One thing I have learned after fifteen marathons is to forego any race day expectations. Regardless of how much training and planning you do, there are always factors beyond your control.
Never has this been more true than the 116th Boston Marathon, held this past Monday. I lived in Boston 15 years ago, and came to know the city as a very cold one. Record snowfalls. Cutting winds. Old, historic homes with no air conditioning. Wool sweaters in May. Never would I have dreamt of summer conditions on Patriot’s Day, the Massachusetts holiday which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. But that was the forecast when I arrived three days before the race.
Heed the warnings. During the days leading up to the race, I received numerous emails from the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) warning runners of the dangers of the anticipated 90 degree weather. First-time marathoners should not run. Individuals with health issues should not run. All runners can defer qualification if they back out. Run two minutes per mile slower than your usual pace. Walk often. Drink a lot. But not too much to cause hyponatremia. This is a matter of life or death. Treat the marathon as an experience, not a race. I thought about deferring for a brief second. How can a person defer when she trains all winter and flies across the country to participate? Hop back on the plane after the race and tell her friends/family she didn’t run?
That didn’t sound like me. My plan was to slow down my pace and try to survive, and as a worst case scenario, drop out and take the T home. There would be no PR or qualifying time for next year, and finishing will be a real victory. My friend who dined with us the night prior to the race had reviewed the symptoms of heat exhaustion with me: nausea, lightheadedness, disorientation. “You will know if it hits you,” he said. I decided to run, despite all the crazy warnings.
Beat the heat. From the moment I arrived in Hopkinton on race day, I couldn’t believe how hot it was. It’s really this hot. I can’t believe it is 85 degrees at 10 a.m.! There was not a cloud in the sky and no breeze to mention. I felt like I should have been at the shore in a bikini, not running a race, much less a marathon. Though secretly I thought completing the distance would be impossible, I decided to keep my body temperature as cool as humanly possible and give it a shot. Walking to the start line at a turtle’s pace, stuffed alongside other runners like sardines, many were already pouring water over their bodies to relieve the heat. And we haven’t even started the race! How will my body react? Not all the training and preparation in the world would give me a clue.
Crafting my plan. And so the race began, carrying its usual sentimentality, along with a new feeling of uncertainty. I had adjusted my goal to 4:30 and kept repeating to myself, “This is an experience. Not a race. Enjoy it!” I stopped at the first water station at mile two and started formulating my survival plan.
1). Drink Gatorade until mile 10 (at which point I would start eating my Gu with water). This was new to me as I usually only drink water.
2). Walk longer than usual at the drink stations to slow down my heart rate, and be sure to down the entire cup of water/Gatorade.
3). Run through any water sprinkler on the course.
At mile 3, I was surprised to see another drink station. Usually marathons have them positioned at every other mile. Should I drink more Gatorade, at least double the fluids of my usual races? I really did not know, but decided that having too many fluids would be better than not having enough. It turns out that my strategy paid off:
4). Drink Gatorade/water from the stations to the right of the course, which appear first on the course, whenever I see them.
5). Cross the street and to the drink station on the left side of the road and pour and an entire cup of water on top of my head.
6). And keep running through those water hoses, when spectators are kind enough to spray runners.
Despite my plan, I was still hot. The roads along the first portion of the course were narrow, and it seemed as if runners were crowded more closely than normal (apparently, I wasn’t the only person to ignore the BAA warnings). Like waiting in line at a carnival on a hot summer day, the heat seemed more suffocating with no space to escape. Not to mention, there were no clouds in the sky, no shade on the course, and not a trace of wind. This is the last time I’ll wish away a head wind in Boston!
Playing mind games. After 6 or 8 miles on the course, I knew I’d be having a good race under normal weather conditions. Every time I looked at my watch, I was running an 8:40ish pace. And I felt like I was barely moving. It was one of those days, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Especially on Boston’s tough course. Like every marathon, though, I had moments when I felt great; others when I wanted to stop and go home. Given the unusual circumstances, I had more of the latter thoughts than the former. That’s when some of my mind games came in handy.
The first was my “feel good” theory which I tried in Seattle. That is, when I felt good, I picked up the pace. When I felt bad, I slowed down. Moreover, due to the hilly terrain, I took it easy on the climbs and picked it up on the down hills (probably explains the subsequent leg pain). I reminded myself that I could be near-drowning in cold water, so at least I could breathe the air around me. And I kept playing back the BAA suggestion: This is an experience, not a race. I also kept repeating the symptoms of heat exhaustion: nausea, disorientation, light-headedness. Despite some pretty bad chills around mile 10, I was holding up ok. When someone told me I was looking good at mile 14, I looked behind as if to say, “Are you really talking to me?”
Breaking hearts. As we approached mile 18, the beginning of a series of hills culminating in the heartbreak hill, I told myself that the elevation gain didn’t hold a candle to my last long run. “Piece of cake,” I tried to convince myself as I started climbing. Sadly, though, the heat along this lovely stretch of the course was suffocating, and fewer spectators were hosing down runners than I’d hoped. I felt like I was slowing down but told myself to get through it and not push myself. The other bad news came when I gulped down a big cup of water at the mile 21 drink station, and the water was hot. I almost gagged! But I drank it anyway and hoped my stomach would hold up. When I did get to the last peak, at mile 21.5, I knew I only had 4.5 miles to go. But of course, this is always the time when the leg pain kicks in, a seemingly unavoidable predicament regardless of how many hills I climb during training.
Feel the screams. Even the newspapers proclaimed that crowd support this year was off the charts. I’d have to concur. Not only were the loud chants deafening, but many spectators were handing out ice to cool runners down. At about mile 22, a young man gave me a chunk of ice about the size of a Nerf football. I put it down the back of my shirt; and a mile later, the ice had completely melted. It provided a bit of relief, and to that man, I am deeply grateful. As well as thousands of others who truly made a difference in the heat. I am always amazed!
The home stretch. During the last four mile stretch, I thought about walking to the finish. My stops at the drink stations had lengthened, and I was finding it harder and harder to settle back into a jog after walking. But a couple of things kept me going. One, I glanced at my watch for the first time in a while. Despite the fact I felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace, I was still clocking sub 9:00 miles. I couldn’t believe it! And the knowledge of my faster than anticipated pace was a mental boost. Second, I saw my friends at Coolidge Corner, a point at which there’s just over two miles to go. Seeing them gave me a huge lift – their support meant so much! Last, I saw the Citgo sign, a landmark which stands proudly beside Fenway stadium and signifies one mile to go. And it says, “Boston,” a city I love.
The last mile. Fortunately, there was a fire hydrant pouring out water at mile 25. I didn’t see a runner behind me for a few feet, so I stopped and faced the water until I had to move. I can’t tell you how good that felt. OK. Now I can make it to the finish. I also decided, at this point in the race, to turn off my music and try to absorb some of the crowd’s energy. More than any marathon I have ever run, I tried to soak up my surroundings and appreciate the fact I’d survived. The lovely brownstones. The amazing spectators. The blue sky. The throngs of runners who were still plugging away. The high fives. When I turned onto Boylston and saw the finish line, I glanced at much watch to see that I’d finish in just over 4 hours. Not bad, given that my finishing time was just five minutes slower than my previous Boston Marathon.
The aftermath. After crossing the finish line, the fatigue and heat hit me like a ton of bricks. I broke into tears and could barely move. Then I looked around to see all the causalities – some screaming for wheelchairs, others passed out beneath trucks to catch a narrow trace of shade. All things considered, I felt lucky to be feeling as good as I did. This marathon was an indescribable accomplishment. I felt tremendous pride in surviving, of conquering the elements, of not knowing and making the right decisions. I was truly amazed that I ran as well as I did. Many who spoke with me afterwards said they’d run 45 minutes slower than their qualifying time. In fact, I finished in the top third of all women and the top 20% of my division. Not bad for an old gal in an elite race! This is why — through all the pain and torture – I long to do it again. Number 16 is on the horizon, somewhere out there.