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Boston Marathon || Notes for next time: Tips, advice & reflections on training, pacing, spectating & more

I thought Boston would be a one-and-done affair. I’m not so sure now. For the  next time, here are some tips, advice, and reflections that will be useful for first-timers and veterans alike:

General

Until race day, I didn’t fully grasp the scale of the event. The numbers help convey this:

  • Nearly 30,000 runners participate.
  • At the pre-race dinner, which only a fraction of the racers attend, they cook 3,400 pounds of pasta.
  • About 1,500 portable toilets are staged at the Athletes Village, starting area, and along the course.

Bottom line: Mentally prepare yourself and plan accordingly for a huge affair.

Thankfully, race management is excellent. The event is 121 years strong, and the organizational professionalism has grown with the race.

The crowds are surreal, especially in the town centers (Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley) and throughout downtown Boston. I can think of a few times in my life when I’ve felt like a superhero. Boston was one of them.

Expo

My father and I went early on Saturday morning, arriving shortly after it opened at 9 AM. The line for bib pick-up was already long but it moved quickly. When we left an hour later, the line was out the building and around a city block. Lesson learned: Be a contrarian, and attend during off-hours when it’s less zoo-y. This will make for a better expo experience, too, rather than feeling as if you’re shopping on Black Friday.

Unlike Outdoor Retailer, it’s a consumer-oriented expo, so vendors are set up for retail sales. Everything is priced at retail and my favorite sections — the clearance racks — were no where to be seen, but it’s a good chance to see entire product lines from clothing and equipment brands like Adidas, Hoka One One, and Garmin.

I found it funny the number of products touting some cure for runner aches and pains. There seemed to be about as many booths selling compression products, massage chairs, no-impact treadmills, and healing creams as shoes, clothing, and nutritional products. Is long-distance running really healthy for you?

Fifteen minutes after the Expo opened at 9 AM, the line for bib pick-up was already long. The line on the right is walking towards the turnaround point, to join the line on the left.

Logistics

Since my parents live near Providence, it made more sense to have them drop me directly in Hopkinton than in downtown Boston, from where the official BAA buses start.

But I was unable to get a reliable recommendation for a drop-off time in Hopkinton. At the South Street drop-off location, how long does the line get and how long does the shuttle take? To avoid all of it, I had them drop me off at 6:50 AM about 200 yards from the Athlete Village, which was refreshingly empty at that hour. I might have been able to sleep another 30 minutes that morning, but that would have added 30 minutes of extra lines and shuttling.

I carried in with me: caffeine, calories, a water bottle that served as a pee bottle in the corral, reading material, high quality toilet paper, and sunscreen. I was dressed in Goodwill-quality clothing appropriate for inactivity in 60-degree temperatures. The one thing I regret not having was a closed-cell foam sit pad and a waterproof ground sheet, to cushion my bony butt and to give me a dry area for stretching.

Passing time with Sean-Patrick (left) and Steve (right), two other Duke track alumnus, at the Athlete Village before the race.

Find a good spot, sit down, and don’t relinquish it. With a steady stream of athletes entering the village, any free real estate quickly gets taken.

There are hundreds of bathrooms in the village and just before the starting area. Plan accordingly.

Indecent exposure notwithstanding, males (and skilled females) can pee last-minute. Multiple race veterans carried 20-oz Gatorade bottles into the corral specifically for this purpose.

Pacing

Jay M Dee accurately claimed that, “the whole race is a trap.” In any marathon, racers normally start too fast. At Boston, the pattern is magnified by the 400-foot vertical drop in the first 16 miles. Then, just as racers are beginning to tire and slow down, Boston whacks them with the Newton Hills.

The trap is made worse by warm temperatures, as runners now must also manage heat-related risks (e.g. overheating, dehydration, cramping) in addition to normal fatigue and glycogen shortages.

It seemed that many runners wilted in the latter half of the race, due to the marathon distance, the hills, and finally the heat. I ran a negative split (1:16:34-1:15:27), which is probably rare but which wasn’t so strong to explain not a single runner passing me from Wellesley to the finish.

A short pre-race warm-up would have been beneficial. Instead, I started off cold, with little stretching beforehand. Race pace is easy-peesey at the start, but I think it would have felt even smoother with warmed-up muscles.

A GPS watch like the Suunto Ambit (read my long-term review) makes worthless a pace chart printout. I had memorized the necessary paces to achieve my goals finish times, and my watch gave me very accurate pace data. For example, I knew that 5:43 pace equated to sub-2:30. It was not useful to know that I should reach Mile 16 in 1:31:47.

However, add 1 second per mile to the average pace, because it’s difficult to take each apex perfectly if running in a crowd. In other words, almost all runners who complete the Boston Marathon run a distance in excess of 26.2 miles.

Hydration & nutrition

Last-minute I decided to run wear my Naked Running Band (read my review) so that I could hydrate as-needed for the first hour of the race. I filled a 10-oz bottle with 8 oz of water and 2 oz of honey. Both the band and the “honey water” was long run-tested on multiple occasions.

On a warm day, I would probably do this again. At race pace, drinking from a bottle is more efficient than a splashy cup. And having a personal bottle allowed me to steer clear of the aid station bottlenecks. Instead of discarding the bottle after empty, however, maybe next time I would try to refill it so that I could continue to drink regularly and reliably rather than depending on cups in the later miles.

With a windshirt in the side pocket, and a 17-oz soft bottle in the rear. Bottles must have lock-out valves, or the lateral tension on the valve from the fabric will cause it to leak.

In addition to the honey water, I consumed one Clif shot and a few cups of Gatorade, each with a few ounces of fluid. My caloric intake was sufficient, but YMMV — thankfully I burn fats at relatively high outputs.

I should have drank more fluids. I was drinking to thirst, but probably should have been more preemptive given the heat and my lack of heat training. The body is best able to absorb liquids early in the race, when it still has extra bandwidth. Later on, GI distress is more likely. I’ve only suffered from muscular cramps in one other race. Not surprisingly, it was an April race on Colorado’s western slope in temperatures that I had not seen in six months.

To make more sensitive my body’s caffeine receptors, I eliminated daily caffeine intake for about 1.5 weeks before the race. Twenty-five minutes before the start, I took 200 mg of caffeine, the same as in about 16 oz of coffee. I don’t think I felt its effects until a few miles down the road, although it’s hard to say exactly because there were so many other stimulants and distractions around.

I took another dose at Mile 14, but regret having done so. There was no perceived bounce, and the surge of caffeine made me feel out-of-body for a few miles. I did this once before on a long run and had a similar experience. That’s enough of a pattern for me.

My caffeine intake during races may need reexamination. Some at the start seems helpful, but mid-effort doses seem to just screw things up.

The day before, I ate heartily at an Easter brunch; later I had a light dinner, and was done eating by 7 PM. This gave my body enough time to squeeze everything out before the 10 AM start.

That morning, I had two Premier Protein bars, at about 6 AM and 10 AM.

Spectating

My parents were able to see me at the start and again at the end. But it required some advance planning to account for road closures, parking shortages, and walking times.

Ashland was a logistically easy spot, but it was difficult for them to sort through the steady stream of runners. If I had not seen them, they would have missed me.

By the time they arrived in downtown, the crowd was already thick. Thankfully my dad was able to climb up on a wall to watch.

Packed crowds on Hereford Street, about a half-mile from the finish

The remainder of my family spectated from Boston College. Parking was easy; they had space for a ground blanket; and they could see the runners stretched out along Heartbreak Hill.

Sisters Kerri and Christine, niece Anne Marie, and nephews Colin and Nathan await at the top of Heartbreak Hill.

Training

For detailed workouts, consult my Strava profile.

Within a few months, David helped me to drop massive amounts of time. I expected that structured training would result in improved performances, but the magnitude of the improvements was surprising — I’m 36 years-old and have been running since I was 14.

As a spring marathon, I had ample opportunities to train in crappy weather, but few to train in heat. I regret passing up on the limited opportunities that I had. In many recent years, Boston has seen warm temperatures. Next time, I will be more prepared for that risk.

Recovery

For about an hour afterwards, I was pretty knackered. Slow-moving, and shivering despite 70-degree ambient temperatures. My calves were very tight still. Have warm clothing ready, even on a hot day.

My calves, hamstrings, and quads were pretty delicate through Thursday, when I ran again for the first time. By Saturday the tenderness had gone away, and on Monday I will resume training for Bighorn.

5 Responses to Boston Marathon || Notes for next time: Tips, advice & reflections on training, pacing, spectating & more

  1. Bob S. April 24, 2017 at 3:31 pm #

    I saw you run by near the 9 mile mark in Natick at Speen Street.

    I’m curious if you ever considered competitive cycling, cyclocross or triathlons?

    • Andrew Skurka April 24, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

      I’m sure I looked hot, but otherwise I hope I still looked smooth at that point.

      Never considered those sports. I think to perform at a high level you need to focus. Or, at least with my natural talent, that’s the case. Plus, if my wife thought ultra running stole a lot of time, anything involving a bike is twice as bad, because you can spend so damn long on a bike without getting injured.

  2. David L Terrie April 25, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

    Used to live in Boston. Not only do you hit the hills, but the wind comes in from off-shore in the afternoon. Used to bike out to work in Framingham some days, and the ride back could be a challenge.

  3. Randy McDowell April 25, 2017 at 7:17 pm #

    Congratulations! That’s a damn good race.

    • Andrew Skurka April 25, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

      But can I run 2:55 in my 50’s? You probably are untouchable on that one.

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