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.


  1. Great report Brian. Boston was a reward for your hard work. It more than any other race is about the journey more than the run. You will be back.

  2. Very cool. You went all out, you paid for it in the end, and I'd guess it'll only make you stronger in the heat later on. I'd say having an "ok" experience is well worth knowing you did everything you could. And I absolutely love what you said about racing for experiences rather than times...I guess because that's very much how I am (on a much slower basis :D)

  3. Congratulations on making it to Boston! I'm sorry the weather turned out to be so hideous - and I applaud your decision to "go for it." I'd have done the same. No doubt great training for the challenging races you have ahead, and I'm sure you'll make it to Boston again if you so choose. Way to go!

  4. I enjoyed the great report. Boston is special, heat or no heat (snow, rain, nor'easter, etc.). I was tracking several friends online Monday morning and was alarmed to see their pacing just fall off a cliff at about the 15km mark. You made it much further before the collapse. Regarding Heartbreak - I ran Boston in 2010 and there was a point in the hills where I was tiring, looked up and realized I must've been on Heartbreak and I couldn't see where it topped out. I'd been told repeatedly that Heartbreak was nothing but a speed-bump, but at 18mi into a marathon it brought more than a bit of panic to the fore. We had beautiful weather that year and I saw several folks break and begin walking the climb, this was in the sub-3hr pack. It's no wonder the elites often wait to attack in Newton. Cheers on your run Brian. Best toward your goals for the rest of the season.

  5. Congratulations on your memorable Bahston finish. I doubt that it would have been the same experience if you hadn't run it the way you did. I think it was appropriate that it was nice and warm on the 30th anniversary of the "Duel in the Sun". ;)

  6. I applaud your experiment to find out if basic physiology of heat dissipation is incorrect.

    I'm glad it was not any hotter 8/