Friday, April 22, 2011

2011 Boston Marathon Race Report

If you’ve read my race report from the 2009 Boston Marathon, you know that I didn’t really have a great race. I made the rookie mistake of going out too fast and I death-marched it in from mile 16. I learned a lot from that race, and remain a believer that all of our experiences serve a certain purpose. That race taught me to hold myself accountable to the training plan a bit better and realize that “natural ability” comes from hard work. I’m not a 3:10 marathoner by default; I have to work for it. Similarly, I won’t become a sub 3 marathoner without listening to the lessons along the way.

I didn’t qualify for the 2010 race, so I was especially grateful to have qualified again for 2011 … and that I was able to register. Registration for the 2011 Boston Marathon closed in approximately 8 hours, leaving many qualified runners unable to capitalize on the dream they worked so hard to attain. Having had such a terrible experience with the course in 2009, I set an early goal to do anything I could to enjoy the course this time. For me, that mostly meant putting in the hours and the miles to train. As anyone who has done it will tell you, training for an early spring marathon (such as Boston) is especially challenging, as you log a majority of your miles in the dark and cold. In Vermont, that also means snow and ice packed sidewalks that prevent you from getting a true read on what your current paces might actually be.

I began my 18 week training cycle in mid-December and soon realized that it was coming even harder than it usually does. This proved to be an especially nasty Vermont winter with record snow accumulation and I was soon confined to very specific roads that I knew provided at least small stretches of decent traction. Later in the cycle, I ran a 24 mile training run by repeating the same 3 mile loop 8 times. But by late January, I was already not enjoying myself. My paces weren’t coming and I was starting to resent the race itself. I belong to an online community of runners that share their love of the Boston Marathon with me and we virtually train together all year long. Many of us have met, in person, at various races around the country, and they have become some of the truest friends and training partners a runner could wish for. So I knew I’d be in good company for Patriots Day … I just wasn’t feeling the mojo of the training cycle.

So I kept a promise to myself regarding my ‘A’ goal for this year’s race … that of enjoying the course. And that enjoyment was going to include the training period. I adjusted my goals for the race and decided to allow my hometown race (The Vermont City Marathon) to become my goal race at the end of May. I announced to my virtual training partners that I’d be backing off and would start with anyone who was planning to run a 3:30:00 marathon. I soon realized I’d have a good amount of company with friends who were either targeting that benchmark for the first time or who were backing off from their own plans for various reasons, including injury and life balance. One friend in particular, my buddy Amy from Ohio, asked if I’d help pace her to a sub 3:30. Amy and I also ran together on a team for a 200 mile relay race across the state of New Hampshire this past fall. Bingo. I have my plan for Boston.

Training went well and I had a great indicator with the New Bedford Half Marathon in early March, running a 1:29:12 (6:49 pace), my second fastest half marathon to date. I spent the training cycle experimenting with new nutritional plans prior to my long runs and the half marathon. The plan was incredibly successful, and all components of the training cycle seemed to be coming together perfectly. The only challenge remaining was structuring things so that I could stretch out the build to peak for a May marathon while still racing, to a large degree, in Boston. But I was thankful to be going into the event knowing that I pretty much had a no-fail plan for enjoying the weekend. I’d be running with friends and really enjoying an incredible celebration of the sport in a city that really knows how to roll out the red carpet for runners.

I haven’t done a lot of pacing, but that was to be my role for this race. And I took it seriously. I’ve learned, in the few times I’ve done it, that there is a fine line between helping somebody run their best race possible and micro-managing it to the point of really tarnishing the experience. The first time I really stepped into the role, I was helping my friend Meg land a PR at the 2010 Vermont City Marathon. We actually both had very similar goals, so I was really going to be trying to run my race on a course I was very familiar with while providing support along the way for another runner. In that race, I really only had to rein Meg in from going out too fast in order to help her capitalize on what can be a phenomenal negative split course (the act of running the second half of the marathon faster than you ran the first half). I managed to do just that and repeatedly suggested that Meg “dial it back” when her splits started creeping into the territory of too fast. I ended up letting Meg go at the half way mark and, ultimately, dropped out of the race at mile 20 with GI issues. To this day, she gives me far too much credit for the amazing race she ran that day … unleashing herself slowly from the 18 mile mark for a beautiful finish.

When my friend Tom, who gets far too many cameo appearances in this blog, asked me to pace him on a training run a week out from Boston, I agreed. Tom has a half marathon coming up and is looking to break 90 minutes. He asked if I’d run 12-14 miles with 6 or 7 at his goal pace of 6:50 per mile. We met up on a Sunday and did just that. You can read about that run in my “Taking Care of Business” entry found below. The short story is that we pretty much nailed our paces and I got too practice tapping into my sense of when to push and went to pull as a pacer.

Again … pacing really straddles a fine line. If done well, you’re really just there for support as your runner does all of the hard work he or she is capable of doing. You’re there to remind the runner of his or her skills and then help the runner make the best use of those abilities that they’ve honed. 

The Race
Athletes Village - In Quieter Times
I like to get to a race early. I just don’t like the stress of battling the crowds to find a place to sit and relax prior to the start. For the Boston Marathon, runners are transported from Boston Commons to the town of Hopkinton on school buses that leave as early as 6:00am. Marianne dropped me off at the Commons at around 5:30am and I met up with two friends, Jeff and Tom … both of whom are also on my Reach the Beach relay team. We got onto the second bus scheduled to depart and were soon on our way. We arrived at the Athletes Village when it was still calm and staked out a spot where we would soon be joined by approximately 40 others from our online community. If you ever have the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon, I think you are best served to have a solid group of friends with whom you can hang at Athletes Village. In many ways, sharing that pre-race excitement is one of the best moments of the entire weekend.
Amy did all the prep work for the race itself. We followed the advice of another member of our online community who has put together an amazing spreadsheet tool that allows the runner to input a goal time and what type of race is most likely going to be run (slow start, fast start, fade at the end, etc.). We tweaked it once or twice and came up with what we thought would be a solid plan for getting Amy her sub 3:30.
The Boston Marathon holds approximately 27,000 runners and starts them in waves of 9 corrals each. This year, they used three waves, instead of two, for the first time. I was scheduled to start in the first wave, but we’re allowed to back up to join friends, as long as we don’t move into the first corral. Another friend, Stephan, and I had access to the first wave, so we went down to watch the start and avoid the rush of the second wave of athletes leaving Athletes Village, checking their gear, and finding their way to their own corral. Stephan was also going to join the 3:30 convoy, and we had agreed to meet up with Amy and a few others at the back of her corral.

Stepping into the role of pacer allowed me to really enjoy the morning of the race. I remained absolutely relaxed all morning long and did not have to spend time coaching myself with reminders of my race plan. My job was to remain mindful of the splits that were listed on a pace band around my wrist and gently pull or push Amy into a place where she could capitalize on the potential she had harnessed for the day. Amy is a no-nonsense, speak your mind type of person with a heart as big as you could possibly imagine.  She contributes daily to the online forum and goes out of her way to welcome new folks into the fold. Having spent 24 hours (albeit in a separate van) with her as we traversed 209 miles across the state of New Hampshire, I went into this with a pretty good sense of what she could handle if I needed to kick her in the ass a bit should the going get tough. And the going always gets tough if you’re running a marathon to the fullest of your potential. I was ready for this … looking forward to it, actually.

As planned, we gathered at the back of Amy’s corral and were joined by a few more of the finest of our fold. Andrew, Eamon, Kari, Ron, Will, Shan and her husband Rob, Ron, and Nikki … who found her way to the front of the corral behind us so she’d be right there with us when the dividers dropped. I don’t think I’m leaving anyone out. But we didn’t all go out en masse. We all had a common goal of hitting the 3:30 mark, but everyone pretty much had their own plan. Andrew and Eamon knew they were going to drop back or out at some point (Eamon is returning from an injury and Andrew just wanted to hang with the cool kids). Stephan is enjoying a return to the game after being diligent about nursing some stress fractures back to full recovery. Kari likes to run her own race. But we were all there at the start, enjoying the magic of the moment and the amazement of our cross-country fellowship together.

You don’t always hear the gun sound. This is especially true in the really large marathons. Suddenly, the crowd is just moving forward and you jump into action. And that’s how it started for us. When you’re a middle-of –the-pack marathoner at a race as large as the Boston Marathon, you’re simply never going to find yourself in your own space. You’re always going to be in a crowd. So I really just decided to work on keeping a sense of where Amy was and, from there, a secondary sense of where the others who had joined us were.  I wear a GPS unit on my wrist that tracks my current pace for every mile, and I kept a pretty watchful eye on our pace as it compared to the plan written on the band around my wrist. As a pacer, I wasn’t necessarily tuned into how the race was making me feel as much as I was tuned into sticking to the plan. It would be my job to hold us back or spark us into action as needed. I’m a large marathoner, so I thought I might also be able to provide a wedge, of sorts, as we pushed through the crowd of runners in front of us … creating a wake of space that Amy could follow behind before it closed off with those we were leaving behind.

The Boston Marathon is notorious for luring the racer out to a faster-than-what-is-wise pace. The first four miles offer a nice downhill terrain (for the most part) that feels amazing on fresh legs that are fueled by the enthusiasm of running THE BOSTON FRICKIN’ MARATHON. But the prudent runner will hold back in these miles and feel as though the pace is contained, if not outright stifled. If you’d like to read a report from a runner who wasn’t so prudent, go ahead and read my 2009 report.

So, in these four miles, my only role was to participate in the enthusiasm of running an amazing race with some amazing friends and occasionally reminding Amy to ease up. We had created the pace plan with the knowledge that the crowd would keep us from finding our paces in the first couple of miles. We then planned to ease into what should average as an 8:00 minute mile pace. The spreadsheet we used to calculate our actual splits capitalizes on the topography of the course and encourages the runner to race at a fairly consistent perceived effort … allowing a little faster speed on the downhill portions (without overdoing it and thereby trashing the quads), and then easing up a bit on some of the climbs (such as those famous hills of Newton).

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
1              8:24                        8:16
2              8:10                        8:03
3              7:56                        7:55
4              7:53                        7:56

When I paced my friend Meg during the first half of her running of the 2010 Vermont City Marathon, a mantra evolved. I asked her to “Dial it Back” countless times as she likes to forget the fact that she has 26.2 miles to race … not just 18. She likes to let it out from the start and see if she can hang on. She’s a competitor and worries that she’ll leave some effort unused at the end of it all. Marathoners have a short memory of what miles 22-26 feel like and we go into a race convinced that we’re going to be stronger this time. But it’s the evolution of the mantra that I want to spend some time considering here.

I don’t know where they come from. But I always seem to find myself with a few words that move me through a given moment of any race. I rarely, however, get to utter them out loud. To utter them, though, was my job on this day. Given Amy’s own benchmarks for this training cycle, I knew that she had her ‘A’ goal well within her for this race. This translates to also knowing that I wouldn’t have to do much of any sort of coaching for the first 13-16 miles of the race. A well prepared marathoner who is well in tune with his or her capabilities is going to have no problems, aside from going out too fast, within those miles. Unless, of course there are factors outside of your control, it’s the auto-pilot zone and you’re mostly just calming your nerves into adherence of the plan. This was, for the most part, a no excuses kind of day with regard to weather. The sun was out but was not oppressively warm. The temps started in the high 40s and didn’t exit the 50s. And we had a tail wind for most of the route that would show up occasionally but almost always provided relief rather than obstruction. Amy had been having some hip pain, and I knew that was on her mind, but, for the time being, I only had to reign her in. I made an effort to keep her to my side or run quietly behind her and only occasionally had to suggest that we “hold up” a bit.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
5              8:04                        7:59
6              7:58                        8:00
7              7:58                        8:02
8              8:03                        7:57
9              7:59                        7:57
10           8:03                        8:03
11           8:02                        8:03

Even the non-running reader will recognize those as auto-pilot miles. We were in the zone, having some laughs with everyone in the group, and getting it done. At the 15k mark (mile 9ish), we pulled ourselves together for a photo opportunity for one of the professional photographers along the course. There are countless reasons for us to be smiling here and I’m thankful to have the camaraderie we share captured as it is here. These are the moments that feed us as a tribe. 

From here we move into the famed scream tunnel of Wellesley College. The women line the runner’s right hand side and advertise for kisses, a fabled requirement for graduation. Maybe, someday, when I pass beyond the “creepy older dude” phase and back into “that guy looks way too hot to be 65” I’ll offer a peck on the cheek. But once I get these hamstrings moving, a sudden stop is probably not a good idea when I’ve got a job to complete. I did run right along the barricades that separated myself from these stewards of enthusiasm and high fived my way through 800 meters of ear splitting cheers.

And here, for me, is where the race begins. Others will instruct that the real marathon begins at the 20 mile mark. I think most people will adjust that number down to the 16 mile mark for the Boston Course. But, for me, after the anticipation of the scream tunnel, I know it’s time to find my focus, check my paces, and prepare myself for the hills of Newton. 

Ahead of those hills are a few opportunities, according to our pace guide, to buy back a little more speed by coasting down some hills. I knew, going in, that it would be my job to switch gears when needed and flip the switch we all have to find a few seconds per mile. So I’d do just that. In addition to keeping an eye on the paces, I would also try to view ahead for the path of least resistance that still followed the tangents of the course (the most direct route while navigating curves and corners). Our group was, for the most part, passing people consistently along the entire route. This is the sign of a very well-run race. We weren’t blowing by them, but we were slowly reeling in the runners ahead of us at a slow and easy rate. As the race progresses, this becomes more and more a sign that you managed yourself incredibly well. So I’d try to point quickly with where we’d be going while occasionally suggesting that we “get some back” or that “he wants a little more now” … “he” being g-mack, the online community member who provided the pace guide. Not necessarily mantras, but a quick little communication to make certain I’m on the same page with Amy.
But the best parts of the race, for me anyway, were those moments where we were just running in sync with one another and the surges came intuitively. There were times when we were just on the mission and communicating without much more than a subtle move in any particular direction.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
12           7:53                        7:51
13           8:00                        8:06
14           7:58                        7:57
15           8:03                        8:00
16           7:41                        7:43

Stephen, Amy, Me, Shan, Andrew, Nikki
Eamon dropped off around mile 14 and shut things down to preserve the recovery he has made through an Achilles tendon injury. Andrew faded back shortly thereafter and enjoyed the remainder of the race at his own pace. Will was moving slowly ahead at his own pace and Shan and Rob had fallen back as well. Kari stopped early in the race to tie her shoe and would remain just a minute or two behind us while running her own PR. Also at about mile 14, Amy mentioned the hip pain that she had been concerned about in the weeks leading up to the race.

When you’ve had a race ending injury, or an injury that robbed you of some significant training miles, you become hyper-aware of a return visit from that very injury. If, at mile 14 of a marathon, you’re suddenly having your focus pulled as you consider whether or not this is the same sort of pain you have been worried about, you run a significant risk of blowing your plan. The marathon is at least as much a battle of your mind as it is a battle of your muscle. On some days, it’s more a battle of your mind.

This is where I hope my read on how well I can push Amy is spot-on accurate. I knew, going in, that my role was mostly with the mental side of things. I’ve pushed plenty of people around the track as we have taken on some grueling interval workouts … and I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of when they have more to give and how that compares to when they’re done. And they’re not always physical indicators. You can push a person into one more lap at a killer pace despite the furrowed brow they’re giving you as they finished the previous lap. But you have to sense when it’s time to cool down.

For Amy, it wasn’t time to cool down. She knew it and I knew it … this was a hip niggle that was there just to mess with her and we best get rid of it. She was fine. Cue the mantra.

“Your hip hurts in Ohio. It doesn’t hurt in Boston.”

In other words, this is the Boston Marathon and you came here to run it.  Let’s do that. 

Mile 16 provided, for me, one of my favorite moments of the race. This was to be the fastest mile of the race and required a very deliberate flipping of that switch. Amy and I confirmed the moment and I brought us to the pace, which, in turn, brought an obvious different feel to the effort. We were stepping out of the auto-pilot zone and about to take the wheel for the rest of the race. As Stephen picked up on the shift he asked “are we supposed to be racing this mile?” Amy answered with a quick “yup”.

And we were off to finish the Boston Marathon.  

From here it becomes a matter of finding out whether or not your deliberate attention to running your pace rather than those which would have been offered the early downhill miles would be enough to allow you to navigate the hills of Newton that will last through mile 21. But we’re not going back to auto-pilot mode from this point on. We decide to run these miles and to run them as we’ve been asked to run them.
So you count the hills. One. Two. Three. Four.  Only they don’t go that fast. 

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
17           8:14                        8:08
18           8:11                        8:11
19           7:49                        7:50
20           8:05                        8:12
21           8:21                        8:27

And, although the uphill sections of the Newton hills are what get the press, it’s the downhill sections that have you wondering about your resolve. Stephen pulled back at about the 18 mile mark. I don’t even remember it happening … but he finished his own race and I’m thankful to have gotten to know him a bit better. It was the first time we had raced together.

 Cue the Mantras:

“Let’s do what you came here for.”

“3:30” She responded.

“Screw 3:30. You came here for a 3:29. Let’s go get it.”

“Focus on your form and your head will follow.”

I’m pushing Amy now … and keeping a feel for just how hard I can do that. So far, there is no indication that I’ve crossed that tenuous line. She’d say something to indicate that she was fading and I’d promise her that “it’ll come back. It always comes back.”

A key to running a marathon you feel good about is going into it with a promise that you know some things about the race. One of those things that you know … and I mean that … it’s science … is that your body is going to respond to the stress in waves. You can think your way out of fatigue. Even when you’ve drained your body of all the fuel it had … to the point that you’re feeding on fat stores … you still have more to give. So you remind yourself of that. That you’re going to feel better in a few minutes (relatively speaking).

Heartbreak Hill is the last of the Newton hills and takes you to the 21 mile marker at Boston College. Nikki absolutely floated up the hill and I knew she was off to finish a strong race. So now, it’s Amy and I for the finish. After you crest Heartbreak, you’ve got another downhill section that pairs amazingly well with the energy of Boston College. And the energy of Boston College surpassed that which we received from Wellesley College. The last time I ran these miles, I was in absolute pain and struggling just to finish the race with dignity. This year, I’m having the very race I wanted to have. I’m drinking in the course that I’ve shared with a number of friends and continue to share with the now determined friend looking to land at 3:29.

And it came back.

I found myself suddenly transported to mile 3 where I’m once again encouraging Amy to rein it in. In hindsight, I’m wondering if I should have just let it ride in those moments. I think we did the practical thing by holding ourselves back, but I wonder. We ran the mile in 7:51, but I was watching the pace and I know we could have popped off a 7:30 or better.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace        
22           7:46                        7:51

At this point in the race, the streets themselves are screaming. The city is alive for you and you’re trying to match the gift with whatever you can.

“Four Miles, Amy. You can put up with anything for four miles.”

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
23           7:57                        8:07

I’ve been an educator for my entire adult life. I believe the finest instructor remembers what it was like to be a student. And I know what’s going through a marathoner’s mind at mile 23 when you’re on the absolute edge of where you’ve been trying to get. And I need to stop that.

“There is no B goal, Amy. Don’t give yourself a B goal.”

“What did you come here for?”

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
24           7:56                        7:48

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You find it. Take what’s yours.

Marianne and Sully are waiting for us at mile 25 … just before the overpass. Sully’s handing out cannolis for whoever will have them. I tell Amy that we’ve got cannolis at mile 25 and then we grit it out to the finish.  I plan to make my way over to his side of the street to grab one, but I’m not letting Amy get there.

“A 3:29 tastes better than a cannoli.”

I can’t believe I said that out loud. But it needed to be said.

As it turns out, Marianne and Sully are just a tad off from where we stood last year … when I handed out cannolis myself. And I hadn’t completed my drift over for the hand off. I make eye contact with Sully and, just like Amy and I have been communicating without words, I know he’s good for the toss. But I look over my left shoulder and see far too much traffic. I call him off the pass like Curt Schilling shaking off a sign. That hurt.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
25           7:56                        8:10
26           8:02                        8:04
26.2        1:37                        1:40

I wish this had the ending you’re hoping to read. I really do. I wish I could tell you we turned right onto Hereford, then left onto Boylston and across the finish line with seconds to spare. In truth, I knew we were going to be painfully close. I just didn’t know on what side of 3:30:00 we were going to land. So we ran.

“It’s going to be close.”

I crossed the line at 3:30:19 and Amy at 3:30:20. I stopped my Garmin and, for a second thought we had done it. But Amy’s face told a different story. I suddenly realize that I hadn’t switched off the Auto-Pause feature, and my timer stopped during the two pit stops I made along the way. But the race clock kept ticking. 

But what a race. Amy set a new PR by 5 minutes. And I like to think that she’s still got something to chase. And she will. And she’ll catch it.

The Truth
It would be far too easy to read this race and assume that I gave without receiving. Don’t do that. Maybe I’ve written the race report to bring you to that assumption, but I need you to go back to what I wanted from this race. I wanted to enjoy the course and run with friends. And in the process, by deliberately placing myself in the company of such outstanding friends, I received far more than anything I gave.
Those first 14 miles are, without comparison, the finest miles I’ve ever run in a marathon. To be running in the most celebrated marathon in the history of the sport, looking left and right with some of the finest friends and training partners who truly get what it took to be there … for a runner, it doesn’t get much better.

And, to date, I have never run a marathon that well. I’ve run them faster, but I’ve never run one that tactically well. We ran nearly perfectly even splits the entire way. The second half of the race took a mere 17 seconds longer than the first half of the race took us. I’ve never done that before. And I was able to do that because I obligated myself to run the race with another runner.

And isn’t that the best way to take any journey?


  1. Awesome. What a great report. Hope to see you guys again soon.

  2. Such a wonderful report. What a great friend you are as well as a wonderfully caring pacer, “it’ll come back. It always comes back.” Love that. Great job, Troy.

  3. Exceptional writing, exceptional running, exceptional friendship.

  4. You, sir, are a class act. I'm so glad you and Amy (and so many others) were able to achieve your goals this year. My goal was also simply to enjoy the course, and I did that, as the marathonfotos will indicate. Looking forward to running with you again in Vermont.

  5. That "A" goal is something many forget-and what an amazing race you had, Troy, remembering that, and in being there for a fellow runner on the way to reaching her goal. And..."Creepy Older Dude." Hehe. That gave me a chuckle.

    Great to see you at the Beerworks FE, and wishing you lots of speedy running and PR's in the future.

  6. Must. Not. Shed. Tears.
    I'm a liar- many tears were shed. What can I say? I'm a softie, and think your friends are mighty lucky to have you on their side. Congratulations on a fine race.