Archive for April, 2010

The closing miles of a marathon are a pretty amazing experience.  It really doesn’t matter if it is your first race, your fourth or your fortieth.  There is something magical about those final miles – pushing yourself toward the finish line that stood 26.2 miles away more than three hours before.  You have good miles and bad ones, easy stretches and difficult ones.  You find yourself smiling at times, grimacing at others.

You question why you are doing this to yourself.  In your next race you question why you are doing this to yourself again.  Better still, why for the second time in 13 days? 

Three plus hours, that’s a long time to be alone with your thoughts.  Despite wanting to quit at times, you find a way to dig deeper than you have before and you keep on going.  In a strange way as your body grows more and more weary, your resolve grows stronger and stronger.

You have thousands of people around you – many in the same situation you find yourself in.  Yet, you feel very alone.  Fighting, scratching and clawing – using any means necessary to keep on going.

Now imagine doing that for 12 months.

I can’t begin to imagine what the last 12 months have been like for my friend Dom.  Some days when I would be out on a training run and I would think of Dom it would bring a great sense of pride and accomplishment.  I would remind myself that I was training for a great reason.  To honor a close friend and do all that I could to help make a difference in not only his life, but that of his wife, daughter and son.

Other days I would find myself choking back tears as I ran – wishing that the news I had heard the night before was better.  That my friend was getting stronger and that his cancer was being kicked to the curb.

Some mornings I would wonder what May 2nd would feel like when I came through the chute.  After fighting for more than three hours through all the soreness, fatigue and pain to get that finisher’s medal. 

Will I be able to find the right words as place it around my good friend’s neck and thank him for allowing me to do this for him?  What do you say to the bravest man you’ve ever known?

Tomorrow (Friday) morning, Dawn and I will be heading to Pittsburgh, off to tackle a second marathon in less than two weeks.  Packing my race bag last night I’ll be the first to say that the emotions of this trip are really starting to get to me. 

Frankly, it’s hard to write about.  I can only imagine what Sunday morning will feel like standing in the starting corral surrounded by more than 16,000 runners, but very much alone.  Finding myself more than three hours away from the faces of family and friends, hugs and tears.

The only thing I know for certain when I cross the starting line is that no matter what happens along the way, I have to keep going.  I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and never quit.  It’s simply not an option.  Not this time, not this race. 

Thank you Dom for teaching me that.  It’s a lesson that I promise to never, ever forget.  This one is for you on Sunday.

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

To help please visit:  http://www.runfordom.com/donate.html

Dom, Val, Sierra, Nico

Something different today as we have a giveaway for our readers and followers of Run for Dom! 

Now a giveaway by definition would lead you to believe that you can get something for nothing.  But if there is anything I’ve learned preparing for two marathons in 13 days – there is no such thing as a free lunch.  So to be eligible you are going to have to do a couple of things. 

But first, the good stuff.  What is the prize? 

British Bulldog

Steve Speirs a fabulous runner who hails originally from Wales, now from the Virgina Beach area – affectionately known as British Bulldog has donated a signed copy of his book – “7 Weeks to 100 Pushups” – to Run for Dom. 

Steve posted a sizzling 2:54 at last Monday’s Boston Marathon on a course that really tore up yours truly.  I believe I’ll be reading Steve’s book cover to cover before passing it along to the contest winner. 

Steve – thank you once again for your generosity and support – you Sir are the greatest. 

So what do you have to do to be eligible to win? 

1.  Log on to our secure site and make a gift in support of Run for Dom.  The gift can be any size and if you have made a previous gift to my effort to run two marathons in just 13 days to support my good friend’s battle with cancer – you are already eligible.  To give click: 

http://www.runfordom.com/donate.html 

2.  Post your prediction of my finishing time at the Pittsburgh Marathon this Sunday in the comment section below. 

I will check in after the race with my time and announce the winner on Sunday after our post race celebration with Dom and his family. 

The winner will be the person with the closest guess to my chip time (not clock time) – but unlike The Price is Right, the winner’s guess can be “over” – it just has to be the closest.  If we need a tie-breaker we will use gift size to crown the winner. 

Thanks again everyone for all of the kind words and support as race day is now less than 4 days away!   Please stop back throughout race weekend as I will try to keep everyone up to speed on all the events as they transpire.

As of Tuesday morning our second marathon in as many weeks is now just 5 days away.  I received notice that we have been awarded bib number 845 for the Pittsburgh Marathon.  Nice to score a sub 1,000 number in a race with more than 16,000 participants – somebody up there must think we’re fast or something.  

I’m still rolling around my race strategy in my mind right now trying to decide if we are recovered enough to “go for it” at Pittsburgh or if we should just play it smart, run a few easy miles to start and see where we are at the 10K mark.  Illusions of running a “Boston Time” keep entering into my head – but deep down I know that is just crazy talk.  13 days is not a lot of time to prepare for another race when most experts tell you it takes a full 4 weeks to recover fully from racing a marathon. 

Even though I know the facts, images of that perfect race literally one year ago this weekend play over and over in my mind where I raced flawlessly to a 3:17:43 on the very same Pittsburgh course.  Weather is calling for slightly warmer temperatures this year – 54 degrees at the race start vs. 47 one year ago.  There is also rain in the forecast for Sunday, which depending on the type of rain may or may not be a factor. 

So with 5 days to go I’m still holding back from finalizing my race plan.  I’m hoping for some divine intervention frankly that will clear my legs of this lingering soreness and allow me to get after it again on Sunday.  I will most likely wait until I get back from my 2-mile shake-out run Saturday morning to really zero in on my race expectations.  It will be very interesting to see how I feel on Saturday compared to my shake-out before Boston two weeks ago.  I felt absolutely perfect prior to Boston and raced not so great.  Will the situation be reversed this weekend?  We’ll see. 

As for the Pittsburgh course itself, if I had to choose a word to describe it, I would call it “fair”.  Are there hills?  Of course, we’re racing in Western Pennsylvania – but the nature of the hills is very different from Boston.  Thankfully the only significant “downhill” racing we will be doing Sunday is during the closing miles from 21-25.  I’m hoping that the late arriving “downs” will allow my hips and quadricep muscles that were so taxed at Boston the rest they desperately need until the closing portions of the race.  

Going into any race whether it is a 5K, half-marathon or marathon, I like to break the course down into smaller, bite-sized portions.  It helps me stay sharp mentally as the miles tick by and allows me to have certain “check-points” to look forward to whether it is a hit on my water bottle or my next nutrition boost from my energy gels.  At Boston I broke the course into three 8-mile segments and then a “hang-on” period over the final 2 miles.  When I make my return to Boston I will approach that course very differently based on the lessons I learned last week. 

For Pittsburgh the course really sets up nicely in 4 mile intervals – so let’s take a look ahead to Sunday’s race: 

Miles 1-4:  Strip District to 16th Street Bridge 

The first four miles are essentially a 2-mile out and back loop to start the race through the Pittsburgh Strip District.  Get your mind out of the gutter – not that kind of “strip” district.  The Strip – as it is familiarly known, is just that – a narrow strip of land in a flood plain confined by natural boundaries.  The Allegheny River to the north and the extension of Grant’s Hill to the south.  It was a wholesale produce and commerce area from the 1800’s to the post war years, now in addition to produce there are great restaurants, pubs and coffee houses. 

The terrain is relatively flat in this part of the course with very little terrain change.  A great start to the race where last year I posted very even mile splits of 7:13, 7:13, 7:11, 7:13. 

2009 Race Start

Miles 5-8:  PNC Park, Heinz Field and Bridges 

The next four miles begin with the first hill to navigate – heading up over the 16th street bridge to the North Shore where runners pass PNC Park – home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Heinz Field where the Steelers play football.  Runners then cross over the second bridge in the first 8 miles of the course – the 7th street bridge – followed by a small incline past the River’s Casino up to mile 8.  

This section is a bit rolling but still fair where last year I posted miles splits of 7:25, 7:24, 7:34, 7:34. 

First Hill on the Course

Miles 9-12:  West End Bridge to the South Side 

Mile 9 begins with a left turn for the marathoners heading over the West End Bridge.  At the base of the bridge the runners make another left turn and head up W. Carson Street for a 4 mile gentle climb.  Nothing to fear at this point, just a nice gentle climb of about 50 feet net over the next 4 miles.  This part of the course through the South Side is wonderful as there are great crowds and a beautiful look back to the left at downtown Pittsburgh.  

The final mile in this section crosses the last of the bridges as runners cross over the Birmingham Bridge – which provides a great look to the right of the Forbes Hill that looms in the distance.  I admit that the view can mesmerize you a bit peering at the incline you will be racing in just a few minutes.  Trust that it is just a hill.  Nothing more than you’ve encountered during your training.  

This is a good time to settle into your “cruising pace” and conserve a little energy for the hill ahead.  Last year we were able to post mile splits of 7:27, 7:18, 7:20, 7:32. 

Miles 13-16:  Time to climb 

Just past the foot of the bridge and the mile 12 marker the runners make a hard right onto Forbes Avenue.  The crowds here are some of the best on the course.  It’s a good thing too as this is where the course tests you a bit.   I’m not going to sugar coat it, you climb for the better part of two miles.  The total elevation change is just over 100 feet or 10 stories.  But because it is stretched out over close to two miles, it really isn’t too bad.  You just have to focus on the steps ahead of you and not look too far up ahead as the incline seems to stretch forever. 

Right at mile 14 the course flattens for a mile before another small hill leading up to mile 16 and the 10 miles to go point of the race.  Last year our mile splits over this section were:  7:30, 7:26, 7:38, 7:35. 

A Look From Atop Forbes Climb

Miles 17-20: Oakland to Shadyside 

Miles 17, 18 and 19 lead runners from Oakland to Shadyside over a small rolling downhill section.  The last climb on the course is found leading up to mile 20 but is very fair.  Once you cross the 20-mile mark it is all downhill from there – quite literally. 

Last year mile splits over this section of the course were:  7:35, 7:20, 7:33, 7:34. 

Miles 21-24:  Shadyside to Bloomfield 

This section of the course is very much downhill.  There is a small “bump” here and there that makes you think the course is flattening out – but they don’t last very long.  The course declines from 925 feet above sea level at mile 21 down to 740 feet at mile 24.  A welcome respite after the hills that led to mile 20. 

Last year as my glycogen fuel stores converted over to fat burning and I went through my “funky” period –  I was able to stay smooth and consistent with mile splits of:  7:36, 7:44, 7:48, 7:28. 

Miles 24-26:  Homestretch to the Finish 

The course bottoms out at the 24.5 mile mark and gently climbs to the finish.  Some of the best crowds found on the course line the streets over the final miles.  Being a “loop course” the start and finish areas are within a block of each other allowing for great crowd gathering.  Enjoy the final stretch, don’t punch your GPS until you are through the finishing chute and remember to smile.  Nothing like the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles. 

Last year’s final mile splits when our celebrating started for making our Boston time were:  7:41, 7:58. 

I remember really shutting down the jets over those final two miles and enjoying every closing minute of the race.  Our Boston time was well in hand and it was time to enjoy running a great technical race. 

Pittsburgh Marathon Finish 2009

What kind of time the 2010 race brings remains to be seen – but the strategy will remain the same.  Start smooth, stay strong through the hills and close with a purpose. 

It may be tough to keep it together this year at the end of the race with Dom and his family waiting in the grandstand.  My wife Dawn, family and friends will be waiting to greet me at the finish and the weight of two marathons in 13 days being removed from these shoulders.  It is going to be a helluva ride this weekend – of that I am certain.  Just 26.2 miles to go.  

I’ve honestly never been more excited about a race before – and that includes Boston.  Boston was different.  This one is personal.  I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that this is going to be an “all-go, no quit” kind of race. 

Rest assured the #845 Pittsburgh Express is leaving the station on Sunday morning, so clear a path.  We’ve got some cancer-kicking ass to whip.

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

Wohoo!  It’s race week again at Run for Dom.  Today (Sunday) marks the one-week mark in preparing for marathon number two in as many weeks.  Over the past few days I have really started to feel the soreness moving out of my hips and quadriceps compliments of those damn Newton Hills at Boston and I’m starting to feel pretty good frankly.

Sunday Recover/Taper Run

This morning called for a 6-mile run which was splitting the difference between the traditional 4 miler I schedule one week after a marathon and the usual 8 miler I run one week before a marathon.  So, 6 miles sounded just about right.  I have to admit that there really isn’t a “playbook” for what I am doing right now.  Even the most detail oriented training plans do not spell out how to prepare for two marathons in 13 days – so I’m “winging it” a little quite frankly.  With the exception of the lingering soreness in my outer hips – compliments of the towns of Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham and Natick – we’re starting to feel pretty “decent”.  I wrapped up the 6 miles Sunday in 43:02 at 7:10 pace.  Not too shabby only 6 days post-Boston Marathon.

I know the fitness level is there to cover the 26 mile, 385 yard course at Pittsburgh.  There are no real “injuries” to manage on race day as I am about as healthy as you can be after completing the gauntlet that is the Boston Marathon course.  The only real question I have right now is how early in the race will muscle fatigue set-in and at what point will the usual “in-race muscle rebellion” begin.

I have been looking back at my Boston race in a more analytical way over the past two days – removing the emotions of it and really dissecting what happened over those 3 hours and 22 minutes.  As I mentioned in my race report, it was a day that very early on I realized I simply didn’t “have it”.  There were two other things about Boston that really threw me off of my game:

1.  The late start time, (I usually start my runs at 5:30 a.m. CST) – did a 10:00 a.m. start throw off my nutrition plan?  Should I have eaten more after a 6:30 p.m. dinner the night before and the starter’s gun at 10:00 a.m. than my usual pre-race banana and bagel?  In hindsight – yes.  I burned close to 3,000 calories during the race at Boston and I really feel like my tank was empty over the final 10K.

2.  The early downhill sections – I definitely did not prepare for how steep those hills were.  Not knowing the course made me believe that my hill training was sufficient.  I know now that less speed work and more hill repeats are required for the next time I prepare for Boston.

So as I look ahead to the Pittsburgh Marathon and a course that I know well from last year’s race – I am looking forward to minimizing all outside influences this week and sticking to the things that I know. 

With a 7:30 a.m. EST start-time our nutrition plan should work out just as it did a year ago on our way to our Personal Best 3:17:43.  I also have a road map of sorts by looking at my mile splits and pace over the first half of the course to know I will be ready for the climb up Forbes at mile 13 to the top of the course. 

It will really be a matter of trying to gauge my muscle strength early in the race to determine just how empty our tank is from racing at Boston and if we can “run our race” or if I need to dial back the throttles quite a bit and simply shoot for a 3:30 – 3:45 kind of pace and simply enjoy the day and finish what we started by honoring Dom and his courageous battle against cancer the right way.

I will be posting a full course preview on Tuesday as I dive back into all of my race materials from a year ago and re-examine all of my mile splits from the 2009 race.  We should have our full “battle plan” finalized at that time and I should have a pretty good gauge as to how I am going to feel after my run that morning.

The weather forecast should also become a bit more clear by mid-week, right now the extended forecast is calling for temperatures around 60 at the start of the race and rain.  Not exactly what I would pick if I had the choice for race day, so we’ll hope that forecast changes between now and the starter’s gun.

Whatever the challenges on Sunday May 2nd we’ll be there to meet them head on.  I’m a marathoner afterall, and that’s what we do.

2 miles.  Sounds innocent enough.  Just a little shake-out run to get some of the lingering muscle soreness moving out of my quadriceps and hamstring muscles.  With Boston in the rear-view mirror and the Pittsburgh Marathon now just 9 days away, it was time to get back on the horse this morning. 

Mid Point Boston

As I slid out of bed I had to admit that I was feeling pretty good.  I was able to come downstairs last night forwards and not backwards which is always a good sign.  My three days of recovery that included a great massage on Tuesday morning, ice treatments and light stretching really made a huge difference.  As of this morning I was starting to feel like my old self again.  My left hamstring that bit me during Boston had calmed down quite a bit and my right hip/IT Band area was definitely quieting. 

Final Mile

The magic fridge called for a 2-mile recovery run this morning, so it was time to get on with it.  As I was lacing up the Asics I found myself wondering if I was in recovery mode or my second taper period before Pittsburgh.  My friend Jay referred to it as a “Retapery Run” – combining the best elements of the two types of runs.  That sounded just about right. 

The run went something like this: 

Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.  

I can’t say I was too surprised as those first miles are always the toughest post marathon.  At the turnaround point wrapping up my first mile I glanced down and was pleasantly surprised at my 8:13 split.  Mile two was even better in 7:48 and the “ouch-factor” had decreased by a good 50%. 

So we took our first strides toward Pittsburgh this morning.  We’ll get back out there again on Sunday for a 6-mile run and then start our second taper period next week leading up to our second marathon in as many weeks.  

The Pittsburgh Marathon was gracious enough to grant Dom and his wife Val VIP status for the race at no charge.  This will enable Dom to sit in the grandstand to cheer on the runners as they cross the finish line.  That is a sight I am very much looking forward to over the final tenth of a mile. 

Sunday is going to be a battle I’m sure.  I’ve never run marathons within the same year before, let alone within the same 13 days.  But that is what RFD has all been about since the beginning – doing something extraordinary to make a difference.  Kicking cancer’s ass 26.2 miles at a time. 

I feel like I learned a lot about myself this past Monday at Boston.  I can hardly wait to find out even more next Sunday.  I’ll say this, whatever it is that I have left to give next week is what we’ll be leaving on the course at Pittsburgh.  Anything less just wouldn’t be right.

If you are interested in contributing to this effort – please visit: 

http://www.runfordom.com/donate.html 

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

Finisher's Medal

107 seconds.  Essentially a commercial break.  Not even 2/10 of a mile.  That was the difference for me between re-qualifying for the 2011 Boston Marathon and a narrow miss.  I have to admit that for the remainder of the day on Monday after finishing my very first Boston those 107 seconds haunted me.

I mean when you think that I ran for 12,166 seconds – 107 is a pretty small number.  What could I have done differently?  If I only took the turns tighter, cut the angles differently, pushed just a bit harder earlier – could I have held on for another Boston time?

But a funny thing happened to me on Tuesday.  I got over it.  The simple fact is that I left absolutely everything I had on the course at Boston.  If I had not trained so hard, ran such a smart race and refused to give up when the famous Boston course tried to take me down – I never could have made it.  The fact is that in my first Boston Marathon I ran a strong race.

You know how I know that?  Because Bill Rogers told me I did.

Yes, that Bill Rogers.  The 4-time Boston Marathon champion.  The 4-time New York City Marathon Champion.  The two-time Marathon World Record Holder who was elected into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

In a bit of fate Dawn and our friends Ralph and Michele were killing some time before our dinner reservation in Boston on Tuesday evening.  I happened upon the Bill Rogers Running Center and thought I would stop in.  I knew that Bill was supposed to be at the store early in the day – leaving around 3 pm or so if I had remembered correctly – but thought it was still worth a pop in just before 6 p.m.

The store featured some great memorabilia – Bill’s old race shoes, his olive crown from 1975 and a lot of great framed race photos and bibs. 

1975 Boston Marathon Champion Wreath

 

Now any marathoner will tell you that “stairs” are not your friend the day after a race.  They can be extremely difficult to conquer.  Usually the only way to get down them is to do so backwards.

I stared at the two flights of stairs leading down to the basement level of the store trying to decide if it was worth the trip.  I backed my way down to find more clothing, shoes and photos.  Before heading back up I started chatting with one of the store clerks about my race experience on Monday.  Off in the far corner of the store I heard someone chatting away about Austin, TX.  When I looked over it was two young women talking with none other than Bill Rogers.  Bill was still there 3 hours after he was supposed to be going home – talking to fans about running.  In fact he was talking about my home-town of Austin, TX.

I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning as I grabbed a book and waited patiently to grab just a minute with Bill.  When I shared that I was also from Austin the four of us ended up talking about racing the 3M half-marathon in Austin and our local running store Run-Tex.  After 10 minutes or so Bill asked me how I did on Monday.

I told him that the experience was out of this world, but wished I had raced just a bit better – missing my re-qualifying time by 1:47.  Bill smiled at me and asked how many times I’d run the course.  I shared with Bill that I was relatively new to the sport – running Boston for the first time in only my third marathon.

The Man

Bill proceeded to tell me about his 3 DNF’s (Did not Finish) at Boston over the years – and how it takes a runner several attempts at the course from Hopkinton to Boston to get it right.  He graciously told me that finishing less than 4 minutes from my Personal Best on my first attempt at Boston is something I should be very proud of. 

With my mind still reeling at the spectacle in front of me, Bill jotted something in the cover of the book I had purchased and handed it back to me.  I thanked him again for his time and for getting me in the right frame of mind to race again in just 12 days to honor my good friend Dom.  He said one more thing to me that I am going to keep to myself for the time being and I headed to dinner.

Along the way I peered inside the book to see Bill’s inscription:

That really put it in perspective.  I DID RUN STRONG in my first Boston Marathon.  It might not have been my best marathon time, but it was my finest effort.  I gave absolutely everything I had on Monday – and at the end of the day I know that was the proper way to honor Dom and my commitment to his cause.

As our flight touched down in Austin this afternoon and my legs start feeling just a bit more “normal” I know that I’m back.  The physical side will continue to improve as the days pass as we now have 11 more rest days before Marathon Number Two at Pittsburgh.  But mentally, where the real marathon battle is fought – we’re ready to rock. 

I’m already looking forward to those two tentative miles on Friday morning to start shaking loose these sore muscles and getting those pistons firing once again.  Afterall, I’ve got a race to run – because I’m a Marathoner.  And a damn good one at that.

To borrow a local colloquialism – it was a “wicked pissah” yesterday.  The 26.2 mile test that is the marathon can be a humbling experience.  It tests you mentally as well as physically.  It is challenging, exhilarating, can be crushing at times – but more than anything to me it is revealing.  I love it because it gives you an opportunity to look deep inside yourself and really see what’s in there.  What you are made of.  It doesn’t build character as much as it reveals it.

As of this morning, I know more about myself than I did 24 hours ago – and that is a pretty remarkable thing at age 42.

The race experience at Boston is something that I will never forget.  In a word it was incredible.  I woke at our hotel in Copley plaza a full five hours before the starter’s gun went off in Hopkinton at 10:00 a.m.  After dressing in my race gear as well as all of my “keep me warm clothes” I made my way to the school buses lined up to transfer more than 20,000 runners out to the Athlete’s Village.

Standing in line with thousands of runners around me a man I had never met before asked, “are you Joe?”

As it turns out it was my friend from Daily Mile Winston who I had traded messages, encouragement and training tips and strategy for more than four months.  We ended up riding the same bus to Hopkinton chatting about what was to unfold.  What an amazing coincidence and a bit of fate.  It was nice to ride with Winston as when our eyes met, he knew why I was there and who I was running for.  I’ll remember our conversation forever.

At the Athletes village – which I will have some great photos of when I get my disposable camera processed – there were literally 25,000 runners sitting, laying and walking around the local High-School playing fields.  Large white circus tents were set up serving runners breakfast, water, powerbars with constant announcements of the time to the starting gun and instructions for the day.  It was like a Woodstock for runners, I caught myself quite a few times wondering what in the world I was doing there with all of these great runners.  Was I good enough?  Did I belong?

I had my breakfast of a plain bagel and a banana at 7:00 a.m., my final hydration of bottled water at 8:00 a.m. and made my final pit-stop to one of the 407 runner port-a-potties at 9:15.  All according to schedule that had allowed me to run my previous marathons without any “pit-stops” along the way.

Walking from the athlete’s village to the starting line is about 7/10 of a mile.  Along the way you drop off your race bag with your bib number affixed to the side back onto one of the school buses used earlier to transport runners to the start.  My bag would be taken by one of the thousands of volunteers I would see that day, to be retrieved after the race in less than 1 minute.  Amazing organization from the Boston Athletic Association – I can’t do justice in this space just how great a job they do putting on a perfectly organized event.

As I made my way to the 7th starting corral and started to discard my outer sweats, the temperature was a near-perfect 46 degrees, a bit windy, with a beautiful blue sun splashed sky.  I had forgotten sunscreen in my race bag, which was the first error of the day.  There would be more.

An US Air Force Fly over came directly overhead at the end of the Star Spangled Banner and the starter’s Gun went off at precisely 10:00 a.m.  It took me a little under 6:00 minutes to make it across the start line, as I punched Start on my GPS – I glanced down at the Blue, Yellow and White painted logo on the street, thought of my boy Dom in the hospital at Pittsburgh and took my first strides toward Boston.

Runners will tell you that some days “you have it” and some days “you don’t”.  It is the reason that you can run a 10-mile course one day at 7:00 pace and the following week run it at 7:30.  It is the same 10 miles, the same runner, same nutrition, same abilities, but a different result.  Running is very repetitive and it doesn’t take long for a distance runner to know what kind of day they are going to have.  For me I have been blessed to always “have it” on race day.

From the first confident strides I have known it was my day.  I had no reason to believe Monday would be any different.  It was perhaps my best training period, I was healthy, I was confident, I had a race plan and I had a lot of people in my corner.  I was in the Boston Marathon – something that less than 5 years ago was not only unlikely – it in fact had seemed ridiculous.

But as I left Hopkinton and crossed the first mile marker – something was wrong.  Running downhill from the start I should have coasted to an easy first mile.  My legs felt heavy, my knees wouldn’t come up like I wanted them to and I couldn’t find my groove.  I posted a 7:22 first mile which was frankly the exact time I was hoping for, down to the very second.  I muttered a “perfect” to myself as I looked at my watch – but even then – I knew.

The first 5 miles were run at splits of:  7:22, 7:12, 7:13, 7:06 and 7:22.  I fell into an even cadence and would post very consistent, even mile times over miles 6-10 that were exactly on pace.  I was executing my plan, I was not going out too fast only to pay the price on the Newton Hills – but I was working “too hard” at this point to hold such an easy pace over the downhill sections of the course – and I knew it.  At mile 6 I noticed that my left hamstring was tightening but we pressed on with splits of:  7:14, 7:14, 7:16, 7:13 and 7:18.

The crowds to this point had been simply phenomenal.  4,5,6 people deep yelling encouragement, names and bib numbers at the runners – I had traveled from Hopkinton to Ashland to Framingham to Natick.  Next up would be Wellesley and the Wellesley College girls.  The half-way point of the Boston Marathon.  I was holding out hope that I would find my groove and this early feeling of “funkiness” would pass.

The legend of Wellesley did not come close to the experience as a runner.  A beautiful stretch of road leading up to the all-girls College where with classes cancelled for the day the students line the right side of the marathon course holding signs, screaming non-stop and giving out kisses to the runners.

Several runners would actually come to a dead stop and give the girls what they asked for.  The sound even with my ear-buds in was deafening.  Knowing for sure that I would somehow be caught on film for all posterity kissing a co-ed I settled for running by them and high-fiving several dozen on my way by.  I hit the 13.1 Mile timing matt – the half way point at 1:35:45.

On pace for a 3:11:30 marathon – something that realistically would reflect a 3:16:00 – 3:17:00 according to my race plan given the Newton Hills now just 3 miles off.  But even then I knew it wasn’t in the cards.  I was working way too hard to keep my pace and it was going to be a battle from here on out.  Miles 11-15 produced splits of:  7:21, 7:14, 7:21, 7:28, 7:42.

As I reached the 16 mile mark I was greeted by the Welcome to Newton Sign on my left and the four famous “Newton Hills” to conquer over miles 16-21.  It was at this point that I again thought of Dom back in Pittsburgh as I knew he would following along electronically.  It was time to dig deep and give whatever I had left from this point to Boston – I just hoped it would be enough.

The first hill is a solid incline as the road approaches and crosses over the 95/128 freeway.  The spectators begin to narrow the road to see the runners until there is a small gap to run through as you cross the bridge.  I looked left and right and saw slowed cars as far as I could see in both directions watching the Boston Marathoners cross the overpass.  It was the first real test of the race – and it came 2 hours of tough running into my day.

Dawn and our friends Ralph and Michele had told me that they were hoping to make it out to Wellesley to see me.  I had scanned the crowds, but could not see them back near campus.  Little did I know that they actually had made their way to mile 17 and caught me as I crested the first Newton Hill and was trying to get myself together for the sharp right turn at the Newton Fire Station that would take me up the second hill.  I never saw them, but they caught a glimpse of me as I ran past – Dawn was able to snap this picture as I crawled along.

Mile 17 - First Newton Hill in the books

The Newton Fire Station hill is approximately 3/8 of a mile long – as I made the climb I felt my pace really falling off.  I knew that I just had to keep chugging and hopefully when my body made the full transition from my glycogen stores over to fat burning I would feel better.  I popped three Clif Bloks in my mouth, washed them down with water and pressed on.  The next two hills would be the tough ones.

The next hill hits at the 19.25 mile mark – not particularly steep but it stretches on and on and on.  This was the first point where I noticed runners who were walking.  Some were hobbling to the side of the road and off the course.  One was limping badly on their right ankle.  I tried to encourage him as I passed but quickly realized I had my own problems.  I was blowing up in a big way and was going to have to dig deep to get through this hill and then up and over heartbreak hill.

As I crossed the 20-mile mark and again hit my water bottle the crowds nearing Boston College were simply off the hook.  10-12 people deep, drums beating, screaming encouragement non-stop.  It is really something to experience struggling so badly, but having total strangers encouraging you and pushing you forward.

Heartbreak Hill.  Hallowed ground.  I was there, and I was determined not to let it beat me.  I had never walked a single step on a marathon course and no matter how badly I felt, no matter how tight my hamstring was or how much my quads were burning we were going to the top.

As you take the first steps up Heartbreak there is a gentle turn in the road and then an incline that disappears into the tops of the trees ahead.  You cannot see the top of it.  I put my head down, focused on the double yellow line in the middle of the road and pushed on.  4/10 of a mile long it was the most difficult stretch of road I have ever raced.  When you get near the top it is hard to miss.  Literally a clearing seems to open up and you can begin to see daylight.

After a small dip in the road there is another incline and then you are there.  You’ve made it and are now on the backside of the course.  My splits had fallen off badly – some of the slowest miles I had run in more than 4 years.  They were also without question the most difficult.  Splits from mile 16-21:  7:36, 7:59, 8:00, 8:02, 8:17, 8:30.

5 miles to go and if I was going to re-qualify for next-year’s Boston Marathon I would need to get it together.  I needed a time of 3:20:59 to make it and it was going to be pretty difficult to get there.  My fatigued mind told me I needed to run some 8:15’s to get there.  My mind said yes, but my body said no. 

I rallied a bit running a 7:58 over mile 22, but that would be the last sub-8:00 mile of my day.  Over the next 4 miles I was really just trying to keep it together.  From miles 23-25 I posted times of:  8:17, 8:24, 8:26.  As I hit the 25-mile mark I passed the CITGO Sign high atop Fenway Park.  Painted on the street in yellow letters spelled out 1-mile to go.

I was toast and I knew it.  In the past I had always been able to rally and push over the final mile, but my legs just weren’t there for me.  As my requalification time slipped through my fingers over mile 23 and 24 my thoughts shifted to just pushing forward to Hereford Street, making the right turn up the hill that would lead to Boylston Street, the final left turn and 4/10 of a mile to the finish.

The crowds were amazing at this point – literally thousands packed onto the narrow Boston Streets.  My mind must have wandered off for a bit as Hereford Street seemed to appear out of nowhere.  I made the final push up the hill onto Boylston and could see the finish line banners in the distance.

Like marathons past I had a mixture of emotions going through me.  There was a sense of accomplishment of course, but I must admit – quite a bit of disappointment in my performance.  My final time of 3:22:46 brought me in at 7:44 pace.  A scant 107 seconds away from a re-qualifying time.

Having that finisher’s medal placed around my neck however really lifted my spirits.  I was a Boston Finisher.  Something once again that seemed as likely as being a moon-walker just 5 years ago.  After retrieving my race bag, scarfing down a Bagel, Banana, Gatorade, Bottle of Water, Cookie and Power Bar all within 5 minutes I started to make my way over to the Family Reunion Area.  I congratulated runners, commiserated with some and then saw Ralph, Michele and Dawn.

Hugs all around and a few tears frankly.  It was a long day, a full 8 1/2 hours since I woke to make my way to the buses at Boston Common.  I had earned my way into the 114th Boston Marathon with the 7,929th best qualifying time.  I would leave with finishing 5,038th.  Not quite a top 5,000 finish – but close enough.

Tough Day, Tough Course.

12 days from today I’ll get a chance to do this all again – running for my good friend Dom and all of our Run for Dom supporters.  I’ll do my best – of that I promise.

Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose.