I rode Amtrak from Newark on Sunday and lodged at the Hilton in the Financial District. After putting down my gear I went to the expo where you get your number, and did not hang around long. Those big convention center affairs are oppressive and I wasn’t much interested in shopping. The marathon included a pasta buffet dinner, and having no other hot date lined up I decided I might as well. It was no better than satisfactory, which is OK for these purposes. After dinner I lay in a hot bath and managed to let the jitters subside to some extent. Got to bed reasonably early and woke up at 4:15, an hour ahead of the alarm and redundant wake-up call.
The buses to the start in Hopkinton were about a 12-minute walk from the hotel. Instead I spontaneously shared a short cab ride with two other runners, also strangers to each other. Everywhere I went I found good vibes and camaraderie. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with people with whom you have such an intense common interest. On the bus I sat next to a Canadian woman who had to be well over 60 and who knows what it is to train in truly cold weather and snow — not like us New Jersey wimps. Before the start the runners wait for a couple hours in an outdoor area known as Athlete’s Village, where armed guards, attack dogs and razor wire keep the athletes from escaping. Despite the forecast for textbook-perfect weather, it was cold, and the ground was wet. I wished I’d had as much foresight as the people who brought ground cloths and other appropriate equipment. I was shivering much of the time, my cotton layers insufficient against the wind.
For readers who are not familiar with the marathon game, a little context: the world record is just a little over two hours. From my perspective, anything under three hours is astounding. The entrance requirement for the prestigious Boston Marathon is to demonstrate your credibility by running an officially recognized marathon within a set time, adjusted for gender and age, in the 18 months prior to the race. The Boston qualifying standard for my age bracket is currently 3:35; all Boston qualifying times will become five minutes tougher as of 2013. Having [qualified in New York in 2009](http://vernontbludgeon.com/blog/archives/2009/11/running_the_2009_ny_marathon.html), I was now here to crack 3:20:00 and needed to average a fraction over 7:37 per mile. It’s all relative, to be sure, but I think it fair to say that a sub-3:20 marathon, when you are six weeks short of 53 years old, is pretty damn good. It’s a BQ (Boston Qualifier) with 15 minutes to spare, 10 minutes by the 2013 standard.
My training had gone well, and I had plenty of sage advice from experienced, excellent Boston marathoners (e.g., a guy whom we will call Bill Haskins to protect his privacy), hence a pretty clear notion of what to do. Stick to your pace and no faster — as with any marathon. Beware of the early miles which are downhill, and can seduce you into going too fast and trashing your quads. If you’ve managed your pace intelligently, then after the last of the infamous Newton Hills around mile 21 you can pick up the pace and seal the deal.
At last we get moving, and the cold is an issue no more. There is no other sound like the patter of thousands of shoes trodding the asphalt.
These are my unofficial mile splits:
Mile 1: 7:57. Too congested. There was little I could do about that so I tell myself not to worry, in fact maybe this is good. Start out easy and make it up later.
Mile 2: 7:07. Oops. Didn’t mean to make it up all at once.
Mile 3: 7:11. Shit. Got to get this under control.
Mile 4: 7:26. Still too fast.
Mile 5: 7:40. Thank you.
Mile 6: 7:37. Brilliant.
Mile 7: 7:39. I’ll take it.
Mile 8: 7:34. A little overexuberant, but acceptable.
Mile 9: 7:32. Dude, come on.
Mile 10: 7:49. A little erratic now. Maybe compensating for the sins of the past couple of miles though I don’t remember for sure.
Mile 11: 7:27. Compensating for the preceding. Definitely too erratic now.
Mile 12: 7:57. I saw an open Porta-Potty and decided to go for it though my need was not urgent. It just looked like a good opportunity. But it took numerous seconds.
Mile 13: 7:15. Again, the mistake of trying to reclaim lost time in one shot.
Mile 14: 7:29. Trying to ease up.
Mile 15: 7:35. Not bad.
Mile 16: 7:19. Oops. Maybe getting a little too cocky about feeling strong at this stage.
Mile 17: 7:48 Again easing off. Soon hereafter I encounter my one-man support team among the onlookers, the incomparably charming — not to mention stupendous runner — John Parry, who gave me wonderful encouragement, running alongside me for maybe half a minute. I tell him my legs are a little beat but the engine is still strong. He says, keep running relaxed. I yell back “I love you, man!” as we part.
Mile 18: 7:50. The Newton Hills slow me down. I might also have lost a few seconds talking to John, but it was well worth it.
Mile 19: 7:26 Fighting back. Starting to fatigue.
Mile 20: 7:45. Nice to be here, realizing it will all be over before too long. Unless I melt down between here and the finish, that is.
Mile 21: 7:56. The dreaded Heartbreak Hill. It doesn’t quite break my heart but it slows me down.
Mile 22: 7:21. Again battling back.
Mile 23: 7:48. Getting smacked around. The margin of error is dwindling. Must step on the gas.
Mile 24: 7:35. I’m proud of that.
Mile 25: 8:04. Hurting. A few minutes later, rough calculation tells me I might make 3:20 but not by much. Got to pick it up.
From 25 to 26.2: An 8:00 pace. Definitely fading badly in the last two miles. Turning left on Boylston into the final stretch I give it my best effort to run like hell, my legs so thrashed it’s like a bad dream. But this final gambit gets me over the finish line at 3:19:55. Success.
I was fairly well tattered after the finish, light-headed, leg muscles locking up. But I drank plenty of fluids and managed to limp onto the subway and back to the hotel, where I decided I deserved a pint of Guinness at the bar. This is Boston after all. Then, back to the bathtub to let it all sink in.
The Boston Marathon is a class act. The volunteers were consistently great, the crowd tremendously supportive, and the organization seemed to me just about flawless. The atmosphere is uniquely exciting. It’s a kick to be among a great mob of runners who range from quite good to quite very damn good indeed. I had some fun along the way, the pain of the last 10K notwithstanding. I enjoyed chatting with a few runners during the first 12 or 13 miles, though I am of two minds about doing that. On one hand it gets you out of your head for a bit and provides a distraction, helping you to relax and enjoy the ride. On the other hand, it’s a distraction. You might inadvertently adjust your pace to the other person’s (or vice versa) instead of running your own race. I suppose that at a more advanced level there’s no wasted breath or concentration, but I think at my more modest level of performance it can’t hurt to socialize in moderation.
I would have loved to report an elegant and disciplined marathon with a strong, crisp finish rather than a tail of sloppily fluctuating all over the place and then barely hanging on to attain the goal. This performance suffered from my characteristic problem with self-control. It isn’t a willful disregard of pace management, or a consciously arrogant decision that today I am such a superb athlete that I can run faster than planned. I just have trouble gauging pace. This being my first Boston and just my third marathon, the lack of experience might have something to do with it. I could buy one of those GPS devices that tells you how fast you’re going, but I am stubbornly old-school, and frugal. I would rather learn to control myself with a $35 Timex and feedback at the rate of once per mile.
During the slow walk back to the hotel I began thinking I could do better if I tried it again. Ever obsessed with time, I looked at my watch to see about how long after the finish it took me to start thinking in those terms. Forty minutes.