Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It Chews You Up and Spits You Out

At mile 17 or 18 I thought I would call today's race report “Never Again”, but as you all know, this is never true. Mike and I came up with a few more titles on the way back home, including “Live and Learn”, “Live and Forget” and a few more that I can't remember due to post-marathon dementia. But I settled on the description of what the course is going to do to you, because that's exactly what the course did to me.

After the usual restless pre-marathon night we got ready, and got to Hopkinton in good time. The best tip I had gotten all day was to use the bathroom before entering the buses, I would have been in real trouble otherwise. We split when entering the corrals; I tried to catch the elite women's start but only got a glimpse of them heading off. I started in the middle of corral 3; it took about one minute to cross the start line, and we got up to pace fairly quickly, not too surprising on that steep downhill start. I knew all about starting conservatively and taking it easy on the downhills. I jogged the first few miles, the HR was in the low 160s, certainly pretty much where I would want it to be on your usual marathon. On the uphill stretches I kept checking the Garmin, and slowed down judiciously whenever the HR was too high, not particularly caring about the fact that people kept passing me whenever I did so.

However, I never felt good. My stomach was unsettled, and the legs just were not right. I have done plenty of marathons before (today was my ninth), and I know that it sometimes can take a while to find your rhythm. The pace was good though, and actually kept going down. On the Garmin it went as low as 6:45, but I have learned to add about 3 seconds per mile to that to get your official pace; I reached 10k in 42:23, 6:49 pace, which is what I thought you should aim for if you're heading for a sub-3 marathon. I took my first gel at that point, but unfortunately it seemed to really upset my already dodgy stomach. I stopped drinking Gatorade, and took water at miles 7 and 8, and eventually I felt better. This turned out to be my best stretch. The course is flat for several miles at that stage, and I managed to keep my pace and still felt reasonably fine in the legs while doing so. I certainly did not think that I had overdone it on the first few downhill miles, and I was reasonably optimistic that I might have a good race, even if the sub-3 was still a high-hanging fruit.

By mile 11 or 12 I got more pains in my stomach, and this time it felt like hunger pangs. Since I had not really eaten since 6am, this was of course possible. Despite having earlier decided not to take any more gels I took one, more to put something into my stomach than getting some carbs. I again took water at the next opportunity, and it seemed to work.

I already knew what would come next, and I heard the siren calls from half a mile away. Wellesley all-girl college is known as the tunnel of noise, and it is nothing like you have ever experienced. I tried to tune them out, but got sucked into it and started giving high-fives, but at least resisted temptation to stop for a kiss, despite the open invitations. The screams were so loud that my ears started ringing – no exaggeration. It seemed to go on forever, but eventually I reached the end of the noise. I glanced at the Garmin, and was astonished to see that I had been suckered into running 6:10 pace. Of course I slowed down immediately, but I knew that I might just have f*cked up my race.

I reached the halfway point in 1:29:38, 6:50 pace, the fastest half-distance mark I had ever set in a marathon. However, this still only gave me a 22 seconds cushion, and with the much tougher second half ahead of me I already knew that sub-3 was not on the cards today. However, I was taken completely by surprise by what happened next, and especially how quickly it happened. Within half a mile after crossing the halfway mark my legs started wobbling with every step. I was afraid they would buckle completely, and seemed to have given up the ghost. With supreme effort I was still able to stay on pace, but I knew immediately that this was not sustainable, and started thinking on my feet.

It would have been possible to keep the pace going for another 2 or 3 miles, but then I would have been completely and utterly out of it, and might even have to drop out of the race. I had not come from thousands of miles away to record a DNF, and running myself into the ground was too stupid even for me. I decided the only sensible course of action was to slow down right here and now, and jog towards the finish, however long this would take. I knew I was in for a long hard day, but was determined to make the most of it and take in the incredible atmosphere of the hundreds of thousand of spectators. You could say I was trying to enjoy the occasion, but enjoyment is rather relative when you're in agony.

The next few miles were bad. There is no other way of putting it. Runners kept streaming past me. I thought how many places I would lose between here and the end, 1000, 2000, maybe even 3000? Never mind, I wasn't running for place. I felt embarrassed about my performance. It's perfectly ok to blow up on the hills, but to have your race over and done with before the hills even start is bad. I thought I was in the worst pain ever, but then remembered that the Connemara Ultra had reduced me to 12-minute miles at one point last year, so it must have been worse then. I just had forgotten about it.

When I first started slowing down I thought I might still salvage a personal best, but within half a mile I knew that was out of question. I had slowed down to somewhere around 7:30 pace, and I knew I would slow down more later on, on the hills and on the last few miles. By the time we reached the first hill at Newton Lower Falls I was mightily relieved to be running uphill for a change, because my quads hurt less on the climbs. To my big surprise I actually started overtaking runners again here. Apparently others were suffering even worse than me. That's some sort of consolation, I guess. At one point I realised there was still over an hour of running left, which was rather hard to take; an hour of agony is not something to cherish.

Then the three Newton hills came in succession, culminating in Heartbreak Hill. Since I was basically jogging, the climbs were all manageable, but the downhills hurt, even though the pace at roughly 7:00 was fairly decent. After passing the top of Heartbreak at a Tudor Mansion (Thomas' mansion, as Michael insisted on calling it during our recce on Saturday) we came to Boston College, where the noise reached Wellesley levels, but sadly (or luckily) the spectators there were not nearly as pretty, and I didn't feel the urge to high-five them.

I kept counting down the miles, and by now there were only 5 left, a mere fifth of the marathon. I really wanted to walk, but I thought I would not be able to start running again, and walking 5 miles to the finish was the last thing I wanted to do. Better get that thing over with as soon as possible. Then I remembered that Jeanne would be somewhere around mile 22 or 23, and I started to look out for her. This was actually a very good thing to do, because it took my mind off the agony in my legs. Most of this mile was downhill and passed reasonably quickly. I even seemed to overtake more runners than were passing me. The sheer number of runners in trouble is a clear sign just how brutal that course is. Just as I was starting to worry that I might have missed her, I spotted Jeanne with a sign (my name on a sign. How sweet! Thank you!) I ran up to her and gave her a big hug. I wanted to say something, but no words came out, and I was off again. Later she told me that she had also been at the halfway mark, but I had been so much in my own bubble that I had not noticed a thing.

Disappearing into my own little world is something I do during marathons, and I actually managed to pretty much tune out the crowd from here on. This is quite a feat with the noise, the spectators standing 5 deep and shouting at the top of their voices, but it all became background noise to me. I had actually recovered a bit by now. That's a bonus of my heavy training mileage, I have the ability to pull through a low patch and eventually come back to run stronger again. I spotted the famous Citgo sign from very far away. It disappeared again, but then came into view, and then we spent a mile slowly, very slowly, drawing closer. Somewhere between miles 24 and 25 I took another sip of Gatorade when someone started talking to me. I looked to my left, and there was Michael. I was totally taken aback, he had looked fit and ready on Saturday, and I had expected him to be finished, showered and fed by now. Instead he had an even worse run than me, and he told me to push on, he'd finish a minute or two behind me.

There were 1.5 miles left, and somehow, against all odds, I actually got back on pace again, agony or not. I could smell the finish. A few runners that had been around me for the first half, and that had pulled away when I slowed down, came back to me and turned into roadkill. There was the guy in the green singlet and moeben sleeves, the guy with the great dreadlocks, the girl in pink, and quite a few more. We turned the last corner with about half a mile left, and I could see 5:54 pace on the Garmin (slightly downhill, admittedly). Why now, oh faithless legs, and not when I needed you most! I must have passed dozens of runners between there and the line, and 3:10:36 after crossing the start line I was finally done. I cannot even claim to have taken it easy today, because I had only slowed down in order to allow myself to finish at all. There was nothing left in my legs at the end.

Your first Boston is always a learning experience. I thought I had trained plenty to get ready for the downhills, and I genuinely thought I had run conservatively during the early miles, but to no avail. After Wellesley my legs felt like they each had a brick attached to them, and oh my, it hurt! They wobbled so much that I was worried about them buckling at each step. My calves were close to cramping at a couple of occasions but just about managed to behave. If it didn't involve crossing an entire Ocean in order to get here I would definitely be back to try and get it right, but as it is it might remain my one and only shot at the Newton hills. The spectators are something I had never experienced, they really give the rockstar treatment even to struggling runners, but it is the course itself that would entice me back. But not too soon. I have to forget that one first before I can even think about doing another one.
20 Apr
2009 Boston Marathon, 3:10:36, avg. pace 7:16, HR 165
2849th place out of 23162


  1. Well done Thomas! Now you know the agony and de-feet of the mistress of the marathon known as Boston. I hope you can forget this soon enough and come back and give it another go in a year or so. A weekend to remember!

  2. What an awesome finishing time given the your struggle. You are very fit. Myself, I haven't forgotten my episode there (I did not finish) and that was 4 years ago...

  3. The race report doesn't seem to reflect the 3:10 finishing time. A 1:40 second half isn't exactly crawling :) Nice come back at the end and I hope you enjoyed the experience.

  4. congratulations thomas outstanding job!! just awesome.

  5. An excellent time Thomas! Great report, and though difficult, a great job pushing through. You may not have made your goal time, but you pulled in a spectacular time anyway!

  6. Did you feel like a rock star or what when you turned up Boylston and could see the finish? Thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs!

    Good work! You ran a fast race!

  7. Good on you Thomas! I'll tell you what - you salvaged a pretty good finish time considering the wheels fell off just after half way.

    You'll have to return and remedy the situation. I'm not talking about running sub-3 - I'm talking about kissing a Wellesley girl ;)

  8. Well done Thomas. That was a great performance given how you were feeling. If I hadn't seen your time and only read the report I would expect a time of well over 3.30 so to run 3.10 is very impressive.

    I know it felt really tough but that was definitely one of those runs that you will look back on with pride.

    It also tells me you are ready for a serious attempt at ultra running!

    You have the mental strength to get through those really tough bits and come out running the other end.

    Fling and whw 2010?????

    Anyway recover well and have a good trip home


  9. Shit I don't know what to say, you must be gutted!
    In the aftermath I guess you will be able to work out what went wrong, was it just a bad day!, or sub 3 pace just too fast for your current fitness level!
    Anyway recover well and come fighting back!

  10. p.s. Ewen was right you should have kissed the Wellesley girls, the adrenaline buzz would have set you off on a roller coaster p.b. ride giving you an amazing 2.59 time!
    your know better next time!

  11. Well done Thomas. The strength of getting through all that and posting what is an excellent time (although may not feel like it now) is amazing.

    Sub-3 is on the horizon, no doubt about it.

  12. I managed to watch the webcast of the race live, the course looks hellish, possibly even tougher than Connemara. I think when you have a little more time you will realise 3.10 there was fantastic and nothing at all to be down about. Dublin will be sub 3 for lad :-)

  13. well done great report

  14. Well done Thomas. Thought it mightn't feel like it, it is a more memorable achievement to find the strength to keep on going after a huge set-back, than it is to motor efficiently over the course. You will have plenty of sub-3's, but you'll always remember the day that the wheels nearly fell off in Boston and you persevered and finished well. Enjoy the rest, Krusty.

  15. Well done, your experience is starting to tell now. Knowing when to back off the pace probably paid off for you in the end. From the sounds of it a 3:10 pretty respectable effort for a debut Boston marathon.

  16. That's the cruel thing about the blasted marathon - so many things have to go for you on that one day. You really have to feel like you're buzzing for it all to work out. 3:10 is no bad effort by any stretch of the imagination.

    By the way, love the way you referred to the second college as not being nearly as pretty as the girls college!

  17. fair effort Thomas. sounds like a tough 3 hours - I'd say. I figured something serious must have happend after the seeing the splits. Well done for toughing it out.

    BTW college girls are always a distraction to a runner - they've ruined many a running career!! At least you didn't stop in the 'tunnel' (an ultra runners mental resolve!!) cause you might never have got out!!

    PS congratulations you won the blog post race!!

  18. Great report! Awesome running! I love the image of roadkill!
    A 3:10, under those conditions on that course, is fantastic! Well done!

  19. Now that is what I call a hard fought battle. Unless I missed it in your report, you guys were also battling a pretty good headwind pretty much most of the way. Well done, man. I was actively looking for you and Mike around mile 10, but the proverbial needle in a haystack rule was in effect. Though you would have liked better, still an outstanding time, especially considering how you felt. Rest and recover well, I hope to be as fast as you at some point!

  20. wow, you really brought it all back, with your vivid descriptions Thomas. It truly is a hellish course, more deceptive than it appears, even. So be proud you pulled it together even when you were in that much pain - that does speak volumes to the experience and maturity you now have as a runner. Rest up, enjoy the trip home, and know that your next marathon is bound to seem much easier than this!

  21. Well done Thomas again in Boston. The sub 3 will come.
    I read your Dublin M 2008 report. Seems we were running side by side for some miles there.
    I was with the the Athenry AC girls and the Runners World for miles.

    All the best

    Joe Cawley (Abhainn)

  22. Contratulations once again. You should be proud of yourself, I think finishing 10' outside of your goal time is nothing to be disappointed in. I only wish I could've done that. It was great being able to meet you.

    All the best in the weeks and months to come, just remember to make sure you recover well.

    Take care and I hope you had a save flight home... all the best.

  23. Great job Thomas! Impressive training (those "epic" 20 milers) and more than decent performance. Congratulations!!!

  24. Epic journey Thomas. Whatever happened after the half-way point must have really shook you as it would appear you had no warning. You showed great mental resolve in battling the remaining 13 miles at a very respectable pace.

  25. If i'm reading the numbers right, your marathon PR is 5 minutes faster than Boston. You gotta be proud of this considering the course and struggle. Keep the head up, you ran a good race.

  26. Good job Thomas. Challenging for you - an inspiration for me. Thanks.

  27. Great report. Heroic effort. A 3:10 time in Boston is a fab achievement.

  28. good run. congratulations!
    Seemed a very tough day over there.
    But I think you got the Boston's bug and pretty sure in few days you will be looking forward to 2010's race...

  29. congrats on boston! it's an amazing event and you pulled through by digging deep! the title of your post was perfect, as I have heard COUNTLESS runners describe the race in just those terms. it's so incredible to look at where you were a few years ago to where you are now - time to update your masthead! kudos!

  30. Congrats, Thomas! Great race report, as always. Like someone said earlier, I never would have guessed 3:10 based on the struggle you had from so early on in the race. You are a tough sonofabitch to be able to work through your fastest half split, and then continue on into a 20mph headwind with hills, and only have a 10 minute positive split! It takes some serious mental and physical fitness to do what you did here...a 3:10 is not indicative of your capabilities right now. You're due for a flat course and a good day, Thomas!

    Recover well. Cheers!

  31. there it is -respect- what Boston demands for the faint of heart, I like your post title. It was TOUGH out there, good job.

    Now, did you see the JK statue at mile 19? One thing Boston teaches is to run with your heart. Read JK for more.

    It was cool to meet you and thanks for travelling across the pond to run our race. Some day we hope of an Irish venture ourselves.

  32. Dude, there is nothing at all surprising about this result. You were on pace at 1:29 for the half...that was with a 4mph headwind. The second half had more hills and a 20mph headwind, plus cold/clammy conditions. Yes, you trained in these type of conditions, so you were ready, but just look at all the top times. No one did a negative split...no one. Everyone suffered in the 2nd half, and you ran a great, great race. Nothing fell apart except for Mother Nature. Your fitness level showed itself out there. With a tailwind, you would have been right around 3hours. Great job.

  33. Congratulations on a great run.

  34. Great report, Thomas. It's so frustrating when the pace gradually slips away from you, and the legs simply can't respond. You still had a very strong race for your first trip to Boston, so job well done. Rest up and enjoy your accomplishment.

  35. Totally in admiration mode of your performance. I ran Dublin in the fall in 3:42, yet finished well behind you, severe leg cramps and all in Boston in 4:04. The temp and sky were great, but the wind was nasty. And I still think the late state presents a problem for those of us accustomed to doing our workouts early in the morning. Michigan age 61