Two weeks out from the Boston Marathon, I had my heart set on sub-2:30, or 5:43 pace. I thought my workouts proved that it was within reach.
But as the race day forecast solidified — high-60’s/low-70’s, sunny, and low humidity — I wisely gave up on that best case scenario, and honed in on 2:32, or 5:48 pace. The risk of heat-related issues during an all-out effort seemed too likely.
My finishing time, officially 2:32:01, good enough for 72nd overall and 64th male, would suggest flawless and robotic execution. But it was more difficult and interesting than that.
In the final days before the big show, my legs felt pretty crappy — tight muscles and discombobulated form. I’m unsure if it was due to the taper, cross-country travel, or a change in routine (e.g. time zone, eating schedule, diligence in stretching and rolling), but I tried not to over-analyze it. On Monday, I knew I would be ready.
Forecast: Hot AF
Optimal temperatures for a marathon are in the 40’s. In such conditions, minimal attire can be worn (shorts, singlet, headband, and light gloves), but hydration and core temperature can be mostly ignored.
The race day forecast was far from optimal. Low-60’s at the 10 AM start in Hopkinton, and high-60’s a few hours later in Boston. (I’m unsure what the official temperatures were, but while running through one town I saw a bank sign reading 71 degrees.) Mostly sunny skies would make it seem even warmer, especially on dark pavement and without leaf cover. The 10-15 MPH west-northwest tailwind was appreciated, but it would not be enough to offset the heat.
In a last-minute attempt to acclimate, I did my final runs at high-noon and overdressed for them. It probably didn’t help, but mentally it made me more comfortable.
A road marathon is a fraction of the distance (and time) of an ultra. But my preferred race strategy is the same for both:
- Remain relaxed and patient throughout the first half; and,
- Begin racing at some point in the second.
I admire runners who embrace a go-big-or-go-home attitude and who charge hard off the line. But I don’t have the risk appetite for it, especially since I enter only a few big races each year and need to make them all count. Instead, I’d rather remain under the radar, have strong and consistent (but never exceptional) performances, and in the later miles hunt down more talented athletes who overestimated their fitness or who botched their hydration or nutrition.
At Boston, a conservative strategy is especially prudent. From Hopkinton, the course drops 400 vertical feet in the first 16 miles, with little climbing. Many runners are lured into an excessively fast pace: it’s early in the race and downhill, and their legs are fresh after a two-week taper.
Then, at Mile 16, when many marathon runners begin to fatigue, the course reaches the rolling Newton Hills, which culminate with the famed Heartbreak Hill at Mile 21. The last five miles are subtly downhill, but are no gimme for a runner with spent legs and glycogen reserves.
On a hot day, the risk of hemorrhaging time in the second half at Boston is even greater. Overheating, dehydration, and cramps cost minutes (sometimes tens of minutes), not just seconds.
I wanted to reach the Newton Hills without digging too deep. This would limit my downside risk, while putting me within striking distance of a solid time if I could come back in an even or negative split.
After emptying my GI for the final time, I entered the back of Corral 1 of Wave 1, located immediately behind the Elite Men. My positioning was intentional: I didn’t want to be swept up with the almost-elites at the front of the corral.
Fifteen minutes before the start, the ringers were paraded down the north sidewalk. It was cool to have Meb, Jared Ward, a very focused Galen Rupp, and a handful of wispy Africans walk within a few feet of me, some even high-fiving the line. But I was equally excited to see Jorge Maravilla, Mike Wardian, and Tommy Rivers Puzey, who are better known for their trail running, among the ranks. I was not the only one who noticed:
— Brad Dains (@thamessenjah) April 17, 2017
I crossed the start line 17 seconds after the starting gun, and quickly settled into a relaxed pace, hovering around 5:50. My early 5K splits were very consistent: 18:03-18:05-18:10-18:11 through 20K (12.4M).
My heart rate suggested I was getting out over my skis, however. I was hoping to keep it in the low- or mid-150’s early on, then let it drift in the second half, figuring my maximum average would be about 160 bpm. For context, it averaged 154 bpm last year at the Colorado Marathon, for which I was less trained.
In actuality, my heart rate was fluctuating in the mid- and high-160’s, and never below 160 even on downhills. I blamed it on the heat, took confidence in breathing less than everyone around me, and carried on.
In these early miles I tried hard to conserve energy. I stayed emotionally relaxed, aimed for the apexes, tucked in behind other runners, and sipped regularly from the 10-oz bottle of homemade honey water (2 oz honey + 8 oz water) stored in my Naked Running Band (read my review).
Even so, I was not immune to the scene. I was floored by the crowds in downtown Framingham and Natick, so much so that I did double-takes to the left and right sides of the street because I was in disbelief at the number of people. And I smiled ear-to-ear all the way down the Wellesley Scream Tunnel. I also kept my eyes peeled in Ashland, looking for my parents. Ironically, I saw them before they saw me.
I hit the half-marathon flag in 1:16:24, which was a little slower than even I had wanted, so I began to pick it up. Runners began to come back quickly. My next 5K split (25K/15.5M) was the second-fastest of my day, in 17:50. Through the finish, I would be passed by only one other runner, and he ultimately came back to me on the homestretch.
On Saturday my father and I drove the Newton Hills, which roll between Miles 16 and 21. It was worth the trip. They are not big or steep, and each pitch is followed with a downhill, but they’re enough to break momentum and morale, and to magnify any chinks in the armor.
As I hoped, I reached the base ready to roll. I wasn’t fresh, but I wasn’t wilting like other runners seemed to be.
On the first climb, I felt a twinge in my left calf. It was a sign of things to come, but I still ran decently to 30K/18.6M, with an 18:12 split for 5K.
Soon both calves and hamstrings were talking to me. I could feel them pulsating, like they could seize up at any moment. I’d been hitting the aid stations regularly, but I double-downed after the onset of these cramps.
At every opportunity, which amounts to about every mile, I poured three or four cups on my head and drank one. It felt wasteful, but the lowering of my body temperature felt better. Plus, when I watched the race on television later, Galen Rupp was doing the exact same thing.
To stave off a complete shut down, I slowed my pace. My 5K split at 35K/21.7M, which is very close to the top of Heartbreak Hill, was the slowest of the day, in 18:31 (5:58 pace).
At the top of Heartbreak, I thought the race could go either way. The cramps could get worse, and I would hobble to the finish, probably along with many others. Or I could remain on the edge. Either way, at that point I thought the final miles would be spent surviving, not hunting.
In that context, when I saw my two sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews (8, 4, and 2) on the opposite side of the street atop Heartbreak, I bee-lined over to them for high-fives. In hindsight, this diversion was the difference between 2:32:01 and 2:31:XX, so I hope the kiddos remember it.
Beyond Heartbreak the course drops into the outskirts of downtown Boston. Whether due to the extra hydration, the flatter roads, or the relative “rest” I had taken in the miles prior, my legs thankfully began to loosen up.
When I tried to carry my momentum off Heartbreak and onto Beacon Street, I could tell there was gas still in the tank. In this respect, the earlier cramping may have been helpful, as it governed my pace until closer to the end. My final full 5K split, through 40K/24.9M, would be the fastest of the day, in 17:32 (5:39 pace), and the final 1.3 miles were even faster, at 5:28 pace.
This section of the course is straighter than those before it, with expansive views ahead. The distance remaining is tough to mentally swallow, but it’s also conducive to running straight and chasing down other runners.
The last half-mile of Boston is exceptional, with a huge and roaring crowd from the intersection of Commonwealth Ave and Hereford to the finish line. I knew I was roughly on pace for 2:32, and probably should have focused on that. But I couldn’t resist pumping my fist and raising my arms, which seemed to solicit an even louder cheer. The podium finishers may have run 50 seconds per mile faster than I did, but the crowd seemed to think that I was equally special.
My official adjusted time was 2:32:01, good enough for 64th male and 72nd overall. I’m certain that I left a few seconds on the course, but I’ll take it.
After the Colorado Marathon last year, I said that I was sold on spring marathons. That remains true — I thoroughly enjoyed training for Boston. It kept me motivated through winter’s cold and dark days. It kept me off the trails, which just recently have melted off and dried up. And it left me with faster turnover than I’ve had in 16 years.
Before the race, I was thinking that Boston would be a one-and-done event, and that the Barkley Marathons might fill this spot on 2018 calendar (if I’m unlucky enough to be accepted). But, hmm, Boston is a special race, and sub-2:30 is already haunting me.
My attention now turns to the Bighorn 100, scheduled for June 15. It’s a quick turnaround, but four weeks of hard mountain running should set me up nicely.