This one was a long time coming.
I guess most runners think about doing Boston at some time or another, even Saquatches more suited to doing 5ks. I really should have known better, as the marathon has been my brutal, vengeful mistress. I did my first marathon at Richmond in 2010 with Ken Lowden’s Strictly Running crew, knowing not one thing about running 26.2 miles. I was so scared of the distance I ran my infamous “Blythewood Marathon” three weeks before the race – a very ill-advised 26.2 mile long run – just to prove I could cover the distance. I did this 24 hours after racing a PR 5 miler at Race to Read. My IT band said forget this and I was hobbled for the next two weeks. I still tried to race Richmond and had a proverbial trail of tears from 18 miles in. A miserable walkapalooza that left me delirious – the Yerg and I almost both passed out at the Starbucks at the finish line. Trophy later called me in a panic thinking I had died. In reality I wandered aimlessly around Virginia’s capital for about 20 minutes until I found my hotel, cramping and nearly puking. Good times.
But after swearing I’d never do another one, I of course broke my promise and trained for Jacksonville the next year. J-vegas was pretty sweet vindication, besting my Richmond time by 32 minutes (3:52 to 3:20) and posting the best time of Ken “Captain Marathon” Calcutt’s training group. The Boston qualifying standard for 35-39 was 3:15 at that time and a seed was planted. I would find my way to Hopkinton.
I thought poetic justice would be served in marathon #3, a return to Richmond. It was not to be – a rogue 3:15 pace group reeled off a bunch of 7 flat miles in the early going and I was toast in the last 10k. A respectable 3:22, but the Boston standards had just gotten tougher, down to a 3:10 for 35-39.
2013 looked like my year. The window for 2015 Boston opened in September, and since I would turn 40 a month before then, I could use the 40-44 3:15 qualifier. Awesome. My sights were set on Kiawah in December – super flat, and close by to boot. I was in. I ramped up mileage and was due to start my 16 week training cycle the week of July 15. I’d just wait a few days to get back from my 15th anniversary trip to Hawaii. Those that know me know the rest. Twenty foot cliff dive, multiple broken bones and a totally wrecked body – really lucky to be alive much less training for a marathon. I was on the couch for a few months and didn’t get back to my previous form until late spring 2014.
But I did get back, minus a wonky left toe. By the time July 2014 rolled around, I figured -OK… LETS TRY THIS AGAIN. I managed to not endure major trauma that summer. Justin Bishop drew up the plan and I was on it like Donkey Kong. I made it to Kiawah 2014 whipped into some serious shape. Kiawah went so well early on that I got cocky – I was going to kick this marathon’s ass, maybe get 3:05. I rattled off a bunch of 6:50ish miles around 18-19 miles in. Turns out this is one of the many times my overwhelming narcissism has not served me well. Wheels came off with a vengeance in mile 23, and I had a 5k from hell to the finish. I hobbled home in 3:11:22. I fought off the pukes for 5 minutes, and it sure wasn’t pretty, but it was an official BQ. I was going to Boston.
Or was I? I had already reserved my hotel for Boston 2016 when the registration began in September 2015. Because I was within 5 minutes of my qualifying time, I had to wait to the last few days of the registration period. People were talking about a record amount of entrants, and there was much speculation about what the “real” cutoff time would be relative to the BQ standards. After a week of hand wringing, I finally got the golden email – I was officially accepted. Many adult beverages were consumed that night. (Cutoff was -2:28 )
So, fast forward to 2016. I spent much of the Boston training period thinking I would treat this as a victory lap.Initially I was injured with hamstring and piriformis issues. Sarah Allers and Christen Bowman both spent hours helping me recover. Once I was healed, I put in a lot of slow miles punctuated by my weekly race addiction every Saturday, 50+ per week for most of the cycle. I did the Swamp Rabbit half in Greenville in February and surprised the hell out of myself with a 1:28:27, a PR by 2 seconds. Maybe, just maybe, I would give Boston an honest effort. Shannon Iriel was in my same wave/corral, and was shooting for 3:10, so why not pace with her?
Unfortunately, like in 2013, life doesn’t care if you are pinning all your hopes and dreams on a meaningless road race. The week before my race, my grandma turned 90 and took a serious turn for the worse. A week before Boston, I went to see her and she was lucid but weak, and she told me how happy she was that I was getting to run the race I had dreamed about for so long. She did not do well over the next few days, and my out-of-state family came to see her for fear of what seemed like an inevitability. With a heavy heart and many reassurances from my mom (who would be taking care of my 3 kids in the midst of this) Mary and I headed to Boston. Rescheduled flights gave us a 12 hour trip and I was noticing I was coming down with a nasty cold – fatigue, congestion, muscle aches, the works. I was exhausted.
I felt a little better the next day and did a 3 mile shakeout with Derek Gomez around Boston Common. It didn’t feel great but I was really taken with an adrenaline rush that I was finally, FINALLY, here. I toured the expo, which was a total madhouse, got my bib, took a thousand pictures and spent way too much on adidas Boston stuff. I already had the Boston jacket – ordered online and still sealed in plastic, preserving its teal/black hideousness and whatever bad juju might be released by opening it early. Apparently this was not a problem for a quarter of the other runners, who sported their 1988 Charlotte Hornets Boston jacket with pride.
After some carb loading in Boston’s Italian North End, I got a call on my cell from my mom at about 9 pm. As soon as I saw the number I knew it was “the call”. Grandma had passed. It was a punch to the stomach, but I knew she had been begging for this to happen for a long time. She was no longer in pain, and could finally rest.
I woke up the next morning with not much sleep and not feeling great but a relief that I was here, on race day, and uninjured. I wrote my grandmother’s name on my bib and dedicated the race to her. After a quick Panera breakfast I headed out to Boston Common at about 6:30 to load up for the bus ride to Hopkinton. The bus ride started off with a bunch of loud, nervous excitement but gradually tapered off to being pretty quiet. This ride was taking forever. At some point I saw the exit to Worcester, and I knew something was up. The bus took the exit, then did some weird turnaround maneuver. Being one of the few with a cell phone, I google mapped us and realized we were like 15 miles past where we should be. The 30 minute ride ended up taking us an hour and a half. I would be surprised, but I somehow get used to having bizarre, stupid luck – good or bad.
Luckily, they ship you down to Athletes’ Village super early. My start time wasn’t until 10:25 so still another 2 hours to kill. The Village was pretty nuts – like a summer music festival without any entertainment. Mobs of anxious people producing some pretty epic bathroom lines. I finally located the rest of our wave 1 and 2 TUS group after a random run-in with the Yerg. I told him we’ve come a long way from our shared delirium in that Richmond Starbucks. Gomez was there and offered me a seat on the best idea ever – a deflated plastic raft to keep you off the wet grass. Ken Bolin and Michael Nance were also on board. We were ready to go.
Yerg, Nance and Gomez left first for wave 1, and about a half hour later Ken and I got our call. As we were walking up to the start, I ran into Tracy McKinnon – Harbison trail runner and member of my 2016 Palmetto 200 repeat championship team Van on the run (sorry, our captain Brian Clyburn requires that whole phrase be uttered whenever the p200 team is mentioned). I walked up with him and also managed to locate Shannon, so we had a little Columbia mini pack in the Wave 2, Corral 1 start. Being in the first corral was awesome, since it made you feel elite, despite the face that the elites, and everybody 3:09 and faster, had taken off 25 minutes ago. Hey, I take what I can get.
I had zero clue what to do with my race strategy, so I figured I’d do my 3:10 (7:15/mile) pace for as long as I could. I did a similar pace at last week’s Palmetto Half as a training run, and it felt pretty easy, so hopefully this would serve me well. I had studied the course before – looked like mostly downhill and rolling to the halfway point, some flatness, then the nasty Newton hills with Heartbreak at mile 21, then mostly downhill again to Boylston St. But again, this was just a large scale elevation map. we would see…
The gun goes off and its complete mayhem. I realize I’m leading a group of thousands of people, all of whom have run a 3:09 to 3:25 marathon in the past 18 months. So its fast, real fast. To make things worse, the road out of Hopkinton is like a freefall off a mountain. I’m fighting to keep the pace from getting too crazy. Tracy and Shannon have already left me for dead and people are passing me left and right. The elevation map made it look completely downhill but there’s already an incline not more than a half mile from the start. I hit mile 1 in 7:12, which I figure is pretty ideal. My legs feel fine but I’m already not liking the way I feel. For one, it is ridiculously hot. 68 degrees according to my Garmin but feels worse than that with no shade. Boston was supposed to have a high near 60 but for some reason Hopkinton was supposed to get up to the low 70’s. On top of the heat though, I just have no energy. All the stress and illness in the past week have apparently caught up with me.
But hey, its Boston, so time to suck it up buttercup. I rattle off a few 7:10ish miles and hit another big pack of spectators in Ashland, the next town over. I’ve been known to recover after a bad start but things are still going south, like I’d rather just pull to the side and take a nap. I fight through this feeling until I hit Framingham around the 10k mark. it’s nice to randomly run into Howie Phan, but he starts pulling away and looking back to see my train wreck in progress. I’m still hitting near 7:20 miles but the wall of noise and cowbells in the town makes me feel a little loopy. I surge to the 10k mats to at least give the people tracking back home a sense that all hasn’t gone to crap.
But it most certainly has. I bail out around mile 8 and use the portapotty and give myself a good thirty seconds of walking. I had been hydrating pretty aggressively in the heat, but now I was more afraid of getting fluid overloaded and hyponatremic. Either way, I was done with any thought of this being a good race. I was paralyzed by the fear that I might not even finish now. Its a pretty big mental hurdle to be complete toast 18 miles from Boylston St.
But people are screaming at me, so I start back up at what feels like an absolute cool down jog. I try to pick it up some, but anything fast makes me feel lightheaded and a step away from the med tent. I’m able to rein it in and keep going, surprised to see 8:20ish miles. With everybody passing you, it feels more like 11 minute pace. I’m considering another bout of walksies on the overpass near mile 12, but then I hear a vague, ghostly wail echoing up head. I come up over a ridge and it hits me like a wall of sound – the Wellesley scream tunnel. I’m suffering on the side of the road, crawling along, but having a couple thousand college girls screaming at you for kisses definitely helps in the motivation department. Since my race is in the crapper already, I plant a big sloppy one on a cute Asian girl who’s probably still having nightmares from the experience.
The half mat is in downtown Wellesley, and its a 1:42 split. Jeez, I cruised a 1:35 a week ago and felt great. Today, not so much. By this time, I figure my computer trackers know something is up. I’m able to hold it together for a couple more miles when its relatively flat, but things really start to fall apart when the hills start rolling in. I hit a major case of walksies in mile 15 and then a longer one on the first set of Newton hills in 17, crossing the 10 minute barrier for the first time. It’s so bad I pull out my cell phone during the mile 17 power walk to text the wife (who is at the top of Heartbreak Hill, mile 21) to let her know how bad the suckage is going. She texts back, but I can’t read it in the sun except for the first line “KEEP GOING”. The next few miles are pure torture – someone told me the Newton hills arent so bad but I have to heartily disagree. I was powerwalking like a champ. Apparently I ran through all the early water overload and now I was getting thirsty. Some kid was giving out freezer pops and I grabbed one. It was like pure heaven. I chased that with a big cup of beer that some very drunk Boston college girls were giving out. Although I was still pulling a run/walk strategy like a Jeff Galloway devotee, at least the temperature had dropped considerably. It was even a little chilly in the wind. I spent all of heartbreak looking for Mary and finally found her and Sheila at the very top. Apparently she was holding the GO BLUE SHOES! sign that she and the boys made before we left, but I was too busy giving her an even bigger, sloppier kiss to see it.
After seeing Mary and cresting the hill, I had the first inkling that maybe I would be OK. I had spent the last 12 miles figuring at least a 50/50 chance of med tenting it, but getting to mile 21 and getting over the big hills was huge. I screamed at myself not to walk again, but damn did I want to. I started thinking of anything to motivate me – my grandma, the kids back home, the long, miserable months of rehabbing from the Hawaii fall, being stuck with that ugly as hell jacket and not even being able to wear it…anything. It was some serious slow going – pace was in the 9’s but better than that 11 minute stroll up Heartbreak. At some point a guy comes up from behind and says “THERE IT IS…THE CITGO SIGN!!” like he just had a religious epiphany. I gave him a Rick Flair wooooo for support. I’d like to say I kept my promise of no walksies, but damn that mile 25 overpass – I got an electric jolt up my left leg and I knew my Richmond cramps might be making a most unwelcome comeback. I climbed to the top and started my power jog back on the way down. Thankfully no more shocks. The last few miles were a blur, but then we went under a bridge and turned onto Hereford street, and I recognized the scene from watching it on TV for so many years. Up a short hill and a left onto Boylston. Absolutely incredible. A wall of sound and people, with the finish line in sight. I’d like to say I pulled a classic blue shoe finish, but it was all I could do to remain upright at 10 minute pace. Touching my bib, arms to the sky…. I was done.
3:48 and change. Far from my best but actually not my worst. I was a complete wreck in the walk through the finish area. They were giving me the medal and the mylar blanket between me alternately grinning like an idiot and sobbing like a baby. I was a Boston finisher! Many beers were consumed that night, proudly wearing the ugliest jacket ever.
In the Columbia group, Michael Nance rocked a 3:10 and Derek Gomez requalified with a 3:13. Jeff Godby and Howie Phan both requalified with a 3:11. Yerg ran a 3:23 and Shannon BQ’d again with a 3:24. Ivanka Tolan also requalified, PR’ing in an amazing 3:32. Jennifer Kryzanowski BQ’s with a 3:32 as well. Tracy Mckinnon finished in 3:31 and Kenneth Ebener , running injured, crossed in 3:49. Julia Norcia clocked a 3:55, and Ken Bolin ran a 4:12.Jennifer Sparks did a 4:14.
Congratulations Alex! I tracked you on Monday and you did a great job considering the circumstances of feeling off, the travelling, late start time, your grandma passing away, and of course, the course. Everyone I tracked pretty much fell off their goal due to heat and hills, but no one I tracked left Boston injured so that is a victory (however I believe a few did leave with broken hearts…). So glad you got to run this race and dedicate it to your grandma as well. I’m very sorry for your loss and have been thinking of you since it happened. I hope your recovery is going well and you’re getting to spend time with family and be together and share your grandma’s memories!