Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wicked Haat and Wicked Haad: A Boston Marathon Race Report

This weekend was the 116th running of the Boston Marathon and my first. I had several people tell me that Boston was their worst road marathon time but the experience is unparalleled. While Boston is not my worst road marathon time it is my worst road marathon time since my first sub-4 hour marathon at the 2007 Las Vegas marathon. However, I really don't care because despite the temperatures and the warnings I ran the race I wanted to run until I couldn't run that race any longer.

Stupid? Sure, why not. It's not like I was going to miraculously overcome the laws of thermodynamics and the rules governing human physiology. The dorky "Mind over matter, if you don't mind it don't matter" saw is a fallacy, it's false bravado quoted by someone who did something already within their ability. From a strategic standpoint I made a poor decision to try and run my pre-race goal time of 3:24, which would have been a 4 minute PR for me. But from an emotional standpoint I think sticking with my plan was all that was acceptable to me.

I really am in the best shape of my life, I have had two complete physicals with blood work and EEGs done in the last four months and I felt very confident that my body could withstand the punishment I was planning on subjecting it to. I'm also confident in my ability to recognize and manage a bad situation. I guess that's my "Kids, don't try this at home" disclaimer.

Like I said, from an emotional standpoint I think going full out was the only truly satisfying choice I could have made. This was a personal decision that was right for me and things I may say in this post is in no way a commentary on the decisions other people may have made in running their Boston. I am a dark horse in the running world. Despite the weight I've lost I'm still very big for a runner and I don't have a personal history that would support running. As a kid I only did strength sports where I used my bulk either to throw things, hit people or plug holes. I've been overweight at least since preschool and maxed out at an all time high of 310 pounds but none of that had anything to do with my decision either, I don't have anything to prove and I have to admit that the time when I was a struggling runner trying to overcome is long gone. Now I run when and where and how I want and I usually accomplish what I intend to accomplish. However, it isn't often my goal to run the best race I can run. Most of my goals are centered around having experiences. Maybe it's partly about making up for experiences lost to being overweight but it has more to do with really understanding what makes me happy and that is a combination of being fit, seeing what I can accomplish physically and traveling around the country seeing new people and places.

Our trip to Boston was full of experiences. We traveled exclusively by subway, ran the B.A.A. 5k together and then went for another run through Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. We ate at some of the best local places. We had seafood at the Atlantic Fish Company, desert at the Grand Finale, pizza at the Pizzaria Regina and cannoli from Mike's Pastry. We also toured Quincy Market a.k.a. Faneuil Hall Marketplace and saw the site of the Boston massacre but there is, of course, so much more that could be done we just didn't have the time.

Back to my main experience though, running the Boston Marathon. My goal for the race was to qualify for Boston at Boston and that meant running anything under 3:25 so I was shooting for 3:24. When I saw the first weather projections for April 16th my heart sunk because they all pointed to a freakishly hot day. Some hope crept in about four days out when all but one weather website, The Weather Channel, began to predict far more reasonable highs in the mid 60s, which is still unseasonably warm for Boston. As race day approached all temperature predictions began to climb and two days before the race the B.A.A. put out warnings telling inexperienced runners and runners with medical conditions to strongly consider deferring their entry to next year while telling runners who were going to run they needed to adjust their expectations and not try and run a PR.

I never seriously considered adjusting my plan but I did adjust my expectations. I decided to go for my goal and just see where it took me. Who knows, maybe I could outrun the heat, maybe I would surprise myself? No, I'm not shy about living a delusion. But what the hell, this was Boston, I need to train for serious heat conditions with Western States and Vermont coming up soon and while I knew I would pay when the heat finally took me down I also knew that I wan't going to enjoy myself running running more slowly through the heat. Boston is for running, not jogging. I imagined myself as part of a long and proud history of competitors who have run those roads before me and in the beginning I flew!

My wave didn't start until 10:20 and it probably took me an additional 5 minutes just to get to the start line. It was already warm, just below hot but still too warm to remotely be considered decent running weather. I had forgotten my Garmin at the hotel so all I could do was rely on perceived effort and calculating my splits by looking at the time clocks along the way. I took every opportunity to drink and douse myself with water trying to stay cool. I took my gels and electrolyte tablets on time and I supplemented with Gatorade at every aid station. While I was running I felt comfortable. I did not feel like it was a hard pace to keep and by the 10k mark, despite a frustratingly slow start, I was right on target. By the half-marathon mark I was still on track and feeling great. I started having fantasies that I was actually going to blow through the 30k mark right on schedule but I think by then my fate was already sealed and I just wasn't feeling it yet.

When I rolled up on the 25k mark I was still on pace but I was not feeling good and I really started to notice the heat. To make things worse there were lots of people who, when they hit the aid stations, either walked or jogged slowly and grabbed multiple cups of fluid so it was hard to get anything and keep up a pace. This was especially true of the aid stations that had even a modicum of shade, which ended up sending me to all the aid stations that were in full sun. Just past the 25k mark was also the first time I had the unpleasant experience of first dumping a cup of hot water over my head and then getting a mouthful of hot water before spitting it out. The water provided by the race were all sitting in the sun in clear plastic jugs. I'm sure that's usually fine but on a hot sunny day it just heated the water. Still, it probably would have been unrealistic for them to rush out and buy a couple hundred tents and set them up at the last minute so pretty much everyone was stuck.

One thing that was cool is that there were many spectators along the course who did what they could to cool runners. People with garden hoses, people with cups of ice, cold sponges in little personal coolers and people bringing out cold water. There were local fire departments on the course too who had cracked open some fire hydrants and attached sprayers to them and someone, I'm not sure if it was the B.A.A. or local fire departments, but someone set up these glorious cooling tents that were basically a 10 foot long inflatable tunnel that was filled with a fine mist of water. It was as if everyone along the course was doing whatever they could to keep the runners going or to provide us with what was needed to keep going be it motivation or direct aid.

However, by the time I passed the 25k mark the damage had been done. By the 30k mark I had already fallen 17 seconds per mile off pace and was on a rapid downward spiral. The first thing I noticed was I started to feel sick to my stomach, which meant that my stomach had shut down at some point and I was no longer absorbing fluids or calories but was just collecting them in my stomach. This meant that my muscles were no longer being fueled and probably hadn't been for the last 10k. I also noticed that I had stopped sweating, I was starting to feel chilled and when I felt my skin it was hot and dry. I knew all of this pointed to a heat injury if I didn't take action so I slowed considerably and started avoiding anything that would cool me down.

Ironically one of the first things that happens when you start to overheat is that you feel chilled and your skin becomes dry so the the thing to do is to warm up and begin to sweat. There must be some point of no return where you actually need to be dumped in an ice bath but I've only been that far when I had a serious illness and fever. As with Boston, I have always been able to recognize the signs, pull back and take care of myself.

However, overheating wasn't my only problem, my stomach was bad and I new I needed to get it emptying. Usually the best way to do this is to throw up but sometimes that just doesn't happen and you are left feeling queasy but not so much that you actually get sick. That was the state I was in and so all I could do was slog along and hope I would either get sick or I would start feeling better. All the while I was rapidly weakening because I couldn't take in any new nutrition, I hadn't absorbed much of what I had taken and my body's reserves were spent.

I really struggled through the hills and was really disappointed to be stuck walking up heartbreak hill, the hill singled out for derision by ultrarunners around the globe, but this was the situation I was in, the situation that I, in essence, had chosen.

I know this all sounds really bad and like I said earlier, strictly speaking it was the stupid decision. However, I can't lose sight of the fact that I am training for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and a marathon, even one that goes badly, is relatively short has training value as long as it doesn't end in injury so why not experiment, have fun with it. For me having fun with it meant running like hell until I couldn't. Having the satisfaction of trying to live out a Steve Prefontaine quote and that is exactly what I did.

At the end of the race I had the humble goal of jogging the last mile. I couldn't do it. I then set the even more humble goal of jogging the last quarter mile down Boydston street to the finish line. I couldn't do that either so I fixed my eyes on the finish line, walked as purposefully as I could and saved up enough energy to at least jog in the lat 50 yards. That I was able to do and once I was done found the first shady spot I could find sitting on the street next to a garbage can leaning against the tire of a delivery truck.

After a brief rest, a shower and a bit to eat and drink I was ready to hit the town! Misty and I took the T down to Quincy Market and then walked over to the North End, Boston's Italian district. We went to the Regina Pizzareia where I had a 10 inch meatball pizza pomadora and two Narragansett beers. As they say in Boston, it was wicked pissah! After that we waddled over to Mike's Pastry where we each got two cannolis. I had a peanut butter and an espresso. Oddly, we also ran into friends who live in Elephant Butte, NM at Mike's. We had a fantastic night!

So, when people ask me "How was Boston?" what am I to say? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, it wasn't neither of those so does that mean I split the difference and say it was "ok", no, definitely not. The Boston Marathon is truly an experience unto itself and my experience was my own, wicked haat and wicked haad.

I will cherish it always.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

When Reality doesn't seem all that Real: A Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon Race Report

Two weekends ago was the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon, which I once again ran in memory of my high school football coach Joe Bob Tyler. Joe Bob grew up in north central Texas near the Oklahoma border. He, of course, lived a full life before I met him in 1982 and part of
that life involved fighting in Germany during World War II and being held in a German POW camp after capture at the Battle of the Buldge. After looking him up again online I learned that he passed away at the age of 86 on October 27th 2010.

I have run Bataan once before but it was the week after I ran my first 50-miler and though I felt great for miles 1 to about 16 the remaining miles quickly deteriorated into a painful slog to the finish. While that clearly does not compare to the real Bataan I guess at least it was appropriate. I think I finished the race in the ballpark of 4:50 but at present I’m too lazy to look up the results. Anyway, it was not a fast marathon.
Flash forward to this year, four years later, and you find a much fitter and more experienced Baboo. Oh, and a better rested one as well. While I have been piling on the miles and trained straight through Bataan that is still quite a bit different than running a 50-miler the weekend
prior. Anyway, race morning I was feeling pretty good as we hung around the soccer fields at the White Sands Missile Range watching the pre-race festivities.
I had two goals for the day, the first goal was to get a sub-4 hour finish. The second goal was to run easy even if that meant missing my first goal. The point of this race for me was twofold, a fitness test and a good solid training run. I did not want to waste myself trying to achieve some time or place goal and then have to take a lot of time off for recovery. By mile 5 I already had a feeling in my quads that I would not normally care to have in a marathon but I knew that was just the cumulative training miles and this was a training run so I was unconcerned. It took me a good 8 miles before I finally worked my way up past the hundreds of people who had a better starting position than I and once I got past these folks there were very few others in
sight. I knew if I ran well and was on target for a sub-4 finish I was going to be way out front among the top 20 or 30 runners.
What amazed me is that as far out front as I was running the people that I was starting to catch looked to be people that there is no way I should be able to catch. Despite the fact that
I know I have finally reached a weight that is “normal” for my height and that I will be running the Boston Marathon in about a week I still have this internal representation of myself as a slow fat guy. I’m not saying that I walk around feeling bad about myself, I don’t, what I am saying is that I am constantly surprised to find myself passing all these fit guys, these really light, muscular, super low body fat guys.
I have known other guys who started out in triathlon as Clydesdales, lost weight, and immediately changed their blog titles and/or affiliations and no longer labeled themselves as Clydesdales. Not me. It is true that I no longer meet the weight standard and I wouldn’t
think of registering as a Clydesdale at a race but in my mind I am and always will be a Clydesdale. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember, at least back to the second grade when I wasn’t
allowed to play Pop Warner Football because I was too big and might hurt the other kids.

Anyway, back to the race.

I was far enough up front that there were very few people left to pass but I managed to pick off a couple more including three really young guys who were walking and had obviously taken off like a rocket only to greatly over-estimate how far youthful vigor would take them. I like to think they initially tried to hang with my friend Ken Gordon, the eventual winner of the race, thinking “If this old dude can run this fast then we sure can.”
During the last four miles of the race I started going back and forth with a couple of guys but I was beginning to wear out as the day heated up and I could tell that to beat them I would have to violate my second goal of not trashing myself so I let them go and backed off a bit. That caused me to get passed by maybe one or two others but I was fine with that. I
ended up finishing the race in 3:49:01, a better time than I had even hoped. When I was thinking about a sub-4 I was hoping to squeak in just under the wire. I also placed 18th overall, which
is the highest I’ve ever placed in a marathon of this size.
All in all it was a good day. I had a good race and was back at my normal training routine after one day of rest. Coach Tyler was in the Army and though I’m also in the Army it’s still too new to me to know what we say to each other so I’ll fall back on my Marine Corps roots and say, Semper Fi Coach Tyler! As long as I and hundreds of other young men who had the honor to be coached by you live you will not be forgotten.