An epic race deserves an epic report, and this is a long one. TL;DR version: On April 15, 2019, I fulfilled a long-time dream of running the Boston Marathon. I earned my entry by raising money for the Boston Public Library, with a team of 15 runners. The experience was everything I hoped it would be. I was elated with my finish time of 5:31:34.
Runners often have several goals in a race: A, B, and C. A is the “if everything goes perfectly” goal, B is the “realistic and very happy” goal, and C is the minimum that you would consider an accomplishment. When I started the training, I might have told you that my A-goal was to finish in under 4:45, B-goal under 5:00, and C-goal “just to finish.” At the beginning of training these goals were reasonable. Finishing is never a given, but with my injury and health challenges and missing some key training, it was even less so. Boston has an official cut-off time for finishing of 6 hours, after which time you can keep running and cross the finish line, but without an official time. I really wanted that official time, even if I had to walk a lot of the race. Therefore, my revised conservative goals were as follows:
C-goal: Get to the start line of the marathon and run at least part of it
B-goal: Finish the marathon
A-goal: Finish with an official time of under 6 hours
In the days leading up to the marathon, everyone was worried we would see a repeat of 2018 weather, with its cold driving rain and wind. But forecasts were changing and on Sunday warmer wet conditions were predicted. On Monday morning it was raining, fairly heavily at times. But by the time the race started, the rain had stopped; it was still cloudy with a peek of sun.
Since Boston is a point-to-point course, many people board buses in Boston to transport to the Athlete’s Village near the start-line in Hopkinton. As a participant in Charity Teams, I was able to board a coach bus which stayed in the village until we had to move the start-line. I boarded the bus with my Boston Public Library teammate Cheryl at 7:00 am and arrived just outside the athlete’s village at 8:30. Cheryl and I had not met in person until the Saturday before the marathon, but we had a pretty strong connection through our training and fundraising journey. It was great to spend a bit of time with her on the bus, where we also met several runners from other charities. Most of the rest of my BPL teammates were on the same bus. I could not wear the singlet as it did not fit me properly and I worried about chafing, so I’m the one in the pink in this picture. We were allowed to stay on the bus until we left for the start-line.
We got off the bus and started heading to the athlete’s village at about 10:45. There we met up with another teammate Jana, who had taken the regular marathon buses from Boston Common. By then, Wave 4 (the last wave) participants were already moving toward the starting corrals, so we continued walking. The crowd moved slowly toward the start-line with no ropes separating corrals; before we knew it, we were approaching the start-line. We crossed the start line at 11:17 am.
I quickly decided to drop back a bit from Jana and Cheryl; I knew they were planning on running slightly faster, and I needed to pace my own race. We wished each other a great race and went on our way. I thought to myself, “This is it! I’m running the Boston Marathon!” My plan was to take it very easy at the start, going no faster than 11 min/mile (7 min/km) with a one-minute walk breaks every half-mile. The aim was to conserve energy on the initial downhill 5-6 miles where we were often warned not to go too fast. The pace felt nice and easy at the beginning, but it felt more like rolling downhill than “all downhill”. I was also already starting to feel quite warm, as the clouds were clearing and the temperature approached 70⁰F (21⁰C) and humid.
After leaving Hopkinton we ran through Ashland, where I was looking for a friend who said she’d be watching. We did not make a firm plan though, and it was hard to spot her in the crowd. So many spectators came out to support the runners, lining the course with cheers, water, candy, fruit, and inspirational signs (although I could have done without the “Entering Brookline” joke sign). The course was marked with mile marker flags at every mile, and our timing chips would record our splits at every 5K (about 3 miles). I passed the 5K marker at 36 minutes into my race.
We continued through Framingham, where it started to flatten out and I felt more comfortable in my pace. The crowd-support along the course was still amazing, and I high-fived as many children as I could. Just over an hour into the race and I was feeling very good; and hit the 10K marker at 1:12; right where I expected to be averaging about 11:30/mile or 7:15/km.
My sister Melissa planned to be in Natick, around mile 9, so I was mentally counting down the miles until we got there. The 15K mat seemed to come quickly, and I passed it at 1:49 (pace was slowing a bit to about 12:00/mile, or 7:30/km). My hips and legs were already feeling the distance, and I started to think to myself, “How am I going to finish this thing?” But I had no pain and knew I could keep going. I smiled and thanked a volunteer at mile 9, and older gentleman who said to me, “If you’re smiling now, you’re going to finish!” I’m not sure how he knew. Melissa was closer to mile 10, and I was so happy to see her (I was afraid I’d missed her!). We missed each other when I ran the NYC marathon, and we did not want that to happen again. After a smile and a hug, she asked me how I was doing. I enthusiastically said, “I feel great!” Mentally, I did feel great, still elated with every step I was taking on the Boston Marathon course. I would momentarily wonder if my physical body would hold up to my mental strength, but quickly pushed away any doubts.
Approaching 11 miles, I thought, “Wow, already in double-digit territory.” I did have to push away the thoughts that my longest training run, with my truncated training, was only 15 miles, still more than I had to finish at that point. I just had to rely on my mental strength and the magic of the marathon to carry me along, no matter how slowly.
After Natick we went through Wellesley, including Wellesley College and it’s famous “scream tunnel”, where the college students line the streets and cheer loudly as runners go through. Truthfully, this was not as loud as I was expecting, probably because crowds were already so loud and enthusiastic in the towns before. Still, the energy was infectious and helped carry the runners along. Wellesley College is just before the half-way point in the course. I hit the 20K mat at 2:26, and the half-way (21.1K) at 2:34.
By this time, I had decided to take walk breaks approximately every kilometre, and also walk through the water stations. With the warmer temperatures, water was key. I carried only a small 4-ounce bottle of water at the start, and took water or Gatorade at almost every water station. I was also taking my gels every four miles as planned (supplemented by some Twizzlers offered by a spectator). My pace was still steady and consistent, but I knew the real challenge would begin at about mile 16 just before the famous Newton Hills. Melissa planned to be with my cousin Seth at Newton at mile 16, so I started looking for them at about mile 15.
I saw them on the side of the road just before 16 miles, and gave them each a huge thank you and hug.
Without too much of a stop, I continued on, almost missing the water station. By then I really needed the water, with increasing the increasing temperatures, sun, and humidity. At one point I even picked up a 12 ounce bottle of water offered by a spectator, and finished that over the next two miles.
Just before mile 17, the temperature dropped greatly with some light rain. This was a welcome relief. My pace was slowing a bit, and my right calf cramping, likely caused by the combination of warmer temperatures and fatigue. At about mile 17 we ran over the Rt. 128-overpass, and I could see the first (and steepest) of the Newton Hills. Everyone worries about Heartbreak Hill, which is actually the last of four hills, stretching from miles 17-21. The hills were not bothering me that much, partly because I was going such an easy pace, but also because I prepared well, including hills in many of my long runs. We have a hill in Stanley Park in Vancouver that goes up to the top of Prospect Point, which I did twice in my last long run. That hill is worse than any of the marathon’s Newton hills. But I could not tackle them at full speed, because my calf was cramping more often. Every time a cramp started, it would go away as soon as I started walking it off. I was afraid to stop to stretch, because stretching a cramped muscle can sometimes cause a rebound effect. I knew I had to slow down even more to keep the cramps from getting worse, but I really didn’t care how slow I was going. I kept moving forward. A bad cramp could have caused the muscle to seize completely, and I needed to make sure that didn’t happen.
I knew that if I reached the 20-mile mark in about four hours that I would be able to finish, even if I had to walk the rest. I hit that 20-mile mark at 4:03, and I was still feeling great mentally- I knew I could do this! And I kept running, although with more walk breaks. The 20-mile mark is near the top of the third hill, before Heartbreak Hill begins.
On Heartbreak hill in Newton before approaching Boston College, I saw some friends on the side of the road cheering. I almost couldn’t believe it when I got to the top of Heartbreak Hill, because I was still feeling great overall. And when the terrain leveled off, the calf cramps actually subsided and I was able to move a bit faster. But I was still hugely fatigued and moving very slowly overall. Near mile 22, with just over 3 miles or 5K to go, we passed the apartment building I lived in during grad school on Commonwealth Ave. This was just a bit before the right turn onto Chestnut Hill Ave, and then the left turn onto Beacon Street. This area was very familiar to me, and the flat terrain on Beacon St felt great. Approaching mile 23, for those tracking me I was predicting a finish of about 5:23. However, the tracker seemed to extrapolate from my average overall pace to that point (about 12:00/mile), and I was slowing to 13, 14, even 15 minutes per mile. But I did not care at all how much I was slowing, because I knew that I just needed to keep moving forward. I never walked for more than about a minute, but my “running” was more of a slow shuffle.
As we approached Kenmore Square, I could see the iconic Citgo sign, and the “25.2 mile” marker on the Mass Pike overpass on Beacon St. I could hardly believe it; just one mile to go.
I walked a lot in the beginning of that last mile, hoping to conserve enough energy to run continuously once we hit Hereford. And I did- the famous right on Hereford, left on Boylston in front of Hynes. I was so emotional I started crying as I was running. As I ran down Boylston approaching the finish, I pumped my arms in the air and heard some spectators cheering. I crossed the finish line with complete joy, crying with the overwhelming emotion. There are no words to adequately describe how I felt. I had finished the Boston Marathon, with a time of 5:31:34.
It has been an amazing journey and I thank all of you for the support along the way. Thanks especially to all those that donated for my fundraising, to those who were tracking me along the way, to Mike, Megan, and Ian who were following along at home and provided endless support during the training, to my sister who helped out so much during the weekend and was a great spectator, and to Rob who is always amazingly supportive, had his own injury challenges but was able to finish strong.
Thanks for reading.