I thought I was training only for Boston during those many runs in the cold rain over the winter. A couple of my teammates signed up to run “B2B,” the Boston Marathon followed by the Big Sur Marathon one week later. I thought it was a neat idea, but that I needed more marathons under my belt before I would be ready to run back to back races. When I toed the line at Hopkinton, little did I know that I, too, would soon be running back to back marathons.
I arrived in Boston the day before the marathon feeling well rested and confident. I had 18 weeks of solid training under my belt, during which my fitness had substantially improved. I had spent the prior week on a family vacation, resting and filling my soul with good times with my family. For about 10 days, I had been running in the middle of the day to acclimate to the warm temperatures being predicted for race day. I had run a number of times in 64 degree weather in a fleece and leggings to help my body adapt.
Boston is like a block party on marathon weekend. Runners everywhere sporting Boston marathon jackets. The storied finish line. Huge banners on Boylston street welcoming the runners. The expo sported a huge wall with runners’ names on it, and I found my own. I felt awash with emotion. Two years of hard work, perseverence through injury and persistence was paying off. I was ready to run the Boston marathon!
I woke early on race day morning to the sight of runners streaming past my hotel window to the buses that would take them to the starting line at Hopkinton. Jittery with excitement, I couldn’t wait to finish my pre-race routines and join them.
Soon enough, it was time. My husband and I strolled together through the park to the buses. His strong and loving presence and the emotion of the morning caused my eyes to well with happy tears. We agreed that I would look for him at the New York Flyers cheering zone at mile 17.5, at the start of the Newton hills, and parted as I boarded the bus. Forty five minutes later, I found myself in the athletes’ village, where a sign near the portapotty lines cheerfully announced that “It all starts here.”
My mood sobered a bit when I realized I didn’t need any of the clothes I had brought to keep warm, and was already a bit warm sitting in my tshirt and shorts under the already overhead sun. Announcers directed runners to weigh themselves and write their weight inside their bibs next to the emergency contact information.
In the starting corral, I greeted a teammate with similar race times, who cautioned that her coach had advised targeting a much slower finishing time than she had trained for in light of the heat. I wanted to avoid repeating the nausea, dizziness and hyponatremia that slowed me to an unsteady walk and landed me in the medical tent at the end of the 2015 NYC Marathon. I made the game time decision to abandon the paces I had trained at in favor of a conservative effort level at the low end of my marathon paced heart rate zone.
We walked to the starting line, singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and other patriotic songs. We were sent on our way by enthusiastic fans in starting line grandstands who cheered for us. I tried to soak up every minute. The first 5K was crowded shoulder to shoulder, and I was boxed in. 8:06, 7:55, 7:58. I was okay with this. I was running the Boston marathon!
After the first 5K, the road split, and I finally had some elbow and leg room. I appreciated the tidy suburban New England towns we were running through. My heart rate was low, so I lengthened my stride a little to see how my body would respond to picking up the pace. 7:44. It felt good. In the next mile, however, my heart rate increased a lot, so I slowed back down. 8:16. My body clearly wanted to run around an 8:00 pace, so I let it. 8:00, 7:57. I didn’t feel great, but felt my body was starting to settle in, in as it usually does around this point.
Things started to go down hill in the 8th mile, when I took my first gel and stopped to refill my handheld with water. First, I dropped the gel I was holding, lost most of the other gels in my belt and despite about 45 seconds of searching was unable to recover them in the flood of runners. Less than a minute later, after adding Nuun tablets for electrolytes to my water container, the cap flew off and I lost most of its contents. 8:35.
I felt a pang of fear that I would not have enough gels and electrolytes to make it through the marathon. I decided to look for gels on the course and to try to keep my electrolytes from getting out of balance by not drinking too much water. I stopped at the next water station to refill again, and used my last, wet, Nuun tablet. 8:07.
Then the nausea set in. Stomach discomfort that I had felt a bit before the 8th mile, but had subsided, came back with a vengeance a few miles later. The sun was beating down relentlessly overhead. The water I poured over my head at every stop offered scant relief. I was hot, afraid to drink, and thought about quitting with every step. I slowed my pace to see if it would make my body feel more comfortable and less on the edge. I had not previously realized how much the end of the 2015 NYC Marathon had traumatized me, but knew in the moment that I wasn’t willing to put my body through hyponatremia again in order to finish. 8:08, 8:13, 8:12.
Wellesley! I got a brief respite and remembered why I was there, running in the shade through a wall of sound and supportive, outstretched hands. 8:05. I knew the temperature was cooler in Boston. Maybe I could hang in and make it to the end.
But as soon as I was back in the sun, and felt sick with every step. Even the easy, downhill 15th mile did not offer any relief. I considered all of the effort and training that I had put into the Boston Marathon. I was on pace to finish in a personal best, and anything less than a total melt down would have given me the 8:30 average pace I needed to run a Boston Qualifying time for the following year. 8:08, 8:13, 7:51. But it did not feel worth continuing on and risking suffering a medical crisis alone. I stopped to refill my water container and looked for the Flyers cheering zone. 8:20.
My teammates and my husband offered immediate support, rest, sustenance and understanding when I told them I was dropping out. It was 73 degrees, and we heard from a teammate who was volunteering in the medical tent that the ambulances were filled with overheated runners. I was right to not have taken chances, they told me.
I went for post race drinks with my teammates. They bemoaned finishing times that were slower than they had hoped and were supportive of my decision to drop out. One friend thought, in retrospect, that he might have risked his health to finish.
I felt that I had done the right thing. But in the following days, I felt unbearably sad. Insomnia set in and I couldn’t sleep. I needed a good marathon experience, and needed to master fueling, nausea and heat. After two unsatisfying races last fall and a bad experience in Boston, I needed a positive marathon experience. And I needed to run a Boston Qualifying time before September to get the chance to settle my score with Boston next year.
To be continued….