I’ve been training hard since mid-May, logging 20-50 miles per week, and Sunday morning it all came together. I ran a 3:08:07 at the Santa Rosa Marathon, a new PR by 32 minutes, and qualified for Boston! It was really hard. I’m really proud of myself.
My race plan was simple: run to Boston Qualify, blow up if necessary. I was going to try to watch my heartrate, I know from hard-earned experience that above 181 things were going to go sideways, but I decided to go for broke and put it all on the line.
I’m 37, so to qualify for Boston I need to run a 3:10. That’s a 7:14.8 pace. No problem, right? Well, no. Not so quick. (haha)
First, while I can bang out a bunch of 7:15 miles, you need to run a little longer than 26.2 miles. With people on the course (and just being distracted) you can’t perfectly cut the corners and always end up running longer than the actual marathon distance. Plus even with a perfect GPS the course is designed to measure a little long. So I had to plan on running 26.5 miles to be safe.
Second, qualifying time might be 3:10, but if you’re not five minutes faster than your qualifying time, you’re not guaranteed an entry. To get guaranteed entry I would have had to have run a 3:05. After 3:05, they take men and women from each of the age group brackets by the amount they beat the qualifying time.
I knew I couldn’t run 3:05, that’s an average of sub-7-minute miles, so I set a goal of 3:08. That would give me two minutes cushion over the qualifying time. Maybe that would get me to Boston. At a distance of 26.5 miles, that’s a 7:06 pace. I can run 7:06. No problem. (For about 18 miles)
The taper had been really stressing me out. I put in a solid 50+ miles the first week in August when I was on a business trip in Boeblingen Germany and took it down to 20 miles and then 5 miles in the following two weeks. It sucked. I wanted to run. I got cranky. I kept eating like I was burning 1000-odd extra calories per day. It’s funny what happens when your legs are happy running and you suddenly stop. Prepare for some aches and pains!
Race day was perfect. Fog that didn’t burn off until 9:30, 55-degree start temperature, and the kids only woke me twice the night before. Only twice! That’s awesome, so when my alarm went off at 5AM I was totally psyched and ready to go.
I popped two Nuun tabs (200mg caffeine) and two scoops of dextrose in 12oz water. Wow, that’ll open your eyes! I jogged over to the start, super convenient that I was only 1.5 miles away and didn’t need to worry about parking. Perfect warmup. I timed things well, arriving 7 minutes before go time.
The first mile was interesting. I was consciously taking it very slow, but still found myself running at a 6:50 pace with the crowd. Wow people run fast at the start of marathons. I put the brakes on, let everyone go past me, and was a little freaked out to see my heartrate at 160bpm anyway. That’s something like 30bpm too fast. Caffeine giveith and Caffeine takeith away. Who knew?!
I watched the 3:05 pace-maker and the cluster of under-35’ers running with him slowly pull away (that’s their Boston Qualifying time) and tried to settle into my 7:20 pace for the first three miles. The first two and a half miles were looping around downtown and I didn’t really know where the next turn was going. It was hard not to hit the gas and run with everyone passing me, but everyone knows that patience is a virtue.
Miles 3-8 went quickly on the familiar Santa Rosa Creek Trail. I banged them out at an average pace of 7:05. On target, but I needed to run a little quicker to make up for the slow start and the 45 seconds I owed to the clock. I was hoping to do that before the halfway point. My heartrate was right around 171, which was still faster than I wanted, but it wasn’t drifting up, so I assumed that the Caffeine was keeping it higher than usual but slowing down my HR drift.
Miles 9-14 were in unfamiliar territory. We ran north on Willowside Rd and dog-legged west on Guerneville Rd before heading north again on Olivet Rd. The roads were all closed, but Olivet had some rolling hills that were a little bigger than I expected. I backed way off on the uphills, worried about spiking my heartrate, which I know from experience goes up much easier than it comes back down. I kept my HR at 174-5.
HR was okay, but I wasn’t running fast enough. I knew my 3:08 goal was slipping away but I couldn’t justify pushing harder so early in such a long race. I’m soooo glad I listened to the little voice inside saying “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. You need motivation? Pretend you’re Nemo. Your wussy legs haven’t got anything on him losing his only son to scuba divers. Nemo’s not going to get his son back by sprinting. Nope, Nemo’s gotta be in it for the long haul.
During this time I met a guy. A special guy wearing a neon yellow wifebeater. *cue music* A guy running my pace who I thought could go the distance. When you’re running a race like this you have a lot of time to watch people. There are folks running fast who are breathing too hard. Gasping for air. Wheezing. Spittle and desperation at the corners of their mouths. We all know what they’ve got waiting for them at mile 18.
Ditto the guys whose feet are hammering the ground. Pounding away. Look, if you’re jarring even my body with your heel-striking and heavy-footedness, there’s no way your poor legs are going to keep supporting your bad behaviour.
This special guy, though, wasn’t running crazy. He was running how I hope I run. He had a funny step sequence, but it didn’t change. It was always the same. His feet were light and he had good kick. He wasn’t breathing hard. He slowed waaay down on the uphills with me. He didn’t seem to be working hard.
So we ran together. We didn’t talk about it. I pulled and he drafted or he pulled and I drafted. We drifted apart and came back together. Others zoomed by, wheezing and gasping, or slowly drifted back towards us and were passed. We stayed together.
At mile 14 I broke our unspoken agreement to not speak and said “I’m running a 3:08 and we’re not going to make it at this pace”. He didn’t say anything. Fine. Be like that. I sped up.
I ran 7:00 miles for the next six miles, to mile 20. Heartrate was 177-178, but it wasn’t going up and I felt better than 178 HR usually feels. I love this part of the marathon. All your training is paying off. Other runners are imploding all around you, but if you’ve done it right nothing hurts too much and the engine still has gas in the tank.
Somewhere on mile 17 I saw someone who had hit the wall hard. She was walking, but only barely. Her hands were moving around too much and her torso was swaying. She looked drunk, or punch drunk, and I remembered my first marathon fondly. I gave her a salt tab and said “good luck”. I hope she finished.
By mile 21 I was back on the SR Creek Trail and starting to think I might pull it off. HR was still 178 and everything was feeling good. Mr Neon showed up again and I let him come past. I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t hang on and he slowly pulled away. My pace slipped to 7:07 and my HR rose to 180. I started to hurt.
We were now back on the same path shared by the half marathon runners and they clogged the creek trail. It was hard to shave the corners and difficult to retreat within myself when I needed to think about dodging people walking three-abreast. My inner zen was burning and yelling “get out of my way”, but I didn’t have the energy to express it.
Mile 22 hurt a lot. I noticed that my attention was starting to waiver. Whenever I didn’t consciously think about running faster, my pace would slow to 7:30 or worse. The easy miles were over. It didn’t get better.
The last three miles devolved into a personal hell. My left calf and right quad were seizing. I’d eaten five Endurolyte salt tabs, which had helped, but I was out. I changed my step to favour my right calf and left quad. I’m not sure what that even means, except that I was gimping something fierce.
People would say things to me as I ran past. I didn’t hear. I was thinking about writing “Boston” on my Strava update. Seriously, that thought kept me going for longer than I’d care to admit.
Another full marathon runner ahead of me collapsed onto the side of the trail. I didn’t stop. I didn’t break stride. I didn’t look. If he had fallen on the trail, I might not have stepped aside. My vision had narrowed. I was seeing some spots. I knew it was touch and go. I wasn’t sure I could finish.
Mile 24 my heartrate was 182 and I was blowing up. My leg locked and I had to stop, punching it and saying “oh no, no no” and pleading with myself. Not now. Not so close to the finish. It twitched and fluttered and settled down. I kicked and was back at a 7-minute pace, teeth gritted.
I found the cramping was less when my form was good, so I started an inner chant about form. Hips forward. Heels up. Mid-foot strike. Slight lean. Chin lower. Loosen those shoulders. I was now panting and gasping, spittle and desperation at the corner of my mouth.
I don’t remember the last mile well. It wasn’t pleasant.
I finished in 3:08:07 – an average 7:07 pace – and staggered around the finish chute, trying not to fall over or catch the attention of the medics. I found Sara and the kids and my dad and lay down for a few minutes.
It was the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself. Seven seconds off my target time! Thirty two minutes faster than my previous best. Who cares how much it hurt?
Hopefully I need to start training for Boston soon. I’ll know by the end of September.