When I hit the 22-mile marker, I knew what I had to do to qualify. Two 7:15 miles and two 7:30’s would do it.
Problem was, I was sure I didn’t have it in me. Having barely been able to manage 7:30’s for miles 21 and 22, and fading fast, I knew was just a matter of time until the complete breakdown happened and my legs turned to lead.
Why was I slowing down like this? I had eaten almost 200 calories an hour, gotten Gatorade at each water stop, and paced myself well. The stiff wind in our faces almost the entire time didn’t do much to help though. Maybe I just wasn’t in shape to qualify for Boston yet.
The first half of the race had gone just as planned. I had avoided getting too excited and running too fast, forcing myself instead to slow down and enjoy the beautiful surroundings of upstate New York in the fall whenever I felt myself speeding up. I ran the first half just a bit faster than the 7:17 pace I had planned on, banking about a minute and crossing the 13.1 line in 1:34:30. At one point I felt like I wanted to throw up, probably because I wasn’t used to eating so much. But that urge passed quickly, and though the headwind had caused me to work quite a bit harder than I had hoped, I felt I had put myself in good position to repeat it in the second half of the race.
I kept up the pace through mile 18. And then it all started to go. 7:15 became 7:20, which became 7:33. My legs felt crampy, my stride was forced, and it was all I could do to run 7:30’s for miles 21 and 22.
At this point, I felt everything slipping away. All the work that had gone into this, down the drain. Not that it really would have been wasted, but of course you don’t think of that when you’re 20 miles into a marathon and facing the realization that you’re not going to do the sole thing you’ve worked for six months (and in some sense, seven years) to do. I envisioned a sad ride home and a miserable few weeks as I figured out what to do next. I even thought about what I would tell you, the readers of my blog. So many of you have told me that you knew I could do it, and having to tell you and my friends that I had failed seemed like the worst thing in the world. The idea of just abandoning the blog, never posting about the race or ever again, even flashed through my mind. (I would never do this, but like I said, you just don’t think straight under these conditions.)
Such was my state of mind when I finished the 22nd mile. I’ve been there before in other marathons, realizing that the pace I need to run the last few miles in to hit my goal is just not going to happen. And just waiting for the meltdown.
The meltdown, though, held off. And then an idea hit me.
If somehow, just somehow, I could do two more 7:30’s, that would leave me with 2.2 miles to go, needing a 7:15 pace for that remaining distance to sneak in under 3:10:59 and qualify. It would have been impossible for me to run a 7:15 right then and there. Why I had any faith that I could actually speed up during the last two miles of a marathon is beyond me; the final miles have always been the slowest in my previous races. But if I knew that I only had two miles left, that all the pain I’d gone through would be worth it if I could just leave it all on the course and really suffer for just 15 minutes before collapsing in the grass, then maybe I could make it happen.
Surprisingly to me, the first part of my plan worked. Talking to myself, grimacing in pain, and doing what probably looked more like shuffling than running, I hung onto that 7:30 pace for miles 23 and 24. At this point I was eschewing water stops altogether, not even looking up at the volunteers’ faces to say “Thank you for helping.” I was really, really hurting and about as focused as I’ve ever been.
When I started mile 25, I said (out loud) to myself, “There’s got to be more.” I never talk to myself, and when I see it people do it in movies I gag and think that nobody really does that. But I did. I didn’t mean “I know there’s more; let’s see it.” Rather, I meant “If you’re going to do this, then you have got to give more than you realize you have available to give.”
I started speeding up, feeling sort of liberated in the realization that if this pace were too fast and I crashed during the last mile, then it wouldn’t matter because I wouldn’t have qualified anyway if I didn’t go fast.
In other words, I had nothing to lose.
The 25th mile turned directly into the wind for a few hundred yards. Then just when I thought I had survived and the course turned away from the wind, I found myself looking straight up a hill. But I didn’t care about any of this. I just kept running hard, feeling almost reckless, and when I got to the mile marker, I looked at my watch and was overjoyed to see that it read 7:10.
Finally, the 26th mile. This was it. If I could do what I had just done, one more time, then the BQ would be mine. Feeling this good caused me to speed up even more. I remember almost nothing of the last mile, except that I kept looking at my watch and being surprised that time was passing so quickly. A good thing, because I knew I was running fast enough. When I saw the 26-mile marker and glanced at my watch, I knew I was home.
I sprinted the last 385 yards to the finish across a bridge, lined on one side with people. Among the chorus of voices, I heard someone yelling “Run fast!” and I later found out it was Erin. I know I had the most pained look on my face, but inside I could not have been happier.
I raced the clock to cross the line in under 3:10:00 (remember, a 3:10:59 would have done it). I thought I lost that battle because my watch said 3:10:04 when I finished, but I later found out that my chip time, the official one, was 3:09:59. I stumbled through the finish corral in a daze while someone put a medal on me and gave me a Mylar blanket. The first person I saw was Erin, and she came and hugged me, screaming “You did it Matt, you qualified for Boston!”
All I could say back was “I did it.” And as I said it, my eyes welled up, just as they had the dozens, maybe hundreds, of times I had envisioned this moment over the past three or so years.
The reason I finished with “so much” time to spare, by the way, was that a) I made up about 25 seconds during the final 1.2 miles, and b) when I was calculating in my head during the second half, I was using 7:15 as the baseline rather than the true 7:17 that is Boston qualifying pace. But I’m happy about the mistake, since really pushing it allowed me to break 3:10:00.
I owe a gigantic thank you to Erin, Margaret, and my dad, who drove the motorhome all over and around the course to cheer me on and make sure I had whatever food I needed. Everytime I saw you guys, even when I was really dying, it gave me a huge boost and lots of warm fuzzies.
And thank you to every single reader, family member, and friend who wished me luck, gave me advice, or reassured me that I could do it. Not wanting to let you down was such a motivating force during miles 20-24 when it was feeling impossible.
I had to rush this post to get it up in a timely fashion, so I’ll have many more pictures, videos, and details of my trip and the race to post in the next few days.
Until then, I’ll be resting these sore legs and feeling elated about having succeeded in the hardest thing I’ve ever done, not just in the years of training but in the heat of the moment as well.
And of course, thinking about what’s next.
This post is part of 10-part series on qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Check out the rest!