Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Man Vs. Nature: Boston Marathon Edition

Since the beginning of time, man (woman too) has been trying to triumph over nature. This has been a constant theme since the cavemen. We chase tornadoes, we ride behemoth waves, we build our homes on fault lines. The list goes on. I don't think anyone is keeping score and knows who is ahead after all these years. but it's a fight that often blurs the fine line between bravery and insanity. Monday. in a small town some 26 miles from the center of Boston, Massachusetts, 25,000 brave or insane people went toe to toe with nature to partake in an event that's grueling no matter what the weather conditions.

Not that the people who organize the Boston Marathon didn't try to stop us. As race day drew closer, and the forecasted 85 plus degrees grew more imminent, the Boston Athletic Association sent emails, tweets and Facebook statuses urging people to reconsider running, warning anyone who might not have done the bulk of their training in or around a blast furnace that their involvement in the race may lead to their involvement in a funeral, or at the very least a trip to the emergency room. News reports from the Boston television stations and newspapers predicted a mass casualty scenario. These were almost identical conditions to the 2007 Chicago Marathon and in that race, people died. No one would have faulted any runner from throwing in the towel.

On the surface, I adopted a brave attitude. In one particular Facebook post, I boldly stated, "F the weather." But under that facade was fear, uncertainty and anger. I was scared of how my body would handle the extreme temperatures mostly because I had never run in heat like this for a race this long. I was angry because no matter how well my body adapted to the conditions, I was certain my goal of running 2:33-2:35 was out the window; a goal I had fixated on for months and sacrificed sleep, food and social interactions to meet. Thanks to something beyond my control, it was gone. But despite the option to defer, I planned to confront the challenge. My Urban Athletics teammates and I talked extensively before the race about how we would adjust our race plan. We talked about going slower, but in the end made the decision to stick to it and see what happens. To fight nature, man must be stubborn.

It was already 80 degrees when we got to the to the first corral in Hopkinton at 9:30am. There was still 30 minutes until the start. To put that in perspective, the 1982 Boston Marathon famously referred to as the "Duel in the Sun", a race that drained Alberto Salazar to the extent that he never fully recovered, had a high temperature of 68 and that race started at noon. As I side note, I will now refer to that race as the "Duel in the Moderately Uncomfortable, but certainly Manageable Conditions." I respectfully request they change the title of the book.

I had consumed so much water and Gatorade over the past 24 hours that my empty Gatorade bottle came in handy about five minutes before the start. I always drink a lot leading up to a marathon, but this time around, I turned down no opportunities to hydrate. I was already sweating and I hadn't run a step. Adding insult to injury, there was not a cloud in the sky and the Boston Marathon course is not exactly known for it's tree canopy.

As we made our way down the hill that marks the beginning of the world's most famous marathon, there was the natural urge to go out hard and follow the dreamers who thought that starting fast meant finishing strong. But, the three of us Urbanosos (As our coach calls us), stuck to the plan. 5:52 pace and no faster. As expected, it felt slow, but it was only the beginning and it doesn't take an extensive knowledge of distance running to know that a lot changes over 26.2 miles. We rolled through the first few miles almost effortlessly. There was little conversation aside from the occasional pace update. Unlike other marathons, I took advantage of the water stops from the start. Whereas I usually wait until mile 4, I grabbed a Gatorade and a water at mile 1. There was no reason to delay hydration on a day like this.

Around mile 8, my teammate Josh asked me how I was feeling. I told him I was still feeling good which was the truth. He told me he was as well, but would later admit that was not exactly the case. We had already opened up a small gap on our other teammate Kevin, but we were still averaging 5:52s. Three miles later, I was faced with my first major decision of the race. I started to find myself a couple of steps in front of Josh and would reign it in, to get side by side. That's when he told me to go ahead if I felt good. I thought it was too early, but he told me he was already feeling heavy legs. At this point in the race, I knew chances were I would meet the same fate, but I had not yet. Low 5:50s were still happening fairly naturally. I reluctantly moved on to face the next 15 miles alone and planned to keep pushing at goal marathon pace until the inevitable happened.

As I got to Wellesley, I could hear the screams of the hundreds of women who line the course. They are loud and everyone of them has a sign demanding they be kissed because of their heritage ("kiss me, I'm Irish", "kiss me I'm Canadian", "kiss me I'm from Idaho", etc.) The atmosphere lends itself to a surge. But, I made that mistake in 2010 and promised to not make it again. 5;55 through the Wellesley campus. I was proud of my restraint. Oh, and I didn't kiss any girls either. Not that the thought even crossed my mind. I'm a married man with a race to run! I went through the half-marathon at 1:17:25 which was right on target. I had survived half of the race without crashing, but I knew it wouldn't last and I was trying to salvage as much as I could.

Shortly after the throngs of young, intoxicated women, I saw Meagan Nedlo (who is young, but was not intoxicated). She was with some friends from the BAA exactly where she had told me she was going to be. She ran out into the street and handed me a frozen water bottle and some encouraging words at no extra charge. The frozen water was heaven-sent. I drank what I could and rubbed the rest of my face and neck. Let me take a second to talk about the spectators. They are a large part of the reason that I, and countless other runners finished and/or survived this race. I am not just talking about the spectators that I knew, but the complete and total strangers who went above and beyond to keep runners healthy and cool. In four previous marathons, I had never taken anything that didn't come from an official aid station. I always fear the jokester with a cup of vodka. But, in this marathon, I passed up no opportunities to pour a cup of water over my head or use a wet sponge to wipe my brow. People worked very hard to help us fight this fight and probably spent a lot of money too. It's an outpouring of kindness I won't soon forget and further enhances my positive views of the Boston area.

At mile 14, the thermometer on a bank said 85 degrees. That didn't take into account the heat radiating off the asphalt. I was still on pace, but starting to get hot and the yellow gatorade at the water stops was starting to get warmer. I took my second energy gel of the day, a peanut butter Gu and didn't gag on it, so I as able to take in all the nutrients it offered. The next three miles were slightly slower, but still under 6:00 pace. It wasn't until mile 18 that the train started to fall of the tracks.

The first hill in Newton was bad. The second hill was terrible. The third hill was excruciating and the fourth hill, Heartbreak Hill was an absolute nightmare. At this point in the race, the heat was starting to shut down all my systems. The collapse had happened and it had happened fast. I went from running 5:50s to 6:20s in a matter of inches. As hard as I tried, I couldn't dump enough water on my head to stay cool, and the water I was able to put in my system was luke warm at best. I didn't walk up any of the hills, but the shuffle I slowed down to couldn't have been much faster. The screams of, "come on 406" (my bib number), kept me going, but the urge to drop out was getting stronger. I started to examine my goals and bargain with myself. The reach goal of 2:33-34 had been unattainable from the start. Now, barring some miraculous rejuvenation, 2:35 was pretty much a pipe dream too. Could I still at least PR?

The last 7 miles of the race can only be described as a death march. I tried to think of a more creative term, but nothing sums it up better. I ran a 6:58 on mile 20 (the mile that includes Heartbreak Hill). It was my slowest mile of the race. My goal gradually transitioned from 2:35 to PR to 2:40 to just finishing. I was not going to drop out. I thought of all the 4am runs, the 20 miler in a snow storm, the speed workouts that ended with me so exhausted I could barely stand up. I thought of the sacrifices that not only I had made, but that my wife had made too. Besides, I had already spent $100 on the official race jacket, and everyone knows you can't wear the jacket if you don't finish the race. I'd crawl across the finish line if I had to and at this point, the possibility was not all that unlikely.

The now piping hot yellow Gatorade was starting to be a cruel joke. If I never drink yellow Gatorade again, it will be too soon. At mile 22.5, Josh's girlfriend Tanya handed me a chocolate Gu and a salt packet. I squirted the Gu into my mouth, but it had the consistency of paste and I couldn't swallow it. I tore open the salt packet and dumped it into my mouth in hopes that the sodium would give me a boost, but all it did was give me a mouth full of salt with no water stop in sight. I should have taken the Gatorade bottle from my teammate Matt. All around me, people were dropping like flies. This was the Boston Massacre. Runners at the peak of their fitness were reduced to crumbled, sweaty piles of flesh and muscle on the side of the road, their marathon dreams destroyed by a random act of Mother Nature. As bad of shape as I was in, I was fortunate to still be on my feet.

I wish I could say that somewhere in those last three miles, I got my second wind and motored to the finish line, but that didn't happen. I staggered my way over the overpass that stares at the iconic Citgo sign, ambled on to Hereford and swayed on to Boylston where the finish line appeared to be on the other side of the universe. Lauren was screaming my name and I didn't even hear it. I feel terrible about it, but at the time I felt terrible about something else and my tunnel vision only let me see the finish. I crossed the line in 2:41:12, six minutes slower than my goal. I wasn't mad. I was just relieved.

About 5 minutes later, that changed. I was mad. I was in shape to run the race of my life and the opportunity was stolen from me. 18 weeks of hard training, the hardest and most focused I have ever done, wasted. I wanted to cry. But it didn't last long. After I picked up my bag, the flood of supportive messages started coming in. An email from Paul and a text from Caitlin told me I had finished in the top 100, an accomplishment in itself. Runners around me shared war stories. All of them had missed their goals by anywhere from 6-10 minutes. The winners of the race had run 9 minutes slower than the previous year. This was not a day to brag about your time. It was a day to brag about your tenacity. My teammates missed their goals by more than they would have liked to, but they didn't drop out. My friend Allen was primed for a low 3:00 time, but ran what may be the gutsiest run I've heard yet; a race filled with vomit and urges to seek medical attention that culminated in a 5:03 finish. He's OK. We had a beer last night.

I had to laugh when the post-race survey that came from the BAA yesterday asked, "besides the heat, how would you rate your Boston Marathon race experience?" That's tantamount to saying, "besides all the commotion with the gun, Mr. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" But seriously, I wouldn't change a thing about how I went about tackling the conditions. A lot of very smart runners told me to back off and be conservative. I don't doubt that would have been the smartest, safest thing to do. But, I would have been really angry with myself if I finished that race and felt like I could have given more.

The first person I actually spoke to after the race was Lauren who was beaming with pride. She has and always will be my number one fan and 95% of the reason I am able to give running and competing the attention I give it. When I say being a supporter is as hard of a job as being a competitor, I'm not kidding. The support from her and all of my friends over the past few days has convinced me that Monday's Boston Marathon was not a missed opportunity, but a chance to seize an opportunity. The same training that got me in shape to run a 2:30 marathon, also got me in shape to fight through the hottest April day in Boston history and easily the hardest athletic endeavour I have ever completed. While scores of runners dropped out, I was able to hang on, pretty or not, to finish 95th in a race that I once dreamed of simply competing in. I didn't leave Boston with a new PR, not even close. I'm not walking as well as I used to and it might be awhile before I can run again. But, I left wearing the jacket (it cooled down). Again, I'm not sure anyone is keeping score in this battle we fight with nature, but if someone is, kindly put a point in my column.


  1. I love this post. You ran such an incredible race in god awful conditions. I have no doubt that a monster marathon PR is in your future. Might I suggest a race in Alaska? Congrats on your top 100 finish!

  2. Maybe your greatest post...EVER. Proud of you. Can I be your #2 fan after Lauren? Albeit a distant second, of course. Maybe Aaron and I are tied? We may or may not have gone over our text allotment on Monday discussing your updates.

  3. Jay - a great read. It's a pleasure to see two of your talents unfold on one page:running and writing. Congrats on the race - it makes the Mountain Goat out to be a picnic.
    (Editors note: the Lincoln reference works better as Mrs. not Mr. He was in no condition to answer questions about the play) Keep up the good work on all fronts. -Matt Mulcahy

  4. Bending over in honor! Such a huge accomplishment, dedication, talent and will-power! All the best a d keep it up! Bjorn

  5. I love this and am so incredibly proud of you. Love you so much!

  6. Awesome Blog Jay.. You and Kristin are both from Newark and Cut from the same Running Cloth.. All the things you mention in this blog she has mentioned to me since she finished her challenge on that very same day..