Somehow ran the farthest I had ever run in a day, despite low training
Did a great job implementing my pacing strategy
Had a lot of fun meeting other runners and talking on the trail
What areas could I improve for future races?
Got lost in lap 1 and had to sprint to finish in time
Didn’t push it hard enough during the middle section of lap 12
What that was out of my control am I thankful for?
Abram for organizing & facilitating the race
The family that hosted the race in their driveway
All of the effort that volunteers put into making this first time, small scale race one of the best I’ve been a part of
What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?
Can’t really think of anything, this was a great race that I had low expectations for
This race stands unique as being the longest race I have ever run, the first race (of hundreds) where I did not finish and also the race I was least trained for, ever. I loved every minute of it.
First, I should set context, the format of the race was unique – it consisted of 2.2 mile long laps on a muddy, hilly single-track trail that started at fixed times of decreasing duration. Anyone who finished the last lap before the cutoff was allowed to start the next one. Finishing a lap early just meant you had to wait around for the next one to start. The pace of the first lap was ~15 minute miles, by the time I got eliminated the pace was closer to 9 minute miles.
Pre Race Day
Going into the race I had been running 4 miles once or twice a week, so I wasn’t sure how long I would last. I don’t think I’d cleared double-digits on an easy run in over six months. I had recently logged a few miles sub-six, so I knew speed wouldn’t be my limiting factor, it would be endurance – how long would I last before I simply ran out of energy. With that in mind, my strategy was to go as slow as possible and eat a lot early, so that I had every chance to still have glycogen reserves late in the day. I figured I could make it to 13 miles or so on guts and the slow pace cutoff. After that was a question mark. Going past 26.2 was a goal I had in mind as it would make this the longest I had ever run.
Because the race was a loop, and we had to wait after finishing a lap for the next one to start, having a self-provided aid station was perfectly possible. I had brought along a cooler full of clothing, food & gear to help me survive the day. Layers, braces, gels, and extra everything, just in case. In the end, it was a bit overkill.
There were perfect racing conditions when the race started at 8:30am – 40 and cloudy. I started off in three layers of clothes – including a fleece jacket. I took off on the first lap in the very back of the 50 runners. In fact, my GPS was having trouble getting calibrated, so I walked across the start line 15 seconds after the gun went off. You can see me looking at my watch in the picture below.
The first lap demonstrated one of the best aspects of this format. I had no motivation to run fast, so instead I ran with other people I might not normally have run with in a race. I spent most of that lap talking to my friend (and wife of the race director) Kristin. We were running slow enough that the main pack separated a bit and unfortunately, neither of us was paying attention to the course very well. During a place where the loop intersected itself, we accidentally doubled back on our tracks, putting us on a course to run an extra mile. We had been going pretty slow and so by the time I realized how far behind we were, there were only 10 minutes left to finish over a mile of the course. You can see me in the picture below way on the other side of the course from everyone else.
I took off running and logged one of the fastest times of the day on the back half in order to finish just before the cutoff. I went from an easy 130 bmp to over 170 and was thoroughly sweating in my fleece jacket. Kristin didn’t survive the lap, but I think she only planned to run one lap anyhow.
That first lap was a huge setback in terms of energy conservation. It would mean that I had not only run an extra mile compared to everyone else, but also that I had burned a lot of extra energy going top speed.
After that first lap things returned to plan for the most part. The next 5 laps were basically a nice slow group run where I got a chance to talk with a bunch of different folks. I slowly stripped off layers and ate food in the breaks between laps. I usually had 2-4 minutes to spare. I don’t think I ran two laps in the same outfit actually, I’d strip off a top one lap and a bottom the next – trying to keep as warm as possible without overheating.
The end of lap 6 marked the half marathon was a marker in my mind at which point we’d start doing some real running. I planned a big reset and finished with a few extra minutes so that I could change socks, strip off my tights and hit the porta-potty. Once I was in shorts, it was time for business.
Laps 7-9 felt like a real run. I noticed it got a lot quieter. The number of people running had thinned a good bit and instead of rambunctious conversations on the trail, most of us were keeping pretty quiet. I started having less, if any, time between the laps and was more in need of support during those breaks. I took a bottle with me for one lap and probably should have had it with me for others. With all of the mud on the course, I wanted to keep my hands free though, in case I fell. It was about at this point that I noticed more people falling. Tired legs and a sloppy course that had been trampled 7+ times made it much easier to take a dive.
It was lap 10 where my mind shifted from, ‘I can do this all day’, to “I’m not sure how many more of these I have in me”. The cutoff time had now dropped from 32 minutes to 23 minutes, and we now all had 22 miles under our legs, meaning we were past the point of a run when people usually hit the wall. I made notes of a few milestones on the course to see how long it took me to get between them. I figured it would be good to know how close I was to finishing one of the coming laps on time. Lap 10 took a good bit of work.
Lap 11 was my fastest of the day. The group was getting thin and I was starting to hurt. I locked behind another runner and held on for dear life. We kept hitting the milestones on the course perfectly, so I just hung on. It felt like real work. We pushed the flats and downhills and power hiked the uphills. We finished with maybe 20 seconds to spare and the next lap would have a cutoff one minute faster, meaning we needed to run 40 seconds faster to finish on time.
Once I cleared lap 11, I knew my total would be at least 27 miles, even if I walked that last lap. Only 9 of us started that lap. I doubted I could finish on time, but there was no harm in trying. I thought I might be able to do it if I found the right runners to hold on to. After-all, I only had to go 40 seconds faster than my previous lap.
I started off hanging onto the main group at all costs. Surprisingly I crossed my 9:00 checkpoint on time. Just 12 minutes more and I would finish. As I hit the long steady uphill section, things started to fall apart. I let a runner in front of me go, and that ended up being a critical mistake. I caught another runner, but he was limping along and in no place to push the pace. I pushed him to dig deep and then took off, hoping to beat the clock. At the mark where I knew I could finish in 6 minutes, I checked my watch and only had 5 minutes left. This was going to be an all out sprint. I cleared the 3 minute marker with 2:40 left, I was making progress, but not enough.
My (Did Not) Finish
The cutoff whistle blew with me in eyeshot of the finish, I was probably 30 seconds away. I walked it in and crossed the line a few minutes later. I didn’t finish that lap within the time, so I was eliminated from participating in the next one.
It turns out only 2 runners went on to run lap 13 and they both ran another 10 miles before hitting a lap that neither of them could make the time cutoff for. Both of them could clearly put in the distance, the guy that won finished 19th in the Western States 100 last year, but the pace eventually got too fast for the trail. So even if I had finished, I would definitely have ended up in 3rd place and likely only finished one other lap before getting cutoff. My plan was actually to walk the next lap with some pizza and relax, but alas I was 30 seconds too slow.
Here is the race organizer, Abram, on the left with a few of us that DNFd on lap 12.
It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.
First, here are some overall stats to set context for the day. My GPS logged me at 27.79 miles and 2,817ft of climbing at an average pace of 11:24. Interestingly, I spent 40% of the day climbing. Of the 5.25 hours I was moving for 4.75 hours, so I had a total of about 30 minutes of downtime.
It wasn’t until after the first lap that I realized I should turn off auto-lap on my watch so that I could see the cumulative time for each lap and better measure out my progress over the day. The times below are a bit wonky because some laps include the rest time at either end of them while others include none.
The heart rate charts shows how well I executed my planned strategy of saving energy till the end. Other than miles 2-3 where I had to sprint and maxed out my heart rate, I kept it pretty conservative, even up the big hills. My last lap was my hardest effort of the day, which is all you can ask for.
Despite putting in a lot of work, my heart rate primarily stayed in zones 2-4, with a good bit of time in zone 1. For reference, in a marathon, I would primarily be in zone 4 and anything shorter than an hour would be almost exclusively in zones 5 & 6.
What is Next?
I’m hoping Abram will run this race again and that maybe I can put a tiny bit more training into it before next time so that I can get closer to 50k. I actually think with my speed that if the race finished around 35 miles again next time, I’d have a decent shot at winning it. Unlike a 100 mile race where I needed to have crazy endurance, this race favors being well balanced.
As a result of this race, running nearly 30 miles off of almost no training, I’ve decided to try and push what I can accomplish without training. I don’t have much time to train these days but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun. This summer I plan to try and tackle the 93 mile Wonderland Trail off of about this much of a base. I suspect that run would be challenging no matter how much I prepared, so I might as well save some time in the process. Wish me luck.
On June 10, 2018 I ran the 108th running of the legendary Dipsea race. I finished in a time of 1:08:26 – good enough to requalify for next year.
Finish/Survive – ACCOMPLISHED
Requalify for 2019- 450 spots – ACCOMPLISHED – with 117 to spare
Average heart rate 170+ – ACCOMPLISHED – averaged 175 BPM
Sub 1:02:04 (My course best) – Not Accomplished
Average heart rate 180+ – Not Accomplished
Do not walk or speed hike – Not Accomplished
Top 100 – Not Accomplished
Sub 1 hour – Not Accomplished
Black Shirt – Not Accomplished
What am I proud of from race day?
Both Chris and I requalified and live to race another year
Great effort & performance on minimal training
Managed to stay upright the whole time & avoid rolling my ankle
Discovered a new shortcut that will save me some time (this is legal in this race)
Brought a frozen water bottle to drip on head & keep cool
Did not have to visit a medical tent or take an Uber back later to finish
Minimal poison oak
Helped a fallen runner out of a bush & back on to her feet
What areas could I improve for future races?
Had a decent collision with one of the ~300 runners I passed because I got lazy and didn’t say anything when passing them
Forgot my foot pod, so I can’t see my cadence through the various sections
What that was out of my control am I thankful for?
My amazing wife for letting this become a tradition
The Newman family for their amazing post race hospitality
Uncle Bill for offering his condo as race central again
108 years of history that make this a great race
Volunteers that cleared the trail, handed out water, blocked dangerous parts & cheered
What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?
Had a runner right in front of me fall which cost me ~200 yards
Got really bottlenecked in the steep downhill section where I would have gone pretty fast
The following is a detailed account of my race day. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.
Pre Race Day
Only 1,500 runners get to participate in the Dipsea every year and many more try to apply. 600 of those spots go to runners that ran well the year before. I ran the race last year and did well enough to come back – that race report is here.
My goal this year was just to get invited back for next year and to make sure my friend Chris did as well. We’re both decent runners and normally wouldn’t have much trouble with that, but he broke his ankle earlier this year and I had only run 8 times in as many weeks since a calamitous Boston Marathon in which I had to drop out due to a hypothermia scare.
We knew that to be able to come back next year we would need to run somewhere between 1:10:30 and 1:11:30 so that is what I calibrated our pace milestones at.
For those curious how a father of four got to go away for a weekend and run a race – negotiations included two Saturday mornings taking the three oldest kids to the zoo by myself.
The Dipsea has one of the most unique race starts I’ve ever heard of. There are ~50 groups that start one minute apart and runners are seeded based on a handicap system that accounts for age and gender. The first group to start includes men 74+, women 66+, 7 year old boys and 6 year old girls. It then works it way back until the last group – men age 19-30. Official info here. A great writeup by the NYT here.
What is so cool about this is that the finish ends up being really well mixed in terms of gender and age. To give you some context, within 1 second of me crossing the finish line, there was a 9 year old boy, 67 year old man and 44 year old woman. We were all racing for the finish line, they just happened to have started 12, 17 & 10 minutes earlier than I had. (I debated not passing the 9 year old boy, as they were announcing his name over the loud speaker – but the kid’s got to learn to finish strong somehow)
That mixture of gender is age is true for the winners as well. Normally the winner of a running race is a 19-30 year old male, but at the Dipsea it has been over 50 years since a 19-30 year old male has won the race.
The reason I love this so much (despite the fact that it disadvantages me right now) is that as I get older, I can still improve my overall ranking each year. I will certainly get slower as I get older, but that will be counteracted by the head start minutes I get. That means this is the type of race I can continually aim to improve at. That is pretty special. It is a life goal of mine to earn a Black Shirt – an award that goes to the top 35 finishers every year.
Last year, as a first time runner I was in the open wave, running with a much less competitive group. I got 2nd place in my start wave and 21st of the 900 open runners.
This year I started in the invitational wave with the fast runners who had qualified in previous years. Lined up near me was Alex Varner, the 7 time winner of the fastest time award as well as Gus Gibbs, another frequent face in the top awards. I would not be getting 2nd place for my start wave (I actually ended up getting 48th!).
I would be getting a 1 minute head start for the first time as I’m now 31. So I had that going for me.
Chris and I started off slow and steady, enjoying the only flat part of the course. Our plan was to stick together and pull each other through tough stretches. We didn’t have much concern for the other runners around and nothing major happened over the start.
The Dipsea race has many reasons to be famous, but the stairs tend to be one of the more dreaded and well known. At 688 stairs in total, runners climb the equivalent of over one third the Empire State Building.
Last year I had some heart rate goals for various sections of the course. I learned from my planning mistake. This year my goal was to hit the stairs, redline and then do everything I could to hold it until I got to the finish line.
We planned to get to the top of the stairs by 8 minutes. We got there 15 seconds early despite a decent bit of speed walking. I made great use of my arms on the stairs, the only section where you have a railing to grab on to.
Cresting The First Hill
By this point, my lack of fitness was starting to be evident. I wasn’t passing people like last year, I was struggling just to keep moving. Chris and I traded the lead a few times and did our best to pick off any runners we could while the trail was wide. As we got out of the tree cover we got to see how hot a day it already was and I was glad to have some ice water to cool my head down.
Down To the Bridge
Last year when I hit Windy Gap, I got really bottlenecked. This year that spot was pretty open. This probably has a lot to do with me being slower and the other runners in my wave being faster – I wasn’t catching as many people early on and would hit bottlenecks later this year.
There was a lot of mud of the trail and steps, which made this section pretty challenging. After clearing that in one piece, I welcomed the downhill pavement section where I briefly went sub-4 pace and picked off a number of runners.
The ‘Suicide’ shortcut was a mess. There were too many people there so I couldn’t really run it. By having to put on the brakes, I was much less stable. I debate if going the long way at a running pace would have been worth it here.
At this point I knew Chris was a bit behind me, my plan was to let off the gas a bit and let him catch up so we could work together up the big climb. Our goal was to hit the bridge as 19 minutes – I was dead on and he was just a few seconds back.
Up To Cardiac
The next hill is the biggest. In total it is two miles that climbs 1,200 ft. You can see it here from mile ~2 to mile ~4.
It starts off with Dynamite – a steep section of switchbacks on muddy trail through a lush green forest. I did a lot of speed hiking through this section and traded the lead with a few different runners who would jog past, then stop and walk as you jogged past them. None of us had it in us to continually run. By this time Chris had caught back up with me as well.
We had wanted to hit ~12 min/mile pace up to the top of Cardiac, which should put us there by ~44 minutes. We ended up averaging 13 min miles – 20 mins/mile through the first section and 11 mins/mile on the steady part of the climb.
We traded the lead back and forth, putting 5-10 seconds between us. We were both redlining. When I felt good I’d pass Chris and encourage him along. When I felt bad, he’d catch me and I’d do my best to stay as close as possible. We passed my water bottle back and forth and had a few jelly beans I was carrying to make sure we were alert for the downhill.
We did a great job sticking to the trail, which is narrower than the fire road but a bit shorter distance to run. It ended up working out great and I don’t feel we really got stuck behind anyone. It also seemed to be a bit more tree covered, which was nice in the heat.
I was watching my watch and getting a bit worried we were too far behind schedule. I never really know how close we are when I’m on the hill because everything looks pretty similar and you can’t see the top. We ended up hitting our goal time right on the head though – cresting at 46 minutes.
With our goal of ~1:10-1:11, this meant that we had 24-25 minutes to get down the hill. Last year I did it in 20, but was really flying. I felt pretty safe at this point that we could do it barring any injury, so we planned to play it pretty safe.
The final part of the race is a huge downhill on steep, technical, mostly single-track dirt trails with a few roads thrown in towards the end. You can see it here from mile ~4.25 to mile 7.
The downhill starts off a fairly mellow rolling trail at around 5%. This is the exposed part of the course where you can see the headlands and the ocean. You want to enjoy it, but you have to pay close attention to your footing because there are lots of rocks sticking out.
Chris was right in front of me at this point and we were passing a few runners every 10-15 seconds.
Last year I flew on this section, but this year it was the section where I was slowest compared to last year.
At some point a runner fell off the trail, downhill into a bush and was laying with her feet in the air. It is all kind of a blur, but I recall a lady yelling in an intense panic, ‘someone please help her’, though the woman seemed pretty calm about it. There was another lady trying to help her up by the hand, but that wasn’t going too well as the fallen woman was basically upside down & caught in a bush. I stopped, grabbed her elbow and with one strong motion had her upright on the trail, at which point I jumped to the side and started running again. It was so fast, I can’t even see it on my GPS. But it was long enough that when I looked for Chris, he was nowhere in sight. It took me about a mile to catch him.
We hit the split between the main trail and the Swoop shortcut and one runner took the long way while everyone else in sight took the shortcut.
Because of that, the Swoop was a disaster. There were too many runners going in single file and no one was passing anyone else because it seemed silly to pass one person when there were 10 other people right in front of them going the same speed.
Yelling ‘on your left’ meant nothing here as the trail was pretty thin. This is a tricky race etiquette situation. The other runners are trying to go as fast as they can by picking the safest footing they can see. If they move to the side to let you pass, they are slowing themselves down to help you – their competition. On the other hand, if you chose not to move and to intentionally use your body as a physical barrier to another runner, it is hard to blame them for getting physical as well.
My strategy was to yell, ‘on your left’, stick my hand out in front of me and tap at their left arm and then come on through, regardless of what they had decided to to. If they had accommodated me, great. If they hadn’t, they would get a physics lesson.
Even with all of this effort, as we got out of the Swoop I noticed the runner that had taken the long way had gotten to where the trails meet each other at the exact same moment. It was all for nothing. Quite frustrating.
At this point I was pretty sure Chris and I were safe to requalify and I knew he wouldn’t be pushing it too much on the downhill because of his ankle – so I left him in order to enjoy a bit of speed through the final mile.
The Final Bump
The last climb is a short but steep climb that is aptly named ‘Insult Hill’.
Frustrated by the bottleneck in the Swoop and less than exhausted, I kicked it into high gear and got around a number of people. This is where I got lazy and stopped calling out my passes. One runner I was passing made a quick hop left to get around someone else and I hit them pretty hard. Not hard enough that they went down, but hard enough that I felt bad about it.
The Last Downhill
The final mile alternated between paved roads and trails that cut between curves in the road. The trails were not very worn, most sections looked freshly trimmed back and teeming with poison oak.
I was letting loose on the roads, but the trails were basically walking pace only. This was really hard mentally as I was trying to get to the finish line quickly to make sure I requalified.
Last year these sections were wide open for me as I had done all of the passing earlier on in the course. By the time I had gotten here, there were only ~30 people in front of me, meaning things were pretty spread out. This year the early parts of the course were pretty open and the bottleneck came here. By this point this year there were ~350 people ahead of me, so it wasn’t open at all. The lesson is that you’re going to have to pass people at some point, it is best to strategically do that in ideal places to pass, like the long climb up the wide trail of cardiac.
The final quarter mile drops 120 feet and is all on asphalt. Though slower than last year, I ran it at about 5:10 minute/mile pace averaging 186 BPM. This is always such a great finish because you can really push yourself beyond what you think is possible thanks to gravity giving you a boost.
I hit the finish at 191 BMP, finishing at 1:09:25.31, right at the low end of what I was targeting. I looked back to see where Chris was and before I could breathe normally again, he was coming across the line at 1:10:01.03, right in the middle of our target range. A perfect execution.
We then hopped immediately into the ocean to try and get the poison oak oil off and went for a light cool down run, doing our best Chariots of Fire.
Then comes the annual picnic and award ceremony – for the Dipsea, the ceremony is kind of a big deal. For many races only the top three finishers and a few fans stick around to see the awards. For the Dipsea, there are about 40 awards and in the two years I’ve been there, I haven’t seen a single runner that wasn’t present. Here is a pic of some of the past winners of the race all gathered together.
Because of the crazy handicapping & starting system, depending on how you count it, I either got 48/69 in my start wave, 54/72 of all runners in my age group, 209/1,415 fastest time of everyone racing or 333/626 in the invitational, accounting for the handicaps. Basically it was a mid-pack performance.
Our friend Loren, however, had a phenomenal year and got a coveted Black Shirt for the first time. Gretchen ran her best race ever and is getting within range of a Black Shirt herself. Chris and I just requalified, but neither of us got hurt and that was good enough for this year.
It looks like there were ~560 runners that started ahead of me and 332 that finished ahead of me, including 29 that had started behind me. So I passed about 257 people – or about 1 every 150 feet. I know there was some back and forth passing though this year, so the actual number of passes might be closer to 300 or 350.
It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.
This is the distribution of race times for everyone that raced. I’m much closer to the middle of the pack than I normally am. That is what I get for not training.
Pace wise, you can see I was all over the place, as is to be expected from a trail race with lots of hills. My peak pace was around 3:30 per mile and my slowest was around 20:00 per mile. I averaged 9:47 per mile.
Effort wise, as measured by heart rate, my plan was to redline and then just hold it until the end. You can see I did a great job at the first part of that, hitting the red zone within the first half mile. There were only a few parts where I feel like I wasn’t putting on the gas. The first is as I started down the first hill, and that is because it was a very technical and somewhat crowded section – I immediately spiked it back up when I got to the road. The next was at the top of the big hill, I was enjoying the view a bit and got caught behind some runners. I made a push out of that but got caught up again in Steep Ravine. You can see the big spikes when I hit Insult Hill, followed by another drop as a walked through a crowded section where passing was impossible. Finally, an all out finish that took me to a heart rate I haven’t seen since last year’s Dipsea.
Next I wanted to look at a comparison to some other runners that I was near during the race. This data all comes from Strava.
First, here are a few runners I stared with and how we finished. Interestingly, they were all ahead of me and behind me at some point. The light blue line was a runner that passed me right before I got bottlenecked – it looks like being just one minute ahead of me helped them avoid that issue.
Here is just comparing me to Alex Varner and Gus Gibbs, the two fastest runners from my start wave. Basically they put distance on me right from the get go and never let up. The only section where I was even close to their speed was the first downhill.
Here is looking at a few runners that started ahead of me but finished behind me. More or less, steady lines, but you can see a few spikes in sections where I got blocked up. Notice around mile 4.5 where they all jump a bit – that is where I stopped to help a fallen runner.
I was curious how the different start corrals broke down and what percent of the finisher from each finished in the top 35. The chart below breaks that out. You can see there are more runners towards the right side, in the start groups of younger, more fit runners. The big spike at start wave R/8 is where all women 19-39 go, which is why there are so many in that wave, it includes all of the peak racing years for women.
What is really interesting is there are 9 runners in the Z wave, the group that I was in that had a 1 minute head start, that finished in the top 35 and only 1 in the final wave. Perhaps this is a race where being over 30 isn’t as detrimental as the handicaps would imply. Or perhaps there are a just a bunch of great runners that have all aged into the Z start wave together and the final wave just hasn’t yet attracted enough high caliber younger runners to replace them.
What is Next?
The top ~450 people from the open section get invited back next year to run in the invitational section. I got 333rd so I will be invited back again. I’m not 100% sure I will run it, but I still want to attempt to break one hour eventually, so I kind of have to keep running, otherwise I might not be able to enter again. Remember, it took me 5 years to get in the first time, I don’t want to wait that long again. We’ll have to see if next year ends up being a good year to shoot for a record or if it will just be another year of trying to requalify.
On April 16, 2018 I ran the Boston Marathon, finishing in 2nd to last place overall with a time of 8:09:48 (its a long story…). Here is the race report.
It isn’t every day you get to be one of the last people to cross the finish line of one of the most famous marathons in the world. After logging 20 miles at 6:30 pace, trying my best to fight through horrible weather that I was not dressed for, my body began to shut down. At mile 23 and I dropped out of the race to get treatment for symptoms of hypothermia. 5 hours later, once safe and warm, I decided that I needed to finish. I put on some warm clothes and went back to where I had dropped out to finish the last miles of the race.
Finish – ACCOMPLISHED (I list this as a goal in every single race and it sometimes it seems silly. This time around, it ended up being the only goal I accomplished, so I’m glad I had it listed. I can’t recall any race, out of hundreds that I’ve run since I was 5 years old, that I’ve failed to finish.)
Sub 3:11:37 (My worst marathon) – Not Accomplished
Sub 3:00 OR Top 5% – Not Accomplished
Average heart rate over 160 – Not Accomplished
Sub 2:55 OR Top 4% – Not Accomplished
Average heart rate over 163 – Not Accomplished
Sub 2:50 OR Top 3% – Not Accomplished
Average heart rate over 166.15 (my best for a marathon) – Not Accomplished
Top 2% – Not Accomplished
Top 10% of 18-39 Males – Not Accomplished
Sub 2:42:23 (My best marathon) – Not Accomplished
Controlled first half (At least 4 of the following) – ACCOMPLISHED
Between 1:24-1:27 – ACCOMPLISHED
No miles >165 heart rate – ACCOMPLISHED
No going into the 170s at all – ACCOMPLISHED
No miles faster than 6:15 – ACCOMPLISHED
Consume at least 270 calories (including start line) – ACCOMPLISHED
Consume 0.25-0.75 liters of fluids – ACCOMPLISHED
Courageous last 6.2 (At least 6 of the following) – Not Accomplished
Final 6.2 faster pace than first 13.1 – Not Accomplished
No miles <165 heart rate – Not Accomplished – Not Accomplished
No miles slower than 6:40 grade adjusted pace – Not Accomplished
No dropping below 170 cadence – Not Accomplished
Fastest mile of the day is one of miles 24-26 – Not Accomplished
My highest 5-mile-heart-rate-average is miles 22-26 – Not Accomplished
Mile 25 is 170+ – Not Accomplished
Mile 26 is 175+ bpm – Not Accomplished
What am I proud of from race day?
Finishing the race
Started the race dry, warm and full of energy
Let people pass me during the first half – kept to my strategy
Fought the elements and kept my composure for 20+ miles
Made a tough but smart call to get medical attention at mile 23
Deciding to get back out there and finish once I was safe
A surprisingly strong finish
Peed while holding 6:30 pace – something I usually have trouble with
What areas could I improve for future races?
Stupid gear planning – should have had a hat, better gloves, a rain proof top and maybe even my tights on my legs.
What that was out of my control am I thankful for?
A great race crew to spend the weekend with
Every single volunteer at the mile 23 medical facility
The bus drivers that got us back to our pickup location through the crazy traffic
Post race ponchos
The person that decided to wait an extra 40 minutes to unplug the finish line timing mat so that my finish time registered as official
The photographer that was still there for the last people to cross the finish line
What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?
WEATHER – RAIN, WIND & COLD. WHY?!
Having to get on a bus 3+ hours before the starting gun
How do I even write this race recap? This race will go down as one of my biggest failures and successes – all in one. This will end up being the race I tell stories about around a fire as an old man. How do I capture this spectacle?
Lets start a few months back.
I was most recently in marathon shape last October as I planned to run the 2017 New York Marathon in early November. I ended up not running it due to an illness and then my fourth child was born three days later (see, I would have been fine), at which point I decided to not run at all for a few months.
As 2018 started, so did the text chains about the Boston Marathon, which I had qualified for last year along with a group of friends. I started training on January 15th, 12 weeks before the marathon, and I was planning to stick to my 3 day a week marathon plan. That means in total I went on 36 runs (actually one was a bike ride) totaling just 345 miles in preparation for this race. This was the least I had ever run in preparation for a marathon. This might be among the least anyone has run in preparation for a sub 3 marathon.
Despite that, I had clocked some great workouts. 24.5 miles at 7:15 pace, 15 miles at 6:30 pace, 12 miles at 6:15 pace. On top of that, I had really been focusing on finishing strong, ending all of the above workouts with a sub-6 final mile to help me really dig deep. I felt like I should be able to finish in the mid to low 2:50s, with a shot at cracking the 2:40s if things went well.
I had decided before this race that marathon training was getting to be too much for me. I have so little margin these days and training for marathons requires time, creates physical stress and eats some mental energy – three things I can’t spare. These days I want/need my free time to go towards things that refuel me, no-plan trail runs, early morning surfing sessions or family bike rides. I did my best to bring the family along for this race’s training – on 60% of those runs (and 100% of that one bike ride) I ran with at least one kid in the stroller (or bike seat). But even then, I’m too competitive for racing not to create constant tension for me.
I flew to Boston with ambitions of a swan song. One last 26.2. The goal was to race it smart and finish strong. Save energy early, conquer the hills and then dig deep during the last 5 miles. Let the first American marathon be my final marathon. It would not be my fastest, I wasn’t in good enough shape – but it could be my best effort wise. That was my goal.
The weather reports had predicted rain a few weeks out. You never know how these things can change though. From everything I’ve heard, Boston in the spring can bring anything and change often.
In the four day period around the race, the weather predictions showed all of: a day at 70* (hot for a marathon), a day in the low 30s and dry (cold but ok conditions), a day in the low 40s with wind and rain (bad for a marathon) and a day in the low 40s with no wind or rain (perfect conditions). If things had shifted a bit one way or the other, it might have been a great day for PRs. As it was, we got one of the worst days in 122 years of the Boston Marathon.
The day before the race, at packet pickup, around town and at dinner, racers from all over were talking about the weather and more importantly, what they should wear to run. The people from cold conditions were prepared. People like me from warmers spots were worrying or rushing out to buy new gear. One of the big rules of running a marathon is that you should never do anything on race day that you haven’t practiced during one of your long training runs. Don’t eat anything new, don’t wear anything new, don’t try ANYTHING new. For many of us, this Boston Marathon forced us to break that rule. We were either going to have to wear something we’d never worn before or we were going to have to run in conditions we’d never run in before without the right gear. Fun!
Most people opted for the former. I would go on to opt for the latter.
To justify my decision a bit I’ll share something I’ve learned over the course of many adventures. When dealing with water I’ve found there are two decent paths – one is to use gear to try and stay dry and/or warm, the other is to accept that you’re going to get wet and use as little gear as possible to minimize extra weight & friction. I’ve found this decision about water to exist with running, hiking, biking and all sorts of outdoor activities. I usually opt for just getting wet. When hiking near the river, I’ll wear shoes that deal with water well and step right in, rather than hop around on rocks or walk carefully to avoid water going over the top of a waterproof boot. When biking to work in the rain in Seattle, I would wear my spandex shorts and a thin biking shirt – I’d rather be wet when I get to work and dry off than have overheated under a rain suit and have to be sweaty/stinky all day. This informed my decision with this race as well. The big difference is most of those things I described are situations when it is warmer outside or the exposure time is shorter. This would be the first time I attempted to be outside and wet for three hours in windchill temperatures that hit the 30s.
Race morning we looked outside to see how bad the rain really was. It was actually pretty light. I was hopeful. It reminded me of Seattle rain which is really more of a continually falling fog – a general wetness more than a downpour. Thinking it might stay like that, I confirmed my decision to go light.
My racing outfit would be my normal socks, shoes & shorts, but due to the cold I’d brought a pair of cheap gloves and a long sleeve tech shirt (the one I’d gotten free the day before) which I planned to throw away when I got hot – which I guessed would be somewhere between mile 5 and 13. I also had four gels with me, but no water bottle. No hat, not even for the start.
My strategy was to save as much energy as possible and start the race dry and warm. After eating my customary peanut butter bagel, I put on some throw away sweats, a poncho, stuffed bottles of near-boiling water into my pockets, put my socks into plastic bags and the into throw away shoes and carried everything else in a bag. I did some math and intentionally got on a bus two hours after I was supposed to. I ate a banana on the bus and when it dropped us off, I skipped the runners village and went straight to the start line, getting there before other runners and walking right up to a not-yet-used port-a-potty. It was well executed. Had I run well, I could attribute a lot of it to that.
Fifteen minutes before the race I did some light jogging & stretching, put on my racing shoes, and began stripping layers. I had a gel and some final sips of water. I intentionally don’t warm up much for a marathon, I start off slow and use that as a warm up – it is a long enough race that starting warm isn’t a concern in my mind.
Most races, I start off with my toe on the line. Boston was much different, My bib was #1632, and since they seed runners by qualifying time, that means there were 1,631 runners faster than me there. Probably more as many runners who had qualified with a slower time might have trained more and gotten into better shape. Because of that, I started near the back of my wave with nearly 2,000 people ahead of me. When the gun went off, it was actually about a minute of walking until I crossed the line and started my watch. As I ran, looking at the road ahead of me, full of runners that were faster than me, I really got a grasp on my place in the running world. As fast as I am, the 0.5% of runners that are faster than me ends up being a lot of people.
I felt good starting. Knowing the first miles are downhill and that I wasn’t warmed up, I let myself go out slow. I had wanted to be closer to 7:00 or 6:45 but it ended up being 6:33, 6:27 and 6:30 for the first three miles. I was slowly getting passed by the runners around me. I just let the pack flow around me like a rising tide wrapping around a rock on the shore. I was doing my thing and I knew I’d be seeing those jerseys later.
I couldn’t help but notice how many different types of outfits people were wearing. Normally it would have been all singlets and shorts, maybe a few calf socks. That morning I saw people in long sleeves, running jackets, sweatshirts, trash bags, with gloves and all sorts of hats or hat-like head coverings. It was crazy. There was a guy running in a full on fleece jacket. I thought he must be enjoying the warmth right then, but he was going to be so hot in a few miles. I never saw him again, I wonder if he threw it off or if he ended up finishing in it.
Around mile three I noticed my left ankle starting to hurt. That is one of my lingering injuries that I have to keep a close eye on. If it was starting to hurt that early on, it could end up being a bad day. I shifted where I was running on the road so that I was hitting the crown of the road a different way and figured I’d see how that worked out. I didn’t end up having any other issues with it thankfully.
At mile 3 the water stations start. Each mile for the remaining 23 there are gatorade and water stations on both sides of the road. In an effort to reduce what I had to worry about, and thanks to the ample course support, I left the water bottle I normally run with at home. Because of that, I knew that not drinking enough might be an issue (even with the crazy rain) so I opted to always take a cup, even if I only took one sip. I knew that if I started skipping stations I might go a while without drinking and that would catch up to me in the end. Again, I never got to put this to the test, but it was a well executed hydration strategy.
There wasn’t much eventful over the next miles. The runners around me slowly crept past me as I held 6:30 pace and they let the downhills push them a little faster. At one point my right quad started to feel a bit tight or cold or sore, I’m not exactly sure, but it was something I wanted to keep an eye on. The rain alternated between, medium and highest-setting-on-your-windshield-wipers heavy. The wind periodically kicked up and made it feel like icicles were being scraped against your face.
I did manage to do something I’ve had trouble with my last few races – pee while holding marathon pace. Back when I did an Ironman, I got good at peeing while moving, but because that race is so much longer, you tend to be going much slower. In every marathon I’ve run, I’ve had to stop once to pee – usually costing me 20-30 seconds. Today, thanks probably to the wetness from the rain, I was able to execute perfectly a few times. Minor victories.
Around mile 10, after taking my second gel, I noticed a runner pulled over on the side of the road huddled behind a police car and shaking. He was in a singlet and looked miserably cold. It was a bit shocking of an image, but I didn’t think much of it. I was still feeling pretty good despite the cold weather. Pace was great. Strategy seemed to be going well.
When I hit mile 12 I noticed a slight change in the background noise. The continual drone of rain and footsteps, which was periodically injected with cheers and cowbells as we passed through towns, started to change slightly. I shrill tone was getting added, like that from a swarm on insects or a flock of migrating birds. Half a mile later I set eyes on the creatures whose call had been growing louder with every step. It was no insect or bird, but rather hundreds of college girls, shrieking in unison outside of Wellesley College. I momentarily broke my focus to extend a high five to a stretch of these sirens who had lured other men into their grasps for kisses – as they have been doing for over 100 years.
A few people from our group were planning to meet us in a town around mile 13. I had planned to hand off my now-soaking-wet long sleeve shirt to them. I started the preparations to take it off, moving my race belt under it so I could take it off. I never ended up seeing them because they didn’t make it out to that point on account of the weather. Had they been there I would have handed off that shirt. I’m not entirely sure if that would have been good or bad. Which is worse, a wet & cold long sleeve tech shirt or a wet and cold tech tank top?
By this point in the race, what had started out mostly downhill had now flattened out and started to go slightly uphill. I kept on strategy, running splits the way I had been the whole time. Instead of the runners around me slowly inching forward, as they had been since mile 1, I had now begun passing them slowly. Familiar jerseys were coming back. Having gotten through the first half relatively conservatively, averaging around 156 BMP, it was now time to put in a little more gas. Not time to dig yet, but time to stop relaxing.
At mile 15 it was time to take my third gel. This one was safety pinned to the inside of my shorts. As I went to grab for it, I couldn’t manipulate the safety pin for the life of me, that is when I came to the full realization that my hands were numb.
This isn’t terribly rare for me. I’m a thin guy with long arms so I don’t have much insulation and the blood has a long way to go to reach my fingers – to save warmth, when I’m in cold water my body will often cut off blood flow to my fingers after an hour or so. I got very familiar with it when living and surfing in San Francisco – it is why I’ll usually have gloves on with my wetsuit even when most other surfers don’t. I had only had my fingers go numb while running once, a long run in Seattle on a day that was 50* and raining. I usually wore gloves when running in the rain during the winter, but by the time of the season my longest runs came around it was usually getting warmer so I left them at home so I wouldn’t overheat. One cold day caught me off guard though – 50* isn’t cold enough to wear gloves, but 50* and wet for two hours made my hands go numb. This is actually the exact reason I’d bought some cheap gloves before this very race – I was using what little context I had to try and prepare. Unfortunately the cheap gloves I got weren’t very good at keeping my hands warm and so here I was, numb hands with 11 miles left in a marathon.
Numb might not be the right word actually. I had lost all dexterity and fine motor control but could still generally squeeze my hand – it was basically operating at ~10-20% capacity. I had enough coordination to grab the gel and so I gave it a hard tug and the safety pin bent and popped off. I still couldn’t open the gel, on account of my fingers not having dexterity, but I was able to use my teeth to rip it open. I did not have enough grip strength to squeeze the gel out though, so I had to kind of chew on it and squeeze some out with my teeth. All of this is to say that 15 miles into a 26 mile race I’m now having a lot of trouble doing something basic like opening a gel to eat. Probably not a good sign.
At this point in the race my calves were starting to bother me. I’ve crashed at the end of every marathon I’ve ever run, but it has never been a muscular issue. It has always been bonking – running out of energy. In fact, I’ve almost never had a muscular issue in a race. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a cramp before – I’m not positive though because I don’t really know what they feel like. So for something to be hurting like this after only 15 miles was pretty strange. Especially since I had run 15 miles at this pace just a few weeks earlier with no issue.
Come mile 16 we were approaching the hills. I had been told a great strategy the day before, 1 mile easy, 2 miles hard. The way the hills fall you basically have a downhill mile and then two uphill miles twice in a row, followed by a downhill mile and then the final flat miles to the finish. Using this mental strategy makes it feel a bit more like a workout where you can work hard and know you have a rest coming. It worked really well for me on the first set and I began picking runners off on the hills. By mile 18 I had caught most of the runners I’d seen pass me since the start, I was probably in the top ~1,000 runners of ~26,000. (If I could get the data I would check, but it doesn’t look easy to scrape)
The Beginning of the End
Mile 20 and it was time for my last gel. There were gel stations at miles 11, 17 and 23, I had grabbed one at mile 17 so I now had that one other remaining from the four I started with. The one I started with was pinned to my shorts and so once again I went to tug it off. This time the safety pin got caught on the top, the part you tear off, and despite my best efforts over about a half mile, I couldn’t get it off or get the gel open with my hands. So, in desperation, I did what seemed like the best idea, I put the top, with the open safety pin, into my mouth and pulled as hard as I could, trying to get it open. Somehow I managed not to injure myself. Now remember, I have another gel in my hand at this point and there is another one coming in about a mile. Why did I do this? I can only attributable it to the fact that my brain was shutting down.
I had averaged 6:30 pace through 20 miles of the Boston Marathon in low 40s and rain with crazy wind, but thing were about to unravel.
The next two miles were the second set of two hard in the pattern I’d started at mile 16. The second of which contained the dreaded heartbreak hill. I locked on a few strong runners and held on, the first hill went pretty well, my pace slowed to 6:53, but this was somewhat expected with the hill. Heartbreak hill didn’t go as well, but logging 7:17 for that mile isn’t horrible. As I climbed I realized I had shifted in modes from running where I don’t think about it to paying attention to each step. I was literally focusing on individual muscles firing to get me up the hill, usually I don’t have to get that focused until the final miles. I figured this was because of the hill though and having crested it, I was ready for an easy downhill mile to recover before the final five miles of digging to the finish.
Mile 22 did not go like that though. It was a downhill mile that should have been easy but my legs were locking up. I continued to have to focus on every single step and it felt like my legs were on fire. Pushed through and managed to stay at 7:30. I was no longer passing runners though, they were starting to inch past me again.
Mile 23 is when I shut down. It felt like someone turned a river on. I went from slowly getting passed to, all of a sudden, hundreds of people flying by me.
I was about four miles to the finish and 2:27 into the race. I could hit 8 minute miles and still finish under 3 hours. I needed a soft reset though. I needed to shake it out and get back in it.
I stopped at a porta potty to stretch and pee and get out of the rain for a second in hopes I could warm up a bit and get back at it. I was standing in line waiting and then I realized suddenly that two or three people were yelling at me and waiving their arms, telling me that it had opened up. It felt like an eternity between them saying something and me responding. My mind was thinking the words but my body wasn’t doing its part of the job. There was another delay between me telling my body to walk in and that actually happening. I’d compare it to having had a few drinks too many. This was my brain shutting down from the cold. Let it go long enough an apparently hypothermia can cause long term brain damage due to blood flow stopping to important areas.
I stood in front of the urinal, ready to pee as I watched myself miss the toilet with every single drop. I got plenty on the wall, floor, my shoes and some might even have gotten on the ceiling. I was shaking so violently that I couldn’t control myself for two seconds to pee straight. I hadn’t really thought about how cold I was until then, other than that my hands were numb. I needed to get moving again to warm up.
I started off running again, hoping that was the soft reset I needed. I began at 9:00 mile pace and a minute later I was walking. My legs felt as though I had just sprinted an 800 meeter race – they were full of lactic acid. In retrospect, I suspect this all has to do with blood flow. To conserve energy while running, your body usually stops sending blood to anything except the legs and lungs – it is focused on getting them oxygen and energy. In the cold, your body tries to keep blood in your core because when it sends it out to your extremities, it gets cooled – that is why my hands and brain stopped working well, my body stopped giving them blood. Well at some point I think my body stopped giving my legs enough blood too and so I got to experience the lactic acid buildup of a sprint, even though I was running at marathon effort.
By this point I’d realized that I was not in a good place. My reaction time was really poor, my hands weren’t working, my legs were on fire, I couldn’t run and was shivering violently. Had it been warmer, I would just have walked it in, gotten a 3:20 and called it a day. In the cold I knew things could get worse if I stayed out there for another hour, so I decided that I needed help if I was going to finish.
The Medical Tent
The next medical tent happened to be about 100 yards down the road. My plan was to go in, get some hot liquids in me, get stretched out, get the blood flowing again and then go jog it in. My soft reset didn’t work, this was a hard reset. I figured I’d be in there 10-15 minutes. Enough time that I stopped my watch.
I walked up to the tent and was directed into the church building just behind it. I walked in and like a whirlwind I was put into a chair, covered in wool and mylar blankets, given hot tea to drink had warm water bottles stuffed around me. In some ways this felt like my own Pheidippides moment. If you don’t know the story, he’s the Greek who ran the original marathon to announce a battle victory – legend has it he finished the run but died upon making his announcement. I was holding it somewhat together outside but as soon as they had my bundled up, I just completely shut down.
I couldn’t answer questions, I couldn’t think, I was just huddled in a ball, hoping that the passage of time would make me better. Eventually I was able to respond to question and we got my wet clothes off and they gave me a sweatshirt to put on. I ate a few things, trying to get some calories back in me. I eventually attempted a bathroom trip, but couldn’t walk on my own and needed to lean on someone to get me the 50 ft to the bathroom. This time I was able to pee into the toilet though – so that was progress.
Eventually I got to talking to the runners around me, a Bib #118, a 2:15 Kenyan marathon runner who had never been in weather like that and a local guy who had run a 2:35 previously but had trained for hot weather (because the year before was really hot). We were the dumb ones, the ones that hadn’t prepared enough for the weather, but had gone out trying to PR. There we were, huddled in an old church around an plug in heater, bundled up in wool blankets and sipping tea. The took the temperature of the guy next to me and it was 92* – I’m told that is bad. They didn’t take mine, but I wish they had now, could have at least set one new record that day.
Eventually we started to talk about next steps. I still thought I’d run back, but had started to realize that probably wasn’t going to happen. Both of the other runners were planning to take the bus. Shortly after that someone came in and let us know it was really bad on the course and they were expecting thousands of runners in the medical tents and wanted to clear people out as soon as possible. I was supposed to be flying back home at 7pm that night, which meant I needed to get home and get packed or I’d miss my flight. I decided to get on the next bus.
This was a moment I wish I could take back. I knew that going back out to the race in my wet clothes would be dumb – I was warmer than before but still pretty cold and all I had with me was my wet clothes and a cotton sweatshirt they had given me. I couldn’t really walk. Over the course of four miles I would have locked up, gotten wet & cold again, then been right back in a medical tent.
Had my brain been working, I could have figured something out. Maybe gotten a poncho to keep that cotton sweatshirt dry, maybe started some stretching to get my legs back. Maybe another half hour in that tent and I could have run the final miles and gotten home in time to get to the airport & catch my flight.
But right then I wasn’t very creative. I focused on survival and knew that getting back to where I was staying was the best way to ensure that I stayed alive.
The Journey Home
It ended up being a long journey back to where I was staying. I still couldn’t walk very well, so I had to be near-carried out to the bus. The first bus was a nice, warm, charter bus that took us a few miles down the course to a bare bones, and chilly school bus that was going to take us to the finish line. I borrowed a phone to text my wife that I was ok and she relayed word to the group I was with.
We ended up waiting a long time, maybe an hour, before we left as we were waiting for other bus drop offs. It was a long ride through traffic into the city. When they dropped us off, I realized what was in front of me, it was still cold and rainy and I had at least a mile of walking in front of me. I got the finisher poncho, post-race food bag and my gear bag and started the walk home. It was miserable. It was one of those forward-at-all-costs slogs. Thankfully I was pretty dry and relatively warm. I could walk a bit better now, just not quickly, laterally or on steps.
At one point I reflected on the fact that I certainly could have finished the race, I had proven that by walking about two miles to get home. That doesn’t count though and I knew it.
I had stopped running at 12:36 PM, I got home at probably 3:30 PM. The group I was with quickly got me inside, into the shower and loaded with food and hot tea. By 4:00 or so I was feeling good again. I was warm, I was full, I was able to function.
The Decision to Return
Over the next hour a few things occurred that helped me decide to go finish.
I had about 50 text messages when I grabbed my phone. I called my wife and mom and texted a few quick “I’m ok”s. Then I read through the texts. They started off as early morning encouragements that I hadn’t seen since I’d left my phone at home. Then, there were mid-race texts of ‘good jobs’ for hitting my splits. Then, all of a sudden there was concern, people weren’t getting course updates anymore and were wondering what was happening and if I was ok. I’m so grateful for all every that was concerned.
Then a surprise. A text from my airline – my flight, which was supposed to leave at 7pm that night (I was supposed to be heading to the airport shortly), was canceled and they’d moved me to the same flight the next evening. That meant that I was no longer in a rush. I could go out to dinner and I’d even have some time the next day to see a bit of Boston, maybe go for a recovery jog.
Next, we got together for a group picture and all put on our Boston gear we’d gotten that weekend. The other three runners I was staying with all held their medals. I didn’t have one, since I didn’t finish.
I looked down at my yellow Boston Marathon shirt. I had specifically sought out that shirt. When they sold out at the convention, I went elsewhere to find one. Now I didn’t feel like I could wear it again. The sad thing was that shirt was two years in the making. I had to train the previous year, then qualify in a race, then train again, then fly out to Boston and then run the race. While the last 3 miles might be ~10% of the course distance, really it was less than 1% of the total work for that accomplishment. But I wouldn’t feel right wearing that shirt unless I finished every last percent of the work. You don’t get to wear that shirt for trying your hardest. It is pass fail and at that point I hadn’t passed.
I got to thinking that I needed to do that recovery job the next morning on the miles of the course I hadn’t finished. It had taken me over a year of work to get to mile 23 – even if the last miles were a day late, they were still part of that body of work and in my book, they would count. As long as I finished the entire course, I could consider it mission accomplished.
Around that time, my wife had told my sons (daughter too – but she’s too young to understand) that I hadn’t finished the race and they were pretty upset about it. This wasn’t something they knew could happen. When they heard about me winning races, most of the time they were races I had won, or at least gotten on the age group podium for. One race I pushed both of them in the stroller and won my division, getting 4th overall, despite the fact that no one else was pushing a stroller. The fact that I hadn’t won the Boston Marathon would have made them a bit sad, but that I hadn’t even finished was shattering.
I needed to do it for me. Admittedly, subliminally, I wanted to do it for what others think about me. But as I thought about my children and how my actions speak to them, I did it mostly for them. I want them to grow up in a family where they learn that when you wear our name, you do not quit because things are difficult. I wanted this to become a family legend. A tale they could dig up and use for strength in their own lives. A reminder that they are part of a clan that has come from hardship and that will face hardship again – but that in our clan, we do so with courage and we finish what we start.
There is sometimes wisdom in stopping – when the risks outweigh the benefit. For me to risk long term consequences, to finish an unimportant race, when I have a wife and four children that depend on me, would be foolish. But difficult is not the same as dumb. Now that I was mostly physically recovered, given proper gear, the only thing standing between me and the finish line was hard work.
The TV in the living room was on. The anchors were recapping the marathon winners and the events of the day. Eventually they cut to a feed of the course where they showed the rain that still persisted and runners that were coming in. That is when I realized that was a live feed. The course was still open. I had to go finish. Right then.
I frantically started grabbing my running things, rummaging through my bag for anything I could wear. My buddy Darin, one of the other runners, asked what I was doing and I told him I needed to go finish. Without saying a word he extended a fist for a bump that conveyed the understanding of a fellow competitor. He started to go through his own stuff to find any gear that could help me.
Now remember, I couldn’t really walk, just a few hours before. As I decided to do this, I fully thought it might take me an hour or two to walk the final miles. Maybe longer. I layered up. Running tights for my legs, undershirt, then long sleeve, then my fleece jacket, the yellow Boston Marathon shirt I had bought on top for good measure. Fleece gloves, my running hat and a poncho to top it all off and keep me dry. I was properly equipped this time. I brought my phone with me in a plastic bag and had my credit card and ID card too. I was going to finish this race and if it took me all night, I was going to stop in convenience stores to self-support my finish with hot chocolate and hot dogs.
Traffic was horrible, so it took the Uber about 40 minutes to drive the 5 miles to where I had stopped. On the way I texted my wife that I was heading back out to finish. Her response was; ‘Of course you are’
There are times when our actions and situations are so in line with who we are that they are almost a caricature. Friends sometimes joke about ‘Peak Greg’ – situations that are so ‘me’ that I’ll never be able to top it. This might have been peak Greg. It was certainly close.
I got out of the Uber and asked a police officer which way the course went and he pointed and asked me to stay on the sidewalk, the course was now closed and cars were back on the roads.
The lights were turned off in the stadium. The fans had gone home. But I was going to be out there until I had finished.
I hit ‘Start’ on my watch and resumed my race. I was jogging on the sidewalk, all layered up, most concerned that I would follow the actual course. I didn’t need to invalidate my finish with a shortcut right now.
Along the next mile I passed a few other runners. Runners who might have gone on to finish, but who didn’t get to log an official time. This was a whole new world to me. A few years ago I wrote about some of my learnings from being in first place in a marathon – it is a bit harder since the volunteers aren’t always ready for you yet and you need to make sure you know where you are going. Well being in last place is hard too. I was on the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians going about their life. I had to wait at stop lights for the walk sign. Cleanup crews were removing the barriers and street sweepers were cleaning the roads, spraying dirty water my direction. This is a world that always exists, it was just previously invisible to me. I’m appreciative I got to see it.
You can see here there were a few runners still on the course at 6PM. Not the thousands there were earlier, but a handful that were going to go the distance.
After a half mile I glanced at my watch and noticed I was averaging low 7s. That was including an intersection I had stopped at to wait for a walk sign. I guess my legs weren’t as dead as I’d thought they would be.
The next miles were 6:55 and then 7:11. I logged my highest heart rates of the day, mostly because I was now overheating in my layers. Kind of ironic – because I had been so cold earlier, because I chose NOT to wear layers, because I thought I would overheat.
As I neared the final half mile I realized they hadn’t yet torn down the barriers to the street there yet. I got on the road and squeezed past a few moving trucks that were there to tear down and I got to run the last bit on the actual course.
As I made the famous left turn onto Boylston st I finished the way I had intended to, 5:35 mile pace. I left everything out there. As I hit the finish line, nearly in tears, I celebrated in the way I had been planning – I dropped down, kissed the finish line of my final marathon and gave a few pushups for good measure before crossing the line with my arms in the air. This was how I was supposed to finish Boston. It might have been 5 1/2 hours late – but it was right.
In the Uber I had looked up what time the course was supposed to close – 5:30 PM. It was now 6:20, but to my surprise there was still someone there with a box of medals, still a photographer and I would later find out my chip had logged a finish time as well – the timing mat hadn’t yet been shut down.
It took me another half hour or so to walk back home. It really started dumping rain, so for a little while I hid in one of the gear check tents until it let up a bit. The walk through Boston Common was nearly a swim, there was ankle deep water for a lot of it.
Getting home I took another warm shower and put on the only other dry clothing I had left. Everything else was drying – it had either been run in that morning or that evening. I was happy to have received a medal, but happier that I knew I had mettle all along.
That evening we did a retake of our group shot – I felt a lot better about the race for this one.
It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.
Looking at my pace, you can see it is like clockwork for the fist 20 miles, even with the hills. Heartbreak hill is the first time I have a real stutter and then you can watch the wheels come off.
In the second part you can see what would have been a really strong finish. Around 7 through the final miles and then a nice kick with about a little less than a half mile to go.
My heart rate through the fist half was incredibly low due to the cold. That gray line labelled 600ft in the chart below is actually 160 BPM. I barely crossed it where as normally I am at 165+ for most of a marathon.
Had I not broken down from hypothermia, I would have had a lot left in the tank for the final miles.
Interestingly, in the second half, my heart rate basically never went below 160 BMP because I was warm and even overheating some. I’m really proud of that finish, I touched 182 which I’ve never done in a marathon race.
Here you can see how I was doing compared to a handful of other runners. When their colors are on top of the black line, it means they’re ahead of me. You can see I let a lot of people pass me in the first 13 miles and then over the next 6 I held my pace and gained a lot of ground. Unfortunately they all passed me very quickly come mile 22.
Looking through Strava it was interesting to see all of the DNFs. Some people dropping out as early as mile 16 but lots between miles 20 & 24. I saw a lot of people who were, like me, on pace for low 2:50s but then had to walk/jog the finish and ended up around 3:00.
This is a chart of my heart rate per mile in all of the marathons I’ve raced. You can see that this race (in green) was the lowest I’d ever had my heart rate be for the early miles. Even lower than 2017’s Jack & Jill where I felt like I was jogging the first half.
You can also see that every race has some sort of crash. If you run a marathon hard, you will struggle at the end. My best race, in red, that crash was just starting in mile 26 – I dropped from 5:55 down to 6:37, but then I was able to finish strong in the last 0.2. Had that race been any longer, it would have been really bad. That was near perfect timing.
The blue race I wasn’t in great shape and went out too fast, so I crashed at mile 23, way too early. In the orange race I pushed it too hard from miles 18-23 and crashed at mile 25 – a mile too early. In every single one of those other races, the limiting factor was energy. I bonked.
This race, that crash started at mile 21 and was all muscular. For this race to have been the lowest my heart rate had ever been in a marathon and then for me to have crashed that early, and for it to have been for a reason I’ve never struggled with, says a lot about the conditions.
What is Next?
It isn’t 26.2 – this was my last time racing that distance.
I will definitely race again – probably even running races. I think I’m due for a break though. I am signed up for the Dipsea in June and there is a local 10k in July that I might take the stroller out in. I’ve yet to decide if I’ll put in much training for either of those or just show up and run with whatever fitness I’ve got.