You probably know that I’m not a huge fan of writing race recaps. Mostly, it’s because writing so many words about myself, my race strategy, my feelings at each mile, and so on seems kind of weird. And with a marathon being 26.2 miles, recaps are necessarily long, so I always wonder if anyone is even still with me by the end.
But this is Boston — the race I worked so hard to earn the privilege of running, and the journey toward which you were such a big part of, through your reading and comments on this blog. Even if I were to decide that a recap would be overly self-indulgent, I’m sure several of you would track me down and come punch me in the head if I didn’t write one.
So here goes. Hope this captures just a tiny glimmer of what it felt like to actually be there.
From the very beginning, this felt nothing like any other marathon.
The start of the Boston Marathon is in Hopkinton, a tiny little town that this huge marathon obviously outgrew a long time ago. As media helicopters and planes with banner ads flew over the starting corral, which was situated in a small, two-lane road, it was pretty obvious that tradition is the only thing keeping the start here.
Waiting in the starting corral, it felt different from any other race. I was lined up with other runners like me who had run qualifying times of 3:10:59 or better — a good hour slower than what the elites run a marathon in, but nothing to shake a stick at. And yet there were still fourcorrals of runners in front of us before the real elites, like American Ryan Hall and Kenyan winner Geoffrey Mutai, who would just two hours and three minutes later cross the finish line with the fastest marathon time in history. (Since the course is net downhill, though, it won’t count as a world record.)
My loose plan was to run eight-minute miles. I wanted to enjoy this race without any pressure to run fast to beat a certain time. So I didn’t set any goal for myself, but I figured I could handle eights for most of the race. As soon as the gun went off, though, I faced my first test.
What was being tested was of my discipline, and I failed miserably. Maybe it was the adrenaline from the huge crowd, maybe it was the fact that the course started on a significant downhill, or maybe it was just the fact that this was the Boston Marathon, god dammit! But right from the get-go, the 3:10 runners around me, the 3:20 runners behind me, and probably even the 3:30 runners behind them, were passing me in droves.
I thought I had learned to ignore that inner speed demon that screams at the start of every race, “You can run faster; today is special!” But apparently, I hadn’t — I pushed way harder than planned to keep pace with the crowd, because surely they knew something I didn’t. I hit the first mile marker in 7:20 or so, and then ran the second mile at about that same pace, way faster than I came prepared to run.
Looking back, I can’t blame myself. Here I was running over the same ground that just a few minutes earlier, the fastest runners on the planet had run over, chasing the most prestigious marathon title in the world. At one point during these first few miles, I felt something that resembled my eyes welling up when I thought about this, but luckily that disaster was averted.
The first half — Ashland, Framingham, Natick, and Wellesley
The next 10 miles or so all blend together in my memory. I remember more crowds than I had ever seen at any race, and I high-fived easily 100 kids during this stretch, who were themselves counting to see how many runners they could touch.
The course continued, mostly downhill, through several small towns here — Ashland, Framingham, and Natick — and I realized that the most charming part of this race is how small it would feel but for the huge crowds that sprung up in each town to watch the race and cheer. Loudly.
I was impressed, but when we hit Wellesley around mile 12, I learned what “loud” really meant. If you’ve ever run a marathon or half and know that feeling of running by a stretch of crowd that’s so energetic and noisy that it sends a chill down your spine, then just multiply that by 100 and you’ll have an idea of what the “Scream Tunnel” in Wellesley felt like.
The girls of Wellesley College lined up along what seemed like a quarter mile of fence in front of their school, leaning as far out as possible into the road. Lots of them had signs asking for kisses, and I saw plenty of other runners stop to get a kiss and take a picture. Mostly though, the girls screamed, which apparently is what they do. And it was awesome.
The hills, including that one you may have heard of…
After I hit the halfway point, I was feeling alright. My legs were just starting to remind me that I had run too fast in all the excitement of the first few miles, but I had settled down into a more reasonable pace of about 7:45 miles, with 15-30 second walk breaks through each water stop. (I’ve learned that this is a good strategy for getting through a marathon when you’re not in great shape for it.)
At mile 16, the hills began. There are four big ones on the course, at 16, 17, 19, and 20, that last one being the famous Heartbreak Hill that you’ve heard so many stories about.
I saw my wife, Erin, with my son on her shoulders, and my dad after the first of these hills, which was nice. The enormous crowds at Boston make it difficult for spectators to get around, so this was the only time they were able to see me run by, as opposed to other races where they sometimes manage four or five contact points. (Or like the tiny Wineglass Marathon, my qualifying race, where they could literally drive along some of the course with me, as you can see in the videos from that race.)
Then it was on to the next two hills. Honestly, these weren’t bad at all. Maybe it’s because I’ve done so much trail running, but I found them pretty easy to handle. I suspect part of what makes them seem worse than they are is the big departure they represent from the steady downhill of the first 15 miles of the Boston course.
When I hit the 20-mile marker, I knew the big one was coming. As it turns out, this happens to be where Boston College is. And where Boston College is, there happens to be beer. And that beer is what I happened to promise myself I’d drink if it was offered to me. It was, I took it, and not surprisingly, it tasted a lot like the beer I drank when I was in college (actually at Boston College, for one semester).
Having checked off my goal of drinking a beer during the race — it really was just a small cup — I took on Heartbreak Hill without a problem. Sure, walking would have felt good, but what kind of story would that make? So I ran the whole thing, and it really wasn’t so bad at all. The crowd, again, was a huge help.
The homestretch — 21 to 26.2
I really started to feel it after Heartbreak Hill. I got to that point in a marathon where you’re counting down every minute until the next mile marker, and each estimate you make turns out to be too optimistic, as your pace gradually slows. By this point, my eight-minute miles had become nines, or maybe even tens.
Fortunately, as I was getting weaker, the crowd grew stronger. Much stronger. We reached a point where there were people everywhere, often five or six deep, and several times I ran along the sideline with my hand out and slapped ten or twenty hands of screaming, likely-inebriated college kids in a row. I heard more people yell “No Meat Athlete!” and “Go, vegetarian!” than I could count; I’m sure it was dozens or maybe even a hundred people who yelled this stuff. No exaggeration. Many, many more yelled “No Meat Athlete” than yelled “Matt,” which Erin had written in permanent marker on my legs. (Still there, by the way.)
I paid for those early fast miles and my overall lack of preparedness at this point, but the crowd made it so much easier. It’s something you can hear about again and again, but you won’t understand just how intense the Boston crowd is as you approach the city during these final miles until you experience it for yourself.
During the last mile, just when the six or so minutes left in the race seemed like an eternity (as they always do during a marathon), I turned left onto Boylston Street and saw the finish line. From here to the end, it was as incredible a sensation as I’ve ever felt running. When I think back about these final minutes all I can remember hearing is the white noise of the crowd (even over my own thoughts, apparently, since I can’t remember any of them).
If there was a 26-mile marker, I missed it completely, lost in the enthusiasm of the crowd and the realization that I was finishing the Boston Marathon, this incredible thing that I set out to do very nearly when I signed up for my first marathon nearly 10 years ago, completely oblivious to the amount of work, pain, and eventual reward that was ahead of me.
I crossed the finish line in 3:38:30. The slowest marathon I’ve run in a while, but I didn’t much care about that. I had finished the Boston Marathon, and the medal that a volunteer put around my neck a minute or two later confirmed it. I had run Boston.
My only regret
I made one mistake at the Boston Marathon. It wasn’t the awful beer I drank before Heartbreak Hill, and it wasn’t that I ran the first few miles too fast (as I try so hard to warn new marathoners not to do).
No, the mistake was more fundamental than that: It was that I didn’t “race” in the world’s greatest race.
What I mean is this. As soon as I qualified for Boston, I knew that I wasn’t going to set a PR here. Since the Boston course is hilly, I told myself, I might as well just take it easy and enjoy the race, as a reward for all the work it took to get there.
But it turns out that was the easy road, and I took it. The excuse that Boston should be a reward missed the point that I now understand — Boston is so special and so famous because it’s a race, because it’s a competition. A competition with a clock or your personal best, if not actually another runner. The mystique of Boston comes from the competition.
To come here with none of that competitive fire was my mistake. After the expo, I read in the race program about the rich history of the race, and I heard some of the backstories about the elites that were running this year and what they had gone through in previous years (Kara Goucher, for example, who made a run at the title in 2009, took last year off to have a baby, and was back this year to try again).
But come race day, I realized I was not competing with myself or anyone else here. I was more a tourist than a runner. Which is fine; don’t get me wrong. I loved every second of this great race, even when it hurt. But I now see that I missed the opportunity to make the day even more memorable by competing at this prestigious competition. If not for a PR, then at least for a time I had set as a goal that I wanted to have on my Boston Marathon finisher’s certificate.
My training leading up to this race was virtually nonexistent. I took February off when I needed a mental break, and I did several 10-milers and a 17-miler after that, but that was really it. The excuse that I was just here to enjoy the race made it easy to rationalize “taking it easy,” and if I’m lucky enough to make it back, I’ll train like hell for the race itself.
One thing to take from my mistake
This isn’t all bad. If you haven’t qualified for Boston but have it in the back of your mind as a big, impossible goal, then you can learn something from this. In such a case, I hope my 3:38 further proves to you that you can get here without being a “natural” runner.
I worked really hard to get my marathon from a 4:53 down to 3:10 to get into Boston, and I did it. But when I don’t train, I don’t stay at that level, or even close to it. The lesson: You don’t need to “be” a fast runner at your core to qualify for Boston. You can make yourself into one, even if just for a little while. (Of course, you can stay that way if you keep working.)
With the new qualifying standards, I suspect it’ll take a sub-3:00 marathon for me to get back here. Three hours is something I had thought about before, but couldn’t quite get motivated to do. Having had this experience, and knowing now that I am no longer entitled to run Boston unless I can break three hours, I feel motivated to make it happen for the first time in what feels like forever. I guess we’ll see what happens.