One of the reasons to have a plan is so you’ll have something to change when things fall apart. The more complex your plan, the more you have to adjust when something unexpected arises. I guess that why there are backups, contingencies, plan B’s…
My plan for the 2016 Boston Marathon was simple: run the first half comfortably, ratchet up my pace on the Newton Hills, and then run all out down into Boston. But when I lined up in Hopkinton in Wave 1, Corral 5, beneath a sun that was already hammering me hard and temps already in the upper 60’s at 9:45 AM EDT, I knew my plan would not survive the day.
This was my third Boston. I understood how unforgiving the course could be, how the slightest adjustments or miscalculations could be amplified over the 26.2 miles, and how the later hills could make or break your race. But it was only my third Boston, so my lore and experience for how to run the race was limited.
So I followed my plan the best I could.
I ran the first 10 km conservatively, but at a solid 6:35 pace. I didn’t burn any matches, but I was already burning up beneath a cloudless blue sky. Whatever breeze there might have been was stilled by the 4,000+ bodies ahead of me on the road, all breathing and sweating and producing heat. By kilometer 5, I was already dousing myself with water.
I glanced at my watch once in that first segment — the plan was always to go by feel, not by numbers — and my heart rate had already climbed to the mid-160’s for the seemingly easy effort and I was feeling the heat.
So I backed off for the next 10 km, drank a bit more, covered myself with more water, took off my hat and tried to find some shade or breeze. There was no relief from the sun but fortunately the spectators along the roadside provide ample hand-ups: twizzlers, freeze-pops, orange slices and plenty of liquid. I passed on most of it because my stomach was already feeling heavy from the liquid.
In the months of preparation leading up the Marathon, the warmest days I had trained had been in the low 50’s. Most days had been in the 40’s or colder. On the longest run of the build up — 30 or so kilometers — I barely needed to eat or drink anything because it was 40 degrees and raining. All of a sudden I wasn’t just running but racing in temps that were 20 or 30 degrees higher than to what I was acclimated.
In Wellesley, the tall pine trees along Route 135 provided some much needed shade. The Wellesley College Scream Tunnel was loud and the Wellesley College students were generous with kisses and promises of PR’s, and that slowed me down just long enough to get some extra kisses and maybe feel a little better.
I hit half-way below 1:30 gun time. I was on a good pace. And I knew it. And I was feeling strong, even with the heat that was still attacking me. I kept under control all the way down the hill to Newton Lower Falls.
On the first hill of consequence, over the highway and past Newton-Wellesley Hospital, I pushed hard for the first time and my body responded well.
But then I made the right-hander onto Commonwealth, into the hot roar of the crowd, and I knew I had a problem. It wasn’t any one thing that caused a problem but rather a full system failure. My legs felt suddenly flat. My skin prickled all over. My stomach felt heavy and bloated. And there was still the heat.
I pushed myself past the 30 km time check, still several minutes ahead of last year’s pace and on target to run a low 2:50’s marathon. I knew when I got to my family just past the Newton Town Hall, I could take a breather, drink a bit more and set myself up for the rest of the hills.
But when I finally reached them, I was cooked. I couldn’t drink more than a sip. I doubled over, tried to take the strain off my hips. My son patted me on the back, said, “Good job, Pop.”
And that was enough to get me moving again.
Last year, I got a second wind at this point. But this year, it was still and flat. I ran up the next incline. By body was shutting down. My legs were starting to twitch and wobble. So I stopped. I clung to the barriers for what seemed an eternity. And that wasn’t enough.
So I sat down on the curb, on the side of the road in front of Blacker’s Bakery. I spent 4 or 5 minutes trying to figure out how I would make it to the finish. I was closer to my home than the finish line at this point. My plan lay in shambles at my feet.
I stopped my watch. I was done. It wasn’t going to happen this year.
But even though the watch had stopped, the clock was still running and I was losing time. I started my timer and stood up. I turned to the National Guard trooper who had been watching over me, offering medical assistance every few minutes, and said, “I have to at least try, right?”
“Go get ’em,” he said, and clasped my hand and slapped me on the back and I was off and running again.
Not for long, however. Once up and over Heartbreak, my legs started to give way again. I walked through Cleveland Circle, in front of stacked crowds enjoying the warm weather and sunshine. There was a shore breeze on this side of the hill and it was cooler and I was starting to get cold. That’s how I knew I had sun stroke or heat stroke or was really dehydrated — or some combination thereof.
I started running again, and my legs held up this time, as long as I didn’t push too hard. By and by, I felt better. Not great, but more and more secure in making it to the finish. I was well off my pace at this point. Any hopes of a PR were long gone and re-qualifying for next year was looking unlikely, too.
But I kept going. It was all I knew to do.
The last few miles were very long ones. I was buoyed by the crowd’s unwavering support, their shouts of “Go, Romeo!”, by the glue of the competitors, the carnage, the mutual assured suffering. There were runners collapsed on the sides of the road, clinging to barriers. Runners reduced to trotting or walking. We were nursing each other along, just to get to that final stretch on Boylston and to see the finish line, to have the blue and yellow banner at our backs.
I crossed the line in 3 hours and 12 minutes. I was a full 13 minutes slower than last year, having lost 20 minutes in the last 10 km.
It’s one thing to push yourself when you’re feeling good, when you have the momentum. It’s something altogether different when the race has passed you by and you still do it.