Monday, November 19, 2012

Achieving My Goal to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

Almost six years ago I made the decision to run my first marathon.

I was still in college at Villanova and recently decided to end my soccer career - one that stretched all the way back to the days when I first starting walking. I needed something to fill the competitive void. More of a convenience factor than anything, the Philadelphia Marathon seemed like a great place to attempt my first 26.2.

After the 2007 Philly Marathon
I finished that first marathon in under 4 hours (3 hours and 52 minutes I think), but man did it hurt those last 7 miles. I thought I was ready. I ran 40+ miles a week. I ran several training runs of 20 miles. Yet, after the race, I found myself laying on the ground, asking my dad to stretch my legs out to try and relieve some of the sharp pain I felt in my legs.

At some point after the race I overheard two finishers asking each other if they qualified for Boston. They swapped times in the low three hours. I thought to myself, "how the heck can you run a marathon that fast?" I felt like I was just hit by a truck and to think of going even a few seconds faster seemed like a daunting task. But I couldn't help but imagine, "man, I really want to know what that feels like."

Flash forward five years, with five marathons under my belt, about the same number of half marathons, a few more short 5k's, and a couple triathlons, I found myself contemplating running a half marathon to cap out my 2012 (which was my busiest year, with a half marathon, 10 miler, two triathlons, and a century bike ride). Ironically, my cousin was attempting her first half marathon in Philly and wanted me to join.

I thought about it. But I couldn't stop thinking about one thing - why not give a go at a Boston qualifying time? My times have gotten significantly better of the years, and why not head back to the city where my love for endurance sports began, and to the place where I set the hardest endurance goal I thought possible at the time?

That was it. I wanted to test myself and see if I was up for the challenge. If I could translate my year of shorter, faster races to a longer distance. If I could cut just over 20 minutes from my best marathon time. So it was decided. I was heading back to Philly for another crack at 26.2 in the city of brotherly love. I have an older brother, and I was certainly hoping for more of the loving rather than the older brotherly.

Naturally, I was nervous going into race weekend. But I wasn't nervous because I didn't know the course, or because it was a marathon. Instead, I was hoping all the changes I made to my training would pan out the way I saw it in my head. (Stay tuned for my next posting where I'll discuss exactly what changes I made and why)

"One minute to the start of the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon," the announcer declared. I felt the energy, but unlike five years ago, it was a controlled energy. After pushing my way up to my assigned corral just behind that for the seeded and elite athletes, I put my sunglasses on, squatted down, thought about my race preparation, my race strategy, and embraced the moment. Then, before I knew it, the countdown was on, the horn blared, and we were off.

The first three miles were a warm-up. "Stay controlled," I thought to myself. My goal was a pace 45 seconds or so slower than what pace would be during the peak miles of the race. I was just behind the 3:05:00 pace group - a nice pace to get going.

Then, around mile 3 or so, I began feeling a pain on the top of my right foot. Maybe my shoe was a little too tight. I stopped once. Ripped off my gloves; untied my laces; loosened them; and retied them. Ran a few hundred meters - no change. I stopped again. Repeat. Gloves came off; untied my laces; loosened; and retied. All the while I kept thinking, "stay calm, it's early; it's a few seconds, but THIS BETTER NOT HAPPEN ALL RACE!" Good news - I got more comfortable. Bad news - the issue came and went the entire race.

What might have helped were the crowds. After my little shoe issue, the crowds seemed to grow and grow. Going across the downtown area, people lined the curb, and many were even standing in the street, making the already narrow Philadelphia streets seem even narrower. I came up on the 3:00:00 pace group and fed off their energy up the two main hills in the first half.

Coming up on the halfway point I began to pull away from the group. glanced at my watch - 1:28:00 - right on pace. I felt my legs start to feel just a little labored, but then came up on a small group of three other runners with a great pace. Two of them dropped off my pace after a couple miles, but there was one - Mark - who I stayed next to. Over the next 8 miles or so, our strides never differed. He took the lead for a little, and I would draft. Then we switched. We worked together and fed off each other.

The second half of the course (and out and back) is notoriously flat, but also relatively void of spectators (except for the turnaround). This is when you start to play the mental games. And at mile 20, that's when I started playing. There's always the point - in any race - when you hit that inner hurdle. The point when you're body starts to hurt and thoughts of doubt start to creep in. But, as world champion Ironman triathlete Chris McCormack says, "embrace the suck." You know it's coming, so don't fight it. Acknowledge it - maybe even talk to it. My legs were starting to hurt; quads were burning, calves were the same.

Regardless of how my body felt, I kept seeing those time splits, and they kept showing me I was on track to break 3 hours. And once I hit mile 25, and seeing my dad, hearing him yell "finish strong," I knew I just about had it. With about a mile left, I let the crowd take over. I came up the small hill around the Art Museum. I could hear the announcer. I felt the energy of the thousands of people who lined the finish chute. Then I got my first glance at the finish clock - 2:58:00. One last sprint and I broke the finish line.

2:58:22. And all I could think was, "Wow, I did it."

Thumbs up after the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon

1 comment:

  1. I remember that 1st run in Philly. Great work. I'm very proud!