There is nothing in the world like the Boston Marathon. Nothing.
[Disclaimer — this is long and only Part I. Skip to the bottom if you so desire.]
I’m officially part of the Boston club, and with an incredible personal performance to boot. Here’s the play-by-play of one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced.
April 18, 2011. 5:30am. My phone alarm went off and I bolted out of bed, so excited that the big day had finally arrived and totally without concern that I’d only slept for a few hours thanks to a lot of tossing, turning and weird dreams. I think my mom was a little less thrilled about the early hour, but man, was I ready to get dressed and head out the door.
I put on my shorts/running top/socks/shoes/Garmin/bib and then layered with a long-sleeve cotton T, half-zip pullover, warmup pants and ear warmers. I also carried an extra windbreaker and gloves in my bag, which I needed not long after I got outside thanks to some intense wind. Then I made a PB/banana sandwich for breakfast — I normally have the same thing in toast form, but you do the best you can with what you’ve got — and jetted out the door to hop on the T and join the masses at the bus loading zone.
Boston is a point-to-point course, starting in Hopkinton and ending in the middle of the city. You have to be transported 26 miles out to the start, and the race team’s solution that that problem is to put nearly 27,000 runners on yellow schoolbuses that carry 48 people each. Talk about logistics. They would load one set of buses and then another would magically appear from around the block.
There were crazy lines of people shivering, drinking coffee and chatting as we all waited for a seat. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait on race morning, but you just go with it and know that everyone will get to where they need to be in plenty of time (ahem, people ahead of me who were freaking about other runners cutting in line — WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE SAME PLACE).
Anyway, the ride is like an elementary school field trip, though instead of a bunch of rowdy 8-year-olds you’ve got antsy adult runners. But it’s essentially the same thing — people talking in non-inside voices, turning excitedly in their seats and jumping around because they drank too much water and have to pee.
On the ride out, you realize just how far 26.2 miles really is. You’re not actually driving on the marathon course, but it takes about an hour from the time you pull out from Boston Common to when the bus makes it through all the roadblocks and such to drop you off at Hopkinton High. The Athlete’s Village is out on the school’s fields and has two enormous food tents, several smaller tents for sponsors like Powerbar and Gatorade, infinity porta-potties and a jumbotron/PA system for music, announcements and other entertainment.
The first thing everyone did upon getting off the bus was run to the bathroom. Thankfully when we arrived the lines were minimal, but they definitely grew as we got closer to the start. I wandered around for a bit, took in the crowds, and then met up with Page, Aron and a few other people to hang out and wait for our call to the start line. So awesome to finally meet these ladies in person!
People were huddled everywhere with tarps, sleeping bags, trash bags, etc. It was sunny but very windy, and I was definitely shivering. Next year I’ll bring a throwaway fleece blanket or something similar to keep warm in addition to my clothes. But perfect running conditions — high 40s/low 50s at the start, sun and a 18-22mph tailwind. According to analysts, Boston runners haven’t been this lucky in several decades.
I wish these pictures did the crowds justice. People. Everywhere. And you know the school just LOVES runners tearing up their athletic fields. Also — the obligatory picture of the famous Hopkinton sign:
I was in Wave 2 (of 3), Corral 6 (of 9) and we got our call to the start around 9:40. The gun went off for the first wave at 10am and we were scheduled to go off at 10:20. The actual start is nearly 3/4 of a mile through a neighborhood from the Athlete’s Village. It’s a nice warmup since you have to check your bags on the way out and therefore leave behind all the clothes you actually want at the finish. I was cold in shorts and a long-sleeve throwaway T but hopeful that I would be ok once we got going.
There was another set of porta-potties right before we hit the corrals, and I decided to make use of those one last time, especially after having to pee for my entire 10-miler last week. A marathon is a long time to hold it in, or to risk losing precious seconds waiting in line while you’re on the clock.
The announcer was doing a minute-by-minute countdown over the PA system, and I managed to find my way into Corral 6 just before the start. One sucky thing about not being in the first wave is that you don’t get all the fanfare — including a start gun. So before I realized anything had happened, we were moving. Based on past race reports, I was expecting to walk over the line and not really be able to run for 100m or so, but we were already going by the time we hit Corral 2. The Hopkinton crowd was loud and gave us a great sendoff, and we headed down the first hill!
Miles 1-6: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham
In all the course analyses out there, people stress that you can’t go out too fast on the downhills or your quads won’t have anything left to give later in the race. So I tried to ignore the runners flying past me and told myself I’d just see them walking once we hit Newton. That turned out to be totally true. You drop a few hundred feet in the first four miles or so, and while that seems like it would be awesome, downhills are incredibly draining on the body.
Mile 2 memorable moment: Biker bar with lots of leather-clad (and drunk) men and women cheering hard while propped up on their Harleys. This is at the bottom of a hill, and it’s the first time you see a huge crowd after the start. Here was where it started becoming real for me.
I’m not going to do go through mile splits because my Garmin was only on point with the actual markers for about 3 miles, and then my compete inability to run in a straight line meant I was splitting up to 0.1 miles ahead of the marker. At some point I just started ignoring the auto-split and was paying attention only to average pace and overall time.
5K — 24:31 (7:53 pace)
My first split felt really good. Based on last week’s 10-mile success I was aiming for around 8:00 pace, and I figured I was under just because of the downhills. So I tried to reel it in a little bit while still holding a steady pace I could sustain for the whole race.
Mile 6 memorable moment: Framingham train station and city center. Good crowds here and some interesting scenery besides woods and houses.
10K — 49:30 (8:02 pace for 5K, 7:58 overall)
I settled down a little bit but also noticed the fact that the course is never really flat. There’s a lot of buzz around the Newton hills, but no one ever makes anything of the fact that the course is rolling the whole.damn.time.
Miles 7-13: Natick and Wellesley
I really enjoyed this stretch. The little downtown areas of both Natick and Wellesley were quaint and filled with cheering crowds. There was a country/bluegrass band in Natick and lots of people out grilling, drinking and enjoying the sun. Same thing in Wellesley — music, food and general excitement.
One thing I actually was disappointed by was the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, where all the Wellesley girls shout at the top of their lungs and hold up signs that say “Kiss Me, I’m ___ (Minnesotan! A Senior! A Math Major!)” People build this up as being the most awesomely loud and exciting part of the race, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Sure, they were noisy, but I think it’s more pronounced because you hear silenceSCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEAMsilence as you approach, run through and past.
15K –1:14:02 (7:54 pace for 5K, 7:56 overall)
20 K–1:38:40 (7:56 pace for 5K, 7:56 overall)
Half — 1:43:59 (7:56 overall)
The 13.1 marker was right in the middle of Wellesley proper, and that was really the first point at which I had any sense of what my finish time might be. Once I stopped paying attention to my Garmin splits I had a hard time judging where I was in terms of time, and even the average pace was a little off because my distance wasn’t on with the race mile markers. At one point I tried to do the math and just got confused. I know. My brain just turned off.
Also at this point I knew we were heading into Newton, and my quads had been on fire since Mile 10. I kept thinking I would give anything to go uphill or stay flat and skip out on all the remaining downhills, and I definitely had this deep-seated worry that my legs wouldn’t carry me for the entire 26.2. One of the mental strategies I knew would work was to start counting down rather than up. Halfway means you’ve got less left to run than what you’ve already done!
Miles 14-22: Wellesly to Newton
The remainder of Wellesley was fairly uneventful. There’s an overpass bridge that’s kind of unexpected, but for the most part things are steady until you get to the Newton hills at Mile 16. I vaguely remember the PowerGel station around this time, which was huge and had every flavor under the sun on offer, but because my nutrition strategy doesn’t include this stuff (yet…again, I KNOW), I ran right on through.
25K — 2:03:25 (7:58 pace for 5K, 7:56 overall)
Here is where I realized I might just make it sub-3:30. I hit the Mile 16 marker at exactly 2:07:00, and I knew I absolutely could do the remaining 10.2 in 1:23:00 if the hills didn’t chew me up and spit me out too badly. That’s slower than an 8:10 pace, and I was feeling strong enough to make that happen.
This is also around where you take the first turn of the course — right onto Commonwealth Ave.
Anyway, the first of the four hills is around Mile 16, but I actually didn’t realize I’d even run uphill, in part because I was so thankful for the break on my quads. This did throw off my count — I knew I’d be on the infamous Heartbreak for #4 — but thankfully I knew the approximate mile markers for each climb and could adjust accordingly. Hill #2 is at 17.5 and Hill #3 is around 19. Both are short but kinda steep, and I noticed them but didn’t make much of it. At this point crowds were picking up and I could tell we were nearing Boston College because of the t-shirts and drunk students running around in the road.
30K — 2:28:16 (8:00 pace for 5K, 7:57 overall)
Then we hit Heartbreak. I’d been told it’s not as hard as my fave training hill here in D.C., and that turned out to be true. It’s kinda long but not that steep, and the crowds are so great that they carry you right up and over. It was at this point that those fast early downhills really caught up with people. As I was powering up and ripping the climb to shreds, plenty of people let Heartbreak get the best of them — there was a lot of walking going on.
Garmin clocked my pace at 8:11 for the mile that included Heartbreak. Not bad for the length of the hill.
Once you summit Heartbreak — not named because it’s challenging, by the way — you hit BC. Hard. There are students EVERYWHERE — screaming, chugging beer, trying to get in your face and being held back by cops. IT. WAS. AWESOME. The noise and the intensity lasted for what seemed like forever, compared to other parts of the course where spectators came in clumps followed by silence. This was, hands down, my favorite part of the run. It’s right at the point in the race where I tend to hit the wall (Mile 21-ish) and yet all I could think about is how much fun they were having and how much fun I was having watching them. For all you Duke kids, imagine spectating a huge marathon on LDOC. Yeah.
Anyway, once you pass BC you hit Cemetary Mile, a downhill followed by a short uphill. Supposedly this is a hard one, but I actually don’t remember thinking that at all.
35K — 2:53:13 (8:01 pace for 5K, 7:57 overall)
Then you hit Cleveland Circle , where there are lots of railroad tracks to be cautious of. At this point, the crowds are consistenly large and you can feel the energy grow as you near Boston.
Miles 23-26.2: Welcome to Boston
Left on Beacon as you head into the city. My memory of this part is kind of blurred together, but I do recall great spectators and crazy thoughts running through my head about my finish time. I was still on pace to go sub-3:30. Could I do it? My quads were burning so badly but now that we were more or less on flats I was picking up speed and feeling strong. I was so close — I HAD to hit this milestone.
Then I saw the Citgo sign, which sits around the Mile 25 marker. Unfortunately you can see it well before that, and you have to watch it come closer super super slowly.
40K — 3:18:27 (8:07 pace for 5K, 7:59 overall)
The course has markers at Mile 25, 1 mile to go and Mile 26, which is helpful for people who can’t really gauge how the extra 0.2 will impact their pace. I remember going under an overpass — that last little insulting hill — and then all of a sudden we were turning right on Hereford up toward the convention center and the last left turn onto Boylston and to the finish. The turn on Hereford was another one of my favorite parts — it’s such a pleasant surprise, and you know you’re almost there yet you can’t quite see the finish. And the crowds are five and six people deep, packed all along the sidewalk on both sides. It’s incredible.
And finally: left on Boylston, and THERE’S THE FINISH! I knew Mom was on the left side of the street very close to the line, so I hugged the curb. After 26 miles on narrow roads, Boylston’s width was a welcome break, and I didn’t really have anyone around crowding me. I looked at my watch, tried to gauge how far down the finish was and knew I had it it me to hit that 3:30 mark. I heard my name, waved to Mom and went flying as fast as I could go toward that line.
I crossed the line, looked at my watch and immediately burst into tears. Thank god I had my sunglasses on.
Garmin clocked me at 3:28:50 for 26.47 miles. But all that matters is that official result. A PR by more than 7 minutes and faster than I ever thought I could run post-injury and given the difficulty level of the course. Let me repeat that. Boston is no picnic. Those hills will give you a solid beating no matter how well trained you are.
But the moral of the story is: Boston is MAGICAL.
But wait, there’s more! Part II is here.