Boston Marathon 2018:
A Short Story
I’ve been slow to write this because I don’t think my experience was as “exciting” as some of the other reports you may have heard. Perhaps it was the wisdom of age (wow, when did I become that person?) or perhaps it was the added body insulation (“racing weight” be damned) or my pre-race weekend hydration strategy of beer and wine (how appropriate was Harpoon’s “Lucky Duck” IPA?) or perhaps it was luck (see “Harpoon”) or something else. Whatever it was, I only have happy memories of my first Boston Marathon.
After qualifying for Boston at the Walt Disney World (WDW) Marathon in January 2017, my only ‘A’ goal for the next year-plus was to get to the Boston starting line in good health so that I could enjoy the race. I get a ton of energy from cheering spectators and I remember being so disappointed at my first marathon at WDW 20 years ago when, after slogging through the first 20 miles, we finally entered Hollywood Studios (where I fully expected the streets to be lined with throngs of cheering fans pulling me through to the finish) and the only people there were pushing their way across the course to get to Tower of Terror, completely ignoring us. Boston, I knew, would be different, and I was going to soak it all in. (Little did I know how different it would be!)
My initial plan was to run 3:35:00 to 3:45:00, which should be a comfortable pace for me. The last thing I wanted was to push too hard and not enjoy the last miles in the city where the crowds are the thickest. About six weeks before the race, Charrissa and I met with our coach, Terry Casey, and she was convinced that, despite my concerns about my running mileage to date, I could run under 3:20:00. (My PR was a 3:21+ on the flat WDW course.) I was hesitant and uncommitted, but I talked with Charrissa on the way home and looked up past races that night and decided that I’d give it a shot.
So, going into the race my goals were:
A – Under 3:20:00
B – Re-qualify for Boston (under 3:25:00 but realistically needed under 3:22:00)
C – Have a fun, pain-free race (as best as a marathon can be)
In spite of the weather conditions, I didn’t change my goals.
Although the Boston Marathon had been my goal race for over a year, the majority of my training was triathlon-focused. I have a history of getting injured if I run too many miles and Terry was great in tailoring my workouts to improve fitness through cross-training. The only time I was concerned about my limited running mileage was in early March. I wasn’t worried about my fitness but I was worried about the potential toll the hilly Boston course would take on my quads. I remembered my first BQ attempt at the downhill Tucson marathon and didn’t want to replicate that experience in Boston. I had also slightly injured my hamstring in February when I was working crazy hours during the Olympics at NBC. That’s when we had dinner with Terry and she expressed her confidence in me. I did nurse the injury all the way to Boston, managing it through stretching, massage, and ART/Graston treatments. Lesson learned – trust your coach.
Others have described how the weather forecast continued to get worse as Monday got closer and how all of us struggled with deciding what to wear. I don’t have much else to add so I’ll focus on all the other activities that surround the Boston Marathon. If you get the chance to go, I recommend that you try to take advantage of as many of the experiences available as you can. The race is a victory lap.
I signed up for a number of different running group / company mailing lists and followed others on Twitter and Facebook so that I could be aware of what they would be doing in Boston. There were so many shakeout runs and meet and greets listed, I couldn’t possibly attend them all. The Boston Marathon Expo is probably the best in the world and we spent multiple hours there, spread across Friday night and Saturday morning. Sure, we spent some money, but we also got to try a lot of different products and came home with many more freebies, so many in fact, that we had to check an extra bag (or two) on the return flight!
We attended a Generation UCAN event with Meb, Greg McMillan, Tyler Pennell (4th), Nicole Dimercurio (6th) and others on Saturday afternoon. There was a free Sam Adams brewery tour that afternoon. Charrissa and I did a bus tour of the course on Sunday morning – we did it before her first Boston in 2015 and she found it very helpful. I figured I should pay attention this time! Before the tour, we stopped at Tracksmith and had Linden and True Coffee, served by Ryan Linden and Ben True! (Needless to say, the coffee sold out in minutes after they officially opened their online store a week after the marathon.) Pre-race dinner was at Ray Bourque’s Tresca with a great group of ABQ friends. One glass of wine and I was ready to run!
I use UCAN as my fuel which requires me to carry it with me, mixed in flasks carried on a fuel belt. UCAN tastes best if mixed the day before and refrigerated, so Sunday afternoon I began to prep my fuel. My plan was to mix 3 packets of Cran-Raz in 20 oz of water to put in the flasks, but when I began to mix the first packet in our shaker bottle, the bottle broke and spilled UCAN all over hotel room floor. Wet hotel carpet definitely doesn’t smell good.
Given that I lost at least half a packet of UCAN, I had to adjust my fueling plan for the next day. I’d still have my normal morning Chocolate UCAN, peanut butter, and banana shake 3 hours before the race, but since I didn’t have as much UCAN in my fuel belt, I would have 2 packets in my pre-race drink 30 minutes before the start. Then, I’d take ¼ of my carried fuel at miles 6, 11, 16, and 21. (In hindsight, I could have mixed flavors and used my normal strategy – Chocolate Orange or Chocolate Cran-Raz probably would have tasted fine.)
For electrolytes, I typically carry Base Salt in a small tube and take a few licks every 2-3 miles. However, the weather forecast of cold and rain made me question my ability to lick salt off my thumb mid-race. I still carried the tube of salt but I also added one scoop to each packet of UCAN.
I woke up and looked out the hotel window to see what the weather was like. Sure, the ground was wet, but it didn’t appear to be windy or rainy. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad after all! But those hopes were dashed as soon as we walked out of our hotel into a steady rain and gusty winds. (It turns out that our room faced an internal courtyard that was protected by tall buildings on all sides.)
Dressing for weather was a bit like Goldilocks making a decision – too little clothing and we’d be cold and miserable, too much clothing would get heavy in the rain and we’d also be cold and miserable. I also thought that skin-tight clothing would be better in the wind and rain than clothes that hang, so I opted for compression shorts and calf sleeves on my legs, and my Trail Dog tri shirt (actually the aero cycle jersey) and UCAN arm sleeves on top.
In addition to the practical reasons for selecting the gear, I was hoping that the words “Trail Dog” on the front would get cheers along the way. (Recall that it was all about the cheering for me.) Fortunately, intelligence won out over vanity and I put on a Marmot Precip rain jacket. There would be no cheers for me but the temperature forecast was just cold enough (in the mid- to upper-30s) that I feared I would be too cold in the wind and rain. Had there been no rain or had the temperatures been 10 degrees warmer, I may have foregone the jacket.
The jacket itself is more of a hiking jacket than a running jacket so it’s a bit stiffer than I may have liked to run in, but it served its purpose well. I did a test run in it on Thursday before leaving for Boston and decided it would be adequate. However, I will look for a better wet weather running jacket in the future. (There was a nice On jacket at the expo but not quite in the right size – and it was hard to justify spending $240 on what could very well be a one-time use!)
Knowing my feet would get wet, I covered them in Aquaphor to prevent blisters and wore wool running socks to keep my feet warm. I decided to wear my adidas Adizero Boston 6 shoes instead of my Brooks PureCadence because even though the Bostons have less cushioning, the rubber grip is so much better and I didn’t want to worry about slipping on the slick roads.
We figured the key was to stay as warm and dry at the start as possible, so over our running gear we wore throw-away pants, jackets, and rain ponchos. I also had a pair of throw away gloves that I planned to exchange for dry running gloves before the start. We both had a running cap that we put shower caps over to keep our heads dry. I actually wore my shower cap the entire race under my jacket hood. We tied plastic bags over our shoes to keep the rain from getting in the tops before the race and then slipped shower caps over the bags to further protect from the water and mud on the ground. Good thing for those bags! The shower caps worked well on the way to the bus but a few steps onto the “field” (aka mud-pit) at the Athlete’s Village and off they went! The bags were the only thing keeping our feet from being soaked and caked in mud before starting.
Charrissa was very kind to ride the 7:45 bus out to Hopkinton with me since she’d have to endure an extra hour or so in the elements by doing so. Even though we weren’t as chatty as the folks around us, I was very grateful to have her there. It made the trip “easy” and kept my mind off worrying what the race would feel like. I was even more grateful to have her guide me through the Athlete’s Village! I had no idea where I was going – there was just a horde of people slowly moving in one direction on a narrow track of pavement trying to keep off the muddy field. Finally, we braved the field to use the portapots (which took longer than expected given the lines but I guess that was because of all the extra outergear that most people had.) After that, it was time for me to head to the corrals. Charrissa pointed me on my way and off I went, still hoping not to fall into the mud before reaching pavement.
Charrissa had warned me that it was 0.7 miles from the village to the corrals and that even though there were volunteers collecting throw-aways as you exit the village and all along the walk, don’t give in. Keep your clothes until the end. I’d like to think I was a picture of calm excitement as I walked to the corrals, but realistically I was a bit nervous. I left the village later than desired and I was worried how long it would take for my final race prep – remove my outerwear and the bags on my shoes, reapply Aquaphor to the top of my left foot because I had felt some chafing already on the walk, finish my pre-race UCAN, open the hand-warmers, put them inside my running gloves, put on my rain glasses (yellow-tinted sunglasses that I hoped would protect my eyes from the wind and rain), pull up my hood over my hat, get to Corral 5 before Wave 2 started. These were the things stressing me out, not the fact that I was about to run 26.2 miles in the wind and rain.
As usual, my fears were unfounded and I got into the corral about 5-7 minutes before we started. I had decided to keep my wet throw away gloves as extra protection for a “few” miles (which turned out to be 26.2+.) The hand warmers weren’t warming so there I was in my blue shower cap shaking my hands beside me, in front of me, over my head, while waiting those last few minutes. Must have been quite the sight to the runners near me, but it did provide me with plenty of space when it was time to start moving! I remember hearing the start announcement and a minute or so later someone asked if we had started. My answer was, “Well, they have started up front but we aren’t going anywhere soon.” And then we started to move.
As mentioned earlier, my goal was to run under 3:20:00, which is about a 7:37 pace. I do a run-walk strategy for long distances (yes, I BQ’d using a 5 minute 30 second run / 30-40 seconds walk strategy so run-walk is not only for “slow” runners.) My original plan for Boston was to run to the mile then walk for 30 seconds, repeat, repeat, repeat. A 7:20 pace when running would average to 7:37 overall.
Before the race, I heard many experienced runners warn about starting out too fast at Boston. Shannon and Dorota both said to take it easy early on. Our course tour guide cautioned us about starting too fast. Meb said to be patient. Greg McMillan warned that “Boston is an evil temptress” and broke the course down into 4 phases, with Phase 1 being “Engine Brake”. They all said that Boston could be a fast course, but only if you make it to the top of Mile 21 without shredding your legs. From there, you can let go and fly to the finish. As Meb said, “Make the last mile your fastest and you’ll have a good race.”
Given this consensus, I adjusted my race plan, though not my goal, over the weekend. I would run the first 2 miles at a 7:35 pace, no faster than 7:30, and then take my first walk break. From there, I would implement my original strategy of running 7:20, walking 30 seconds each mile through Mile 16 where the hills start. I would run the 5 miles of hills strong, but not pushing it or worried about pace, still walking every mile. My goal was to get to the top of Mile 21 feeling good enough that I could take my last walk break and run the last 5+ miles to the finish.
I did think about pulling back my pace given the conditions, but, after looking at previous races and my conditioning, I figured I could probably do a 3:15:00 on a flat course so the 3:20:00 may already have some tailing back built in. Plus, I was planning on holding back during those first 4 downhill miles and hopefully that would help. Finally, I knew my priority was to enjoy the race so if I felt pushed too early on, I would just adjust on the fly before things got too bad.
The first half mile started out as planned. I didn’t push hard and there were plenty of people around to keep me from going too fast. I stuck to my plan and didn’t waste energy weaving around all the runners. Fortunately, Boston runners are fast so no one was ever in my way. I felt good.
At the one mile mark, my split was 7:58. Okay, a bit slower than I had planned, but that was alright. I could make that time up after the hills. The goal was to get over the hills in good shape and going slower now wasn’t going to hurt in the long run. Next mile 7:44. That’s better.
During that second mile, I felt my fuel belt bouncing around my waist a lot. I thought it was due to the wet and the rain jacket since I had not practiced wearing the belt with the jacket before (yes, I try new things on race day!) I also thought that I could manage it throughout the race by moving it with my hands. Halfway through mile 3 it became apparent that the belt was too annoying. I tried to tighten it while running but that wasn’t working so I finally stopped to walk and fix it. Third mile 8:06. Oh well.
Since I had already walked to fix my belt, I skipped my break at mile 3 and went right to mile 4. 7:31. Now I was on track and before I knew it, I was at Mile 9. Sure, I was over 1.5 minutes above a 3:20:00 steady pace at that point, but that was okay. If I felt good, I could make up the time later.
Besides, I was having a really good time. Once my fuel belt stopped bouncing, I was able to fully enjoy the cheering and the other runners around me. Charrissa said that spectators were sparse at times early on but I can’t say that I noticed. There always seemed to be some folks around cheering. There were people barbecuing under tents and handing out oranges and who knows what else. I didn’t see anyone hosing down the runners, though!
Which is another thing that I didn’t really notice – the weather. Okay, it was probably hard not to notice the weather but it didn’t really bother me. Yes, I was wet, but I had made the right choice in clothing and it kept me warm and didn’t chafe. My shoes had excellent grip, the Aquaphor was preventing blisters, and the wool socks were keeping my feet warm. I could feel the cold water on my feet when I stepped in a puddle or was splashed by some other runner, but within seconds the cold went away. The wind would whip up and I heard what must have been the same person as Charrissa did yell “Bring it!” Like her, I could only smile and laugh.
I smiled a lot on that run. It really was amazing how many spectators were out there and I did get choked up at times. I had to remind myself that Charrissa said “Save the getting choked up for after the finish line, because you can’t run if you can’t breathe.” I high-fived kids and thanked volunteers, though I didn’t do as much of that as I have in the past at other races. I knew I had to conserve some energy to get up the hills so that I could run to the finish. It was about that time that I noticed my right quad was a bit sore and I began to worry about what that would mean for later in the race. Again, I forced myself to recall Charrissa’s advice and kept telling myself “It doesn’t bother you now so just keep going. If it hurts later, deal with it then.” It never really got worse the rest of the day.
I heard the Wellesley scream tunnel about a quarter to a half mile out. Charrissa did give me permission to kiss a Wellesley girl (I guess all others were off limits? And what about the guy that was there?) but I didn’t want to stop, so I just high-fived them instead. One thought I did have was “They all look so young!” and then I thought “When did I become so old?”
Halfway in 1:42:05 – two minutes over my goal pace. At that point I figured I wasn’t going to run under 3:20 since I wasn’t going to pull 4 minutes off my time, but I thought let’s still try for 3:22-3:23. And that’s the last time I remember thinking about a time goal until Mile 21. I was happy to just run by feel for the next few miles until the hills started and to just power up them. I know that I looked at my watch each mile but I never really internalized what the effect of the times would be on my finishing time. I felt good, I was smiling, I was passing lots and lots of people going up the hills.
Officially, they talk about the three Newton hills, but, as many will say, there are actually four and the first “non-hill” may be the second toughest (after Heartbreak). The two thoughts I had after that first hill were “Well, that wasn’t bad at all – definitely no worse than Tramway from Candelaria to Montgomery” and “There were a lot fewer walkers than Charrissa said there would be.” (In hindsight, we think that perhaps those who would have walked the hills in other years, walked off the course instead.)
I powered through the next hill and then there was a much longer downhill break than I expected before the last two. I checked in on my legs and although they hurt, it was not any more than anticipated. It was at that point that I figured I’d be able to run those last 5 miles in, that it would hurt, and that my legs would be wrecked afterwards, but that would be okay. I made it to the top of Heartbreak, took my walk break at Mile 21, looked at my watch and began to do the math.
During the past 8 miles I must have sub-consciously given up on running a BQ time because I was very surprised when I calculated (as best I could in a fatigued mental state) that if I ran around a 7:30 pace, I’d be close to a BQ. Wouldn’t that be great! Sure, I won’t get in next year with a sub-minute cushion but to BQ at Boston under these conditions would be terrific! Plus, I won’t have the chance to get in and register if I don’t have a qualifying time! Let’s just run, trust McMillan when he says you can let it fly, and see what happens.
So I ran. I remember the spectators lining the course. I remember the winds picking up as we ran down from Heartbreak Hill. I remember the disappointingly small number of spectators at BC. I remember smiling as I ran. I remember being careful not to trip on the trolley tracks. I remember running on the left side of the road so that I wouldn’t be slowed down by the folks high-fiving and stopping for photos on the right. I remember a college guy pointing at me and yelling “That’s my man! Go! Go! Go!” I remember Dixie cups of beer that someone behind me stopped for. I remember looking for the Citgo sign but not being able to see it until close to Kenmore Square. I remember talking with a woman who was also running hard about 3 miles out, telling her that she was running well and looked strong, pointing to another woman ahead of us and saying that she looked strong too, so let’s keep up with her. I remember following one runner after another who was moving well until I finally went around them.
I remember coming up to the I-95 overpass with the wind whipping and everyone moving slowly. I remember “racing” up the hill and realizing afterwards that “racing” is all relative. But that was Mile 25. I looked at my watch – 3:15:00. Thankfully, it made the math really easy. I had 10 minutes to run the 1.2+ miles to the finish, depending on how well my Garmin was tracking the mileage. It would be close and could come down to how large the “plus” was. I knew it was more than a tenth of a mile because I had seen an extra tenth at an earlier mile marker. Had I lost another tenth since then? More than a tenth? Just run.
I remember Kenmore Square – not as many people as in the past because there was no baseball game but still lots of people. I remember running over the 1-mile to go logo on the road. I remember looking at my watch and thinking I had about 7 minutes left. I remember where we joined the BAA 5k route and thinking, “I know the rest of this course.” I remember running under Mass Ave, running the tangents through the underpass and then right onto Hereford. Up the hill that’s not really a hill except in the last mile of a marathon. Left onto Boylston. I remember taking the outside path on the turn because there was a wheelchair to my left and other folks moving slower than I was over there. I remember saying that I just had to keep moving. I remember looking the 600m down Boylston to the finish. I remember wanting to tear up but forcing myself to keep running. I remember hearing the cheers. I remember remembering how long 600m really is. I remember looking down at my watch for some reason and seeing 3:24:00. I remember looking up and thinking I have 1 minute to go “that far” without really knowing how far “that far” was. I remember thinking “I got this”, and then thinking that it is probably further than I think so I have to keep running. I remember crossing the finish line, crossing the timing mats, and then stopping my watch. 3:25:02. I remember saying “F***” and the guy at my side looking at me funny.
And then I remember smiling. I ran the Boston marathon and enjoyed it. I had a good race and was proud of how it went, of the strategy, of how strong I felt at Mile 21, of how I pushed through to the finish. I also knew that there was a chance my official time would be under 3:25:00, because I try to start my watch early and stop it late. It didn’t really matter – I was just happy.
And I wanted to do it again.
I just couldn’t stop smiling. I take my time walking down the chute after every long race and Boston was no different. Even though it was still raining and windier there on Boylston Street. I took my time taking photos with every photographer on my way to getting my medal, bottle of water, and heatsheet blanket (they even put it on you!) I thanked the volunteers and got all choked up each time one of them congratulated me. CLIF bars were next. I took one and then noticed a volunteer handing out opened bars! How awesome was that! There was no need to take off my two pairs of sopping wet gloves and dispose of the wet charcoal sacks that never did get warm. (For the record, that’s the fourth time that my throw away gloves have avoided being thrown away.) I picked up a post-race food packet, took some more pictures with the BAA background and made the slow walk over to our hotel, the Boston Park Plaza, which fortunately was not far away.
Unfortunately, however, I decided to be “smaht” and walked in the nearest side entrance to the hotel by the Starbucks, thus missing out on the hero’s welcome that Charrissa experienced. That would have been awesome, though there’s a good chance I would have started balling right then. Ugly crying avoided.
I got up to the room, took off my wet clothes and dried off, turned on my phone, and watched it start to light up with all the backlogged notifications of all the runners that I was tracking. “Ryan has started.” “Kellie has started.” “Ryan has crossed 5k.” “Rachael has started.” Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Turns out there was a lot of tracking out there.
I saw a message from Steph congratulating me and saying that Charrissa was crushing it out there. Based on that, I figured Charrissa must have been done by then so I looked up her results in the app – 3:43 and change! I was so happy for her! What a great race!
Then I decided I might as well see my “unofficial” finishing time (since that’s all the app was claiming at that point.) Derek Surka. Bib 12158. Time: 3:24:59! WOOHOO! A BQ!
Looking at my Garmin splits, I ran the last mile in 7:05, which was my fastest mile by 15 seconds. Just as Meb said, I made my last mile the fastest and had a good race. My Garmin also said I ran 26.36 miles, which I was extremely happy with, and I ran those last 0.36 miles at an avg 6:39 pace – so I was “sprinting” down Boylston. Finally, it turns out that from the top of Heartbreak Hill after my last walk break, I averaged a 7:24 pace to the finish. My in-the-moment estimate of needing to run 7:30 would not have gotten me there.
That night we celebrated at the Chart House, which has become a tradition for us post-Marathon. We skipped the Fenway party because it was still raining. The next day we picked up our last free swag of the weekend – a customized poster from Tracksmith with our time on it and our medals engraved for free at the Oofos store. And some more Linden & True coffee for good measure.
- The clothing strategy worked, though I’ll look for an actual running jacket next time.
- The pacing strategy worked.
- The fueling strategy also worked, though it was modified a bit and I honestly don’t remember exactly when I fueled. I took my first fuel around mile 8 or 9, later than usual because I had taken more UCAN before the race. I took my last UCAN at Mile 19 before the last 2 hills. Between then, I took UCAN twice more – pretty sure once was before Wellesley at Mile 12 and the other was at Mile 16 before the hills. More often than usual but I felt like I didn’t take as much at mile 8/9 as usual so I took more at 12, a little before the hills, and then my last normal serving at 19. I also grabbed a CLIF gel at the top of Heartbreak and took it before Mile 22.
- Try mixing UCAN flavors ahead of time, just in case.
- The hydration strategy worked. The salt in the UCAN didn’t really affect the taste at all. I also took licks from the tube every 3-4 miles. The first time I tried licking it off my gloves but that was a disaster so I resorted to just putting my tongue directly on the tube the rest of the race.
- Smiling worked. I had a really fun time even though the weather was not ideal and there weren’t as many spectators as I would have wished had conditions been better.
- I was ready to run a good marathon on only 100 running miles a month. With more pre-hab and a few more workouts, I know I can BQ again in the future with sufficient margin to get in. So I’ll put it out there:
- Next Marathon Goal: Tokyo 2019, sub-3:15:00