By now, you must have heard about the agony of runners who chose to run the Boston Marathon under the unforgiving sun that raised the temperature as unseasonably high as 89F (31.7C). I’ve talked with fellow runners who ran the race and also read about dozens of articles and blogs about their experiences. Some people decided to stop amid the race, assessing their situations correctly and playing smart. Others pushed and completed the entire distance, playing safe but often questioning themselves whether they should stop. I feel very fortunate I was able to finish the race without jeopardize my health and learned firsthand how I could run in a warm weather. What follows is my report about the race that was by far the most brutal of the seven marathons I ran to date.
My time of 3:32:11 was my slowest. But, in a way, it was a humbling experience. In the past, I had been able to race in almost perfect running conditions where the temperatures were somewhere between 40F and 50F at the start. Race after race, I improved my time, and a PR came rather easily. I thought this could last for a while as long as I trained hard and prevented injuries. At the beginning of this year, I set an aggressive goal to break three hours and thought I could achieve the goal in Boston this year. Boston is not an easy course, but the past two PRs there and fair understanding of the course gave me a naive, if not false, expectation.
Pre-Race Attitude Adjustment
About a week before the race, I started to hear about a potential warm weather in the area – temperature of low 70s. A couple of days later, it became mid 70s, then came an advisory B.A.A blasted in an email to all entrants on Saturday. The advisory warned those who are only trained in a cooler climate (me) and who may not be acclimated to warm weather running condition (me) to consider not run and suggested such person (me) defer the entry to 2013. Boo! On Sunday, a updated advisory came in an even more grave but still positive tone, saying runners should adopt the attitude that this was not a race but an experience. Not quite sure how to interpret the message, I headed out to the Expo where a B.A.A woman repeated the same in an Excuse-me-but-I’m-not-kidding look to my Boston-enthused face.
I Tweeted and Facebooked all this, saying B.A.A was just covering their ass for any potential liability and it would not be as bad as it sounded. Boy, was I wrong! Thankfully, one of my athlete friends, Stephanie Falkenstine, urged me to take this seriously, get some salt tablets and start hydrating immediately. She is a tri-athlete, so I listen to her. Now a bit concerned, I walked quickly over to near-by CVS before closing, where a clerk said flat out that the store did not carry such tablets, that a lot of people had been asking for them, and that he didn’t know where else I could find them. Sheesh! Outside, the temperature was raising, and I was feeling the heat I could not get acclimated to in time for the next day’s race, or experience. Luckily, I found electrolyte tablets, Nuun, at City Sports on Boylston Street and started to hydrate with it as soon as I returned to my hotel. Equipped with Nuun, I had six hours of good night sleep, though I got up to go to bathroom, thanks to the immediate hydration.
In contrast to last year’s race day, it was such a pleasant morning at six o’clock. It reminded me of summer morning we rarely have in San Francisco. At the Athlete Village, I was in a singlet by 8:30 am for the 10:00 am start. I stayed in the shade in an attempt to prevent the body temperature from raising and kept hydrating. By the time I got to the waiting area for Wave 1 Corral 7, my Weather.com app said it was 71F, though it felt like 80F. By then, my thought of going for sub 3:00 time went out of the door, but I still hoped for a possibility of a PR. After all, 7:10/mile, compared to 6:52/mile, is a much slower pace, and I had run three 20-milers in nice-and-easy 7:20/mile pace.
The first four miles went quickly and I was pacing at 7:15 or so, thinking this wasn’t too bad. That was, of course, until I hit the second water station and splashed a cup of water over my head. Potentially an adverse effect of such cooling effort, as soon as my hair dried, it seemed the temperature shot up and I could do nothing but slow down a little. The next few miles saw a slow decline of my pace and a steady increase of temperature. I ran for a water station and looked for a patch of shadows to run in. At the same time, I tried not to panic and tried to keep a cool head. I gave up the hope for a PR, remembered to fuel myself according to the schedule, have some fun and appreciate the opportunity. But such positive thinking became harder and harder to keep as it got hotter and as it took longer to get to the next mile mark. A splash of water at the water station became a quick shower, which only gave me a short relief of not even a half mile. I felt guilty of using much water and worried they might run out of water for the runners behind me. Judging my bib number (6263) alone, there must have been more than 15,000 runners following, at least as thirsty and over-heating as I was. At each water station, I stopped and grabbed a Gatorade and a few water, then started to run again in the sea of empty green paper cups.
The first 10 miles had never been this far. Before hitting the 10-mile mark, I saw one or two residents hosing down the runners ahead of me. I ran through the cold water and it felt so good! I could only hope there would be more of them down the course. As cooling as they were and as much as I needed them, however and needless to say, my shoes were getting totally wet and I started to feel sogginess in my shoes. I did not even think of this, so I did not put Vaseline on my feet to keep blisters to develop. Rats! In addition, I was worried my iPhone on my left arm running RunKeeper might get wet and damaged. But then, I thought this could get me a 4S =). I didn’t bother checking my iPhone and pushed through. Distance between water stations seemed getting longer and longer. Thank God for the spectators setting up unofficial water stations. I loved every drop of it! Note to self: Volunteer for water station, official or not, at every chance I get from now on.
Kiss-soliciting, sign-holding, high-energy screaming girls of Wellesley College entertain even those of declining spirits. This was my third year running through Wellesley, and they didn’t seem to have grown up a bit but possibly grown louder. But they give me good chuckles every time and helped me forget about the heat this time. The winning signs this year, a couple of them, are “Kiss me, I’m a lesbian.” and “Kiss me, I am a whore.” I am already looking forward to seeing them again next year!
Soon after the screaming girls came the half-way point in downtown Wellesley. The first year, I got there in 1:33 and last year 1:35. This year, 1:40. This gave me a rough idea about my finishing time. If I kept this pace, I could be crossing the finishing line in 3:25 or so, not renewing my personal worst of 3:27 I ran in San Francisco Marathon six years ago for my first marathon. Sounded fine. But then, I started to feel a cramp on my left quad, which was way too early in the race, or experience. This must have been heat-related and I must have been quickly losing electrolytes, but my Gatorade consumption exceeded my thirst and the limit my taste buds could take. Besides, my stomach felt watery, too. This made me worry about hyponatremia where sodium-level becomes dangerously low. So I reached for an electrolyte “Nuun” tablet in my pouch but none was to be found. Instead I found a wet plastic sandwich bag with wet Fig Newton in it and somewhat slimy liquid that smelled like Nuun. Apparently, the shower water got in the pouch and resolved the tablets. Great. I force-drank Gatorade hoping the quad condition would not deteriorate. I scored a few orange wedges and a banana along the way from the spectators. There were a few more hose-downs, sprinklers, mist showers and water tunnels. At every one of these roadside oases, every square inch of my skin absorbed moisture and I became alive for a quick few minutes, only to return to the state of wanting more. A half done, another half to go…
By now I was running closed to 8:00/mile. D’oh… But I no longer cared about the time. I just wanted to finish. I started to see more runners slowing down or start walking. I questioned whether I should be doing the same. But then, I ran passed Kelly who is in the mobility impaired subgroup running with a guide (This could have been before the halfway point, I don’t remember). I remember having run past her last year and mentioned her in my last Boston report. This gave me a great deal of inspiration and mental energy to keep me going. I also saw the father-and-son Team Hoyt for the first time, Dick pushing his son Rick in his wheelchair in this grueling heat, which brought tears to my eyes. If they were trying, there was no reason why I should not. It was incredible witnessing the team racing hard.
The emotional roller coaster and the spectator cheering carried me to the foot of the first Newton hills. I saw quite a few people walking up the hill, stopping for a break in the shade, or stretching to alleviate cramps. I paced 8:30/mile over the first three hills (now I am looking at my Garmin Connect data) but just before the last one, the Heartbreak Hill, my left hamstring started to cramp up, and shortly after I stopped at a water station to stretch. As soon as I stepped aside to the curve side, a volunteer woman came to me and asked how I was doing. I asked for some water and she brought a few cups while I stretched. I must have stayed there for a minute or so, because my pace Mile 20 -21 was 9:40. The stretch worked and off I went. Here I started to notice rowdy Boston College frat boys, all shirtless and drunk, or shouting like a drunk. As the Wellesley girls, the boys have their own way of cheering. They mean well. Over the hill, five miles to go! I saw Richard Ervais and Zander cheering around there. It gave me a good energy.
After the climb, if it was not this hot, I could be cruising down at around 7:00/mile pace. Instead, I did 8:10/mile, feeling tightness in the left quad, but not as bad as it was before. I felt blisters on my both feet and sensed I was losing a big toe nail on my left foot. But the pace was already slow enough and none of these slowed me down. Now, there was no trees or shades around. There were brick buildings, concrete sidewalk, and lots of spectators. No breeze. Hot! An article said it was 89F at some point on the race course, and I felt 89F right there then. Somewhere along the course, I don’t remember where, I picked up a sponge and I held onto it to cool off my head and face. But it was almost no use since it was drying up quickly. So, at the next water station, I picked up an extra water cup and ran with it with the sponge in it.
The rest was kind of hot blur. Garmin says I ran 8:30/mile, more or less. On Commonwealth Ave., Hereford St., and Boylston St., I was running strong but everything seemed moving in a slow motion. Spectators’ cheering sounded even louder, echoing between brick buildings and tall office buildings. My head had the image of the crowds on both sides of the streets going by, almost as if they were the ones moving and I were the constant, motionless. Weird. Just before crossing the finishing line, I raised my arms reaching out for the sky, soaking up the sound from the crowds. Victorious moment. I stopped running and walked toward volunteers who were handing out bottled water. Another Boston complete. I saw Jonathan Warner from Front Runners New York in the finish area. He said he had a rough race, too. I thought about waiting for other Front Runners, but I decided to keep moving and went back to my hotel.
Quite frankly, I feel I became a better runner. It was not a BQ, or PR, or good time by any stretch, but fine performance. I might have started out not quite right, but I was able to make adjustments and finished the race. In spite of what B.A.A said, it was a race as much as an experience. I raced and tested my ability to run the marathon under the demanding running conditions. And of course, it was an experience. The experience I will not forget. The roadside crowds, volunteers, organizers, Kelly, Team Hoyt, and all the fellow runners who gave their best. Congratulations to all. See you again next year!