The 2016 Boston Marathon

I am more than a little delinquent in posting a recap of my experience at the Boston Marathon. But better late than never, right?

I had a mostly great training cycle leading up to my first Boston Marathon. I hadn’t put much pressure on meeting a specific time goal, but had trained at paces that would prepare me to run a 3:30, which I thought was reasonable. Having never run a marathon course as challenging as Boston, I didn’t aim for a PR (under 3:27:51), but knew I would be thrilled with anything around 3:30 and the fact that I would have re-qualified for the chance to run Boston again next year if the experience turned out to be as amazing as I expected.

I traveled to Boston the Friday before the race. Jeremy and my parents all made the trip to Boston to be able to watch me run and I am grateful they wanted to be a part of this experience with me. We spent the weekend seeing some of the important Boston sights and eating delicious food. The day before the race, I did make an effort to take it easier and watch my diet a bit more carefully.

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Marathon Monday morning went smoothly. I was lucky enough to get to catch the bus to Athlete’s Village with two of my Bull City Track Club teammates, where we even found another BCTC teammate who was running in an earlier wave. Having them around all morning helped calm my nerves and pass the time.

One thing I had been concerned about, having not run a race with such a late start before, was making sure I ate at the right time. I didn’t want to eat too early or not enough and be hungry and depleted before even crossing the start line. But my stomach can be sensitive so I am always hesitant to eat a huge amount before runs. My best guess was that I should eat a bagel with peanut butter on the bus to Hopkinton (about 2 hours until the start), plus as much of a Picky Bar as I could make myself eat about 45 minutes before. It turned out that this worked perfectly for me.

Unfortunately, as the time went by it got noticeably warmer and sunnier in Hopkinton. By the time we walked to the corrals for the start of Wave 2, it was somewhere around 70 degrees, with no breeze and no shade to be found. I tried not to stress about the weather too much. It was out of my control and, being from the Southeast, I just kept telling myself that at least there was no humidity.

The energy at the start was palpable. I tried to soak it all in. As our wave surged forward I tried not to inadvertently go out too fast on the early downhill miles and was mostly successful. I didn’t worry about weaving through the crowd, and just hugged the side of the road and high-fived lots of spectators.

I felt incredible those first few miles, which you think I would be happy about. But instead, it worried me. You see, I have come to know and love my body’s usual pattern for long races. I usually feel uncomfortable for the first 4 miles or so, then finally get into a groove and settle into my race pace. There will typically be a mile or two later in the race where I struggle and argue with myself whether or not I have hit the wall and should just sulk on the side of the road, but then I can often mentally power through, suck it up and manage to finish strong.

Feeling great the first few miles is not part of my pattern. Suddenly, as early as mile 6, my groove had peaked early and I felt like holding paces in the low 8’s was taking way too much effort. I started to feel incredibly hot. I am not especially sensitive to warmer temperature runs and races, but I think the intensity of the direct sun did have an affect on me.

I held onto something near my goal pace for a while. But I remember hitting the 7 mile mark feeling rough, and thinking the marathon would end bad for me if I was stubborn and tried to hold that goal pace. More than feeling pressure to run a 3:30, the past few days I had stressed over the possibility of having a terrible experience or not finishing the race. The night before, instead of worrying over mile splits and finish times I worried over the idea that I would pace the race stupidly and end up hitting the wall and hating the whole experience. More than anything, after all of the work I did to qualify and get there, I really didn’t want to hate the Boston Marathon.

So starting at around mile 7 or 8, I dialed back to a pace that felt easier and didn’t focus on my watch too much. A few miles after that, I was still really hot and worried about consuming enough fluids so I started walking through some of the water stops so I could focus on getting water and Gatorade in my mouth instead of all over my face.

At the easier pace, I felt much better and also payed more attention to the atmosphere of the race. The cheers entering and running through Wellesley were incredible. I had been instructed by multiple people that I would be missing out if I didn’t make sure to kiss the Wellesley girls. So I kissed 4. I was going to stop after 3 girls because I didn’t want to be too greedy, but then I saw the girl with the “Kiss me! I’m from NC!” sign. No way I could pass that up.

I was in awe of how the entire course was lined with loud spectators. The crowd energy and support was indescribable. Anytime I felt pain in my legs and feet or a hint of fatigue I would just move to the side of the course to get some high fives and hear a few cheers and feel pretty good again. The couple of times I got to hear cheers directed right at me were the biggest pick-me-up of all. I saw one teammate’s family around mile 17, and then another teammate’s old Boston running crew not too long after that.

My goal for the Newton hills was just to get through without completely burning out my legs. I didn’t look at my watch during any of the climbs; no sense in stressing over pace as long as I was keeping an even effort and not completely giving up and walking. Heartbreak Hill actually came and went relatively quickly. I was able to distract myself by running from one spectator high five to the next and not looking up to see how far I was from the top of the hill. After a fun downhill into the noisy crowds of Boston College, I started to look forward to searching for Jeremy and my parents (who were going to stake out somewhere near the 25 mile mark).

Between Boston College and the Citgo sign (1 mile to go), it seemed like things got pretty dark for a lot of the runners around me. I saw several people start to walk, and even a few sit down on the side of the road or fall to the ground. The heat clearly made it a hard day for almost everyone.

Thankfully, those miles passed pretty uneventfully for me. I started searching for my family around mile 24.5, not entirely sure where they would have ended up finding a spot to watch. The crowd was getting more dense at this point and it was getting difficult to distinguish who was who in the mass of people, so I thought it was likely I would miss them.

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Magically, I spotted my mom in the front row right near the mile-to-go point thanks to the birthday balloon she was holding. (Side note: My first Boston Marathon happened to fall right on my 28th birthday. Clearly, the 2016 Boston Marathon and I were meant to be.) I swerved to the side and gave her the biggest sweaty hug I could. My dad was just a little further down the road, so he got a huge sweaty hug too. Unfortunately, I had missed seeing Jeremy earlier on the course at the 40k mark.

I was determined to soak in as much as possible during the last mile. I remember being grateful I had adjusted my race strategy in that moment. Sure, I was exhausted and in pain, but I was also happy and fully cognizant of my surroundings. Instead of wishing the race would end, I got to enjoy the right on Hereford, the left on Boylston, and even that longer-than-expected straightaway to the finish.

My time was 3:40:23. It certainly wasn’t the time I had trained for but, after about mile 7, it was the time I knew was coming. I made the best of the hand I was dealt that day and made having a great experience my priority.

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If I’m being completely honest, I had plenty of mixed feelings in the weeks following the race. I felt the post-marathon training slump, which was amplified by the fact that the race that had embodied my marathon training and racing goals for three years was suddenly over. At times, it was tough not to dwell on the fact that Boston was, in fact, my second slowest marathon time ever and it came after 16 weeks of training toward a much faster time.

But any of those negative thoughts pale in comparison to the positive memories I got to take away from my first Boston Marathon experience. I had an incredible birthday weekend in Boston – from seeing the sites, to spending time with my family and BCTC teammates, to the race itself. I’m so glad I put in the effort to make my goal of running the Boston Marathon a reality, and I’m grateful I had the support of my family and my team to help get me there.

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We love you, Boston

I am relieved to hear from more and more of the Boston runners, residents and their families I know through blogging and other avenues that they are safe.

I am not going to begin to pretend that I can relate to those who were present for the events yesterday, and particularly those who have lost or injured loved ones.

But even hundreds of miles away from Boston, hearing the news made me want to vomit. I almost immediately thought of finishing my first marathon – one of the happiest and proudest days of my life thus far. The fact that someone chose to turn an event as joyous and inspirational as a marathon (and Boston, no less) into something that causes fear, destruction, and suffering makes me sick.

Boston, the running community, and the U.S. in general will come back strong from this because, truthfully, you would be hard pressed to name three more strong-willed and unified groups of people.

I heard from a few people via social media that many in the running community were planning to wear race shirts today in solidarity with those affected by Boston. Unfortunately, I work in a business attire workplace (although I am sure had I known further in advance than this morning in order to ask they would have been just fine with it). So today I am dressed in my usual “lady clothes” but brought along my OBX Marathon t-shirt to keep Boston in my thoughts and to remind myself to be grateful for the runs I have been fortunate enough to finish and for all those I will finish in the future.