What weeks ago seemed impossible, was now on the table. A return to the Summer retreat island of Martha’s Vineyard for a great Boston tune-up race of 20 miles.
My Jack Daniel’s training plan called for 15 miles at marathon pace (6:15) with some easy miles thrown in either side. I adapted this plan for the race and decided I would start out easy and then knuckle down to marathon pace. Well, that was the pre-plan at least.
The weather was not ideal but hey, this was Massachusetts in February; mid-20’s with a north wind and a forecast of rain and snow. I was careful how much insulin to take with my breakfast. My aim was to be anywhere around 180 pre-race.
I spent much of the ferry ride monitoring my blood glucose rather than the view outside. We arrived on the island to a pleasant view of light sky with only a few clouds, no rain or snow in sight. Was the forecast wrong? The optimist in me said yes! I chose shorts, long sleeves, no hat or gloves. After all, I was going to go pretty hard at this. If I was cold, I could always go faster!
I did a final pre-race blood test; 198. This was a great reading for me. I was happy to be starting at this point. I stuffed my shorts pockets with 4 energy gels, the plan of taking one at 5, 10 and 15 miles (a spare as back-up as I knew Gatorade was scarce on the course from last year when I had to snag one of Rui’s gels to keep me going). 400 or so of us ‘toed the line’ outside the ferry terminal in the north town of Vineyard Haven. Lots dressed in Boston marathon attire making the statement that this run was part of the bigger picture for 8 weeks time.
I was itching to go. I had missed this although it had only been a couple of months since my last race in California. I knew the smart race plan was to run my own race but I quickly found a small group of runners to run with at the front. There were two leaders way ahead, and then us. We crossed a bridge into the township of Oak Bluffs and got read the 1 mile split by a volunteer. It felt like I was back in school getting yelled my splits round the track by my coach. “6:34”. OK, that wasn’t easy pace. Pre-plan ruined! We maintained this for the next two miles. I could taste the opportunity for a high placing and I didn’t want to slip back and run solo. I knew by mile 5 I was going to press anyway so I stayed in the group working as one.
I shielded myself from the wind with two runners ahead of me. We headed south along the Nantucket Sound with the wind now behind us. The pace definitely picked up. I fell off the back and considered letting them go. The only problem, I was now running in no mans land with no defense from the wind. I made a bold but ultimately correct decision to surge and jump back on the group. It didn’t feel good but as soon as I closed the divide, the pace felt OK again. The mile split was however 6:04. We now had some guys pushing the pace. Time for a gel, earlier than planned.
We sped south for a long section of miles with the wind behind us. The pace calmed slightly to my M pace of 6:15 so at least I was finally back on track with my pre-race plan! We had some heavy breathing going on. The good news, not mine. This was now quickly becoming a very obvious race for third place. The front two were half a mile ahead. Our pack of seven pushed trying to eliminate the weak ones. It reminded me of reading Tyler Hamilton’s book ‘The Secret Race’ describe training rides with Lance Armstrong. Lance would push, Tyler would respond as if to say “still here”. I was one of the runners saying “still here” over and over again.
At mile 9 we had stretched the pack thin. I was now in a group of four working even harder and now catching the lone runner ahead in 2nd. My mind raced way ahead, thinking not only a top 3 spot was possible but second place was also up for grabs.
We ran the bike lane route but occasionally had to jump on the road to avoid sections of snow that weren’t cleared in time for the race (the after effects of the Nemo storm). At ten miles I clocked 1:02 and change. Fast, really fast but I couldn’t back off now. I turned the corner to head west and for the first time, found myself with a gap on the other three.
I decided to go and I went hard to make them work extra hard to catch me. I was clear in third place with the 2nd place guy ahead still fading. It didn’t last. It was an aggressive move with almost half the race to go. I had two guys back on my heels in no time and quickly slowed so I wasn’t the lead man. Then, from almost nowhere came the change in conditions. Rain and snow fell and fell fast. I hoped I was the only person who enjoyed bad conditions.
It appeared not. The other guys seemed unconcerned with the conditions. We worked in unison to finally reign in number two whose biomechanics were getting worse and worse.
We caught him at 13. To my shock though, he wouldn’t let us go. He stuck their breathing hard and working harder to not let us go. I was a mixture of impressed and frustrated by him! Damn. Seriously, let us go! Now I was playing the role of Lance and this guy was Tyler hanging onto my wheel. He was tough.
We ran rolling hills as a four. 2nd place through 5th. Still clipping off 6:05’s and giving it everything. I had no idea how I was going to maintain this for seven final miles but I was also confident everyone else felt the same way; red lining it home. We were effectively fighting for two podium spots from four. My plan was simple. If one person makes the move, I go too. I could not afford to give a lead to anyone now. This happened a couple of times and I stomped out the move immediately.
We turned a corner at 14. No sign of first place, he had the race to lose now, not for us to win. (We actually heard from a volunteer he was 4:05 ahead). The heavy breather was no longer in my ear. I never looked round to see where he was. I just knew he had finally given up the “still here” game.
Then a guy in red made his move. It was big. I tried to go but he went with conviction. A well planned 10K to go move and just like that he had 100 yards on me. During my desperate fight to keep him close I had unintentionally become the solo third place runner. Great, except I was dying. My pace was good but my body was really questioning why I was putting it through this pain again now.
I closed my eyes several times from here on in. 1) it feels good when you’re dying. 2) no one could see my pain now. The gap ahead of me was now double. The aid station ahead was going nuts for us. I had three miles to hang onto third. A goal I knew I would be satisfied with. I had accepted that 2nd place was too strong for me. This was hell but if I could hang on, it would be heaven in 18 minutes. A car passed honking. And then…honk again.
I denied it. A second car rolled past. Honk (for me) and then honk (not for me). Who was right behind me? Was it the guy who was in second for so long with failing biomechanics or the guy I had run with side by side for ten miles? It didn’t matter and I didn’t turn to show my card of fear to find out. All I could do was work. I thought of my uncle (a year to the day he passed a way from cancer), my Dad, undergoing cancer treatment at present, my Team Novo Nordisk teammates. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I always do this when I’m in the severe pain part of the race. The pain of failure, far worse than some temporary pain.
One last sharp turn left to begin the last two miles. My Brooks ID friend Michael Robertson’s wife had mentioned the hills at mile 18 before the race in conversation. I actually had no recollection of then from the previous year.
But here they were. The first, a gradual climb over half a mile. Still in third. I tapped my Garmin at the mile marker expecting to see something horribly slow; 5:56. It felt sluggish but I was doing everything right to keep third place.
Then came the second climb with a few descents in there too. One mile to go. But now I heard footsteps. And just like that he rolled passed with ease. I acknowledged his effort with a “good job” and he replied “we’ll see” but it honestly sounded modest at best to me. It was in fact a runner I had not seen since about mile 6 and he took off.
My pace deteriorated. I was mentally broken at this moment. All I could think of was Steve Prefontaine’s quote “The worst place you can finish!” referring to his infamous 4th place finish at the 1972 Olympics 5000m final.
I didn’t know if others were gaining. It certainly felt like it at that moment in time. I could actually see third and second ahead of me in the final mile but had nothing in the tank to do anything about it. I imagined this scenario that third would catch second and deflate his bubble too. I used this ridiculous theory to push myself on. If I could stay in range, who was to say I couldn’t steal back third at the bitter end?
But nothing changed. Stalemate. I crossed the road and headed diagonally down the home stretch, for the first time daring to glance back to see who was behind. No one. And for the first time in two hours, my whole body relaxed.
I ran into the finish strong. 2:04 and change. 30 seconds behind third. I slumped over, hands on knees and stayed there for a while. I mumbled some disappointment to Tiffany. She got it. Didn’t have to say anything. She knew I was not thrilled to miss third.
At this point, I then realized how soaked my shirt was and my hands were frozen from the conditions. I staggered into the school gym to get warm and congratulate the other runners. It was after all, a great race. I’m proud to be able to compete with the front guys in races these days, rather than just chase the clock. However, I know my place in Boston. Way back there, chasing the clock!
When my hands got some blood back in them, I did a test; 171. Higher than I would have liked but better to be a bit higher than lower in the situation. I ended up popping gels at 4, 8, 12 and 16 due to the higher pace but in hindsight, I was good with gels after mile 12.
The preliminary results showed my pace at 6:14. Putting the 4th place blues soon behind me, I was happy to see this and realize what I had achieved. Weeks ago, I was hobbling around London with ITB pain and now I’m back, on the cusp of something great in the Boston Marathon on April 15th.