In 2014, I ran my first Boston Marathon. I had a bad day, taking nearly 5 hours to finish. It wasn’t just one thing, but a combination of things that slowed me down. Nerves, time off for a knee injury, getting hit by a car, … I set out to run as close to 3 hours as possible, but went into survival mode at mile 6.
As I lined up for the 2015 Boston Marathon, I was much more confident. I had gone injury-free for a year. My training was going well. I had created a “NEXT-LEVEL” training program that helped many runners achieve their goals in the last 9 months. I used a variation of that program. I was healthy, calm, and ready to get this done. The weather forecast was cold and wet. That forecast was showing itself to be correct, so I knew that I should go with my B-Goal. My A-Goal would be a personal record of around 3:11. In the cold, wet weather I expected to struggle a bit more, so I set my sites on just BQing (qualifying for a future Boston) by finishing faster than 3:25.
I aimed to start the first mile at 7:30 and then gradually whittle that down to a 7:10 pace by the halfway point. I did average about 7:20 for the first 3 miles, which fit the plan fairly well. At mile 12, I was on course with a 7:10 average pace. That, however, was when I first felt a cramp coming on. My left hamstring twitched during one stride and I slowed just a bit. I made a quick stop at a port-a-potty during mile 13, but I was still very close to the goal pace for the first half.
I spent the second half of the race managing the cramps. I never went into a full cramp. I know what it feels like when I am about to cramp. I know how to ride that line, going as fast as I can without going into a full cramp. I discovered a relationship between the timing of these “pre-cramp twitches” and when I took in calories. I stopped fueling at that point and drank only water. I took in as much water as I could without stopping. I soon found out how much was too much.
From that point on, I used pace and water to manage my conditions to avoid cramping. I knew that I would not get a personal record, but I was still as a good overall average. If I allowed myself to slow down just a little each mile, I would still keep the average under the time I needed to come in under 3:25. With each uphill, I reminded myself that it was okay to slow down. With each downhill and flat, I reminded myself that it was safe to press the pace just a tiny bit.
By the time I reached the 25 mile marker, I knew that I could run a 9 minute mile the last 1.2 miles and still be under my goal time. Still, I pushed as hard as I could without cramping. Then I saw that beautiful sign: “Hereford Street.” I was still on pace and had two turns to go. Right on Hereford, left on Boylston, and on to the finish!
I can’t tell you that I passed anyone on that last stretch. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. I didn’t care. I had just spent the last 26 miles with thousands of others runners, but I was only racing one the entire time. The race was against my limitations. I had pressed my limits and managed my resources to get the most out of my body. In the race against my limitations, I won. I finished in 3:23:39.
The Real Story
This race was not won on emotions. This race was won by suppressing the emotions and staying focused. In particular, I won the race against my limitations because I had stayed in tune with my body. I ignored the crowd. I kept a laser-sharp focus on the road 20-30 feet ahead of me. I felt every muscle and mentally went through a checklist of every body part in an ongoing scan. When I did get emotional, I talked myself down and re-focused on doing my best in that moment. I did what I needed to do to get the best possible performance.
My story is one of overcoming obstacles, overcoming past performance, and overcoming my own fear of failure. I did this by staying focused over the last year and staying focused during the race. After the race, I shivered wildly. I realized just how cold and wet I had been for the last 3 hours. I shivered and shook all the way to Boston Common, when I could finally stand in a heated place long enough to regain control of my hands.
That is when it hit me. I did it. I beat Boston. I had come back to the course that defeated me last year and I was triumphant. I BQed at Boston. In fact, there was now only one marathon course which I have run, but not had at least one Boston qualifying time.
As with most races, the first thing I did is set my sites on the next big goal. I had run my first 2 marathons at Knoxville. I have BQed on every course after that. [not always on the first try, but eventually]. I think it is time to return to the Knoxville Marathon next spring so I can reach 6 out of 6. If I can run under 3:25, I will have qualified for Boston at least once on every marathon course I have ever run. That sounds pretty good. Challenge accepted.
What Did I Learn Between 2014 and 2015?
A) As an introvert, I need a plan to deal with the noise and distractions.
Many runners are encouraged by all of the fans, signs, and noise. I, on the other hand, am an introvert. I had to learn to drown it all out. If you look at my photos, I am always looking slightly down at the ground about 20-30 feet ahead of me. I was busy tuning out of the crowd and tuning into how I was feeling.
B) I need to run my own race.
I was well aware that the people in my corral all had about the same qualifying time as I did. That does not, however, mean that we can expect to run the race together. Some will go out too fast for me. Some will be going too slow. I take the uphills slower than most of that same group of runners. I make up for it on the flats and downhills. If I had tried to stay with the equally capable runners that I started with, I would have charged the hills too fast and faded early. In fact, there were only a few instances when I stayed with a group of specific runners for more than 20 seconds.
C) I belong here. I can do this. I need to remind myself of that.
You have to qualify for Boston. Most marathon runners don’t. Despite the fact that I had already qualified for Boston on four different marathon courses, I still had my doubts. Last year’s struggle did a lot of damage to my self-image. Throughout this year’s race, I had to give myself positive affirmations:
“Just because they start out fast, doesn’t mean they are faster than me.”
“This pre-cramp feeling is just a sign. I will deal with it and keep moving at a strong pace.”
“I am still on pace for a BQ. I have this. Keep pressing the limit.”
“I can average a 9 minute pace this last stretch and still get a solid BQ.”
“Yes, this is a slight uphill, but the finish is just around this corner. You can keep pressing the pace.”
D) I can still get faster and stronger while only running 3 days per week.
I had been doing my “NEXT-LEVEL” training program and it had prepared me for the challenge. I typically run 3 days a week, ride my bike 2 or 3 days per week, swim once every other week, and do a lot of strength training. In the year between the 2014 and 2015 Boston Marathons, I gained 10 pounds and became a stronger runner.
I praise The Lord for helping me learn these lessons and getting me through this race.
Now on to the next challenge.
“Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!” — P. Mark Taylor