Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Boston Marathon

Race start in Hopkinton
Take back the finish line!

Like many runners, I took the tragic events of the 2013 Boston marathon personally. My wife is from Hopkinton where the race starts, and she and I have both run the race in previous years. And while we weren't there in 2013, we both have friends who were. Though nobody we personally knew was directly hurt in the bombings, many of our friends were affected. Some found themselves displaced and lost, wandering through the streets unable to communicate with friends or family.

I remember telling Amy immediately after the events transpired that I wanted to run in 2014, that I wanted to help send a message that a few misguided nut jobs will not intimidate or deter our running community or the great people of Boston. I was happily surprised when Amy said that she felt the same way and wanted to run as well!

Long-slow ultra marathon shuffling is not ideal marathon training

Although we both wanted to do well at Boston, being ultra runners neither Amy nor I were really going to be able to tailor our training specifically to the marathon this year. I was already signed up (or on the waitlist) for several big races this summer including Miwok 100K, Hardrock 100, and Lake Tahoe 200. And Amy was already signed up for Miwok 100K and Tahoe Rim Trail 100 among others.

So instead of following a normal marathon training approach of long tempo runs on the roads and fast speed work on the track most of our training would involve slow jog-hikes through the mountains. I remember looking at my training log one week and laughing when I saw that I had logged over 20,000 feet of vertical elevation gain that week but that my average pace had been around 10 minutes per mile. And now here I was about to ask my legs to run somewhere around 6:50 pace for 26.2 miles in attempt to break 3 hours for the marathon.

In a panic, I decided it was time to put my Hardrock 100 training on hold and to get in at least a few weeks of more marathon-appropriate training. I dug through the back of my closet and found an old pair of racing flats. I dumped out the petrified moth carcasses and squeezed my big flat feet into those tiny little slipper shoes. I felt a bit like a Japanese princess.

Then I hit the track and started pounding out mile repeats. Every week I recruited anyone foolhardy enough to join me -- my wife Amy, our Quicksilver teammate Jeff Clowers, my long-time partner (training partner, not life partner, just to be clear) Joe Bistrain. It wasn't an ideal or typical approach to marathon preparation, but it was all I had time for. And I hoped it would be enough.

Harris, John, Amy, Gary from Quicksilver
At the start line in Hopkinton

My wife Amy is from Hopkinton and thankfully she still has family there. That means that instead of having to rent a hotel in Boston and wake up at 3:00 am to take the buses into Hopkinton, we were able to crash at her Uncle Charlie's house one block away from the athletes village in Hopkinton. The race doesn't start until 10:00 am, so I was able to sleep in until just after 7 am when I was awoken by what sounded like Apache helicopters landing on the roof.

One blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee later I was awake and ready to run. Or at least I hoped so! Amy and I posed for some pre-race photos with a couple of our Quicksilver Running Club teammates Gary Saxton and Harris Goodman. Then we began the long 30 second walk from the front yard to the end of the block where the runners were funneling into the race corrals.

Going into Boston, my goal was to at least improve my marathon PR and qualifying time of 3:04:39 that I had run in Oakland in 2013. However, I also really, really, really wanted to try and crack 3 hours. I've dreamed of running a sub 3 hour marathon all of my life and to do would signify, at least in my mind, that I had finally become a "real" runner. A bit arbitrary and silly perhaps, but powerfully motivating nonetheless.

The race is on

Staying relaxed and patient
My race plan was to go out at a conservative comfortable pace of around 6:55 for the first 10K just to prevent myself from going out ridiculously hard (e.g., 5:45 pace) and blowing up early. I knew that I would eventually have to pick up the pace a bit, as 6:55 miles would only give me a 3:01:20 finish time. My plan was to gradually ratchet up the pace each 6 miles so that I would be running my fastest miles toward the end of the race.

Running a "negative split" (where the second half of the race is run faster than the first half) can be difficult because it is often difficult to hold yourself back in the early miles when you have fresh legs and feel great; and of course, it is equally hard to try and speed up toward the end of the race when your body is overheating and your legs are screaming at you to stop.

Luckily, my body is ideally suited to running negative splits in that, while I lack impressive leg speed and turnover, my strength is... well, my actual muscle strength. Being an ultra runner who can run nonstop for 20 hours or more through hilly mountain trails for 100 miles, I tend to not tire out as quickly as the average road marathon runner.

After hitting the half-way mark in 1:30:35 I knew that I was going to have my work cut out for me if I wanted to go sub 3. Yet, I didn't panic. I increased the pace slightly and dug in, waiting for the Hills of Newton (including the infamous Heart Break Hill) that span miles 17 - 21. As soon as I hit the base of the first hill I attacked like a madman in an all-out controlled sprint. It was actually somewhat scary as I had to keep dodging other "slower" runners who were running at a normal pace instead of sprinting like lunatics.

Sprinting and hobbling to glory

Time to fly now
In 2010 I'd had a tough day at the Boston Marathon finishing in 3:31:57. This included several miles of walking/limping (due to horrible leg cramps) and numerous stops at medical tents where I tried to convince the volunteers to let me drop out of the race. Yet to their credit, the volunteers and the spectators wouldn't let me quit. They urged me on. A couple of college kids even gave me a can of Bud-lite lime, which even got me running again briefly.

This year in 2014 it was a completely different experience. I felt amazing in the last 4 miles and continued to accelerate drawing on the energy of the cheering crowds. I really got into it, high-fiving kids along the side of the road and pumping my first into the air. The crowds were going nuts. It was just such an amazing surreal experience, unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

As I turned the corner onto Boylston Street and saw the 26 mile marker I looked down at my watch and saw that I was at 2:58:30. That meant I would only need to run sub 6:00 minute pace for the last .2 miles to break 3 hours. I pumped my fist in the air and launched into my finishing kick. Crossing over the finish line in 2:59:52 I collapsed to the ground in a mixture of joy and relief.

A couple of volunteers ran over and picked me up and started to put me into a wheel chair. Bless their hearts, but there was no way in hell I was going out like that. I wave them off and started hobbling away as fast as I could. Thankfully they showed mercy and let me limp off to glory.

Post race beers (of course)

Nice medals, but where's the beer??
In my post-race confusion I ended up getting lost and going to the wrong meeting area. Thankfully Amy and I both ran with our cell phones so we were able to eventually locate each other. It was a bit comical as we had a 5 minute conversation that went something like this, "I'm at the Four Seasons Hotel beneath the American flag. Where are you?" "I'm at the Four Seasons Hotel beneath the American flag! Are you on the sunny part of the sidewalk or the shady part?" Finally we just looked up from our phones and saw each other.

After tracking down my buddy Bill Pritchett and his crew of runners from Midland (Michigan), we all exchanged race stories. Bill and the crew from Midland had struggled a bit with the unseasonably warm temperatures after a long cold winter in Michigan. Amy had run a 3:26:29, her second fastest marathon ever and the fastest of her four runs at Boston. Incredibly, Amy had run nearly the exact same time as one of Bill's friends, Maggie, who ran 3:26:30, just one second difference!

During the long walk back to the hotel that Bill and his friends were staying at, all I could think about was drinking a celebratory beer. Suddenly to my surprise I look over and see Bill actually drinking a glass of beer that a patron at a side-walk cafĂ© had handed to him! And then people on the street started congratulating us and thanking us for coming back to Boston to run their race! We all felt like celebrities! It was so surreal and incredible. I can't say enough about the wonderful people of Boston.

Having met my lifelong goal of running under 3 hours, I had initially proclaimed that I would be retiring from the Boston marathon -- and perhaps from marathons in general. After all, I've got nothing left to prove. But when even the TSA agents at the airport thanks you for running their race and say that they hope you will come back and run again, how can you say no?


Sarah Lavender Smith said...

That is so cool you made it by 8 seconds! It shows that every little bit along the course counted. God forbid you had stopped to tie your shoe.

Big Johnny Burton said...

That's funny Sarah, I was thinking the same thing. Also, I am really happy that I didn't stop to kiss that Wellesley girl with the sign that said she majored in kissing.

Jeremy said...

...because road marathons are stupid. Ahh, maybe they're ok. No, they are stupid.

Andrew Robertson said...

Time to change your marathon PR on the site! Unless you aren't recognizing it because Boston doesn't meet the IAAF criteria! Great run, well done.

Big Johnny Burton said...

LOL. Thanks Andrew! Net downhill or not, I'll take a PR anytime I can get it :)