’t travel well! The smell of wintergreen from sports rub was in the air and I chatted up all those who were unwise enough to meet my gaze. As usual there were people from all over the States and plenty of Canadians and Koreans. You could tell them apart, because the Canadians were usually taller than the Koreans.
I forgot my sunscreen, so I bummed some off a more organized person from Michigan. The sun came out intermittently and it warmed up to 50ish. We relaxed and stretched there on our blanket in a sea of legs with the smell of sunscreen – like a day at the beach.
Looking around our side of the beach there were team colors, disposable sweat shirts and trash bags. There wasn’t as much BAA-wear as on the other side of the field. On our side were many veterans; runners who had qualified before and probably would be back in the future – Boston Marathon groupies – like me. There was some stress in the air but mostly calm expectation. I heard the same old strategies about hills and pacing floating through the air.
The announcers had some ‘American Idol’ themed entertainment going on, but we had our iPods and tuned them out. There were helicopters circling and planes dragging banners around the sky. It should have been surreal, but it wasn’t. I read the newspaper and did some email on my Blackberry while munching power bars, stretching and welcoming sundry athletic tourists to Massachusetts in my usual garrulous foolishness.
Around 11:15 they called the first wave of 10,000. I made one last trip to you-know-where and headed up around 11:25. I said so-long to Brian, who was in the other wave, and told him to abandon the blanket and everything else when he left.
On the way I passed a couple groups of bandits. They looked to be college kids, which partially explains the neuro-chemical imbalance necessary to jump into the Boston Marathon on a whim. I didn’t nag at them. I just told them to take it easy, drink and eat, and don’t be afraid to go to the med tent. Poor dumb bastards – gym shorts, cotton sweats and basketball shoes. What I wouldn’t give to be 19 and immortal!
I slipped into the back of the 7,000 corral around 11:50. The officials did a really good job of fencing in the runners this year and I honestly did not see a single bush or tree getting blasphemed in Hopkinton. It was still partly cloudy and 50ish. The announcers did their Macy’s Parade chatter. The jets flew over and we walked – jogged- stopped – walked – jogged – ran. I’ve got no complaints about getting free of the crowd at the start. It took 5 minutes to get to the mats but after that we were running free.
As usual the crowds were incredible and everybody was high on adrenaline as we set off down hill out of Hopkinton. They’ve got a couple marathon related statues along the route, but they should erect a bronze porta-potty alongside that first patch of woods on the left. I’m surprised any trees even grow there after all these years.
I had a strategy this year that worked out surprisingly well. Actually it was a collection of tactics that I employed when I got hurt in March. First, I fell back on my triathlon skills and started cross training like a madman. Swimming, biking and weightlifting, sometimes twice a day while I wasn’t running. Secondly, (and this was a stroke of genius), I immediately cut back the carbs and went on a strict diet. In the 3 weeks I took off from running, I lost around 15 pounds. It gave me something to focus on instead of feeling sorry for myself.
The result was that even though I didn’t have the miles, I had some aerobic strength and I felt pretty good about myself. I managed to get back up to running 10k easy 3 times a week. This still left me fairly terrified of Boston. We all know this race’s ability to humble the best trained athlete and here I was going in with 18 miles a week and my last long run in February.
This led me to my final desperate tactic…walking. I figured I’d force myself to take walking breaks, and even if I had the old Boston-bonk, I’d still get in before the sun went down. Having no experience in walking on purpose, I wondered how much walking should I do? I’m from the classic “run hard for 20 miles and gut it out” school, but knew this would be suicide on my training base, especially if we got a hot day like 2004. I settled arbitrarily on “five and five with Gu on 10k”. That is, run to each five mile mark, walk for five minutes and eat a gel every 10k.
One other unique innovation this year is that I brought along my spy-camera. This is a tiny digital key-chain camera that I can put in my shorts pocket. It’s got no flash, no focus and horrible resolution – just like me! No, seriously, I randomly held it up and took 99 low resolution pictures along the way. Since the shutter speed wasn’t designed for this, it produced a bunch of warped pictures of people, buildings and trees that look like something Salvador Dali would paint high on psilocybin mushrooms.
I’m astonished at how mature I’m getting in my old age. When I got to the 5 mile mark I actually stopped and walked. I couldn’t do the whole five minutes, but I got a good three in. You know what? When I started running again I felt fantastic. At the 10 mile mark I stopped again and, because I decided to wait and use the porta-potty, I got a good 5+ minute break. And when I started running again, I felt great.
The real breakthrough was at the 15 and 20 mile walk breaks. Each time I started running again I was right back on my pace, comfortable and strong, right through the finish. I had one of those epiphanies. It wasn’t a qualifying time, but it was way better than I should have done given my training, and certainly more enjoyable! I guess I found my inner penguin? Look at the finish photo above. I’m unscathed. I got one little blister from my new Loco’s, but that’s it.
There are some interesting side effects to this walking break thing. The most uncomfortable is that the fans think you have given up and barrage you with alternating encouragement, pity or abuse, depending on their blood alcohol level. You actually find yourself trying to explain to spectators, “No, it’s OK, it’s a strategy…, honest!”
Another interesting thing is that you pass the same people 4 or 5 times. There was this one guy who had “Belgium” on the back of his singlet that I kept passing and some Korean runner named “Ju-Ju”. I kept thinking of the Hitchhiker’s Guide where “Belgium” is an intergalactic curse word. Interestingly, by comparison, the last time I passed them, late in the race, they didn’t look so peppy, but I was still lucid and bopping along because of my breaks.
By choosing the 5 mile marks, I also got a nice break right before Heartbreak. It was another instance of, “was that the hill?” Then it was an easy trot down to the Pru.
The weather stayed perfect for the whole race. 50ish, partly cloudy and a light cooling breeze. It made a big difference. I don’t have any facts, but it looked to me like there were many fewer casualties this year. The volunteers at the finish line were standing around for lack of people to assist.
Throughout the day everyone seemed in a much nicer mood because of the nice weather. They were much more willing to talk to me than the last two years. My stupidest question of the race was when I pulled up beside some stud all decked out in his triathlon uniform. I asked him, “So, what’s your strongest event?” He looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Umm, running?” That doesn’t compare to last year’s stupidest which was when I started trying to talk to a group of Koreans in Japanese. Oops. .
I was actually the recipient of a fairly inane comment. I was chatting up a heavily accented gentleman, and asked him. “Where are you from?”
He replied; “I’m from Hungary, but you wouldn’t know where that is.”
Ok, just because I’m an American doesn’t mean I have no knowledge of other countries. I’ll have you know I scored in the 800 percentile on the European history exam. And, besides that, everybody knows Hungary is the best know semi-autonomous, gold producing region in South Africa.
Wellesley College was amazing as always and I could have torn a rotator cup high-fiving coeds. There were a good half dozen girls holding up “Kiss Me!” and “Hug Me!” signs. I didn’t attempt either, but I know some who did! For the right price I won’t mention any names… Looking around, all the guys and women had big ear to ear grins for that ½ mile tunnel of scream-fest. You have to experience it to believe it.
I synched my iPod and had a bunch of strange stuff creep into my play list for race day. Coming off my mile 15 walk break I somehow had Buster Poindexter singing “Hot, Hot, Hot!” and found myself sort of dancing while I was running and the crowd went wild!
You have to remember that there are spectators along the entire length of the course on both sides of the road. They are experienced spectators; you might say that they are the closest thing to professional marathon spectators that you will find. They look forward to the race as much as we do. It’s an event with history and tradition for them too. When you play to the crowd they love it
Somewhere around Newton they let us know that the race was already over and a Kenyan had won. Then they let us know that the Red Sox won. I didn’t see too many costumes running the race this year, but I did pass an Elvis early on.
The two wave start worked well. I was back in the 7000 block and almost ended up running in ‘the gap’ between waves. It was much lighter traffic than previous years. I didn’t see any red bibs making it up into our block, although I’m sure they were there. The wait time at the finish was shorter to get your medal and to get your bag, which is a big benefit.
The little trough under Mass Ave. was nothing. It actually broke up that uncomfortable stretch where you’re looking ahead, trying to find the Hereford turn. Instead, you dip down into a little underpass and when you pop out, the turn is right there.
As I turned onto Boylston, my iPod shuffled to Beethoven’s 9th “Molto Vivace” and, having one of those strange iPod moments, I strode purposefully, and as the character in Clockwork Orange says, “uplifted on angel’s wings”, through the finish.
As we were all being wrapped up like baked potatoes, everyone was in pretty good shape and happy. Unlike previous years, no one was practicing reverse peristalsis (ralphing). There were a few folks in wheel chairs, but it was mostly uneventful. There did seem to be some issue with the gear bags this year. I saw a bunch of them exploded and gutted, leaving the poor runner to clutch their belongings haphazardly. My own sprang a few rips and was perilously close to failure.
We had a room at the Radisson for snacks, showers and massage, and then I hopped the train home. On the plane Tuesday there were a dozen or so runners limping around my flight to Atlanta. I wore my medal. My personal rule is that I get to wear it for 48 hours. The medals had a nice blue inlaid glaze background this year.
“Did you run the marathon?”
Me smiling, “Why yes, I did!”
Everyone had those posters from the Expo with all the runners’ names on them. It’s a very cool souvenir. I took my daughters in this year. My 14 year old brought 2 of her chatty teenager friends and we had a fine time touristing around Town Saturday afternoon.
I’m here to tell you that this year’s Boston Marathon did NOT kick my ass. I had a blast from start to finish and I think most everybody else did too. This changes everything. Think of the possibilities if I can remove the whole “intense suffering:” aspect from my marathons! Next year, God willing, will be my 10th. We’ll have to have a big party!
See you out there!