Race Report: Boston Marathon 2018

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.

Synopsis

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.

Goals

  1. 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.)
  2. Sub 3:11:37 (My worst marathon) – Not Accomplished
  3. Sub 3:00 OR Top 5% – Not Accomplished
  4. Average heart rate over 160 – Not Accomplished
  5. Sub 2:55 OR Top 4% – Not Accomplished
  6. Average heart rate over 163 – Not Accomplished
  7. Sub 2:50 OR Top 3% – Not Accomplished
  8. Average heart rate over 166.15 (my best for a marathon) – Not Accomplished
  9. Top 2% – Not Accomplished
  10. Top 10% of 18-39 Males – Not Accomplished
  11. 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

Successes

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

Failures

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.

Thankfuls

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

Frustrations

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

Race Recap

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.

Training

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.

Race Morning

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.

The two changes I made race morning were wearing the long sleeve shirt and ditching the water bottle.

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.

The Start

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.

Half Way

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.

Second Attempt

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.

Data Breakdown

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.

Race Report: Jack & Jill Marathon 2017

On July 30, 2017 I ran the Jack & Jill Marathon, finishing in 5th place overall with a time of 2:51:07. The guys I ran, Wes & Jonathan Coopersmith, finished in 3rd & 4th place respectively, with times of 2:47:23 and 2:49:02. Here is the race report.

Synopsis

This is a race I should be happy with. I didn’t plan on racing this year and only did so to train with my friend Coop so we could get a Boston Marathon Qualifying time for next year. After the time stress of my 2016 season, I had a conversation with my wife and we decided that I should cut my training to three runs per week, 1-2 of which I’d take kids in the running stroller. I averaged just 27 miles (just barely longer than a marathon) each week. Running a 2:51:07 off of that training plan is more than I had expected going into the season when I had hoped I’d be able to get across at 3:02 or 3:03, barely a BQ.

That said, I am pretty bummed at how I crashed at the finish. My training ended up going really well and I took the first half of the race very conservatively. I expected I should have been able to finish strong. I’ve crashed during a marathon before, but at least with NYC last year, where my crash was even more spectacular, I have very clear evidence that I just went out too hard. Here it seems like I did everything right and still, the wheels came off one mile to the finish. That is what hurts the most. As I think about future races, I’m less confident in my training and race strategy now.

Goals

  1. Finish – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Get a Boston Marathon Qualifier:  3:05 – ACCOMPLISHED
  3. Whole group qualifies for Boston – ACCOMPLISHED
  4. Sub 3:00 – ACCOMPLISHED
  5. Qualify for the New York City Marathon: 2:53 – ACCOMPLISHED
  6. Top 5 overall – ACCOMPLISHED
  7. Average heart rate over 166.15 (my best for a marathon) – Not Accomplished
  8. Beat my personal record: 2:42:25 – Not Accomplished
  9. Sub 2:40 – Not Accomplished
  10. Win – Not Accomplished

Controlled first half (At least 4 of the following) – ACCOMPLISHED

  • Between 1:23-1:25 – YES (Technically 4 seconds over – but I’m counting it)
  • No miles >165 heart rate – YES (Highest mile in the first half was 159)
  • No going into the 170s at all – YES (Highest moment was 165)
  • No miles faster than 6:15 – YES (One mile said 6:13 via GPS but was slower by course marker)
  • Consume 450 calories – Was probably closer to 380
  • Consume 1 liters of fluids – Was probably closer to half a liter

Courageous second half (At least 6 of the following) – Not Accomplished

(Did many of these for the first ~10-12 miles, but failed in the last two)

  • Negative split – faster second half – was 59 seconds slower
  • No miles <165 heart rate – the last two were 155 & 149
  • No going under 160 at all – low of 147
  • No miles slower than 6:30 – last full mile was 7:45 and last partial was at 8:30 pace
  • No miles lower than 180 average cadence – was at 166 by the end
  • Last mile is the fastest of the day – mile 22 was the fastest
  • Have my highest 5-mile-heart-rate-average hits after mile 18 – YES – mile 21-25 were my highest heart rate
  • At least 3 of the last 5 miles are 168+ – YES – miles 22, 23 & 24 were all 168+

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Demonstrated I can run sub-3 on 3 days a week training
  • Our whole group achieved our goal of getting BQs
  • Kept as a pack for 20 miles (learning from last year)
  • Executed my first half strategy really well (learning from last year)
  • Transitioned & began putting in the effort to hit my second half strategy
  • When the floor fell out, pushed enough to grab the NYC qualifier
  • Tried a new pre-cooling strategy that seemed to work
  • Really restful pre-race week and morning (learning from last year)
  • No flashlight failure (learning from last year)

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Weak final 2 miles
  • Messed up my 1/2 way frozen-towel grab
  • Used a pair of flats with a hole in the drain-mesh that let rocks in
  • Didn’t have a frozen water bottle at the half-drop

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • A cool morning
  • Two friends to run with
  • A healthy training season

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Rocks in my shoes – didn’t have this issue last year
  • The guy right behind us for miles 2-10 with the watch that beeped every 20 seconds

Race Recap

Like always, I hardly slept the night before the race. I just get too nervous.

The morning however was very restful as we had it coordinated like a space shuttle launch. Instead of meeting the busses at 3:30 AM, which would have meant leaving the house before 3:00 our group took one vehicle right to the start at 4:30 AM. We had our wives meet us at the finish line with another vehicle. We got an extra hour of sleep because of that and didn’t have to sit around at the start line for a really long time.

Due to having run this race last year I had a bit of insider knowledge. We ended up pulling an advanced move and dropping off a bag at the half with a few emergency supplies, extra water & nutrition before we went to the start.

I tried a new pre-cooling strategy for this race. I was doing some reading that one of the main inhibitors in longer races is heat accumulation and that the colder it is, the faster runners tend to go. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a point at which it is too cold. This is very different from other races like the 5k where you want to be warmed up and ready for your top gear the second the gun goes off or the 100 meter sprint where you need to be warm so that you don’t pull a muscle.

Because of that I tried some pre-cooling – a technique I had read about runners using in races where the temps were in the 70s or 80s, even though it was 50* on my race morning. I drank a slushie of some juice, I wrapped myself in a damp towel that had been the freezer and I held a couple of ice packs against my wrists, where a lot of blood flows. I was freezing. I also skipped warming up, opting for just some light stretching cold. I would use the first miles of the race as my warm up and save the calories for that rather than spending them before the race.

Gun went off and our group, Jonathan, Wes and I went out in the front. Two runners ended up going a bit ahead of us by the 1 mile, but we figured we’d see them again – turns out we didn’t, they finished 1st & 2nd and our group got 3rd-5th.

Our goal was to split the half at 1:25 – exactly 6:30 mile pace. We wanted to do that by running the first few a bit closer to 7:00 pace, then holding just under 6:30s for the rest, maybe dropping a few seconds off mile 12 & 13 to get ready for a faster second half.

The first miles felt so easy it was actually hard to go that slow. I’d only ever raced two marathons, one where I was having equipment trouble over the first miles and one where I went out way too fast. So this was a new feeling for me – being in peak race performance, going race pace, and feeling like it was a walk.

As we came out of the tunnel they snapped this shot of me doing the banana phone. Yes, I ran the first few miles with a banana and then ate it while running. Yes, I was feeling that good at mile 3 that I was making jokes to the photographer.

Miles 3-12 were really uneventful. We just held our pace, drank some water, took down some nutrition and made sure we were all feeling well. I ate the banana and I believe 3 gels. Once in a while someone would stop at an aid station to fill up their water bottle, get about 10 seconds behind us and then close that gap over the next quarter mile.

Looking at my watch, my heart rate was around 155. In my best marathon my average was 166 for the whole race. So at this point I felt great and knew I was sticking to my conservative strategy.

We crossed the half in 1:25:04 – just four seconds behind our target. Basically we were running like clockwork and barely breaking a sweat. My hair only looks wet in the picture below because I was dumping ice water on it as part of that cooling strategy.

So we started to pick up the pace a bit.

You’ll recall that before the race we dropped off a bag at the half way point – actually it was a bit beyond the half way point where there was road access to the trail. As we approached it we agreed on a 30 second stop. Jonathan was going to change shoes into his backup pair. I was going to get my frozen towel. Wes was going to grab a water bottle. We were all going to pee.

We executed well and after that stop we got back moving again, now beginning to pick up the pace. After averaging 6:30 for the first half, our next splits were 6:16, 6:15 and 6:12.

Somewhere in this stretch Jonathan got a cramp in his calf that he thought was related to changing his shoe. He started to worry it was going to get worse and that he wouldn’t finish. He was debating dropping out and trying to find another race a few weeks later to get his BQ, rather than running all-out, missing the qualifying time and being too injured to run another race.

We talked it out and did some math. 16.2 miles in, we had been running for 1:45. With a BQ time of 3:05 that meant he could run 8:00 pace for the next 10 miles and still get it. Pretty reassuring, especially since we had just logged a few low 6s. I dug out a few salt pills from my water bottle’s pocket, handed those to him and convinced him to give it a few more miles. Our cheering squad was going to be at mile 21, so if he still felt bad then, he could drop out, but if he could hang at 6:30 until then, he would be able to hit 9:00 pace to the finish and still qualify. We backed off of the pace a bit and he was able to hang on. I think I had my 5th gel around this point but am not positive.

Around mile 20 is when our pack split apart. I was really excited we were able to run this much of the race together after running the previous year’s race completely alone. We stopped to fill up our bottles, one of the longer stops and got split apart a bit. When we started running again Wes was maybe 15 seconds ahead of Jonathan and me. I picked up the pace a little, like we’d done the rest of the race to catch back up to each other, but he wasn’t coming closer, so I dropped back and ran with Jonathan for a bit. Turns out he wasn’t coming back because he had just clocked a 6:02 mile. Apparently as we got close to mile 20, Wes just clicked into the zone and was heading to the finish like a heat seeking missile.

As we crossed mile 21 I decided to give it another go, I had hoped to catch Wes and that maybe we could work together to get the #2 or #1 runners. We weren’t sure how far ahead they were but knew that anything could happen at the end of a marathon. Jonatan was doing well, mostly recovered from the cramp, but clearly didn’t have a big push in him, so after making sure he was ok to hit at least those 8:00 splits I started pulling away.

My wife and kids, along with Wes’ wife were cheering on the 21st mile. That ended up being one of the fastest of the day.

My wife grabbed a shot as I passed by them, at this point I was about 20 seconds behind Wes and 20 ahead of Jonathan. I look pretty happy & casual for a guy 20 miles in, logging low 6s.

My next splits were 6:06, 6:04 & 6:10. 23 miles in I’m looking at 2:27 on the watch which means I can hit 2:45 or 2:46 if I keep this pace going. That would have been amazing – only 3-4 minutes slower than my PR from the year prior when I had double the training.

My heart rate was no longer 157 though, I was up near 175, which is dangerous for me. 185 is about my max and I’ve found once I start going past 170 I tend to cramp or shut down within a mile or two. I was supposed to have a 6th gel around here, but skipped it because I wasn’t sure I could keep it down and I thought I was close enough to the finish. That was probably a bad move. My body can’t process the gel fast enough to use the energy consumed at that point for the race, but sometimes just putting them in tells your body it is ok to use the last bits of energy it has, because it knows there is something else coming.

This was the tricky part about this race strategy, and using heart rate to gauge it. My heart rate was so low for the first half, that if I were going to try and get my average up to 166, what I had raced last time, I was going to need to be in the high 170s. But racing in the high 170s was begging for a crash.

I felt the hurt happening. I noticed as I started worrying less about how far Wes was in front of me and more about how for Jonathan was behind me. I caught myself looking back for the first time, which isn’t a good sign. My next miles were a bit more relaxed, 6:30 and 6:45 with my heart rate at 168 and 166. This was probably healthy, but at this point the results were written. I was starting to crash.

Jonathan had closed the ~30 second gap I had put on him during those two miles and caught me at mile 25. I had hoped to run it in together but he was actually running really strong, all that cramping business was behind him. Meanwhile I was getting worse with each step.

This is where I start doing math in my head. I have 1.2 miles left to go I’m looking at about 2:42 on the clock. That means I can basically walk and I will still get my BQ. I know I can’t catch Wes or Jonathan at this point, set a new record for myself. There is no one else behind me as far as I can see. The only other milestone of note is the NYC qualifier at 2:53, which requires me to go about 9 minute pace – that is what I locked on.

In retrospect, I was actually really close to hitting my second half goals. Had I thought about that a bit more and locked in on that target, perhaps I could have stayed around 7 flat and shaved that minute off my time to keep me in the 2:40s. I would have needed to keep my heart rate at 165, which is a pretty solid effort level, but not impossible. Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking about that, a clear planning failure, that is why it is always good to have some fallback goals, so that even if you miss your top goals, you still have something to push towards.

Mile 26 was a 7:45 and the final .2 miles was around 8:30 pace. I crossed the line at 2:51:07. That means my second half was 59 seconds slower than the first half of the race. At mile 24 I was actually 2:45 ahead of first half pace, meaning I had gained 15 seconds per mile, but I was able to blow all of that and a minute more in a horrible last 2.2 miles.

Despite that, it was a great finish. Our crew went 3, 4 & 5 and took home some age group medals. After the race we picked up our car from the start and had a picnic at a nearby park. That ended up tying the whole season together nicely – what had started as a team plan, ended up as team training, a team race and a team meal. Very much different and more enjoyable than my solo experience in 2016, even if I was 9 minutes slower.

Most races give our participant medals to every finisher – it is always nice when you walk away with an age group medal as well. Funny enough those always tend to be the smaller ones. That middle award is my favorite though. Half of my training runs had the stroller in tow and my boys’ favorite thing to yell was ‘go faster daddy’. I’m so happy they could see me in the race and be a part of that.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

First, here is the breakdown of all finishers by 15 minute increments – I was in the red bar – not the top one this time.

If we filter to just young males, 34 and under specifically, the results are a little less pronounced. Part of the reason the red bar is so high is our group of 3 who showed up together to turn in that time. The BQ time for these age groups in 3:05 – about 12 of the 45 finisher got it, which is really high. Its a fast course thanks to the continual slight elevation drop.

Looking at pace (blue line) and heart rate (red line), you can see 20 miles of a very consistent race pace with a continual heart rate drift. Basically it gets harder to run the same pace as the race goes on. That all starts to come apart around mile 23, but I managed to hang onto the pace until closer to 25.

Drilling into just the heart rate, you can see I hit peak exertion during the 23rd mile.

My cadence, how many steps I took per minute, was low early on as we started off at such a slow pace. It got up to speed around mile 3 though and stayed relatively consistent until mile 22, minus a stop during mile 13 to pee and a longer water bottle fill up around mile 19. In the end my cadence was dropping, despite my focusing hard on keeping it up, my legs just turned into bricks.

Here you can see a scatter plot of my heart rate and pace for each mile of the race. Generally these follow a trend where the faster you are going the higher your heart rate is. Usually due to exhaustion, the latter miles are a bit slower, even at the same heart rate.

Evidence of my crashing not being a complete lack of effort is clear in those two dots to the far right. Those are my last mile and 0.2 miles respectively. You can see that a 155 heart rate had gotten me around 6:20-6:40 earlier in the race, but by the last mile all it got me was a 7:45. That is bonking right there.

Another thing that stands out to me is that 166 bpm, the rate I averaged last year, would have gotten me about 6:15-6:20 per mile, according to a best fit line. That comes out to a 2:46 finish. I probably didn’t have the stamina to hit quite that level of exertion for that long, but a 2:47-2:49 definitely should have been possible.

Here is a look at my breakdown at mile 25 compared to another runner. The red line is the distance between Coop and I at any given point. You can see we ran together the whole time an the deviance is usually GPS error. Around mile 20 I started to pull ahead and managed to get about 30 seconds ahead. Then around mile 22 or 23 he started to reel me back in. He made the pass at mile 25 and then immediately stopped to get some water, allowing me to pull a few feet ahead. I tried to go with him at that point, but I was just dead. That last spike from 25-26 looks much steeper than from 23-25. That is the difference between shutting down but fighting to get any speed possible and shutting down while giving up. I still ran into the finish, but there is a big difference in speed between digging deep and just running – especially at the end of a marathon.

Here is my time compared to the winner of the race. We exited the tunnel around the same time and he slowly gained distance until mile 20 when I started going their exact pace for about 4 miles – I might even have gained some ground. I would have loved it if he had been there last year, his finish time was 2:39:18, which is about 3 minutes faster than I ran last year. Having him there the whole time would have given me someone to pace with though, so perhaps I would have been able to break 2:40 had he been there.

This next chart is my heart rate per mile in all of my marathon races. You can see the red line which is last year’s Jack and Jill, the race I won, is fairly consistent, with a slight drop in the latter miles but a strong finish. New York in blue started off higher in the first few miles, remained high and then crashed huge.

This year’s Jack and Jill race, in orange is really interesting. Is is incredibly low for the entire first half, then quickly becomes the highest output I’ve ever had in the latter miles, until the crash. Had I been able to keep that orange line above the red line at the end, I’d be happy with my strategy and probably my time as well.

We can see that in comparison to NYC 2016, this crash was about the same trajectory, but because it happened later, it didn’t end up getting as bad. In an ideal race, that crash starts happening at mile 26, but the excitement of the finish lets you push through it for just a bit and then you never see the drop on the chart. I think that is what happened for me in the red line, I was going to crash but decided to finish hard and did so just in time.

In retrospect it appears like I just pushed too hard from miles 21-23 and that cost me the energy for the last mile. Had I gone 6:20 instead of 6:10, maybe I would have been able to go 6:20-6:40 instead of 8:30 at the end. What is so difficult about that idea is mile 21 seems like the right place to start pushing if you’re feeling really good and your heart rate is way below target. By this point you only have 5 miles left to make a dent in your time that you’ve been logging for 21.

What I always try to identify after a race is whether the result was because of a training error, a race strategy error, and execution error or just a bad day. With the marathon it is so hard to tell because you can only race a few times per year.

With the 5k in college I used to sometimes get really down after a slow race and think my training was off, only to have a great race the next week with the same race strategy and realize I just had a bad day the previous week.

With this marathon, I’m really not sure what it is. It could be a training failure. I know I cut my training by a ton. I only ran 3 days per week, logged half the mileage and only had 3 20 mile+ runs leading up to the race, as opposed to 7 the year prior. But my expectations weren’t to get another low 2:40s, I would have been happy with a negative split and 2:49 finish and ecstatic to finish with Wes around 2:47.

I can’t blame the race strategy that much either, because three of us ran that strategy and the other two ended up doing great.

I think it comes down to a bit of execution failure. I missed my half way cool down towel because it was too frozen, I didn’t eat as much as I had wanted to, especially near the end, and I pushed a bit harder than I would have liked to during miles 22 & 23. Combine that with what was possibly just not a great day and I think that is difference between a crash that cost me 2-3 minutes and an otherwise strong finish in the high 2:40s.

One final interesting point. This race actually ran twice over the weekend, once on Saturday and once on Sunday. Had we been there Saturday and ran the same times, we would have ended up 1, 2 & 5 instead of 3, 4 & 5. Having those other runners closer to us might have been enough to change things a bit though – perhaps they would have gone faster if there were competition, or perhaps we would have gone faster knowing we could pull 1, 2 & 3. Either way, it is interesting how races often come down to a bit of luck and who shows up on a given day.

What is Next?

I qualified for the Boston Marathon with this race, so I intend to go out and run that in the spring. That course is a bit slower, but there will also be a lot more runners around my pace for me to group up with.

I’d like to try the same training plan, except focus a bit more on finishing stronger. I’ll likely emphasize more long runs where the last few miles are at race pace to get me into the mentality of digging deep when it seems like I have nothing left.

I’ll also try a similar race strategy, with a conservative start and courageous finish. Probably aiming for the same paces, hoping to hit 1:25 and sub-1:25 for the two halves. On Boston’s course a 1:25 first half will seem a little less conservative and so I won’t try to run any 6:00-6:10s in the second half, I’ll probably aim for 6:25s or so with a strong finish to just barely hit a negative split.

Prediction: 2:49:10. We’ll see…

Race Report: New York City Marathon 2016

On November 6, 2016 I ran the New York City Marathon. I finished in a time of 3:11:37, about a half hour slower than my best marathon. Here is the race report.

I debated writing this – I wasn’t sure it passed my litmus test of being a race – or of deserving a report. In my mind the goal of writing a race report is to document the ins and outs of an all out effort in order to learn from it and also to serve as way to remember a momentous event. I ultimately decided to write this because I think I have something to learn from it, and it was quite memorable.

If you’re interested in the training I did leading up to the race, you can read more about it here.

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Finished
  • Was leading my heat for the first mile
  • Solid effort through the first 22 miles
  • Finished before 96% of runners
  • Was able to run well off of minimal training

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Lost to Chris
  • Did not take it easy enough the days leading up to the race
  • Did not get to the starting area early enough and missed my wave
  • Did not have a good read on my fitness
  • Went out way too fast
  • Ultimately did not have a sound strategy or unified goals
  • Didn’t stick to my fueling strategy

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • The random number generator that accepted me to the race
  • Amazing weather
  • The people of New York City
  • Volunteers with water every single mile
  • The New York City Mets
  • Getting to have a celebratory dinner with Chris, Gretchen & Rob
  • My wife for letting me leave her alone for two days to check an item off my bucket list

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Morning logistics
  • No one to pace off of for the first 19 miles
  • Having to weave to pass a LOT of people
  • Having to walk almost a mile after the race

Race Report

The following is a detailed account of my race. 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

Before the race I changed my mind a few times about what my goal was.

My original intent was to run the NYC Marathon as a celebration after doing well at Jack & Jill over the summer.

I missed my 2:37 goal there by 5 minutes though and so I thought I could use NYC as a second chance. After studying the course I realized that was going to be improbable due to the travel stress & race course difficulty. So I signed up for CIM, the fastest course on the west coast, in order to give myself the best shot at hitting 2:37. I planned to skip NYC since I qualified for next year.

My friends Chris & Gretchen were signed up for NYC, and beating Chris is one of my favorite pass times, so around October I decided to go and run it as a workout, one month before CIM. My high hopes were to run about 3:00 easy at NYC, which I knew would beat Chris, and then turn around to run a 2:37 a month later at CIM.

My training hit a few kinks, mainly due to my third child being born, and so by late October I realized a 2:37 at CIM wasn’t going to happen. I ran one tempo run that suggested I could hold 6:30 pace at NYC and finish around 2:50-2:55 though, which seemed like a great plan. Plugging some data into the NYC Marathon pace calculator tool, my plan seemed to line up with what they thought. I made the call to taper for the race rather than train through it and decided my goal was to have as much fun as possible while still beating Chris.

My strategy at that point was to go out slow, around 7:00 pace, drop to 6:45s for the bulk, catch up with him around mile 18-20, and then finish strong, leveraging a solid base from earlier in the year. (You will soon see that this is the exact opposite of what occurred.) I had another goal in mind of finishing with my average heart rate above 166 BPM, which is what I averaged during my fastest marathon. I knew I wasn’t as fast as I was then, but I figured if I was able to work that hard again or harder, that would be an accomplishment.

The day before the race I made a few big decisions – never a good idea. I decided that my goal was to have as much fun as possible and make this a memorable event. After all, I knew it wasn’t going to be fast (by my standards), so I might as well make it fun. I decided to wear a New York Mets hat to get the crowd support. I made the call to abandon a few of my pre race rest tendencies and go do a few NYC things. I opted to run with my phone so I could take photos & videos to remember it by.

I also decided that, since my qualifier time had me seeded with group 1A, I would go out fast & run the first miles with the professionals. I had this vision in my head of running out in front on across the bridge, side by side with runners I could never compare myself to. I could only hold their marathon pace for a mile or two, but perhaps I would even make it on TV during that time so my family could see me. After that I would likely need to take a breather, then get back in a fight through a tough and slow race. I was going to blow my race but enjoy the first 10 minutes of it.

What I hope is obvious is that I didn’t have a clear and locked goal. My plans were changing quite frequently based on the circumstances. Sometimes rolling with the punches is a good thing, but often it results in confusion and failure on all accounts.

Morning

I woke up at 6:00AM, caught an Uber with another runner and got to the ferry terminal plenty early for the 6:45 ferry to Staten Island. The race was scheduled to start at 9:45, which meant I had over three hours of waiting.

I did by best to stay warm and sit as not to burn energy. I stayed hydrated. I tried to be patient with the large crowds. I have never been to a race this big. In fact, very few people have since this year the NYC Marathon set a record for largest marathon – only a few other shorter races have ever been bigger.

I somehow bumped into Chris & Gretchen on the ferry and we acted like tourists the whole way over to Staten Island.

Once at the ferry terminal on the other side, we decided to stay inside for a bit rather than getting on the bus. A large part of that was spent waiting in line for the last nice bathroom we would see. The janitor there had a sense of humor about the crowd that remains a highlight of the day.

We eventually got in line to get on a bus, and made a mistake of getting on a full bus rather than waiting for the next one. We were standing in the isle and the bus was in traffic & not moving. We eventually sat down in the isle as best we could and watched our clocks as we realized we would likely miss our wave. We did hit another highlight though, a 70-something year old man who has run the race ~30 times telling us why he loved it so much and where the best bathrooms on the course are.

The bus pulled up and we ran to try and find our starting area. Hearing over the loudspeaker that we had missed our wave, I had to abandon my plan to go out in front and decided to go with Chris’ wave so we could run together. We got separated though and so I ran back over to my start area. After a bunch of shoving through crowds I found out I nearly missed the next wave too, but ended up making it to the front of 2A.

The Start

I asked around to find out what sort of paces heat 2A was set for and heard mostly 8:00-range. A fine pace for a marathon, but I had run a marathon at 6:11 a few months earlier. I was going to need to go out fast to avoid getting bottlenecked.

By turn of fate I would end up being in the perfect place to fulfill my vision of being in front on the bridge, without having to run 5:00 pace.

The cannon went off at 10:15 and I took off. I was in front. A quarter mile in I started to feel winded, and realized I was going sub six, uphill. Not a good idea. I slowed down a bit, but around then I spotted Chris’s wave.

The Bridge

I need to provide a bit of context. The way the NYC marathon start works is kind of complex. There are three color starting lines: blue, green & orange – each of which takes a different course through the first 8 miles before combining.

I was in Blue and Chris was in Orange. Both of those crossed the bridge on the top level, but were separated by a concrete barrier. Our paths would later split in Brooklyn, only to recombine at mile 8.

When I saw Chris up ahead I figured I would go catch him so we could run together. We said hi and ran side by side, like we have for hundreds of miles. (Except there was a concrete barrier between us – which, honestly, is probably a safe measure to implement on future runs). I was leading my wave and he had only a few people ahead of him in his. We essentially got to run on the narrows bridge with nothing else around – another highlight of the day.

My watch beeped after one mile, 6:25. 50 seconds faster than the plan. The, 20 second later I heard Chris’ watch beep. That is when I realized that our courses were parallel but not even – I had gone out faster, though we were now running the same pace.

You can see in this image a blue and orange line showing the different courses – notice blue starts further back but orange has to run a few extra blocks in Brooklyn.

Around then the bridge crested and started heading downhill.

We cruised down the hill and hit 6:03 for the second mile. Again, much faster than planned. At that point our courses split into Brooklyn, they would reconnect around mile 8.

Brooklyn

The miles through Brooklyn were my favorite of the race. The joke is that I loved the Brooklyn half-marathon – I did quite well too. The crowds had so much energy and that was the first time we got to experience them since there had been no spectators on the bridge.

Their energy kept me pumped up. ran a 6:21 & 6:36 for my next miles and took my first gel. Around that point I started to catch people from wave 1. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be running alone. I was foolish.

I took some video, a selfie and settled into a better pace. 6:47, 6:35, 6:41, 6:42.

During those miles I passed the stragglers of wave 1 and made my way towards the majority of the runners. I love passing people, which probably kept my pace a few seconds faster than it would have been if I had been running with people my own pace. I took my second gel around mile 8.

Around mile 8.5 I ran past my cousin Rob’s house. I’ve been out to see Rob in NYC a half dozen times over the past 15 years, so it was great to run through his neighborhood. He was out there cheering and we connected for a high five – another highlight of the day.

At this point in the race the three waves combined and the course got really crowded. I was catching runners from wave 1, which had started 24 minutes before mine. So the runners I was passing were running about 3 minutes per mile slower than I was (doing the algebra, I was at 6:45 pace and they were at 9:15). That meant I had to plot a course around them essentially like they were standing objects – it was much like running rapids. It was draining and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran an extra half mile weaving back and forth to either side of the road to pass people. This went from fun to frustrating.

Some rough math – I finished in 1,762 place and had started at the front of wave 2 of 4. So there were probably 12,500 people in wave 1. I passed most people between miles 5-15, of which 3 of those miles the course was still split in 3. I figure I passed around 10k people across 10 miles, roughly 1 person per 5 feet. I took a video that confirms those ballpark numbers.

Queens

I crossed the half at 1:27:31, right on schedule actually. I figured at that pace I could keep pace to hit a 2:55, go faster to get closer to 2:50 or slow down a tad and still break 3. This was a great place to be. I took my third gel somewhere around there – I can’t quite remember.

Around this point I was averaging a heart rate of 166, which was one of my goals, so I was feeling great about that.

Unfortunately I got bottlenecked on the Queensborough bridge and ran my first 7:00 split. There was just no way to pass people and I my early decisions were starting to catch up with me. I didn’t have the motivation to yell to pass them by a few seconds so I settled into pace.

Manhattan

Despite going slow, I couldn’t manage to pee, so I stopped right after the bridge hoping to put that all behind me.

As I turned down 1st avenue I decided to give it another go and put up a 6:48 & 6:52 and had my fourth gel. I had two more on my belt that I planned to take during the race but ultimately did not do that – it was a mistake that cost me.

Mile 20 I found a runner who was going a bit faster than me – likely someone who also had to start in the later wave – and I forced myself to stay with him until the mile marker. I figured if I grit it out and hold hold pace for a bit, I would get back in the groove. It was a 6:57 and that was my last sub 7 mile of the race. My hypothesis did not hold true.

Bronx

As we turned through the Bronx, which they let you run in for all of one mile, my pace was 7:20. This was now easy run territory but it didn’t feel easy. I started checking my phone to see where Chris was. As it updated I realized he was closing in on me. At one point I had a 2 minute gap on him but he had nearly caught me.

Manhattan Again

We turned back into Manhattan and just then I saw Chris pass me – we were right around the 22 mile mark. He didn’t see me so I called out to get his attention and we exchanged a few words. I thought he would run with me but he seemed pretty focused – I think he was trying to break 3:00. We were both clearly hurting. I regret that we didn’t just run the race together – that probably would have been more fun given the situation we were trying to deny we were both in.

At this point I knew it was going to be a rough finish. I decided to make a cut then and jog slowly to make sure I could finish. My next miles were 8:20 and 8:40 – that seemed like a deep enough cut in pace to enjoy the finish but was not.

I should have likely gone closer to 9:00 pace and focused on refueling. Unfortunately at mile 24 I thought my race was nearly over and that I could just push through it. It would ultimately be another ~30 minutes until I finished. I wish I had respected that time and taken in some calories.

Central Park

As I hit the park my body bonked. Full on “you don’t have the calories to move that fast” bonk. My heart rate dropped from 170 to 130 – I just didn’t have the energy to push harder. Even at that I had to take a few breathers.

The way to understand bonking is to think about fuel for a car. My body was dripping fuel into the engine at that point and if I tried to move faster than about a 9:00 mile it would burn through it and I would be forced to walk so a bit more energy could accumulate.

I walk/jogged the last two miles. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before in a race. My mile pace was about 11:30. In the race report I wrote for my fast marathon this summer I described how towards the end everything was breaking down and I had a tough time finishing my last miles. Looking back, my slowest mile that day was a 6:37. This time around it was quite shocking to be moving at nearly half that speed.

I’ll include this picture only because I think it captures how much I was trying to grit through the pain. Not having available glycogen isn’t something you can just grit through though.

One of my big miscalculations was thinking I could hit 166 BPM for this race. What I failed to realize is that energy use is a factor of time, not of distance. This is less obvious with short races and on the track, what I am used to. I had previously proven that my body could work at a level of 166 BPM for 2 hours and 42 minutes – not 26.2 miles. When I checked my watch throughout the race and saw 166, I felt good. In reality, all that would get me was 2 hours and 42 minutes of running before a crash. In order to run for a longer time, I would need to be running at a lower effort. In fact, checking my splits, I crossed the 2 hour 42 minute mark at mile 23.5. That is almost exactly when I crashed.

I ended up finishing with a 162 average. If I had thought about this more before the race, I would have aimed for that earlier, gone out a bit slower and likely finished much faster.

This was a hard lesson but will be important if I ever run on trails where distance is often a bad predictor of time, due to elevation climbing. In those cases it is important to think about energy as a function of time. I won’t forget that.

The Finish

I timed my walking so that I had a bit of energy to jog across the finish line. It wasn’t really a celebration other than the fact that I could stop moving and get on with enjoying New York and my friends.

I regret that I didn’t do something more fun at the end. I should have just stopped at a deli around mile 24, had something to eat and gotten back on the course. Then I could have jogged it in and maybe done some pushups at the finish line for good measure. That would have been fun and my time would have been in indistinguishable 3:25 – still a great marathon time. A fun poor performance is much better than a miserable one. Misery is fine if you’re setting a record for yourself though. I wish I could have realized sooner what was happening and made that call. If ever I end up in that situation, I’ll know what to do.

Post Race

The post finish experience was one the worst I’ve ever experienced. We essentially had to walk one mile (I mapped it below) to where we could meet our family and get on the subway. Thankfully they gave us calories right after the finish – I sat down to eat and eventually met up with Chris. We got pretty cold before the .75 mile mark where they finally gave us our ponchos.

That mile probably took close to 40 minutes. I guess that was my slowest mile of the day.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

I mentioned earlier that I went at a good pace and caught up with a lot of runners that started in an earlier wave, only to have many of them pass me again. Here is a nice chart that shows how it played out with one particular runner I found on Strava who ran a 3:24. Their splits were really even so the change in time between us is all due to my pace dropping. I started ~20 minutes behind them, meaning they were about 4 minutes back into wave 1. You can see that I steadily gained on them until the 23 mile mark. At that point they started gaining on me and ended up putting a good bit of distance on me in the last few miles.

Here is my pace (blue), heart rate (red) and foot turnover (pink) during the run. This is one of the charts I look at for every run. Here I see a nice build up at the start (perhaps too fast for the first half mile), then a solid steady run at a good cadence. The pace bumps around mile 15-17 are mostly due to GPS noise. You can see my bathroom stop at mile 16 where my cadence drops for a bit. At mile 22-24 things start to look a bit rough, mile 24 sees a major slow down and then you can see my alternating walking for the last few miles.

Heart rate is one of the metrics I pay a lot of attention to, so here is a look at just that.

You’ll notice a few spikes, the first one at mile 1 when I sped up to catch Chris, the spike at mile 2 when I started passing people, mile 8.5 when I saw Rob, mile 16.5 after I got out of the bottleneck of the bridge, mile 19 when I decided to push and hold onto another runner, mile 24 I made a big push to get over the last bit of the hill.

I mentioned before that I had hoped to have my average heart rate over 166. I essentially hovered at an average of 166-167 from mile 3 to 21. At that point it slowly started to drop. Going into mile 25 I was still at 166 but those last two miles dropped the average to 162.

 

What is Next?

2017 is going to be a light year for me. I won’t be trying for any records. I am signed up for the Boston Marathon, might repeat Jack & Jill to pace a buddy and have my eyes on a few really cool races including the legendary Dipsea & Bloomsday races.