Ironman Vineman

Ironman Vineman
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You know, if I hadn’t paid an arm and a leg for my official Ironman photos, I probably would have given up on writing this race recap.

I mean, it’s been a month! I’ve slept all the sleep, eaten all the food and rested all the rest. I’ve been back to a training schedule for the past three weeks.

I have no excuse for my tardiness, other than the usual: been busy.

But, I paid $100 for a bunch of files, so you’re getting a race report. I’m getting my money’s worth. Hope you enjoy!

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Pre-race

Windsor is only a two-hour drive from home, so our plan was simple: get there Friday morning and do all the pre-race things the day before the race. Saturday was the big dance.

Except a few weeks before race day, Julie — a friend who was also doing Vineman as her first Ironman — pointed out that the last day for Athlete Registration was Thursday. No packet pickup on Friday. Can’t get your stuff on Thursday? No race.

Which I would have known, had I read the Athlete Guide carefully. And since I usually “read” those in the car on our way to a race… well, my Ironman would have been over before it started.

Phew, crisis averted. Julie and drove up together on Thursday, got our packets and drove back home — to return on Friday morning and get the real party started.

Obligatory "look at me, I'm going to race Ironman!" photos.
Obligatory “look at me, I’m going to do an Ironman!” photos.

Oh, and this race was going to be a child-free getaway for HusbandRuns and I. You know, some couples go to Sonoma Valley for a weekend of wine tasting, maybe a concert, or a spa day. We go to partake in Ironman. To each their own!

So our first stop on Friday was mandatory drop off for bike and bike gear bag at T1 on Johnson’s Beach. Then a short dip in Russian River (yup, as warm and shallow as I remembered it to be).

VinemanBikeDropOff

After that, we drove over to T2 in Windsor for mandatory run-gear drop off, and finally, well past 2 p.m., we headed to Santa Rosa for lunch.

Lunch involved:

  • a truck backing into our car as we were pulling into the parking lot behind Russian River Brewing Company,
  • miraculously – no damage to the car? The small dent popped right back out. Needless to say, the truck driver was mighty pleased and grateful (he tried to give us money for a buff, which we refused, seeing how there was hardly a scratch),
  • delicious pizza, beers, and more beers (carbo-loading), and finally:
  • a parking ticket, because in our little fender-no-bender, we didn’t notice the parking meters.

That we laughed it all off is a testament to the amazing quality of Pliny the Elder and the rest of Russian River Brewing’s delicious brews.

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If you’re ever within driving distance, it’s a must-try! Remember to feed the meters.

Race morning

Per usual, I kicked off race day with mediocre hotel-room coffee at 4 a.m.

Then I got burned.

I had just run water through the coffee maker to heat it up for my instant oatmeal breakfast and, splash! All over my right hand. It probably would have hurt more under normal circumstances, but on race morning, I was too focused on other stuff to care. (FYI, the burn formed a big blister while I was on the bike, which popped some time in the beginning of the run. The lifecycle of a burn, all in a day’s Ironman.)

We loaded my swim bag in the car and took off for the 30-minute drive to Guerneville. Traffic got backed up as we approached Johnson’s Beach, but the brilliant Waze app took us to a narrow side road that ran parallel to what we thought was the only street to the beach. Score!

Next thing I knew, we were by the entrance of the athletes-only transition area. HusbandRuns told me he’d meet me back there before the swim, and I entered Ironman. No going back now!

Well, going forward was slow, too, as I quickly realized my bike pump was in demand. I stopped three or four times to let folks borrow it and wait for them to get air in their tires. The extra few minutes were totally worth it, as we exchanged heartfelt well wishes for a great race!

Then I got to Magic Bike, pumped his tires, got my water and Nuun for the bike, grabbed my wetsuit, cap and goggles, and found my husband conveniently waiting for me near a porta-potty with a pretty short line. Another sign for a smooth day ahead?

Potty business done, I decided to just put on the wetsuit already. I stripped down to my two-piece Team Betty swim suit, squeezed into the wetsuit, put on my swim cap, and… realized that we still had at least half an hour to go.

This is the first time in the four years I’ve been doing triathlon that time was not racing before the start.

We watched the professional men’s start from the beach, then the women… then continued watching as athletes started filing into the narrow walkway to the swim arch. Men in green caps, women in pink:

VinemanSwimStart

Notice anything? Where is the pink?!???

The start was self-seeded, meaning everyone got to decide what wave to join based on their expected swim finish time.

Bit of a problem for a first-timer who had never even swam the entire 2.4 miles…

I had absolutely no clue how long it would take me. No more than two hours, I hoped? And certainly no more than the cutoff time of 2:20?

Finally, I decided to seed myself in the 1:20-1:30 wave (a little over twice the time I’d need for a 70.3 swim) and walked over to join the thick crowd of nervous wetsuits.

Swim

First snag: I hadn’t noticed the area was fenced-off, so I’d need to go to the very back of the line and try to make my way forward to my wave.

Surprisingly (or not?), everyone was very courteous and more than willing to let me pass when I mentioned I was hoping to get to the wave in front of them. I guess it’s in everyone’s interest for people to seed themselves in the proper swim group!

That, and triathletes are just awesome people in general.

I reached the back of the 1:20-1:30 crowd and we inched our way forward until I stepped over the timing mat. Time to start swimming!

Well, not before taking care of some over-hydration business first. (I’ve said it before: all triathletes pee in their wetsuit before the swim start, deal with it.)

That took a good minute, by the way.

Then I dived in and started swimming…

… and right away, I found myself in a pack of swimmers going at a much slower pace that I wanted to go.

Russian River is so narrow and shallow, that I could have easily stood up to walk around until I found more space. But walking in water is a lot slower than swimming, and I had made a pact with myself that I would not walk the swim. My legs would get plenty of action later in the day.

So I swam at a near-sprint to pass the first pack of swimmers, then settled down into my rhythm… until a few minutes later, I hit another slower pack and had to pick up the pace again. This sprint-settle down-repeat cycle went on for almost the entire swim.

VinemanSwim

As I reached the turnaround, I glanced at my watch for the first time: 37 minutes? That was better than all of my 70.3 swims! It was like getting a fresh burst of energy and on I went, swimming past walking guys, swimming past slower groups, just swimming.

I exited the water at 1:13-something on my watch and I couldn’t have been happier!

Vineman swim exit

Swim time: 1:14:41

T1

A volunteer handed me my bike gear bag and I trotted over to the changing tent. They don’t have changing tents at Ironman 70.3 events, so this was my first time in one. And seeing how I was in a swim suit and needed to be in my cycling kit instead, it’s a good thing we had privacy! I took quite a while to dry off, wipe as much mud off my feet as I could before putting on socks and get dressed. Then again, I had a long day ahead of me. No rush.

T1 time: 9:44

Bike

The Vineman bike course is a thing of beauty. First, you ride against the backdrop of these big evergreens. It’s still early morning and the sun is low, and its light is soft, and everything is simply perfect.

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Then the vineyards start rollin’. Winery after winery, after winery, as we pedal along on the smooth roads. Many of them newly-paved. Two thumbs up!

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I stopped at the first Bike Aid station to refill one of my water bottles and was helped by no other than Harriet Anderson. She was volunteering with SVTC, on trash pick-up duty! That’s right, Harriet Anderson was picking up our trash. If that doesn’t show you how amazing the triathlon community is, what would?

After that, I made two more stops. One to get my special needs bag, where another kind volunteer helped me pour my special-needs bottles of Mexican Coke into my bike bottle. (Coca Cola is my worst long-ride addiction, if I’m going to ride for four or more hours, I need my coke!) And one last stop at mile who-knows-what, because I would decidedly have not made it to T2 with a bladder that full.

(Water to go at all aid stations, coke, Nuun… I was very well hydrated.)

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Not least, the course is all rollers. There are two climbs up Chalk Hill at miles 44 and 100, respectively, and yes – that hill does get steeper the second time around. I was riding pretty conservatively and my legs felt fine. But with about six miles to go, I decided to shift into an easier gear and spin the legs out some more. I had a marathon to run, after all.

Bike time: 6:50:08
(OK, in hindsight, that is quite slow. I’ll pace myself better if I ever do this again!)

T2

I handed off Magic Bike to a volunteer, grabbed my run gear bag and went into the changing tent. Put on my Team Betty tri suit, ran out to the porta-potty — and back in for the rest of my changing. My feet were still muddy from T1, so I used up a mini-pack of wipes to get as much dirt off as I could. Don’t want to get blisters if I can help it! Then I drank ice water. Then I applied sunscreen. Then I put on my race-belt tutu. Then I sat on a chair for a bit… Then I realized that I was basically hanging out in T2, stalling. Not knowing if I’m ready to run a marathon. How would my legs feel? Would it be too hot? Would I make it?

Suck it up. Only one way to find out!

Time in T1: 15:01
[seriously……..]

Run

The first thing I realized when I started running was that it wasn’t terribly hot out, and my legs weren’t feeling terribly bad.

The next thing I realized was that turning my race belt into a tutu was one of my smartest Ironman decisions yet.

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Right away, I started getting loud cheers from spectators lined up around the beginning of the course:

Cute Tutu!
Go, Tutu!
You got this, Tutu!

And from fellow runners:

Nice Tutu!
A Tutu? A Tutu!
That.is.awesome. A Tutu. [chuckle]

and, my favorite (I got that some time on my second lap):

VAMOS, Tutu!!

It is impossible to get cheers and smiles from everyone, and not get a lift in spirits. So most of the time, I was running with a grin on my face.

The run was a three time out-and-back on a 4.5-mile stretch, which was a great way to consolidate aid stations and spectators. The small stretches of road that didn’t have many spectators lined up were either along beautiful vineyards, or had loud cheer stations from volunteers or sponsors.

IronmanVinemanRunTutu

I took the first half “lap” at an 8:44 average pace, fully realizing I would not be able to keep it up. But as long as I felt good, why not?

Back near the run start and on my way to the second loop, I ran by the area with our special needs bags almost too quickly, and had to back down a few steps to find my bag and get some gels.

Nutrition-wise: I had switched from Bonk Breakers to gels for the run, and my stomach was feeling good. I did have to duck into a porta-potty coming back on my second lap. It felt weird stopping to use the restroom during a run – I never do that, even in a marathon. But when you’re out there for hours and hours, it just can’t be helped.

At that point I had slowed down quite a bit, running a 10 min/ mile pace on the uphills (there was one big climb on that course, which we had to basically do six times, and one smaller climb that wasn’t so bad).

Luckily, HusbandRuns was on the course as well and he would join me for a few yards here and there to keep me company. He even offered me snacks – which I refused, since we’re not allowed to accept any outside assistance, but also because said “snacks” consisted of plums and tomatoes.

Many thanks to fellow Betty Julienne, whose husband took this photo! I wonder what we were discussing at this point, perhaps the possible consequences of snacking on plums during a marathon?
Many thanks to fellow Betty Julienne, whose husband took this photo! I wonder what we were discussing at this point, perhaps the possible consequences of snacking on plums during a marathon?

It was great seeing all my fellow Bettys on the course, too, and getting (and giving) smiles and shout-outs! Those Team Betty kits truly light up a race course, don’t they?

I won’t lie, by mile 21, I was ready to be done with the marathon thing. I was tired, my stomach was starting to feel weird, I had been out there for 12 hours and really wanted to lie down and take a nap — or just go to sleep.

With a mile to go, I ran for a bit with HusbandRuns for the last time.

We reached the “Athletes only from this point” sign at the start of the fenced-off “runway” that looped around Windsor High School and eventually lead to the Ironman finish line. I kissed HusbandRuns “see ya in a few minutes” and dived in.

Approaching the Ironman finish chute is something else. Words really don’t do it justice. So many people lined up and they all scream their lungs out, and give high fives, and shake those cowbells – so.much.cowbell!. It is so loud and so incredible. And, of course, you know that you are about to finish an Ironman – something that once seemed insane and impossible. (Something that your husband once said is as crazy as sticking your hand in the electrical outlet and keeping it there for eight hours.)

It basically feels like this:

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And this:

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The softest, most incredible, welcoming and celebratory red carpet in the world!

Run time: 4:25:22

I crossed the finish line and a volunteer immediately came over to put a medal around my neck, help me take my timing chip off, give me a water bottle and a space blanket, and ask how I feel. It wasn’t a courtesy question, either, he really meant business and I knew from the way he looked at me that he was assessing: can she stand on her feet? do we need a wheelchair? will she faint, or will she walk?

I was feeling perfectly fine at that point, so the volunteer directed me to the food tent and went over to help the next finishers.

Meanwhile, HusbandRuns was nowhere to be seen and after five minutes of looking around, I asked the folks at a nearby information table for a cell phone, so I could call him and find out where he is. He didn’t pick up, so I left a message. And after another minute of looking around, realized that I forgot to take a finisher’s photo. Doh.

IronmanVinemanFinisher

By that point, I was so cold that taking off my space blanket for 30 seconds to take this photo felt like eternity.

Then I spotted HusbandRuns, ran over to grab some food and we rushed to the car. I needed to be inside and warm up (heater to the max!) while he went to get my bike and gear bags.

It is so, so nice to have an IronSherpa to take care of those things for you. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I was at that point.

Shortly after that, we headed back to the hotel and, once in our room, I took off my still soaking-wet and stinky (but beautiful!) Team Betty kit, and finally made myself my own Iron Throne: a nice, hot bath!

Total time: 12:54:56
Overall rank: 680
Gender: 123
Age group: 27

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Let Tri Season Begin: Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon

Let Tri Season Begin: Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon
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On May 15, I raced the Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon. It isn’t really what I’d call a sprint-distance race, since each of the tree legs is a bit longer: 3/4-mile swim, 16-mile bike, and 5-mile run. It was my first triathlon of the year — and I was undertrained.

I had only had three weeks of swimming and riding (I had racked my bike and stayed out of the pool in the months leading up to the Boston Marathon), so I knew I wouldn’t be 100% race-ready for this one. Heck, I would’t be 80% ready.

Yet, I’d been looking forward to the race for months. MHST would be my Boston victory lap: a beautiful morning out with friends (no fewer than eight of my training buddies did this one) and a morning of swim-bike-run fun on the roads where we often train.

Race Morning

I was planning to pick up my race packet on race morning, but on Saturday, I made the impulse decision to drive over to packet pickup at the Sports Basement in Sunnyvale. I needed to buy a new race belt, anyway.

That was the last smart decision I made that day. Later that night, as my mind was drifting off into lala land, I thought: Hey, I bet it would be totally cool if I slept in a little tomorrow. And so I changed the alarm, from 4:30 a.m. to 5.

Why not? Transition opens at 5:30, the race starts at 7. I had about a 30-minute drive out there… leaving home at 5:30 would be OK.

Indeed, it was — until I hit a traffic jam about three miles down the road from transition. It turned out that the designated parking lot had filled up and late arrivals like me were stuck in a bumper-to-bumper nightmare, moving at 3 mph. People were parking off the road and riding to transition, speeding by those of us who decided to wait it out and park safely. An aggravating 40 minutes later, I was out of the car and riding to the start myself.

It was 6:40 a.m. when I finally arrived at the bike racks and found my friends. The race announcer was already rushing everyone onto the water start and I was just beginning to set everything up!

Never mind, at least I’ve done this before. Rack bike, lay down towel, bike shoes-helmet-sunglasses to the left, running shoes-race belt-visor to the right. Dump two Nuun tablets and two Nuun Plus in water bottle, fizz out, close. Squeeze into wetsuit, grab swim cap and goggles. Snap quick pic with team. No time to pee! That’s OK, we’ll do it in the water.

7 a.m. Off we go into the water.

Free photos courtesy of USA Productions. Love it!
Free photos courtesy of USA Productions. Love it!

Swim

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My swim was as expected: blah. I tried as hard as I could to focus on good form, push the water, fast arm turnover… In reality, I would find myself wildly off course any time I sighted, and I could swear the reservoir water was choppy. Good thing it’s supposed to be safe to drink. Before I could find a rhythm, the swim was done.

My swim time, 25:19, was the slowest of all top 20 female finishers. At the time, I didn’t know how slow (or fast) this was, but as usual, by the time I got back to my rack, most of the bikes were gone.

Transition was a fairly quick (for me) 1:42: socks, shoes, grab Magic Bike and go. We’ve got some chasing to do.

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Bike

I had decided that no matter how undertrained I was bike-wise, I’d go as hard as I could. And if I blew up on the run, so be it.

So I pushed. The course is hilly and my legs burned the entire time, but I’d biked these roads before and had a good idea of the ups and downs my body and mind were about to experience.

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It’s a beautiful course, by the way, if you live in the area and haven’t done this race, you should. At least, come out and ride those roads. Enjoy the full reservoirs – thanks El Nino! – and gentle rolling hills, and challenge yourself on the short, but lung-busting climb up Sycamore road.

I got the bike done in 50:17, an average 19 mph.

I wonder how much faster I could take this course if I trained better, with hill repeats and at least three months – not three weeks – of riding consistently. Maybe I’ll find out next year.

Ran into transition, jumped into my running shoes. T2 time: 1:08.

Run

Time to go balls out. My feet were cold and each foot strike felt awkward, but at least my legs were there. The MHST run covers the first 2.5 miles of the bike course, then you turn around and head back towards the finish. It’s all gentle rollers, but nothing really hilly.

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I covered the first two miles at a 7:30 pace, wishing with all my heart that I could go faster than that, but couldn’t. My legs were fine — my lungs were not. I guess that’s what four months of marathon training does to you: you get the endurance, but lose your speed.

I was especially concerned to be running this pace on what seemed like an incline and kept thinking of the fight I’d need to put on the way back to avoid a walk of shame up the hill. Except something weird happened after the turnaround: running got easier. The gentle climb I expected never came. My pace went down to 7:07 for mile 4. I passed some people, then a woman who was in my age group.

Then I immediately thought, shit. I have a mile to go, and she’ll catch me. Must not let that happen. Must. Not. Grunt. Inner scream. At least, we were still running downhill. Pace for mile 5 on my watch was 7:03.

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I crossed the finish line just as my lungs were about to explode, with 1:59-something on the clock. My wave started 4 minutes behind, so I calculated that I’d gotten just under 1:55. Well, this was my first time doing this race, so I had no clue what that meant. Whatever, I just wanted to catch my breath and get some water.

After that, I went back out on the run course to cheer on the rest of the team — then headed back to the finish area to get food and beer. After a hard race, beer is the best!

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

So is checking the results and finding out you placed! I got 2nd in my age group, a good 8 minutes behind the first crazy-speedy lady. I can only dream to be so fast one day!

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What a great way to open triathlon season. (Oh, and guess what was in my prize pack: a race belt. So now I have a spare.)

Here’s to a new tri season, having fun and kicking butt!

Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon
Swim: 25:19
T1: 1:42
Bike: 50:17
T2: 1:08
Run: 36:27

Total time: 1:54:56
Overall place: 79 of 497
Female: 12 of 170
Age Group: 2 of 25

The Boston Marathon was everything I thought it would be – and more!

The Boston Marathon was everything I thought it would be – and more!
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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Just kidding.

Onto packet pickup. (Because yes, buying all the marathon merchandise was more urgent than picking up my race bib…)

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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.

Photo: Team Nuun.
Photo: Team Nuun.

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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:

BostonMarathonBigSignedByMeb

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.

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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?

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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 Day

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.

BostonMarathonBusLine

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!

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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.

Not at the start here, but looking happy as a clam.
Not at the start here, but looking happy as a clam.

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!

Feeling like poo.
Feeling like poo.

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!

BostonMarathonCitgoSign

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.

BostonMarathonFinish

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.)

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

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!

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on