Humanity Prevails; The 118th Boston Marathon

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Unique Boston wristbands cut from the flags of the 2013 race and heart tattoos given to every single one of the 36,000+ runners was a nice touch by the BAA.

Running Boston is special. But getting to run the 118th Boston, a year removed from the tragedy that shocked the world and brought everyone that much closer was on a completely different level. Everybody wanted to be part of this and I was one of the lucky ones that would.

Pre-Race

Boylston Street - a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a great atmosphere.

Boylston Street – a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a great atmosphere.

I spent much of the weekend build up hanging outside in the glorious sunshine along the finish line of Boylston Street and the restaurants and shops of Newbury Street. I was with my teammates Benny and Matt, lots of New York running friends and my sister, who had flown all the way over from Holland! The atmosphere was amazing. Everyone knew this year was special and had a particular viewpoint on it. Whether it was “Boston Strong”, “Taking back the Finish Line” or just peace. For me, the race was to celebrate humanity, to celebrate good people in this world.

Matt, myself and Benny from Team Novo Nordisk before our JDRF event.

Matt, myself and Benny from Team Novo Nordisk before our JDRF event.

Talking of good people, on Saturday night, our team were invited to speak at the JDRF runners (and families) dinner party in celebration of their training and fundraising efforts towards a cure for type 1 diabetes. We told our stories of diagnosis, of our passion for running and about what our team stands for. It was a really awesome event. Although we were invited to be the inspiration, we left knowing we had met some truly inspirational people as well. Runners who ran for their partner, child and even neighbor’s child, the range of people and why they had a passion to raise money for diabetes was very broad. Amazing!

Race Day

Boston!

Boston!

As per usual I beat my alarm and was up at 5:20am. My blood glucose was in the high 100’s but I was fine with this. As myself and Benny had been discussing the previous night at our Italian dinner, “carb up and don’t go low.” All my racing gear was carefully placed by the bed to throw on without disturbing Tiffany too much. Benny and myself met up with Matt easily enough at security check point number 5 as specifically instructed by the folks at BAA. They had allowed us to take medical bags to the start village in Hopkinton which was a huge plus. When the no bag rules was announced, I was disheartened thinking the bad guys had won. But BAA understood and respected our need to test our blood glucose levels frequently and as close to the start of the race as possible.

On the long bus ride out of the city to Hopkinton,  I usually throw on the headphones and put my head down to drown out the chatter of excited runners but this year was different. We laughed and joked together all the way there. It was great, I felt relaxed and was enjoying every minute of it. Plus it was a Monday!

I ate precisely two hours before the start in the athlete village after getting a perfect glucose reading. Because we had been so punctual getting out to there, we were able to grab some grass space in the sunshine and just chill out for an hour or so. Grass space in the sun was top-notch real estate so things were going really well! At 9am, it was time to begin the long walk to the start so we dropped off our medical bags with some staff members. My final reading was slightly higher than target but not a huge concern for me. I handed my full bottle of Gatorade to the volunteer that was helping me out with the bag. He was grateful for it and I was grateful to be able to drop off a medical bag. It was that kind of friendly atmosphere everywhere you turned. These kind of interactions were I guess, why I sub-consciously wanted to come back. To have good memories of Boston once more.

Pre-Race: Steve Lee, Rui, Keila, myslef and Benny all about to start in Wave 1.

Pre-Race: Steve Lee, Rui, Keila, myself and Benny all about to start in Wave 1.

I wished Matt and Benny the best of luck and jumped in the back of corral 2 which was approximately 2,000th place. My plan was to not run the first six downhill miles hard, just to run relaxed and behind goal pace. In the middle section, miles 6-16 hit goal pace or slightly faster, miles 16-21 maintain the same effort through Newton hills but drop the pace down and then push hard for home from there.

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

The gun fired and about a minute later, I had officially crossed the start line mats, tapped start on my watch and begun running. I was feeling ridiculously nervous those first few miles, almost feeling like I could have passed out which was so strange for me. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to race well and maybe I just needed to cut out the noise and just run. At the 5K marker, I clocked 20 minutes exact which was slightly slower than I had planned for but at least I was holding back. That was the plan after all (my two previous races here, I had run too fast in the first half and paid heavily for such naiveness later on at the hills and beyond).

Once the main descending was over after mile 6, I got into goal pace of 6:18, sometimes faster and this brought me through halfway at 1:23; 30 seconds behind target. I had caught and passed a few Nike NYC runners; Matt, Joe and Kwabs over the first 13.1 but what reassured me the most about starting slow and then speeding up was being passed by Chris Solarz around mile 6. Knowing the time he was shooting for and the fact that he had started behind me, assured me my tactics were correct (little did I know that he got start in corral 5 at the start and had spent much of his early miles weaving around to get up to speed).

But while my time goal was fractionally off and not alarming me, the way my body felt was. I was more tired than I wanted to be and now I had to do the distance all over again, at a slightly faster pace with the Newton hills bang in the middle of it all to boot. Pros seem to negative split this course, now it was my turn.

Other than the minor aches, the sun’s rays were becoming a greater issue now. Sitting in Hopkinton killing time, the sun had felt nice at 8am but now it was approaching noon, and my appreciation for it was diminishing. Without a cloud in the sky and no shade on this course, the heat was now playing a role just like the Newton hills always guarantee to do. Although I had managed a handful of hot runs in Mexico recently, the bulk of my training was run in three or four layers in and out of snowstorms from one of my worst New York winters I’ve experienced. The high was 66 yet it felt much warmer than that (I found out later, feel factor put it at 77). These were the hills I did not see coming.

Mile 15.5 controlling the long downhill before Newton hills would begin.

Mile 15.5 controlling the long downhill before Newton hills would begin. Photo credit: Kino

I churned on with my just faster than marathon pace, seeing some of the now familiar faces of the JDRF family on the streets, which gave me a nice lift. I knocked out a cheeky sub-6 downhill mile 16 just before the first Newton hill where I saw Kino and Ken Tom in their usual spot taking photos and cheering on everyone (because they know everyone!). The mile split was a bit too much but I knew I was chasing the clock after halfway and felt an urge to close the time gap while I was still going down.

I turned right and saw the famous site of the first of four climbs. I approached it with determination that it would not slow me down. I would monitor my pace, reduced my stride and take some places from runners that had over exerted themselves on the first 16. The crowd was ferocious here. Think about it. This was mile 16 in the middle of a sleepy town called Newton and it was packed on both sides of the road. Noise I have never heard during a Boston marathon before.

I locked in 6:30 pace up the hill, recalling that was an ideal pace to run each of the hills at for a 2:45 marathon. Before I knew it, I was up the first one and had passed many runners in the process. I mention this because I’m used to being the one getting passed and spat out the back around now from previous painful Boston’s.

We got a long flat break now through the Powerade gel hand out section. Not that I wanted one but it did make me alert to reach for my third and final Honey Stinger gel. I had been switching between Gatorade and water at every aid station and consumed two gels as well at 7 and 14 miles. From what I could tell, glucose control was 100% in check.

The second climb was really a sneaky double with a mini break, almost time to recover but not quite which is like the westside hills of Central Park from 102nd Street heading south. But this was mile 17 of a race, of Boston. I took on the climb with the same plan, same biomechanics and then the same result. I was now 19 miles in, just Heartbreak to go. Without wearing a wristband full of data splits to look at, I gauged I was in a good shape to PR but it would be close. The aches in my legs were revealing themselves to me as the sweat from my forehead and torso increased evermore. My body was fighting off the pain as best it could.

pre-heartbreak hill

Not Heartbreak Hill. Photo credit: Mike Toma

And then sooner than I anticipated, I stood at the bottom of Heartbreak hill. Arms pumping, legs driving, the pistons were all at full steam for this last push. It was a lot of work and I wasn’t trying to hide it from anyone. I saw Mike, Benny and Rhonda from the Westside Y to my right and then another hundred meters later, it was all over.  I went down the other side rapidly. Wow, that was so much easier than ever before I thought to myself.

I joined a small posse of runners going downhill as we pushed on knowing now was the time to run as near to 6-minute pace as possible, this was after all the fastest mile of the course other than mile 1. The road veered left and the crowd increased. I locked my eyes on the Heartbreak Hill Running store sign and then it all came back to me. Heartbreak hill was about to begin.

Even running this course for my fourth time, I got confused what hill was what and how many there were. So for the record, what I used to believe to be three hills in Boston became four but now I will not forget, there are actually five! So, without any other option, I went at it again although this time I knew this was most definitely Heartbreak. The last and of course biggest hill left. 600 meters over a gradual grade sounds very straight forward. But it’s the timing of the hill, the miles and miles of subtle downhill strides which now play a big role in why this hill is so tough.

I watched a guy in neon yellow go passed me and almost let him go before realizing that he was my ticket. He was going the pace I should have been going so I clawed him back in and worked off him all the way up no matter how much it hurt me to do so. Once up on top, it hit me how tired I was. I just had 5 miles left. It all sounds so simple typing it or maybe even reading it but my body was in serious breakdown mode. Did heartbreak break me? Did it add me to the list of many?

Passing the crew before mile 22.

Passing the crew before mile 22.

I passed Tiffany, my Sis, Beck and others who were all going nuts for me. It was incredibly awesome to have that much love shout at you in over the course of a few seconds and I wish I could have given them a more positive smile or thumbs up but I was in trouble. Tiffany sensed it both there in that moment and because she had been tracking my pace through every 5K split on the app. We both talked in detail about the game plan and knew the last 5 miles would call for a perfect home stretch push. She encouraged me as best she could to pick it up.

My brain took in the words of good coaching but the quads were now screaming for it all to just end. Downhill I clocked a decent 6:20 but I would have to go faster. I knew that mile should have been a flat-6. The next mile flipped up on my watch and I recall seeing it as a 7 minute pace or something that close. This was where my brain took the first exit. I calculated what was required and it was literally impossible to do that now without help, without a T-rex chasing me, without something. I can’t fully explain why, but I knew it was over and I couldn’t fight back after seeing that split and feeling as bad as I felt. I had completely forgotten the lesson of Martha’s Vineyard 20 Miler when a bad mile there, did me in as well.

Every next mile seemed so far away. The famous Citgo sign just never seemed to get bigger and it took all my heart to not stop and take a walk break down the long straight never-ending road. I have to thank the crowds 100% for that. Runners left and right were doing just that, either because they were cramping up or just smoked but I somehow managed to refuse this option. I think I was honestly too scared of getting screamed out (in a very nice kind of way) to keep on going!

I turned my mind to the possibility of running my fastest Boston time now that the 2:45 PR had long but faded away but as I made the famous last left turn onto Bolyston and saw just how far the finish line was  from my location, I knew only an insane sprint and quite possibly a wheelchair to greet me would have given me even a slim chance of turning that into a mini-success ending. I decided against this option which is not a normal choice for me. I decided instead to stop for a second at the sight of the first bomb last year outside Marathon Sports and wave to the crowd to thank them for coming back too and standing there being Boston Strong. I walked across the line in just over 2:49 and sunk to my knees. It was over. What an emotional race.

Post-Race

I tried to walk but was physically destroyed from the course and mentally heartbroken that I did not run the race I had trained for. I felt like I had let a lot of people down. I staggered away but eventually gave in to the volunteer help down the finish chute and asked to go to the medical tent to test my blood. My levels were actually perfect for post-race which showed I had once again managed my carbohydrate intake either via Gatorade or by Honey Stinger gels perfectly. What I had not done, was drink enough water on top as I had lost a fair bit of weight in the surprising heat and that’s probably why I felt faint. But like many others, this was just another part of what makes marathon running a challenge.

The physician who looked after me was called Meghan. Once I was ready to leave medical, she placed my medal in my hand with the ribbon neatly folded up around it and we hugged. It was so powerful because she was exactly the sort of person that was taking care of far more serous medical issues a year ago right here. I will never forget that moment.

Me and my Sis post-race at South Street Seaport.

Me and my Sis post-race at South Street Seaport.

Initially, I was very down due to my sub-par performance. I knew I was in 2:45 shape so I hung my head low walking towards Boston Common to collect my bags, still with medal in hand. Hours later, my sister Helen told me to be proud because she was as well as all my friends. She put the medal around my neck for the first time and it sunk in that my time or sadness was not really that relevant to the occasion.

I came back a year later to run this course once more to stand up to evil in this world, to showcase the spirit of the marathon and the strength of this great city, famously now phrased as “Boston Strong”. The 118th Boston Marathon was always meant to be something so much bigger than me or my time or any individual runner.  I even include Meb in that statement as much as his victory was amazing! I guess I will have to keep chasing that darn unicorn because ultimately I love the Boston Marathon. One day, I will get this course right and there is no doubt in my mind, I will fully appreciate it.

The prizes for the effort. Boston Runs as One official shirt and the 118th Boston finisher's medal.

The prizes for the effort. Boston Runs as One official shirt and the 118th Boston finisher’s medal.

2 comments

  1. abhinav says:

    Stephen, so proud of you. You are our hero. I wish I could run this course.

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