Thursday, April 24, 2008

Race Report: Boston Marathon
Even after my bonks – Matfield Green Death Ride in '97; Wildflower in '04 – I was pretty well recovered within 24 hours. Even after the untrained-for 50 miles of Autumn Leaves last fall, I was eager to walk or ride within a couple of days.

But Boston has left me whipped. Perhaps you saw the report on Infospigot, based on an exclusive post-race interview. I knew then, hours after the race, that I had reached pretty deeply to run the race I did. Three days of staggering around, now with a sore throat, have only confirmed that.

So the customary race report has been late in arriving, and what it amounts to, I'm not really sure. All I know is that the race, it was everything I hoped it would be, and more. It's funny – after all these years of doing triathlon, I finally have a date with Ironman, in June. Yet Boston snuck in there and stole the prize; it became the race of a lifetime.

The crowds were the best part. Families on their front lawns in the very New England towns of Hopkinton and Ashland. Non-official aid everywhere, often from children—little hands holding out orange slices or water and looking for high (or low, I guess) fives. Everyone cheering, shouting encouragement. Of course there were the screaming girls of Wellesley (and I remember one big bearded guy in a Raiders shirt among them), and the rowdies at BC, and there were the Newton Hills, Heartbreak merely last among them, and there was the long straight shot down jam-packed Boylston to the finish.

But I’ll tell you what I also will not forget: On my dazed, wandering walk back to the hotel after it was over, I struck up a conversation with a couple of typical-looking New Englanders, a slightly heavyset mom and her braces-clad 11-year-old daughter. They were headed to South Station, on their way home to the Cape after watching the race. Had they come into town to cheer on friends or relatives? Nah. 'We always watch the Marathon,' the little girl said. 'It’s just so great to see all the runners.' Then she asked me how old you have to be to run it, because it was something she was aiming to do herself.

When she does do Boston, I’m hoping she’ll be smart enough not to run a half-marathon PR two weeks beforehand – on a hilly course, no less. I did that, in Portland on April 6, and it cost me in Boston. After a very comfortable first half of the race – completed in 1:35:27 – I began to notice some aching in my quads. By the time we reached the hills, after 16 miles, they were seriously hurting. Not so much on flat ground and even on climbs, but especially on the downhills. After Heartbreak Hill (20.5 miles in), the course falls about 200 feet in elevation over the next three miles. I should have covered these three miles in 22 minutes. But my quads were so ravaged, all I could manage was 24:05. So there you are – two minutes lost.

I pretty much stabilized for Mile 25, but just as I approached the 40K marker (the marathon is 42.2K), my left calf began to cramp. I mean, serious Michael Chang at Roland Garros cramping. I remember thinking: This is the kind of thing that causes guys to walk it in. But I wasn’t going to have any of that, not in front of the screaming masses, the tens of thousands creating an overwhelming din that makes the whole experience weirdly hazy today. Not with 3:20 – my true goal – still within reach. I ran as hard as I could without letting the cramping get out of control. It was maybe 85 percent effort. I’d push a little harder on the gas, feel the leg began to twitch and seize, then back off just slightly. Just slightly. The 2.2K took me 10:50, a per-mile pace of 7:55. There was another lost minute or so.

But no matter: I had made it. I was rewarded for risking going out hard – which was a little scary – and for having just enough fitness not to fall completely apart before the finish line. My time: 3:18:52, nearly six minutes faster than my previous marathon best, and done on the tough, fabled Boston route. Let's see: 4,038 finished in front of me, and 17,924 behind me.

Afterward, I was happy, but in a sort of distant way. I think I was emotionally drained. In fact, I think that feeling masked how physically done in I was. I only realized yesterday, after returning home and weighing myself, how dehydrated I must have been out there. I was down about eight pounds. Eight pounds = a gallon of water. (The day was great, in the high 40s at the start as the fog broke up and sun came out, into the low 60s midway, then back down into the high 50s at the finish with the sea breeze feeling quite refreshing. It felt like a great day to run. But the sun took a surprising toll.)

So, wow, Boston, well, it was a complete effort. Yep. Boston taught me what a complete effort is. It brought it out of me. By its obvious greatness, it demanded such an effort of me. What a cool thing the Boston Marathon is. What an honor to have run it.

The splits:
1 7:55
2 7:12
3 7:05
5 7:16
6 7:10
7 7:13
8 7:21
9 7:16
10 7:21
11 7:11
12 7:14
13 7:15
14 7:19
15 7:33
16 7:29
17 7:50
18 7:58
19 7:47
20 8:07
21 8:37
22 7:59
23 8:08
24 7:58
25 7:50
26.2 9:37
The Man in Yellow
I heard some runners complaining about all the attention Lance Armstrong was getting at the Boston Marathon. It wasn't really a dig at Lance, although for some people it did morph into that. Mostly, people thought there might be other cool stories to explore beyond the famous bike rider. But the Boston Globe did capture many of those stories the day after the race, so I didn't mind seeing one about Lance's day. And reading the story, I was struck by how closely the views of a seven-time Tour de France champion running a 2:50 marathon paralleled those of a 3:18 plodder (me). Lance totally got Boston.

While he's scaled more challenging heights in the Tour de France, Armstrong was surprised by his first encounter with Heartbreak Hill.

"There's hills all around that area, so I when I went up one, I thought, 'Boy, that must be it,'" he said. "Then we went to the next one, and this guy's next to me, he said, 'Well, that was Heartbreak Hill,' and I thought, 'Well, that wasn't that bad,' but another guy said, 'No, it wasn't that one, it's coming up,' so we eventually got to it.

"But the very first one of that series of hills seemed to me to be the hardest. It's interesting because people always talk about Heartbreak Hill and everybody sort of led me to believe that that series of hills was so difficult.

"Then I had this period where everybody seemed to talk them down - 'They're not that big a deal, running the hills of Boston; don't worry about it.' They were wrong. They are harder and they do come at a difficult time in the race.

"For me, it's hard to run on the downhills. Perhaps my body weight comes into play; 175 pounds running downhill really takes a toll on your muscles, and then all of a sudden you hit another uphill.

"Where's the flat marathons? Anybody know?"

No one had an answer. But there was another question: Does he plan to come back?

"Yeah, oh yeah," Armstrong said. "If they let me come back. But there's a lot of other reasons to come back.

"I really love the event, the spectacle of a marathon and the challenges of a marathon. This is a landmark event. This was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a beautiful experience, but the crowds here made it 10 times what I expected."