It’s been hard for me to start writing about the Boston Marathon. It’s one thing to say, everything about it was amazing. It was! But that’s not enough and my task here is to walk you through, basically, magic. How do I do that??
Because the Boston Marathon was it: magic. Imagine spending two years running your legs off and your heart out to chase a dream you previously thought unattainable — and then actually getting to live it. You would think, after a build-up of such sort, that this dream could let you down.
No such thing! The Boston Marathon was everything I thought it would be; everything I expected it to be — and so much more! So here is my Boston Marathon story. It will be long, so if you don’t get to the end, know this:
- If you are a runner who thinks of Boston as a distant dream for another life — try and go after it in this one. It’s worth it!
- If you are a runner who has been chasing a BQ for years and might be getting a bit discouraged — keep at it. It’s worth it!
- If you qualified already for 2017 — oh man, you are in for such a treat. Keep training, stay healthy and don’t let anything get in the way of what you’re about to experience. It’s worth it!
The Boston Marathon is worth everything. Boston goes all out to make its runners feel welcome, and successfully so. It rolls out the red carpet – I guess I should say blue and yellow carpet! The Boston Athletic Association transforms Boylston Street into Runner’s Paradise and all the stores put up blue and yellow decorations, “Marathon daffodils” and huge signs welcoming runners (yea, even Talbot’s).
Boston runners wearing jackets from years past are everywhere and you know that every single one of these people has a story that got them to Boston, just like you do. It’s a happy feeling, to know that you’re among people that get you.
We got to the Expo late Saturday morning, which was a wee bit of a mistake: the merchandise floor was so crowded, you could barely walk. The official Adidas section was the most popular place to be, of course, but we bravely plunged into the crowds in my quest to purchase anything and everything branded with the 120th Boston Marathon logo.
After that, we tried the special Samuel Adams 26.2 brew because, as accurately pointed out, beer has carbs and it is important to carbo-load before a marathon.
Then, I had a noon appointment with a research group conducting a running mechanics study. You get to wear a special chip around your ankle during the marathon, and sport a huge number written in black marker on your calf or thigh — and in exchange, the researchers give you all of your running data when they’re done. So the bulge you might see under my sock if you look at my race photos carefully and the “199” on my leg have nothing to do with the night I got to spend in jail right before the race.
Onto packet pickup. (Because yes, buying all the marathon merchandise was more urgent than picking up my race bib…)
There were hardly any lines for that and all the volunteers were so nice! Then again, imagine how pleasant it must be to be giving Boston Marathon participants their bibs – everyone is so excited and so grateful to be there, smiling ear to ear and taking gazillions of photos (I have about that many, too).
Then we got lunch at the Au Bon Pain right outside the expo area — and shared a table with Matt Fitzgerald, the author of “How Bad Do You Want It?” that I had just finished (and wrote about here a couple of weeks ago). How cool is that? And where, but at the Boston Marathon would it happen? I told him that I love his book and I asked him if he’s running – yes, he was. (He finished in 2:56.)
We walked off the food with a quick trip to the Finish line for photos, then onto the Janji Pop-up Store on Newbury street for a meet-up with Team Nuun. There, Nuun CEO Kevin Rutherford’s welcoming speech got “interrupted” by Born to Run author Christopher McDougall telling us that Arnulfo Quimare, the Tarahumara Tribe runner featured in his book, was right there at the store raising funds for his racing. Again, where does that happen? Magical Boston! Later, I found out that Scott Jurek ran the race, too, finishing in 4:09 — a slow time for him, because he ran with a buddy, Christy Turlington (geez, I feel like I’m name-dropping here…) Arnulfo finished in 3:38.
On our way back from the city, I was thinking about all these random encounters and how this was probably the coolest “Expo day” I would ever live. I was wrong. The next day was even better.
I went back to Boston on Sunday morning with a couple of things on my to-do list: attend talk with Meb Keflezighi and walk around the expo some more, in case I found something that I forgot to buy the day before (not likely, I bought everything).
In order, the following magical things happened:
1. After his talk, Meb signed my Boston bib. If that bib wasn’t already precious, it now became absolutely priceless:
Meb is such an incredible guy. Humble and down to earth, and you can tell by listening to him that he is all heart. I am rooting so much for him in Rio! Go Meb!!!
2. While wandering around the Expo (way less crowded on Sunday!), I ran into Amby Burfoot signing copies of his new book, First Ladies of Running. Incredibly inspiring book! A must-read for anyone who loves this sport, male or female.
3. While wandering around the expo some more, I spotted Bart Yasso at the Runner’s World booth, so I asked him for a quick YassoSelfie. We were in a rush and it turned out blurry, but hey: when you get a chance to take a selfie with the man who has his own Big Sur Marathon mile marker, you take it.
4. Finally, on what I thought would be my way out of the Expo area, I spotted Shalane Flanagan at a booth called #itsthenerve (yes, it was named a hashtag). Naturally, I lined up to meet her and get an autograph. Man, that made my day completely. I told her that she is my hero and I think of her run at the Olympic Trials in LA any time I hit a rough patch during a long run or a hard workout. She was incredibly modest and nice. It seems most world-class runners are that way?
I headed back happy and a bit tired from all the walking – my phone’s step counter pegged me at walking more than 7.5 miles. Not ideal for the day before a marathon, but with a day like this and a marathon like this: it was the only way and the best way!
Race morning came after a good-night’s sleep (I am so grateful to my brain for its ability to switch off and sleep well the night before a big race!) and two strong cups of coffee and a Honey Stinger waffle later, I headed to Boston, where I would board a shuttle bus to Hopkinton.
Riding the bus to a marathon start is always a great experience: everyone around you is excited and you have the best chats with the person sitting next to you. I met up with another runner from my home country (she lives in Prague, though) and we rode the bus together. It’s so fun to talk to new friends who share a lot with you, including a love for running. No shortage of topics to discuss!
Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton was just as I imagined it: big and crowded. The funny thing was, I didn’t feel any of that nervous excitement you generally get from marathon start areas. It was simply… excitement. Happy people everywhere! It was beautiful.
It was also hot: by the time we walked to the porta-potties, got water, found some shade to sit down and eat breakfast (one more Honey Stinger for me) and BodyGlide-up for the race, I had shed all my throwaway clothes because I was starting to sweat.
Then the announcer started calling all blue bibs towards the start: Oops. We forgot to go to the porta-potties again! The line was long and the walk to the start is 0.7 miles, but skipping that last “go” was out of the question. So we lined up, went and by the time we darted off running towards the start, the announcer was calling the wave after us.
Still, we made it to our own corrals. My new friend went over to the front of the wave (each runner in Boston is placed in a corral and a wave based on their qualifying time, fastest first), I lined up in mine and within minutes, we were jogging to the start line.
And that is how it started: my first Boston Marathon.
I can’t describe to you the happiness of running this race. The roads are pretty narrow and the field is incredibly crowded through the first five miles, if not longer — but I could care less. Spectators lined up every inch of the course and the start area in Hopkinton was absolute madness. So many people screaming their throats out to send us off. I may have teared up a little, I don’t know – it was windy and something got in my eye, I bet.
The first few miles are downhill (sort of, though, as there are still hills up and down) and I had instructions from my coach to take it easy: don’t go faster than an 8:15 min/ mile. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Runners were everywhere, and even though we were all running approximately similar paces – the beauty of corralling everyone based on their qualifying time – it was crowded enough to be holding us up to an average 8:30-8:40 pace.
The water stops were congested from the get go, too, but with the temps already in the high 70s, I knew I had to drink – a lot – so I dutifully slowed down even more to grab a cup at each mile.
Somewhere between miles 2 and 3 (I think?) there was a huge crowd in front of what looked like a Harley Davidson rocker bar and, I kid you not, a bunch of big, tattooed biker dudes were cheering us on while drinking beer. Right on!
Despite the crowds and the constant up-and-down of the road, I was keeping decent pace. Net elevation loss or not, the Boston Marathon course is all hills all the way – you are hardly ever running on flat, it’s either climbing a little hill, or going down a little hill.
I crossed the 5K marker at 25:xx-something (25:49 in my official splits, 8:19 average pace) and immediately, the thought popped into my head that all my friends who said they would track me now got notified that I’m through with the first 5K.
From then on, every 5K split of this race, I thought of my friends back home. I know so many of you were cheering me on virtually and I swear, I felt that! I ran with music, but volume turned low enough to be able to hear the crowds, and every now and then I thought I could hear my name. I didn’t have it written anywhere on me, so chances are, it was all in my head – but hey, it felt good.
More little towns we ran through, more crowds all along. My race splits show I got through the 10K in 51:16, an 8:12/ mile average pace, and the 15K at 1:16:38, an 8:10/mile average. Everything according to plan!
I felt amazing and relaxed — even when a runner darted right in front of me to grab water from a volunteer and I tripped and bent my left ankle a bit (nothing serious, immediate recovery). From then on, though, I made it a point to grab water from spectators — lots of people along the course had water, orange slices and even popsicles out — and avoid the official aid stations.
Through the half at 1:48-something on my watch: if this had been a flat course, I would have been on good pace to run a 3:35-3:37. But this is Boston, and Heartbreak Hill awaited.
Before the infamous Heartbreak Hill, though, came the wind. On the bright side, it brought temps down a bit (high 70s is ridiculous for a marathon). On the downside, it was strong. So strong, that on several occasions I had to run while holding onto my hat! It’s not like I haven’t run against headwind before, but it slowly, surely squeezed energy out of me that I knew I would need later.
So much so, that by the time we approached the Newton Hills (there are four along the course, the fourth being Heartbreak Hill), my pace slowed considerably and little by little, I lost my will to fight.
I started wondering why the heck I’m putting myself through this. For what? To get another BQ and run this race again? “I don’t want to run this race again!”
For all four hills my brain and my heart were screaming at me, “I don’t want to come back. So why push harder? Why suffer?”
Those few miles, my pace slowed into the 9s and the only thing that kept me going was knowing that at the top of Heartbreak Hill, right around mile 21, I will see my family. (They had sent me a text that morning that they’ll be there.)
If not for that knowledge, I suspect I would have been reduced to a walk. So many people were!
My split for Mile 21, which ends at the top of Heartbreak Hill, was 9:40. I saw my people and stopped – actually stopped – to hug them and complain how hard it was. They gave me a Coke. Oh, come here you delicious sugary caffeinated carbonated beverage! I gulped down several huge gulps while walking, then set it down by the fence and continued my death march.
The Coke helped a lot. Then again, we were now running downhill and I found it in myself to pick up the pace again. I wasn’t running 8:10s any more, but at least 8:30s per mile were not so bad.
By then, I was pretty sure another BQ time wasn’t going to happen, so I just pushed on to the end. The last five miles were the hardest miles, but the easiest miles, too. I knew the worst (the Newton Hills) was over, and I knew I was about to run through the best final stretch of a marathon in the world: Boylston Street.
The crowds were absolutely insanely huge in the last three miles – the closer we got to Boston, the crazier people got. So much screaming! It was awesome.
I saw the Citgo sign in the distance and it felt like hours to get there, but eventually, I did. That was awesome, too! One mile to go!
By then, my good spirits had returned (thanks, largely, to gulping down more sugar – Honey Stinger gel with caffeine – I took four throughout the race, one every 45 minutes) — but my feet were another question. They were in their own world of pain, especially my left foot. Formerly plagued by plantar fasciitis, it now felt like the fiery pain had exploded back in my left heel and I was doing everything I can to avoid it – including landing so far out on my outer forefoot, my pinkie toe must have been bearing the brunt of each foot strike. Only a mile to go, it would have to survive.
I gritted my teeth, smiled widely and carried on. That last stretch down Boylston Street was the best. You hear the announcer, and the crowds are crazy, and you see the finish line. I literally sprinted (OK, maybe not so much, it just felt like it) to it and crossed that sacred ground, for the first time a Boston Marathon finisher.
My time was 3:44:08. Not a BQ and not my best marathon time — but the best time I’ve ever had!
Then I got a text from my coach and proceeded to inform him that I never want to run this course again. And I meant it! At that time, I truly felt so spent and so done, and so happy to be done, that I really and truly thought, this was amazing, but also terribly hard and I’m not coming back.
Oh well. Then I drank more water and ate more sugar, and by the time I got to the volunteer who put a medal around my neck (geez, something got my eye again at that point), I had changed my mind.
I got a little lost trying to find the metro station so I can be on my way home then, and was treated to yet another Boston Marathon special: I hobbled right into a group of drunk to the nines college boys who were rowdily taking selfies with passers-by. One of them insisted on hugging me. Sorry, dude, for that sweaty, stinky hug. (They all smelled like beer from a mile away, though, so I doubt anyone noticed.)
So for the record: I want to be back and I will be back! Maybe not next year. I don’t think I have it in me to train for and try to run another BQ marathon this year, especially with an Ironman on the books for July. But hey, I age up to the 40-44 group in 2018, and the BQ standard goes down to 3:45! Guess I know what my project will be for 2017
Until then, cheers to all finishers — and Congratulations!