Friday, April 25, 2014

Boston Strong: Race Report from the 2014 Boston Marathon

I thought about this race for more than a year. The anticipation was all-consuming. When I first decided to train for my first marathon some eight years ago, I set one goal for myself. I wanted to run the Boston Marathon.

For many, Boston is the Super Bowl of our sport. This is a runner's Kona. It's the holy grail we work so hard to reach, and even harder to stay in its company. If I learned one thing about the city and the people of Boston this past weekend, that's company I want to keep.


My year didn't start out how I wanted it to. I had an off-and-on calf strain for the better part of 6 weeks in December and January. Training was a bit erratic. I spent most of January confined to exclusive aqua running. If it were any other course than the downhill pounding from the rolling Boston course, I wouldn't be worried. But when you put your quads through that much stress, they better be ready for it. Doing almost all non-impact running in the pool wasn't the ideal solution. But, it was what I had to work with at the time.

I did spend considerably more time in the weight room over the winter, which I knew would help. Heavy squats, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges, basically anything to train the eccentric contraction in my quads and gluts that I knew would come on race day.

I came out the other side of my calf injury with essentially 12 weeks of training. For the competitive runner, a build up of almost twice that length would be ideal. But, I had 12 weeks and I was determined to make the most of it.

After the race, on the drive back, I reflected a bit on what I actually accomplished during those 12 weeks. How I gave myself a chance in Boston. How I took that relatively short amount of time to set myself up for one of my most memorable performances to date, whether triathlon or over 26.2 miles.


Boston is a special race regardless of the circumstances. This year was obviously different. The energy to "reclaim" this 118th running of the race for the city of Boston and runners everywhere was inspiring. I was truly honored and grateful to be apart of such a memorable event, one that brought out the strength, the resilience, the very best of Massachusetts, from Hopkinton to Boylston Street.

As much as running is an individual pursuit, I think we all do it for some higher purpose, something greater than ourselves. For some, this year's race was about healing. For others it was about redemption. For me, it reminded me of why I became a runner, why I'm grateful and proud to associate myself with a community that really stands apart in sport. For us runners, we know there are things we simply can't control. We can't control if a project gets dumped on us at work. We can't control if our young son or daughter is up all night with a fever. But, the one thing we can control, and in fact live for, are those times we get to lace up our running shoes, step into the sunshine (or down-pouring rain, snow, or sleet in some cases) and head off into the horizon, feeling completely free and alive.

I felt that same feeling in Boston, of truly living. And not just during the race, but all weekend. I don't think it was a coincidence that Christianity's most sacred, joyous holiday, Easter, a celebration of life, fell just one day before the marathon in a year when its meaning (life) was at the forefront of all of our thoughts. 


We arrived in Boston on Saturday afternoon, two days before the race. My wife and I drove up with my parents. The day was perfect for driving. The sun was shining. The trees of the typically picturesque Connecticut landscape were noticeably brown. Winter definitely left its mark. That didn't matter very much, though. I stared out the window. My thoughts drifted. I pictured myself on the course in Boston, attacking. I was getting into race mode.

Before arriving at the hotel, we took a slight detour through Hopkinton and Framingham. I wanted to familiarize myself with the area and the course. Were the downhills during the first few miles really that significant? Driving the first 10k of the course gave me somewhat of an answer to the question, but nothing compares to the actual experience of your feet hitting the pavement, your quads absorbing the impact. We'll see what happens on race day.

After finally checking into the hotel, we all headed for the most important pre-race destination: Whole Foods. I'll be the first to admit, I'm extremely cognizant of what I put in my body, and during the days before a race, I'm even more so. I made sure I was stocked with all my essentials: avocados, coconut oil, almonds, and white rice to add to the few things I brought from home: UCAN Superstarch, Maca powder, and Upgraded coffee beans (and the coffee grinder, of course).

Sunday morning I went for my usual pre-race jog and stretch. This is a routine that stems all the way back to my soccer days. Nothing too significant, but a few light miles to get the legs moving, a few short strides to introduce some stimulation, and a series of dynamic stretches. Now, time to head into Boston to the expo. I definitely felt the pre-race jitters by now. It was all positive energy, though.  Excitement, not nervousness.

At one point the following morning my dad referred to me as a chemist. I travel with a lot of my own foods and I'm not shy about picking only very specific items from the hotel breakfast buffet area (which was basically just a banana and hot water) and combining them with my stuff at the table. I guess at some point I stopped caring what other people thought about the things I ate or how I ate. I know the things that help me perform at my best and I stick to them.

Anyway, breakfast that morning: water, coffee with coconut oil, and a hot mixture of the following: UCAN Superstarch, a banana, avocado, coconut oil, almonds, Maca powder, and a very small amount (1/8 cup maybe) of hot oatmeal.


The ambiance of packet pick-up and the expo was pretty overwhelming. I've run in large races before, but this was different. I felt as though I was in different company, that I reached a new level in my endurance sports career. After a short bout of anxiety because I left my runner's passport (essentially your ticket to pick-up your bib) in the hotel room, I was relieved to see an information area where you could replace it if need be. This is pretty standard practice now with many races. You don't usually need your registration confirmation, but you always fear the worst.

With packet pick-up behind me, time for some lunch. The challenge, of course, was trying to find a place with an open table. Runners swarmed the restaurants around the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street. We walked a few blocks and finally came upon a decent looking cafe, with some outdoor seating nonetheless. Lunch was a big Greek salad with a side of hummus and olives.

My pre-race meals, especially dinner, don't deviate too much from my normal, everyday meals around major training sessions. And as I've written about before, I don't follow the conventional "carbo-load" approach to pre-race fueling. I think it's unnecessary to an extent and counterproductive, especially if you're goal is to control insulin, which is essentially the body's gatekeeper to fat burning (by spiking insulin, this basically triggers the body to shut down fat oxidation and rely exclusively on glycogen). That night at dinner (which was at this really cool jazz place in Cambridge called Beat Hotel) I had fluke ceviche, sweet potato, and broccoli rabe.

One final thing to do before bed and that was to layout all my gear for the following morning. Lights out.


I woke up race morning feeling rested. I had no issues the previous night falling asleep (thank you Natural Calm magnesium, another item in my mobile food pantry). It also helped psychologically that the time I had to wake up was about 45 minutes later than the time I normally wake up for AM training sessions. So, I actually got to sleep in!

Now, on to breakfast, which was another "science experiment." A doubly concentrated cup of Upgraded coffee with coconut oil, and another slurry with a small amount of white rice, avocado, half a mashed banana, UCAN Superstarch, a few almonds, and a small scoop of Maca powder. I also prepared my race fuel, which was pretty straightforward: a 10oz handheld flask with a concentrated solution of Superstarch that I planned to sip on from mile 8 or 9 till I finished it.


The shuttle bus drop-off point in Hopkinton was about a mile from athlete's village. Between the time my dad dropped me off at Hopkinton State Park at the shuttle and entering athlete's village, I passed through three security checkpoints. But, I knew this was coming, so all the added security didn't phase me too much.

As I walked through the starting corrals in Hopkinton, which, in a few short hours would be packed with thousands of runners, I felt an incredible sense of calm. I'm not sure if it was the sun, the cool morning air, or the mental state I was able to put myself in, but I felt entirely present in that moment. I walked by countless volunteers, thanking them for their service, and even more spectators, thanking them for their support and hospitality. I was, in fact, simply a visitor, and I was honored they embraced my company (for all those who understand Marathon Monday in Boston, the city more than embraces the runners who compete).

Athlete's village was a sprawl of bodies claiming the smallest of plots on the ground. Most flocked into areas hit by sunlight for added warmth. It wasn't extremely cold, but there was definitely a chill in the air. Because of new gear check rules, no bags were allowed in Hopkinton. That meant anything you wore you either had to discard (all clothing was donated) or run with it. Like many others, I arrived wearing pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a fleece top straight from the 90's. Observing all the interesting pre-race outfits (from bathrobes to blankets) provided a bit of entertainment during the 90 minutes or so I spent waiting in the village. I found a spot up against one of the tent poles to sit. Now the waiting game.

Nine o'clock finally rolled around, which meant it was time for the first wave to assemble in the staging area. I stripped off my sweats and exited athlete's village to join the other runners of my wave. There was only one thing missing in this area though, port-a-johns. Runners began to line the tree line around the parking area similarly to how lines would queue to wait for a port-a-john. The only problem: there were none. It didn't seem any of the police officers were itching to pass out citations for public urination. Anyway...

All nine corrals stretched through the center part of town in Hopkinton. But, runners were able to exit to the sides to warm-up. That's where I went. Down a fairly flat side street, I got a solid warm-up in. I felt good. Legs were loose. I didn't overdue it. Breathing was under control. I felt relaxed. I re-entered my coral - coral four, just three behind the elites - just in time for the national anthem.

After introductions of the elite runners, which included a pretty stacked field on both the men's and women's side, the gun finally went off. The corals in front of me slowly made their way across the start line. It's a slow, steady walk to the start line, and then, in an instant, you turn it on.


Ask any running coach or Boston veteran, they will all tell you the same thing. Don't go out too fast. Sure, this can be said of any race, but there's one thing that sets Boston apart from many other courses. The first 6 miles are all downhill. A few of these downhills are signficant, but many are gradual. They are deceptive. You wouldn't know it, but the course drops more than 250 feet over the first 4 miles (150 feet over the first half mile). The tendency is to take advantage of the free speed (not to mention the adrenaline that's pumping from the crowds at the start) to make up time early that you might lose later on. But, this is a slippery slope. As, the saying goes, every 1 minute you run too fast early in Boston, you lose 2 minutes later.

I felt this constant struggle during the first few miles. I wanted to push a comfortable pace, one I knew I could handle. But, I also had the continuous caution on repeat in my head. "Don't overdue it on the hills." I settled into a fairly moderate pace along the road's edge. At each mile marker I glanced down at my watch, half hoping I was ahead of my PR pace because I knew I could beat it, and half hoping I was right at my pace because I knew the challenges that lie ahead.

5k split: 20:54. 

Unlike any other event I've competed in, there were really no dead spaces along the course. Spectators formed a seemingly endless connection and flow of noise, support and energy. During the first five miles or so, I didn't even feel as though I was running. It might have also been my intense focus on not tripping over the feet in front of me. Much of the course is along a two lane road. That's not much real estate for thousands of runners jockeying for space.

But, before I knew it, I was out of Hopkinton, through Ashland, and into Framingham. Now, if you're a public health researcher like myself, Framingham holds a unique place within our community. The town has been the site of a major cohort study, beginning in 1948, looking at heart disease and its risk factors. In fact, the term "risk factor" can be traced back to the Framingham Heart Study. Okay, propeller hat is off, back to the story.

Not too long into the race, I fell into a great rhythm. One stride after the next, they felt perfect. My mind began to think 120 minutes into the future. I visualized myself striding strongly up Heartbreak Hill. I saw myself getting stronger as others suffered. Flashes of images from the YouTube clips I watched for motivation in the car on the way to the start formed a montage in my head. But, not too much of that. I needed to focus on the task at hand and keep checking in with how my body was feeling.
10k split: 41:41

Just after the 10k mark was when some of the early race high began to wear off. It's inevitable. It's also essential. Relying exclusively on adrenaline can only take you so far. You're more apt to make mistakes this way. Maximizing performance requires a keen awareness of your body in all aspects, muscular, cardio-repiratory, digestive, mental, and, yes, spiritual.

This is also when I started to think about if I needed to shift any of my nutrition protocol. I don't have a standard set mile marker when I begin to take on nutrition, it more depends on the conditions of the day. Hotter temperatures, like how things were shaping up that day, means a slight shift to starting my "drip" earlier in the race. Somewhat early in the race, around mile 10 or so, I also began taking several cups of water at each aid station and dumping them on my head and neck to try and keep my body temperature somewhat cool. Sixty to 65 degree temperatures aren't terribly hot, but with running, every degree makes a difference.

13.1 mile split: 1:28:32 (6:45 pace)

Ok, now it's game time. Legs were now feeling some slight fatigue from all the downhill on the first half of the race. Races are always broken up into segments. It's a series of small victories strung together that make a full performance. At 13.1, my eyes were set on the Newton hills in a few miles. I couldn't wait for them, in fact. I'm admittedly a much better uphill runner than downhill. Bring 'em.

After the halfway point, the crowds started to grow. Soon enough I came upon the famed section passing by Wellsley College. Students were out in full force, hanging over the barricades, holding their "kiss me" signs, and cheering with every ounce of air in their lungs. A few runners did stop for a quick kiss. A happily married man, I knew my boundaries (love you Steph). I did move over to run along the barricades, though, to high-five many of them. The least I could do, right?

The energy gave me an instant jolt. I needed it coming into the hills of Newton. I must say, hitting those first inclines were like heaven, a relief in many ways. I love running uphill. Climbing is all about efficiency. Your stride shortens, cadence increases. Head down. Just keep turning 'em over.

I was finally joined by that inevitable running partner. He always shows up at some point during a race. In a marathon, it's usually around mile 18 or 20 when you start asking questions of yourself. Am I strong enough? Will I make it? Can I hold this pace? I'm talking about none other than pain himself.

I spent a lot of time over the winter perfecting my mental game, working on how to deal with this partner. I meditated and did deep breathing exercises and yoga regularly. And so when pain joined me, I embraced the feeling. I knew it was coming. It always does. Don't fight it. It was in these moments that I learned to think about the unique sensations in my legs, how it felt. I channeled the suffering and used it positively. I felt I was getting stronger.

30k split - 2:07:29

And then it came. I finally arrived at the famed Heartbreak Hill. I've definitely run up steeper and longer hills during my time as a runner and triathlete, but never at mile 20 of a 3 hour marathon (at least that's what I was on pace for). I approached the hill with the same mentality as the previous: head down, steady cadence. Do the work! Keep the engine turning! I crested the hill feeling roughly the same as when I started. I didn't feel as though it really took much out of me at all.

The more painful section was the downhill afterwards. My quads were absolutely screaming at this point (and they're still feeling it even as I'm posting this). I just tried to hang on at this point, feed off the energy of the massive crowds. I took some comfort in knowing my wife and parents were somewhere in the crowds between mile 23 and 25. I had no idea where, but I kept an eye out, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Well, as much as I could. The crowds at this point were unlike any I've experienced.

The white Adidas sign along the course with the word "Boston" on it finally came into view. It wasn't too much longer until that famous stretch of pavement on Boylston Street. I knew my paced slowed, but I still gave it everything to try and beat the 3 hour mark.

Making the left turn onto Boylston Street was unbelievable. It's really hard to put into words. You round the corner and are immediately greeted by this wave of energy. I couldn't see a vacant spot on either side in the space between the barriers and the building fronts. The cheers were booming. The finish line looked majestic. In those final few hundred meters I thought about all the hard work over the years to make it to that magical moment.

Striking the blue and yellow finish tape on the pavement, I looked up, and as I do after every race, rose my heads towards the heavens to thank all those people, past and present, deceased and alive,  who have inspired and supported me to fight for my dreams.

And that's what it means to feel alive.


My final time was 3:02:21 (6:58 pace), good for 2747 overall and 1806 in the men's 18-39 age group. And another BQ! Maybe I'll be back.

And a big congrats to Meb Keflezighi, the oldest Boston Marathon winner since 1930 and the first American to win since 1983.

Disclaimer: I did not receive any form of compensation to reference the specific products mentioned in this blog post. I did so purely based on my own experience and satisfaction with those products.

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