for twenty weeks we
train for Boston only to
get burned by the heat
for twenty weeks we
the blog for all things Vernonistic
for twenty weeks we
train for Boston only to
get burned by the heat
In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.
For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men’s 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 — preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.
At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well — mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an “experience.”
I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify — until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful — even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.
We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race — I’ll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren’t just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other’s success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.
The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.
The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.
Our friend and coach — let’s call him Bill Haskins — was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner’s pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.
Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.
By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it’s called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.
A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.
All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.
For over 20 years I have been running for recreation and fitness, anywhere from about .8 to three or four times a week for distances of 4 to 6 miles. I have rarely been concerned about performance or proving anything. I was in it for fun and fitness. Suddenly, at age 50, I am signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23, 2008, and training seriously. How did this happen?
The influence of a running-fanatic friend was a factor. He encouraged me to try a half-marathon organized by the New York Road Runners back in January. This was the longest distance I had ever run and I was not properly trained for it. I was sore as hell for days afterwards, but I loved it. Five thousand pairs of feet trotting through the cold air of Central Park, a kin-hin line writ extremely large. I decided I would meet the NYYR requirement for entry into the New York Marathon in 2009 by running in at least nine races in 2008, and thus open the option of doing a marathon.
Then my running friend got into my head again: Why don’t you do Philadelphia in the fall? It’s open to anyone who pays the registration fee. I thought this over for a couple weeks, fretting over the difficulty of fitting training into an already busy life. Then just said fuck it, hit the website and did the deed.
Now I am embarked on a formal training program (from the Running Planet) that prepares you to complete a marathon in four hours. I felt irrationally attached to the four hour number even before arriving at it rationally. It’s a nice round figure, and four hours of continuous running is quite enough, thank you, so let’s get it over with. It’s a fortunate coincidence that my running history is such that the four hour goal does appear to be reasonable and attainable. So I am going at it five or six days a week, getting up before dawn to trod the pavement and run around Liberty State Park as the sun comes up, hitting the treadmill at work, exerting myself like never before in my life.
Why do this? I have long been vaguely curious about the experience of completing a marathon and thought it might be interesting to try it some day and find out if I could do it. Then I noticed I was 50 years old. Now seems like a pretty good time to get started, rather than waiting until 60 or 70.
Yes, but that’s doesn’t answer the question: why do this? I read some place that there are as many reasons as there are runners, but that’s another evasion.
Am I trying to outrun the grim reaper? Well, no, I fully expect to die. But first I would like to run a marathon.
But why? Am I trying to prove that I am disciplined and tough? Maybe a little. I don’t think I need to prove that I am fit, it’s a pretty simple and uncontroversial fact. But I will rather enjoy showing my medal to people. I guess that would be about ego gratification.
Why? Why go to so much trouble for ego gratification, or whatever it is? I don’t know. Yesterday I was in Urban Athletics buying gear, and had a chat with one of the co-owners. When I raised this question with him, he simply said, cross the finish line and you’ll know why.
I am reminded of something my Zen teacher once said to me: Ultimate truth cannot be known. But it can be experienced. Perhaps Jerry from Urban Athletics was saying the same thing.
Update: A few days later, Sensei was not impressed when I told him this story about the above remark from the guy at Urban Athletics. Ever the consummate Zen dude, he said: why ask why?