The Boston Marathon has a special place in the marathon calendar and for good reason. It is the longest continuously running marathon, starting in 1897 and now on its 118th edition. It is also significant because almost all of the field have to achieve a Boston qualification time (a "BQ" in the language of American club runners) to get there. And clearly this year's Boston marathon also took on more significance with the Boston bombings in 2013 that took the lives of three spectators and injured or maimed race participants.
My journey to Boston was on the Saturday before the race on Patriots Day (Monday 21 April), but - to pardon the cliché - the journey had started a long time before that. My original intention was to BQ at the Rome Marathon in 2006! Unfortunately, I was just outside 3:10 qualifying standard and after a break I returned to marathons in 2011.
Various 'failures' at Brighton 3:24 and Portsmouth suggested my times were going south of my target. Finally, I got the time at Chester in 3:02, and again at Manchester 2:58 which now meant I had to apply. (Note: In the end the number of qualifiers achieving the 3:10 standard for my age group was quite high, so the cut-off ended up being 3.08 for 35-39 year old males - which could have been quite disappointing had I training to get just within 3:10).
The build up
The build up for the race had been fairly good for me averaging 35 miles per week, although I lost a block of time in the 'peak month' before the race with a tonsillitis/scarlet fever combo and my preparation races - Hastings Half and the Worthing 20 were a bit down on the year before. Nevertheless, I had the feeling that I was good to scrape under 3 hours. This was not least because I thought that the net elevation drop on the course meant it would be a fast course (how very wrong was I).
Given the costs of the flights and accommodation I decided to go out on my own. This was a blessing in many ways as it meant not having a three and five year old with me that might not understand the finer points of different time zones or rest before a big race! I stayed at a hostel in downtown Boston which was superb as it was 5 minutes from where I needed to be on race day and was filled with other marathoners from around the world.
With the excitement of the race in my mind I walked to the expo for number pick-up etc. This meant passing the finishing line, which had already been set up. It was a sight to behold due to the hundreds of people milling around taking shots. I'm not sure many races would generate so much interest. The next day was spent chilling out around Harvard trying desperately not to do too much.
Before I knew it race day was on me. The race is not conventional as you are taken in buses from Boston Common where the race starts 26 miles west to the race start in Hopkington in rural New England (lots of trees and nice wooden boarded houses as far as I could tell). I sat next to a guy from San Diego who stood out as he was wearing 'Google glass' specs that had a built recorder he used to video the race. After the usual conversations about what races we'd done, worries about the race, and what we wanted to do we eventually got to the start.
There was a lot of security about but luckily it wasn't too in your face (although someone afterwards pointed out that they saw snipers on the roof overlooking the race village!). The problem, as with many marathons, was waiting for race start in the cold very early in the morning. Luckily the organisers were giving out space blankets and I was thankful for it despite having purchased a thermal top for $4 that I could chuck away.
The race itself
Thanks to my qualification time I was in the first wave of runners that got to start at the same time as the elite men (although it still took 2 minutes to cross the start line from the gun going).
The Boston is known for a fast start and I had read that the route drops quickly in the first four miles. However, even at this stage there were some short sharp rises that interrupted the downhills. Pacing was extremely difficult as was trying not to go into the red on the uphill but also to keep things relaxed on the downhill so my pace varied significantly between 7:30 to 6:30. Unfortunately, with a large pack of similar standard runners, the downhills were difficult to navigate, there were a few nasty falls by runners clipping each other, and in the congestion I was braking (wasting energy) rather than letting gravity do the work.
It was great to be running however as the crowds were already amazing even in the early stages, especially going through various small towns such as Ashland and Framingham. These were on the 'flat' part of the race, but there never really was a section of level ground.
Even in the early stages of the race, which started at 9.30, the sun was pretty strong and I was having to take on water at most of the water stations at every mile. But I was ticking along nicely and in the first half of the race I was consistently on sub-three pace. I passed the half-way point at 1:29:30 feeling ok but not super.
It was just after half way that I heard the 'scream tunnel' - this is the section of the route where the Wellesley College Girls are out in force. It was certainly high decibel and high frequency for a significant amount of time. It is Boston tradition apparently to stop for a snog and there were many amusing signs inviting runners to do so, but with race times still on my mind and, given the ages of the girls, concerns about scarring them for life I pressed on through the hormone highway.
Between miles 13-16 I was drifting slightly above race pace and started to have the nagging doubts about what was to come.
In the run-up to the race I had heard a lot about the difficulty of the Boston marathon due to infamous 'Heartbreak Hill' at mile 21. What proved to be the killer for me though was the cumulative effects of the ups and downs already in my legs; the heat which drifted up to over 20 degrees on the day; and the Newton Hills, a series of tough uphills starting from mile 16 onwards. My goal pre-race had been to allow my pace to drift up and get enough back on the downhills and the last five miles after Heartbreak.
On the day however this wasn't going to happen as the uphills were far tougher than I had anticipated (at least in terms of running at the pace I wanted to).
Check the profile (in grey) for yourself!
At points my pace was painfully slow drifting above 9 minute pace and by the end of Heartbreak I was totally shot both mentally and physically as I was no longer on target for sub-3 hour and there was no getting that time back given my legs or the weather. But halfway up Heartbreak Hill I was determined to carry on running hard and just to enjoy the atmosphere. I got a bit of a kick out of the crowd and just looking around at the suffering on everyone's faces. There were sub-3 hour guys and girls all around me, some walking the hills (with 5 miles still left) and others pushing through and me somewhere in the middle.
I was now nearing the centre of Boston with crowd noise seemed to increase exponentially. A combination of American's outgoing nature (unlike Brits who might politely give a "well done" or clap, they cheer at the top of their voices), the passion for the event after last year, and the constant ringing of cow-bells made it almost over whelming. By that time it was a pure pain but at the same time the emotion coming from the crowd kept me going. It was unbelievable to see so many top runners stopping, limping, and walking at that point in the race, which pays testament to the difficultly of the course.
Finally however I made it onto Boyston Street, turning a left hand corner for a 500 metre 'sprint' to the line.
Post-race was a mix of joy (at finishing), tinged with mild disappointment at my time (3:12), and the agony in my legs (the worst ever). Nevertheless, as I reflected on the race over a couple of beers immediately after the race and my time became less important. I realised that Boston Marathon was so much better for its difficultly. With the defiance of the city after last year's bombing, it was also great just to be part of an experience and to understand the "Boston Strong" motto the city has adopted. This will stick with me far more than my results sheet.
April 2014 by Kevin James