I am writing a race report for the Boston Marathon because I ran the Boston Marathon.
This is an obvious and yet astonishing sentence.
I first started dreaming of Boston in spring 2014 while training for the Providence Marathon with a friend, who said we should run it together some day. I didn’t really know what it was all about, but the seed was planted, and in September 2018 I qualified at the Erie Marathon.
So here’s how Boston 2019 played out:
If you want the TL;DR version, here it is: I had an amazing weekend in Boston with my family. I saw many friends, old and new. I ran a smart race that I am very proud of. My time was 3:53:21, which is a 44-second PR and a BQ with a 1:39 cushion. I am still very tempted to sleep in my jacket. My medal is never far away and the smile hasn’t left my face.
Now, a few more details!
This cycle I kept training logs, where I chronicle a number of setbacks. Early on I was still dealing a nasty recurrence of plantar fasciitis. Over Christmas, I got the Stomach Flu from Hell. I spent way too much time in the comparison trap. In February, I had the most painful 20-mile run of my life. But I kept training, and did more consecutive 50 mile weeks than ever before, and then ran a couple of half marathons that felt pretty good! By the end, I started to believe I could run a really great race.
I drove into Boston on Saturday with my husband, “the Incredible Mervus,” and our two kids, heading directly to the Expo for bib pickup and some shopping. I’d told my daughter, Rose, that we might be able to hear Meb speak and she really wanted to. I might have kept shopping, but they kept announcing that Meb’s talk was about to start and Rose kept begging, so I finally gave in.
His talk was fabulous. He spoke about his new book and told some great stories. He talked about wanting to drop out of the 2012 London Olympics when the race wasn’t going well; when he looked for a reason to keep going, he remembered his daughters and how he always told them to do their best. He went on to move up from 21st place to finish fourth! Afterward we got to shake his hand, and he signed my bib and Rose’s poster. I’m so glad I gave into her begging, because Meb’s talk ended up being crucial inspiration for me in the late miles of my marathon on Monday.
Sunday morning I got up and met the Boston Buddies for a shakeout run. I joined the Boston Buddies Facebook group last summer at my coach’s insistence. I was pretty quiet before Erie, but once I had my qualifying time, I started to speak up and ended up feeling like I found a new running family. The Buddies are full of information about all things Boston, and are also full of support for anyone who is struggling, whether it’s with a run gone badly or a fundraising target that feels impossible to meet.
It was great to meet so many of them in person! I was especially happy to meet one particular Buddy, Diamond from Jacksonville, who qualified with the exact same time I did. We were talking about possibly running together, or at least starting together. We spent a great three miles together at the shakeout run, even though she’d been dealing with an injury. After breakfast, she joined us for the Blessing of the Athletes at the Old South Church, which many runners call the Church of the Finish Line, where a special service is offered the day before Marathon Monday.
Sunday afternoon I took the opportunity to meet up with a bunch of online friends: first lunch with the Boston Buddies, then a visit to Tracksmith to see the Running for Real crew. We took an afternoon Duck Boat tour and then met up with friends for the official B.A.A. Pasta Dinner.
If you are going to Boston and wondering whether to attend the pasta dinner, my son Aidan summed it up well: “That was really interesting. It was a long wait. They did an amazing job serving us once we got inside. The building was cool. The food was better than I expected.” I’m glad we did it, but I might do something different next time around.
Sunday evening I touched base with both my coach and my High-Powered Running Mentor #1. I had my race plan lined up – pretty much just aim for 8:35 pace for most of the race, adjust for hills and weather if necessary. That’s a 3:45 marathon, the time I had been targeting. We had some discussion about how fast to run the first 3-4 miles, which are downhill, but as heat started to look like a bigger issue than cold, Coach Mick advised banking energy, not time, and that seemed the wise choice.
Race day began with a torrential downpour. Because my husband is incredible, I knew I could ask him to get up and help with breakfast. The room didn’t have a microwave so we had to make oatmeal in the lobby. I needed two bowls, plus coffee, plus his company to help my race day jitters. Mostly I was managing pretty well, though I did have him pin my bib on.
I scored a seat with my friend Diamond on a charter bus from Jacksonville so I could stay on that bus and not have to deal with the Athletes’ Village, which had been so bad last year in the rain. We had a truly delightful ride with lots of time to talk. We had agreed to start together, but now we also agreed on a few hand signals, that we weren’t going to talk much while running, and that she was just going to run my pace. All good by me! I really wasn’t terribly worried about the weather, partly because of the bus, but mostly because I just decided not to worry about it.
Here’s the fueling plan I used. I had race day oatmeal from Shalane Flanagan’s cookbook, with about 1 cup of oats for breakfast, plus coffee, naturally. Because Boston has a late start you have to kind of pack a lunch, so I took along a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana to eat about an hour before start time, plus a bottle of Maurten and a Five Hour Energy Shot for right before the start. On the course, I took a Maurten gel every thirty minutes, and another Five Hour Energy Shot at mile 20. This plan worked perfectly. Unlike at Erie, where I used Gu, I didn’t have any nausea at all. Maybe the nausea at Erie was a one-off event, but it was nice to have fueling go so well and I got two more gels down, which can’t be a bad thing. I followed the plan exactly and it worked great.
After we arrived at the starting area, Diamond and I hung out on the bus while the fast folks went to the start. Boston has four wave starts, based on time, and each wave has corrals. Theoretically you should start with a bunch of people who are very close to you in pace. As I said above, Diamond and I qualified with the exact same time and even had consecutive bib numbers! Matching shoes, too.
Finally it was our turn. We were very lucky and the rain stopped before we had to get off the bus. We made one last potty stop on our way to the starting line. It felt totally surreal. The piles of discarded clothing and muddy shoes were like nothing I’ve seen before, not even at the NYC Marathon. We got to the start and nearly lined up with wave 4 by mistake. It was all more confusing than expected, but we found our spot eventually. There wasn’t really a gun or a starting pistol that I remember, it was more like a guy saying, “go!” Then we were off.
WE WERE RUNNING THE BOSTON MARATHON!!!!! WOOT!!!! HOLY AMAZING, BATMAN!!!!
Miles 1 to 9
Splits: 8:45 – 8:39 – 8:27 – 8:29 – 8:51 – 8:40 – 8:38 – 8:43 – 8:42
The start of Boston is on a narrow road in Hopkinton so we were really packed in for the first mile. That’s OK. One of the “secrets” to Boston is not to start too fast. I say “secret” because “don’t start too fast” is the first thing everyone will say if you ask them for advice on how to run the course, and it’s also often the first thing they will say they did wrong if you ask someone what mistakes they’ve made at Boston. Starting too fast is easy to do at any marathon, but the initial downhill miles and the extra excitement make it particularly easy to lose your discipline, run too fast early on, and pay the price later. I had probably thought more about those first 3-4 miles than any others on the course, and I was really glad Diamond said she would follow my lead here. She’s faster than I am for sure, but this is only her second marathon so I have a lot more experience. I wasn’t looking to start too fast, but it IS really hard to stay in control. I think we did pretty well here though. Mile 5 is actually net uphill.
It’s always good to chunk a marathon up into smaller pieces and, with Boston, you almost have to because of how the course plays out. This was my first Boston, but I had run the first 21 miles of the course with the Boston Buddies HOP21 run three weeks prior. I’ve also talked to lots of people and watched a number of course videos so I knew a lot about the course before we started. In any case, at about the four mile mark, the course flattens out and it’s small rolling hills until mile 16. I knew that the Retiree would be waiting with my parents at mile 7. After the last downhill, just three more miles.
I wasn’t feeling brilliant here. It was already getting warm and it was pretty humid. This training cycle has been all about belief in myself, learning to believe that I have become a faster runner and a better runner, almost willing myself to believe that. And yet,maybe conditions were telling me to adjust. People will tell you that you “should” feel good during the early miles of the marathon, but I think that’s a relative term. “Try to feel less shitty than you will later” is more accurate advice. How soon it’s appropriate to feel what level of shitty is going to depend a lot on the experience and ability of the runner and the course and the conditions of the day. Why I am in love with an activity that can be even semi-accurately described by that sentence is a great mystery, but there you have it.
I remembered the B.A.A. course video, where Ryan Hall says something like, “The 10K mark is where you should assess how things are going and if you are not doing great, you might need to dial it back.” Thanks for the advice, Ryan! HPRM #1 had told me about how the year he ran Boston, he reached up to scratch his head in the second mile or so and discovered he was already sweating and decided to slow down. If Ryan Hall and HPRM #1 are both saying you might need to adjust, and Coach Mick said, “bank energy not time,” I was going to play it smart. By 10K, I was starting to think I should be looking for 8:40-8:45 on my watch, not 8:35. I couldn’t really remember what that pace would pan out to be in terms of a final time, but I thought still under 3:50 and, in any case, still a BQ.
I was so happy to see my first batch of cheering friends right where they said they’d be at 7 miles. Awesome! I’m not going to pretend to be shy here, I LOVE having people cheer for me! It gives me so much energy and makes me feel great! I wish there were a word to mean in-this-together because it makes me feel that: that’s my team out there!
But a couple of important people were missing from the cheer squad: my parents. They drove all the way from Michigan to watch me run this race and I had thought they would be with this group. I spun back around and yelled “Where are my parents??!!” The Retiree shouted back, “Two miles up!” The first thing I thought was, “crap, I have to run two more miles?” Which gives some serious insight into how I was feeling at mile 7, with nineteen more miles to go. But making a habit of positive thinking is nothing to be sneezed at because my brain immediately switched tracks to: “Oh, this is much better. That’s another target to aim for and then you’ll already be at mile 9.”
I was taking the Maurten right on schedule and trying to keep our pace around 8:40. Diamond and I were working well as a team. I was often a few steps in front, setting the pace, which makes me more comfortable. She kept a look out for potholes or train tracks or big dogs to see. We really didn’t talk, but when you have that special runner companionship of sharing steps on the road, you don’t need to. This is hard to describe and I don’t fall into it with many people, especially not people I don’t know well, but Diamond and I hit that shared-stride feeling instantly. Fate or God’s will brought us together, I am sure of it.
Soon we started getting close to mile 9 and I heard, “Sarah!!” There were my parents! I had thought I would give them a high five or a quick hug, but instead I saw my mom and just ran over and gave her a huge kiss! Sometimes, you’re just really, really happy to see your mom. I was so delighted that they made it out to the course! No one could ask for better support!
Miles 10 to 16
Splits: 8:53 – 9:02 – 8:48 – 9:03 – 9:14 – 9:05 – 8:53
We were through mile 9 and now “stuff” was going to start happening, as I phrased it in my mind and in my pre-race visualization exercises. Mile 10 is Natick, where I’ve cheered twice, so I know the scene. It’s a much bigger, much louder crowd than runners have encountered thus far on the Boston course. Diamond had never been to Natick before and she just gasped: Wow. I noted our pace: we were down to 8:10. That crowd energy is no joke! I just thought: Control, and slowed a bit. Somewhere in here I also decided to turn on my music. Diamond had hers on and we had agreed that this was fine.
I had hoped to postpone music until the halfway point or even longer, but it was turning out to be a tougher day than expected. The crowds were out in Natick in force because the weather had gotten lovely … for spectating, but unfortunately not for running. It was bright sun, maybe 65-70 degrees and really high humidity. For runners who have not had a chance to acclimate to these conditions in training, these are tough conditions. It was only mile 10 and the weather was already a significant factor. As I started to slow down I thought, well, you’ve run two very hot marathons and you managed to finish them both. This might not be pretty, but you’ll still get that unicorn medal. You’ll still earn the jacket. But then I thought: What is this bullshit? Yes, it’s a tad warm at the moment, but you are holding pretty strong. BELIEVE. That’s what it says on your bracelet so have a little faith here. Just run the mile you’re in. Onward!
The next “thing that happens” is, of course, the notorious Wellesley scream tunnel, the section of the course where the Wellesley students come out and scream their heads off and ask for kisses. I didn’t want to miss this tradition so I picked out a comely lass holding a sign that read “Kiss Me I’m a Vegan” and went for a good solid peck on the cheek!
Wellesley is at about mile 12.6, just before the halfway mark. Coach Mick and I had talked about whether I was aiming for a certain time at the halfway point and whether I would check my watch to see if I was on target. A 3:45 marathon split perfectly is a 1:52:30 half marathon. That’s well within my ability on a decent day, but today I hit the halfway mark at 1:55:05. Some quick math told me that if I even split the race, I’d be just over 3:50. The weather was telling me quite clearly that even splitting was an unlikely outcome, but a slight positive split would still get me between 3:50 and 3:55. My BQ time is 3:55, and obviously the faster the better.
So at the halfway mark I knew the goal was something Coach Mick calls “Preserve the BQ.” From here on out, every second counted. I needed to be careful for the next three miles, show up at the Newton hills ready to rock, and really be prepared to pound out the last five downhill miles. That’s exactly what I aimed to do. At Wellesley, we were starting to get quite warm and had to slow down a bit, but hopefully not too much. Every now and then, I sent up a prayer. Something like: God, we are on the road from the country to the city. The weather report said rain. Please send the rain – or at least the breeze. Or if no rain and no breeze, please send me the strength to run through the sun. I race to honor you – please let me race well.
More “stuff” happens quickly after Wellesley. At mile 16, the course drops over 100 feet in a mile at Newtown Lower Falls. We had slipped to a couple of 9+ minute miles, but I was able to get us back to sub-9 here, though with mile 16 at 8:53 pace, really only barely. Then at mile 17 the Newton hills start. Unfortunately, Diamond was really starting to struggle. She had been having some hip pain and we had agreed that if one of us started to struggle, the other would go on. When she gasped out that her hip was bad, I asked what to do. She said to go on and I did. I’d tackle the Newton hills alone then. I loved running with her and kept checking to see if she’d popped back up next to me, as she had several times over the course of the race thus far, but alas, it was not to be. Her hip issue resolved itself, but she got wicked calf cramps that nearly took her out. Later she literally caught another runner who fell in the last few miles – but that is her story to tell.
Miles 17 to 21
Splits: 9:27 – 9:40 – 8:39 – 9:03 – 9:24
The Newton hills were maybe the best thing I learned about by running the first 21 miles at HOP21. This famous set of four hills comes late in the race with the last one being the infamous “Heartbreak Hill.” Heartbreak didn’t earn its name for breaking lots of hearts; rather, it broke one particular heart, John Kelley’s. In the 1936 Boston Marathon, Kelley passed the leader, Tarzan Brown, and patted him on the back. This gesture apparently enraged Tarzan who overtook Kelley on Heartbreak Hill and won the race. I love that story because it’s a reminder that the hills don’t have to break your heart. My fastest split of HOP21 was the last one, up Heartbreak Hill.
The hills aren’t that steep; just poorly timed. There’s a lot of up between miles 17 and 21, but there’s a good deal of down as well. If you’re still in good shape, you can run the downs hard, which is exactly what I intended to do. This is another section of the course I’d thought about and visualized a lot. I wish I could say I thought of Tarzan, but this was late enough that I wasn’t thinking all that much anymore. Instead, my playlist had arrived at my theme song for this training cycle “Live Like A Warrior” by Matisyahu. Meanwhile, I passed lots of people going up and even more people going down (that’s the 8:39 split, obviously). At about mile 20, I heard someone calling my name – it was Cinnamon! I was so happy to see her!
Miles 22 to 26.2
Splits: 8:25 – 8:33 – 8:30 – 8:25 – 8:39 – (last .2 at 8:12 pace)
Finally I reached the top of Heartbreak Hill! Thank God! I’ve read HPRM #1’s Boston race report a few more times than I care to admit so I know when he got here, he planned to speed up and, in his words, “The cupboard was bare.” I thought, my cupboard had damn well better not be bare. I had been watching the clock and knew that a BQ was still within reach, but there was to be no dawdling on the road down to Boston. I had to kick it into gear, big time.
This is another place where I had used a good deal of visualization: reaching the top of Heartbreak Hill, feeling strong, running hard into Boston. Here it was in real life. I knew it would hurt, but it’s supposed to hurt this late into a marathon. It did hurt. And I thought, “what is the point here exactly? Your BQ is going to be so small that you probably won’t get into the race. This is really hard. You could just slow down. You’ve run a credible race.” I thought about Coach Mick and I knew he would be proud of me no matter what, but I knew he wished he could be here. I thought of the conversation where I would tell HPRM #1 that I just didn’t feel like hurting anymore. That conversation would truly suck. I even thought of a motivational poster about how the sprint to the finish is not nearly as important as the 40 minutes of torture prior to the sprint. I knew I had better figure out a way to care enough to make this hurt, regardless of the size of the BQ.
That’s when I remembered Meb, running hard when he knew he couldn’t win, just to show his kids that it’s important to do your best. Even though I felt pretty lousy now (OK, beyond lousy), this would be over soon and if I walked away with another BQ, of whatever size, I’d be pretty psyched. Five or so miles to go, 9 minute miles or better, every second counts. “Let’s get after it!”
I blasted my way down the back of Heartbreak Hill and damn, if this race wasn’t fun now! Yes, I still hurt a lot, but running downhill fast really is fun and passing people is fun and running into the glorious city of Boston is really fun! I looked up and saw the Citgo sign. I heard the crowds. I wanted to start counting so badly but I knew it wasn’t time yet. 21 miles done. Citgo sign. Look at the crowds, be present, be astonished! It’s the FREAKING BOSTON MARATHON!
22 miles done. Head too blurry to do the math, just run like hell down the hill, don’t run into anyone.
23 miles done – Rake your last Maurten, yes the race is almost over, but maybe it helps, just 5K to go now.
24 miles done – Ok, you can count, just keep running HARD. Heels UP, fast turnover (when will I get better at that?), I don’t care if the foot hurts now, you’re almost done!
Mile 25: Keep going, keep counting, let the crowd give you their energy!
With a kilometer to go there’s an underpass and my family will be on the other side. “WHERE THE HELL IS THE UNDERPASS??? WHERE IS IT??? WHERE????” I should have looked at street names so I would know. “WHERE IS IT??? FINALLY, there it is!” Down the ramp. I am counting and running so hard that when I pass someone instead of saying “Excuse me” or “Good job” I actually just look at him and say “Fifteen!”
Up the far side of the underpass. One of my big fears had been walking up because I didn’t want my family to see me walking, but I am running strong. There’s a woman down, but the police are with her, yikes. Finally there are Mervus and the kids, they are yelling and I am yelling in my head, but I just wave and blow them a kiss and HERE’S THE TURN! RIGHT ON HEREFORD! LEFT ON BOYLSTON! There’s the line and the clock you have to get there EVERY SECOND TRULY COUNTS GO GO GO!
I cross the line. Thank God. I can stop. I am pretty sure I have run 3:53 something, 3:53:21 it turns out. A new PR by 44 seconds and a BQ with a 1:39 cushion. I’ve no idea if that is enough and I don’t care. I wanted that BQ so bad. And I got it!
I am leaning against the finish line barrier catching my breath when I hear the announcer say, “Now we will ring the bells to honor the victims of the 2013 bombings.” I have finished at exactly the time the bombs went off. I start to cry. Then the announcer said something like, “Now, let’s have a cheer so we show the world how we will always be BOSTON STRONG!” The crowd goes insane! This is such a perfect ending to my race that I couldn’t possibly have scripted it. I cry a little more and then start to get my act together and head toward the exit.
I get my water and it starts to sprinkle. I get my medal and it starts to rain. It starts raining harder so I grab a heat sheet and head to the family meeting area. It’s really raining hard now with cold gusting winds. I call Mervus and he’s on his way but there are so many people that it’s impossible to move.
After 20 minutes or so, I started to shake so badly that I asked the medical volunteers for help. They took me to the medical tent in a wheelchair and put some blankets on me to warm me up. My husband arrived moments after I left, so this little sojourn of mine bogged down our exit even further, but finally I was warm enough and I found my family.
I hope they know how very much I love them and appreciate them. This Boston run was my dream, but they helped me make it come true. My kids are going to grow up having watched their mom run a lot of marathons, and then run the greatest of them all. I hope they know that when it got hard, I ran for them. I hope they find the confidence and grit and determination and joy to chase their own dreams and most of all, I hope they find love in the chase.