I ran my 8th Boston Marathon yesterday, finishing in 3 hours 9 minutes. This was my 4th fastest Boston Marathon and my 32nd road marathon.
I'm really pleased with the race. I probably went a bit too fast in miles 18-23, though, because I had some cramps (left hamstring, both calves) in mile 25. But otherwise the race went pretty smoothly. I was aiming for 3:10 and my official time is 3:09:00. The weather was good -- cool and overcast. The volunteers and organizers and spectators were fantastic as usual.
I had been looking forward to my first big in-person race since the pandemic. And the Boston Marathon is always a rewarding experience. This was the first Boston Marathon that my wife was able (and willing?) to come to with me. We made a nice trip out of it, spending three nights in New Hampshire and three nights in Boston. I only did two short runs, but we did two rather strenuous hikes, including going to the top of Liberty Mountain. The fall colors of New Hampshire were gorgeous.
Once in Boston, we made our way to the covid vaccine check; it was smooth and quick. Thankfully, almost all of the runners were fully vaccinated, as the line for the covid test, for the unvaccinated, had just one person in it. The Expo was far less crowded and was much more spacious, with many fewer vendors, than in past years. My wife convinced me to buy the Boston Marathon 2021 jacket which I think looks pretty smart!
The next morning, Sunday, the day before the race, I got in an easy 4 mile run and then we walked for a few hours, getting lunch, going to a science museum, and then finding dinner. (I had a tasty spicy Moroccan rice and tofu dish.) The weather was pretty good, being mostly overcast and in the high 60s in the middle of the day, but rather humid. That’s still a little warmer than the ideal running conditions, but I’ve run in much worse in Boston. It was fun seeing all of the fit runners everywhere.
I worked on my pacing plan that night, which is rather last-minute. I wanted to do well, but I also wanted to have a good experience, and I guess I wasn’t super-concerned about doing my absolute best. For example, in the preceding weeks, I always chose running with friends rather than doing fine-tuned race-specific workouts. I still preferred hills and trails, versus flat paved roads, too. And in the months prior, my focus was on getting ready for Tahoe 200 which ended up being cancelled due to forest fires. So, my training and mindset were not focused on this race.
I tried to memorize my pace plan, but it’s a little bit complicated, so I wrote it on a cheat-sheet that I took with me, to memorize while on the bus to Hopkinton. I had four goal paces for four different sections of the race, starting off a little slower and finishing faster, with a goal time of 3 hours 10 minutes. I figured that I was in about as good shape as I was two years ago when I ran CIM in 3:09:43. The pace plan came from this Marco marathon calculator which I have used a few times before, and I have the breakdown in a spreadsheet that I adjust for each race. For this race, the plan was as follows:
- 7:24 per-mile for miles 1-2.
- 7:19 per-mile for the next 7 miles.
- 7:15 per mile for the next 8 miles.
- 7:10 per mile for the final 9.2 miles.
For elite athletes making word-record attempts, it’s better to run the same pace throughout. But I think it’s a safer strategy to start off a little slower because the cost of going too fast too early can be very high later in the race, if you “bonk” (run low on glycogen in your body) or get cramps.
I had a terrible night’s sleep before the race, just tossing and turning all night. It didn’t help that the hotel room was a bit warm and that big cities are typically noisy, especially sports cars and motorcycles with extra-loud exhaust pipes. My calves were sore, perhaps from this serious hike a few days earlier, and my legs were generally restless, too. I had forgotten to take any kind of sleep aid. Being on a computer late at night probably didn’t help either.
Finally, I fell asleep at some point but the 6:30am alarm woke me up and I was quite sleepy. Jennifer kindly made me a cup of instant coffee and I ate a light breakfast (1.5 bagels with peanut butter) and got ready for the day! Exciting!
It was a 15 minute walk to Boston Common and the endless line of buses was quite a sight. I wish I had my phone to take photos, but I didn’t want to take the time or to walk the extra distance to have a drop bag. The boarding process was quick and efficient. Excitement was in the air! We were allowed to board by our bib colors. There were 6 colors for the 6 groups, sorted from fastest to slowest, based on our qualifying times.
I rested my eyes occasionally on the bus ride, as did the guy who I sat next to. We were tired, I guess! Most people were chatting. I did notice that a few buses in front of us on the freeway started to exit while our bus continued on the freeway. They were taking the wrong exit! Oops! I’m glad our bus driver knew the route well!
We arrived in Hopkinton! There were some spectators waving at the buses as we drove in! Neat! I just love how the local residents, from Hopkinton to Boston, really embrace the marathon. I thanked the bus driver as we exited and we runners started walking towards the start line.
This was the first year of using what the race called a “rolling start”. In the previous seven times I ran this race, going back to 2007, there was always an “athlete’s village” set up where we stayed underneath giant canopy tents and waited for an hour or so before moving towards the starting corrals. But not this time! We just kept walking towards the start. There was a large group of porta-potties for us, and most of us took advantage of one last stop. I ditched my thermal blanket and did some warm-up exercises. It was only when I got within sight of the starting line did I realize what a “rolling start” really meant. There were no corrals, no national anthem (at least not for me, being 15-20 minutes after the race started for the fastest runners). We just walked straight from the bus to the start line and then started running when we were ready! This was a great innovation! There was no particular crowding or anxiety about not getting to the porta-potty in time before the race started. There was no lengthy wait in the cold. And from the organizer’s point of view, they didn’t need to do nearly as much set-up and could have hundreds of fewer porta-potties and no giant tents and everything else required to keep us comfortable for an hour+. I hope they stick with the rolling start!
I normally eat an energy gel 15 minutes before starting a marathon, but I only waited a few minutes before walking to the start line, and then I was off! Woo hoo!
The steepest part of the whole course is right at the beginning, with a fast smooth downhill. I took it easy and ran at what I thought was a very comfortable effort that approximated a 7:24 pace on flat ground. I felt good!
I had a few minor random pains in the first 6 miles or so. Both calves felt kind of tight or sore and my left knee’s patella-femoral tendon was sore. I tried not to worry. I gave a thumbs-up to many cheering spectators. It was fun seeing the communities and terrain. I kept an eye on my pace and picked up my effort a tad after the first two miles.
I thought of friends and family who were probably following me online when I crossed the 5K checkpoint.
I finished off my 20oz of Tailwind at about the 6 mile mark and tossed my old water bottle. I usually eat an energy gel every 35 minutes or so in a road marathon, but because I was getting so much sports drink, I held off until almost an hour had passed. Still after all these years, I’m not sure about the right amount of water to take for the calories I’m getting. Through trial-and-error, ~24 ounces an hour of sports drink plus 100 calories of something else seems to work for me for long races (marathons and longer) in cool weather.
The aid stations are every mile, starting at mile 2. They were not too crowded and getting a drink was easy. There are *so* many volunteers. Thank you, volunteers! It’s really amazing how many people donate their time to make this race such a wonderful event.
The miles flowed by smoothly. My breathing was steady and easy. In-in-out-out, in-in-out-out was my cadence with my breathing and strides in sync. I enjoyed the spectators. I noticed a couple of other runners who were always nearby and at about the same pace. Whatever minor aches or sorenesses I had disappeared as I warmed up.
Around mile 13, I heard a roar up ahead. Wellesley College! This women’s college is always super-supportive of the race, with hundreds or maybe even thousands of young women cheering and screaming encouragement. The signage felt different this time. There were a couple of “kiss me” type signs, including one that stood out to me as being especially funny — “If you don’t kiss me, my boyfriend will be mad”. But many more signs were advocacy-type signs, like about climate change and social justice. I smiled and gave a thumbs up or an occasional cheer myself, but I didn’t stop.
There was a Santa Claus spectator. And a sign that said something like “Fear the fart” which made me chuckle. I passed a couple of single-leg amputees. I passed one runner who was a triple amputee — both legs below the knee had those blade-style prosthetics and he was missing most of his right arm, too. I wonder if those were war injuries.
I was running well and started passing people more frequently and was rarely getting passed. I started seeing runners who were struggling. In the town of Newton, at around mile 18, I actually looked forward to the hills, as a sign that I was getting closer to the finish and for the change of pace (literally). I passed a lot of people on these uphills. I was feeling good but tried to remind myself that I still had a long ways to go.
Miles 22, 23, and 24 were my fastest miles of the whole race. I was feeling good! But then I sensed problems. My calves, hamstrings, and thighs were getting twinges of cramps. I was very close to the limit. When I passed the mile 23 marker, that means I had just over 3.2 miles remaining which felt like a long time under these circumstances. “Just hold on. Keep it together for just a bit longer.” I told myself. I became more focused on the task at hand and was interacting with the crowds less. I was still steadily passing most runners, many of whom were struggling worse than me.
Somewhere in mile 25, the cramping got much worse, seemingly over just a few seconds. I slowed down. Tried to speed up. Boom. My left hamstring froze, clenched and not releasing. I didn’t stop but I had to hobble. “No no no no” I think I said out loud. “#%$@!” I had less than 2 miles to go, but I could see this going very badly. My hamstring unclenched, probably after just a few strides, although it felt longer. I ate my last energy gel, just in the the hope that it might help keep the cramps away. Breathing-wise, I was in good shape. I probably had plenty of energy, too. But some of my leg muscles just couldn’t do any more. I slowed down for a bit to try to recover.
The mile 25 marker went by. The “one mile to go” marker went by. I pushed harder. So close. Just hold on. Right on Hereford! Left on Boylston! The finish line is in sight, just 3.5 long blocks away. Another runner was standing in the road at the corner, leaning over. He vomited as I passed. Faster. Almost there. Faster. I heard my name! I glanced to my left and it was Jennifer! Woo hoo! Keep it together. Faster. I was going to come in under my 3:10 goal time! Finish!!! Whew! What a relief!
The volunteers again were so wonderful and the amount of effort that goes in to supporting us runners is just incredible. I got water, a bag of food, a thermal “space blanket”, and of course my medal. Whew! I felt good! I was sore, for sure, but didn’t have any cramps. I exited the finish area and went looking for Jennifer, but it was too crowded, so I made my way back to our hotel. She had gotten there a couple minutes before me and had bought Chipotle burritos for us! Nice! Thank you, my love!
What a day! I wanted to rest and take a nap, but my phone was buzzing quite a bit. Thank you, my friends and family, for thinking of me. I texted my daughter and called my parents. I learned of my finish time — 3:09:00. Nice! I’ll take it! :-)
A bit later, we had a wonderful group dinner at Legal Sea Foods, with my friend Ned and his wife Leslie and a bunch of Ned's running friends from the San Francisco Road Running Club. I felt pretty good and could walk up and down stairs just fine. I was sore, for sure, but I had been much more sore after other marathons.
What went well
- I think I paced myself pretty well on the whole, but maybe was a bit too enthusiastic in miles 22-24.
- No blisters or bad chafing. I had used RunGoo on all the usual spots that can get chafing, like my toenails, nipples, and thighs. I was getting a spot of chafing on the top of both feet and a touch around both armpits, which is unusual, but otherwise, my skin was in good shape.
- No bathroom problems. I didn’t eat much fiber the day before, and I woke up at 6:30am for an anticipated 9:30am to 10am start. I ate and drank plenty (1.5 bagels with peanut butter, coffee, water) shortly after waking up, but then I didn’t drink or eat anything else until about 5 minutes before I began running.
Things to improve
- For the first time, I carried a handheld water bottle in a road marathon and this wasn’t necessary at all for this race. l was slightly worried about aid station crowding, but between the rolling start and about 10,000 fewer runners than in previous years (due to Covid-19), it was easy to get sports drink at every aid station. I finished off the 20oz of Tailwind by around mile 6 and I threw away this old water bottle.
- I had a really hard time sleeping the night before. My legs were restless more than my mind, it seemed. I had forgotten to take a Benadryl or melatonin or any sleep aid. I was also on my computer, watching an episode of Squid Game on Netflix, right before going to sleep.
- I ate 5 energy gels during the race, plus 1 right before the start. 2 of them were caffeinated. One of the energy gels I got during the race. Although I had brought enough with me from home, one of them got punctured somehow. Because I had Tailwind (200 calories), I didn’t eat my first energy gel until about the 1 hour mark.
- My Strava activity.