Sesame’s Boston Marathon Recap: Reframing a DNF

I have run close to 200 road races over the last 15 years and this year’s Boston Marathon brought my very first DNF (did not finish). After spending a little bit of time reflecting on the race, I am honestly not even upset about it—and I’m really not just saying that. I’d like to think that I did a good job of placing realistic expectations on this race, but in typical all-or-nothing fashion, I knew it would either be a huge success or a huge flop. And although my training seemed to indicated that it had potential to be the former, ultimately it was the latter.

Like I said in my recent update, I prepare tax returns for a living, and I basically work more hours during the first four months of the year than I do during the remaining eight months of the year combined. I actually don’t mind this and I definitely appreciate the down time after busy season, but my schedule from January to April isn’t very conducive to a successful marathon buildup.

Nonetheless I felt good physically, but my mental state was another story; I knew I was on the edge of mental bankruptcy. I had a faint glimmer of hope though! My training seemed to be going really well. I was able to hit paces in workouts that I never dreamed of and I had a really solid 15k race during the training cycle. But as we all know, racing can be as much a mental exercise as a physical one, and I just didn’t have the reserves I needed when the going got tough.

The good news is that all this was not for naught and I will still benefit from all the work I put in during the training cycle. Even though it didn’t pay dividends in the short-term, I’m looking at this one as more of a long-term investment.

On the way

I left for Boston Saturday morning, with my handy-dandy participants guide for in-flight reading material. The fact that I hadn’t even bothered to look at the guide before I got on the plane is very telling of how overwhelmed and hectic my life was during the months leading up to the race. Usually I am one of those always prepared, ridiculously on top of things people, but I was neither prepared nor on top of things for this race. In fact, I didn’t even realize that your clothing and personal effects don’t get transported back to the finish line anymore. I was going to need throwaway clothes, but I hadn’t packed any. Eek!

After a couple of flight delays, I arrived in Boston Saturday evening without my “carry-on” bag that I was forced to check upon arriving at the airport Saturday morning. Oh well. No big deal! I figured I would either get myself some new clothes (don’t have to twist my arm too hard) or my bag would arrive eventually. Thankfully it arrived! I could’ve done without the three wake-up calls sometime after midnight asking me to retrieve my bag from the lobby of the hotel, but otherwise, this wasn’t a big deal. Just a slight hiccup really.

Sunday morning we did a thirty minute shakeout run then headed to the expo. It was very crowded, but it was still fun to look at all of the gear. I told myself that I wasn’t going to get one of those dang Boston jackets, but of course, I changed my mind once I saw how beautiful it was. I am now the not-so-proud owner of a finisher’s jacket from the first race that I ever dropped out of (insert facepalm here). I’ll probably still wear it though, because it really is beautiful and because I worked my butt off to get to that start line.

I unpacked my bag and took a nice nap Sunday afternoon and tried to get myself mentally prepared for what I was about to do. Then, after an early dinner I actually got some really good sleep; one of the perks of being exhausted I guess. I started to think that I really just might be able to do this thing.

Race Day Morning

The logistics of race morning at Boston can be tricky and, in my opinion, it really doesn’t set you up well for a good race. Don’t get me wrong, the BAA does a great job arranging everything and handling all the runners, but there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait and the process involves a lot of time to be up and on your feet before a goal race. I was scheduled to board the bus between 6:00 and 6:45 a.m. and my race start time wasn’t until 10:02. I planned to get on the bus as late as possible to minimize the amount of time spent in the cold rain at the athlete’s village.

Right around 6 a.m. there was an announcement over the intercom system of our hotel informing us that part of the hotel was being evacuated and that we should wait for further instructions. Excuse me? You are evacuating some of the guests, but the rest of us should just sit tight and wait to see if the building blows up or burns down? No thanks. I was not completely ready at this point, but luckily I was ready enough to leave immediately.

For a brief moment I thought about taking my phone with me, but I really didn’t want to run an entire marathon with it. I decided to leave it in the room. The elevators were shut off, so I made my way down sixteen flights of stairs, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I honestly still don’t know what happened at the hotel that morning, but I suspect it was more along the lines of someone burning her pre-race bagel than anything bad.

Still, it’s hard to keep your mind from going to the worst-case scenario in the moment, so I was feeling nervous and frazzled when I boarded the bus, and the ongoing thunderstorm was not helping. The bus ride ended up taking us close to two hours, and we had to exit the interstate several times along the way because of severe weather. There was no air and the windows were up because of the rain, and it was hot—I was burning up. I had warm clothes over my race clothes, as it was chilly outside, but I stripped all the way down to my race clothes on the bus and was still drenched in sweat when we finally arrived in Hopkinton.

By this time we had just over an hour to wait until it was time to begin walking to the start line. That hour felt like an entire day. Everyone was huddled underneath the tents because of the rain and there was very little personal space. As someone who really dislikes being in a crowd, I was really starting to feel overwhelmed and anxious. The morning was off to a rocky start and I hadn’t even started running yet! Yikes!

At 9:30 the runners in my wave started to make our way over to the start line. Thankfully the rain had stopped at this point and the temperature was really nice: cool, but not too cold. Good racing conditions, if it lasted. I started in wave one, corral three amidst a sea of thousands and thousands and thousands of other runners.

On the Course

My plan was to start off around 6:30 per mile pace. I knew it would be hard to hold back since the course has some decent downhills in the first few miles and it can be easy to get caught up in the crowds. After the first 10k my plan was to dial back to 6:25 per mile and in the third 10k, 6:20 per mile. I would slow down on the Newton hills and then hopefully speed back up for the last 10k. This was the plan that my coach gave me “for ideal conditions” based off of the workouts I had completed and my current fitness level.

I knew very early on that the conditions were not ideal.

The weather changed so many times that an entire post could be dedicated entirely to race day weather. Thunderstorm! Cold. Hold up—hot. Sunny! Wait—throw in some wind! More rain. It was CRAZY! And I was coming in at the end of a difficult work season. And the bag. And the hotel evacuation. And the bus. And the crowds. And it just plain was NOT going to be my day.

I adjusted my pace goals from the gun and I never got below 6:30 pace. The average pace for my qualifying marathon was 6:36, so I really expected to be able to settle into crowd with people running close to that pace, but it really felt like I was getting passed by every. single. runner. Not dramatic at all.

I came through the half marathon at exactly 6:36 pace, a result which which I was very pleased. Even so, and even though my training dictated I should feel comfortable at this pace, unfortunately I just didn’t have it. During the next five miles I struggled to maintain a pace under 7:00. At that point, I figured I would try to enjoy the experience as best as I could and try to make it to the finish line without casualty … always a good goal!

And it should have been easy. For me running is usually fun; even when I am pushing myself during workouts and races, I am happy and truly enjoying each moment. But something happened out there on the course Monday and I just was NOT enjoying any of it. I stopped to walk a few times, thinking this would help me regroup and gain my composure, but each time I stopped to walk, I started hyperventilating. I couldn’t catch my breath at all.

Now if you’ve never run a marathon before, let me just let you in on this one little secret … being able to breathe is pretty important!

You would think that stopping to walk would enable me to breathe a little easier, but it was definitely not working for me. My heart was racing, I was getting dizzy and I was gasping for air. The fact that I couldn’t catch my breath was terrifying and made breathing even more difficult. It was not a good place to be.

I had two episodes like this during miles 19 and 20, and at that point I decided that it wasn’t worth it to keep going. I stopped in the medical tent at mile 20 and made the decision that I would not finish the race.

I didn’t even struggle with the decision much at all. Sure, it stinks to have a DNF on my record, but it would stink a lot more to have done permanent damage or injured myself somehow. Sometimes you absolutely need to push through a little bit of physical discomfort, but this was much more than that and I think I made the right decision.

Unless I retire from my current profession (and I don’t see that happening anytime soon), I don’t think I will be back to Boston; it’s just not the race for me. I found the whole experience to be a bit much: the crowds, the hype, the fanfare … it’s all just too much. Still, I know many runners really and truly love it and that makes the decision to not return even easier. I appreciate its history and its role in the running community, but I would rather appreciate it from afar than participate directly. Boston may be known for its tea party but it’s simply not my cup of tea.

Some people really enjoy big races, but I found this one overwhelming, and I’m starting to think I’m more of a small-town, local race gal. Anyone else?

I am a running and racing enthusiast. I love racing everything from the 1 mile to the 50K! I work as a CPA in public accounting. I enjoy running (obviously) and spending time outdoors (especially near the water). I am also a big fan of coffee, naps, puppies and sunsets.

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  1. First of all I love how at peace you are with a DNF – a sure sign you did the right thing. Second, I couldn’t agree more about huge races. I’ve run Boston and NYC and I have zero desire to run another huge race like that. I will take the small ones, where you literally walk out to the start line the moment before the start, any day! Congratulations on finding your happy place…

  2. What a tough day. I’m sorry Boston didn’t live up to the hype for you. I’ve had my own necessitated DNF in one marathon and I’ll agree- it’s hard to regret a good choice.

    I’m with you on enjoying smaller races. Starting out like a sardine and being pushed along isn’t enjoyable. I like my marathons with around 1,000-3,000 runners– plenty of company and space.

  3. I had a very similar Boston experience this year. My bus got lost and then dropped us off in the wrong place (leading me to be one of the people they kept announcing to get to the athletes village faster or else wave 1 would trample us). And it just felt claustrophobic to be surrounded be so many people the whole time! I would stop to walk and then have several people run into me including full on knocking gels out of my hands. I finished 40+ min slower than my training indicated and was sad that I didn’t really feel any of the “Boston magic” either!

  4. Having your race morning routine scuttled by an evacuation announcement and a walk down many flights of stairs must have been brutal. For anyone running Boston, I agree with Cinnamon’s approach to the buses. My BQ time places me in the final wave and I have managed to be on one of the last buses to leave the Boston Common, barely time to make my way through a porta-potty line before we’re called to the start. I enjoy Boston for many reasons but agree with you and other commenters that marathons where I can simply walk up to the start and enjoy a reasonably open road for 26 miles have their own allure.

  5. Sounds like you made the right decision! What a crazy weekend. I’m definitely more of a small-race person: I’m not good with crowds either, and the logistics of a big race can be daunting.

  6. I am local to Boston and I have run it 6 times. I love it but I think I’m done too. Too much hype and too many logistics for a race that starts 5 miles from my house. My times keep getting slower and slower every year, partly because it is a crappy season to train, partly because it is hard to motivate for the same race again and again, and partly because by the time I cross the start line I’m fried already from such a long morning. I’m looking forward to exploring some smaller races with easier race day planning! And I feel good about relinquishing my spot to someone who hasn’t done it before.