Boston Marathon race report from Ian McDonald
Before the race I knew my fitness was in the best place ever; any marathon pace runs had felt very comfortable. My training had, overall, gone extremely well, getting up to nearly 90 miles a week at its peak with 7 long runs of 20-22 miles. However, balancing against this was a niggling adductor injury which I’d had for a couple of weeks, a sore throat which I’d had at the end of the previous week and tired legs from sightseeing in New York and Washington. Nevertheless, I felt confident I could go quicker than the 2.44 I had achieved last September in Berlin, when training had been more disrupted by injury and the race had been disrupted by an asthma attack. My big target was 2.42, but I decided to try for a conservative 1.22 first half and then to see if I could try to pick it up in the second half. If I couldn’t speed up, I reckoned this would leave me with the chance to still run a PB.
Race day began at 5am. Muesli and fruit for breakfast then time to get to Boston Common for 6.15 to catch the bus to the start, 26 miles west of Boston. After arriving in Hopkinton at 7.30 I grabbed a (free) Power bar, some water, a cup of tea and a poncho then went and lay down for around an hour. I decided to pass up on the bagel as I had carb-loaded heavily the night before and had a big breakfast too! It was pretty chilly, but was warming up nicely by the time the race started. At 9 it was time to head to the start area so I took a last cup of Gatorade and made my way to the start. The town was the small-town America you see in the movies with the large pre-fab looking detached houses set back from the road. There were already people out in the street offering encouragement (and beer) to the runners. If it was like this before the race, it’s going to be crazy during it, I thought!
When I arrived at the start area, the women’s elite race was just about to start. I immediately noticed that it was a steep decline from the start, and so the girls disappeared very quickly down the road. Half an hour later it was my turn. Just before starting I saw possibly the best sign ever: “In the first half don’t be an idiot; in the second half don’t be a wimp”.
So, the first 4 miles were mostly downhill and I was trying hard to hold back so that I didn’t wreck my legs for the latter part of the race. I was constantly looking at my watch for pacing, making sure I wasn’t going too fast, making sure it started with a ‘6’. Thousands of runners went past; I hoped I would be laughing at them later on in the race for being ‘idiots’ as the sign said! I went through the first 5k in 19.09, a little faster than target, but it had been downhill. At this point I took on some gatorade and decided that as it was warm and sunny I would take two sips of water or gatorade every 2 miles. I stuck to this strategy until the end of the race; though I did end up taking some extra water on for the final mile. The second 5k was a little flatter and I went through in 19.12. People were still flying past. The crowds were amazing, pretty much from the start and it seemed like each town rolled into the next with very little open countryside. There were pre-fab houses, diners and gas stations lining the streets. I felt like I was taking an American road trip, the holiday I’ve always dreamed of.
Into the 3rd 5k section, it was noticeably not downhill anymore and I knew from the course profile that it would be averaging uphill. Again I was constantly checking my watch as the previous effort level would be pushing my pace slower than target. This 5k was slower, at 19.33 and then the 4th 5k was 19.17; again slightly uphill. I was a little worried about getting slower, but I remembered a friend’s comment to ‘think positive’. At around 12 miles, the course moved out into one of the few parts of open country. However, at the top of the hill the road narrowed and there were crowds 3 deep on the right-hand side. There was a turn to the right, forcing you over to the crowds. This was not an ordinary crowd, though. It was Wellesley College, an all-female university. There were thousands of screaming girls, holding ‘kiss-me’ signs. Really sore on the ears, but definitely motivating!
The next 5k was slightly downhill again and I passed through half-way in 1.21.31, around 30s ahead of schedule. I decided to then try at step-up the pace a little with the aim of maybe sneaking under 2.43; at this point I didn’t think I would be hitting a 1.20 second half, after slowing through the second 10k. My adductor niggle had also re-appeared around 10 miles so I was worried it would flare up badly towards the end. However, I went back to ‘positive thinking’ and eventually the niggle disappeared. My pace between 20 and 25k was my quickest so far, 18.54. 25-30k was then slower, but still quicker than during the first four splits, coming in at 19.07. At 17 miles I took on an energy gel. I then quickly decided to take a second and to store it in a glove for later in the race if I needed it.
The next period I knew was going to be the toughest of the race as it included the famous ‘Heartbreak Hill’ at 20-21 miles. I knew from the profile that there was going to be another hill to negotiate before that too, making it a bit of a climb. However, though my pace slowed, it wasn’t too bad with my GPS watch showing a 6.26 21st mile. My Sunday runs at Craiglockhart had definitely prepared me well; Heartbreak Hill is nothing compared to the Balerno Hill race! To help me get up the hill I decided to shorten my strides and let my pace slow naturally rather than trying to maintain my pace as this could take a lot out of me. Once I got over the summit it was pretty steep downhill for the next 3 miles; again I decided to shorten my strides so not to wreck my legs and to try and run at a natural pace. In contrast to the early part of the race I was rarely checking my watch. My pace had slowed to 19.20 for the 35k split; not too bad.
Into the next 5k it was still downhill and although my quads had been feeling sore since before Heartbreak Hill, my breathing was comfortable and I felt like I had another gear to go up. I was very surprised but it gave me great confidence. I was realising that the sub-2.43 was on. Although my legs were wanting to stop I pushed on and glancing down at my watch the pace had a 5 at the front. Although it was downhill, I was really surprised that I was pushing towards half-marathon pace so late in a marathon, and particularly when my quads weren’t in great shape! At 40k, I had hit my quickest 5k split so far; an 18.50.
At 40k I was thinking 2.2k to go, that’s just 5 and a half laps; nearly there! 2.33 on the clock so a 2.43 should be achievable, even if I was to slow to 7-minute miling. This gave me a good feeling; though I knew that my legs could easily give up. I quickly decided I’d better return to positive thinking!
The last 2 miles I was constantly thinking not long to go, trying to break it down into just x more laps of the track to go. I wasn’t looking at my watch, and I was sure that I was slowing, but I was passing quite a lot of runners, just cruising past them. My watch beeped, showing a 5.56 for mile 25. Ok, I thought, this might actually be happening. I pushed on, thinking the faster I go, the quicker it is until the pain goes.
Then I reached the 1 mile to go sign. On the clock, 2.35.50. Ok, I thought, I was 10s over the start line meaning I’m at about 2.35.40. If I can knock out a 6.15 then I will have gone sub-2.42. I was a little shocked! I also had the London time of a training partner, Leon in my mind: 2.41.45. If I could 6-minute it then I would sneak just under his time. I got a little excited and decided to really go for it. I was a little annoyed as it meant I had to really push, rather than cruise it to the line, but I’m at the Boston Marathon, I might as well go for it.
The last mile the quads were sore and I was breathing hard for the first time. But my competitive instincts were taking over. I was on a mission. I was thinking of being at Saughton, running mile reps, trying to catch the guy in front. Turning on to Boylston St, I could see the finish line. Crowds 5 deep on both sides cheering everyone on. It was incredible. A 400m rep to go, come-on I told myself, you’re nearly there. I wasn’t looking at my watch, just working hard, thinking not long to go, keep pushing hard. Finally, I crossed the line. I looked at the watch. Wow, 2.41.35! I almost couldn’t believe it. I had smashed my target and PB’d by nearly 3 minutes. I had negative splitted it and hit that 1.20 target for the second half (1.20.04); something that I thought I had no chance of at halfway.
The walk back to Boston Common to pick up my gear was great. Volunteers and Bostonians saying ‘Congratulations’. I really couldn’t believe it. I felt so happy. All that hard training had paid off and the niggles hadn’t stopped me. Perhaps I am a little less fragile than I thought!
Looking back, what an experience! The most famous marathon, the runners’ marathon had lived up to its billing. The crowds were definitely the best ever and the people of Boston were inspirational. They really got behind their race. They really were Boston strong! So glad I entered it; that it went to perfection was just a bonus. If you have the qualifying time, I urge you to go for it. It’s well worth the money!