Friday, February 11, 2011 first dream race (134 days to go!)

I know I'm going to run 100 miles in June, and I realize I ran over 50 miles last July, but I'm not foolish enough to believe that this makes me an ultrarunner, at least not in ultrarunning circles. I'm still a marathoner, not that there is anything wrong with that. Long before I set my sights on Western States, and only minutes after I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, I focused on Boston. Like Western States, Boston has qualifying time requirements. Runners in States must have finished a 50 miler in under 11 hours, a 100k in under 14 hours, or any official 100 mile race. A runner of my age and gender must run a marathon in 3:10:59 or faster to qualify for Boston. So with that finisher's medal newly placed around my neck in October 2005, I started thinking about Boston. I've been fortunate enough to run it three times now, each time progressively faster, and I've set two personal records there. I'm even signed up for the 2011 race, though I'm going to eat that registration fee now that I'm running Western States. Like so many love the WSER, I love Boston. Here's a re-publication of the race report from my 2010 Boston Marathon that I first shared with my friends at Runners World.

Ah, Boston. I knew you were fun, having run you twice, but I forgot just how fun you really are. In fact, I started cheating on you, telling folks that I really loved Twin Cities, and small marathons are nice change of pace, and even Chicago, but for their race director, has its virtues. How quickly one forgets. But how easy it is to fall for your first love all over again. And while Boston was my third marathon, it was undoubtedly my first love when it came to this little long distance running crush I've developed.

The 114th running of the Boston Marathon was my 10th marathon and 3rd Boston, having run the Nor'easter of 2007 and coming back for a do-over in 2008. It was the first one where I didn't travel out with a running partner (having run '07 with my college roommate and '08 with two running friends from back home). It was the first marathon I ever ran where my better half wasn't in attendance, having been unable to avoid a trial date. In spite of these things (and not because of them, honey), it was, by far, my favorite race to date.

Training went well this spring. I loosely followed Higdon's 12 week Boston plan, for the most part following his Monday through Thursday, running a mile on Friday for my "rest day" (my running streak is at about 8 months right now), then lengthening my long runs. I did three 20 milers this cycle, one very fast, one on my hardest hills course, and one on a nice and easy flat course two weeks before Boston. I topped out at 62 miles 4 weeks out (the first time I had ever gone over 60 miles), and I hit mid-50's on several occasions. My average weekly mileage over 12 weeks was 45 miles. My speed work went well, and I even did a set of 10 Yasso 800's a few weeks out at an average of about 2:48 (foreshadowing?). I felt great. And then I was sitting in urgent care and hoping for a miracle. It came, but it wasn't from that visit!

I headed out to Boston on Saturday morning with a cough and a smile. It was Day 12 of a stupid virus that had left me, at various times, phlegmy (okay, that one was pretty common), coughing (non-stop), short of breath on quite a few of my taper runs, battling a sore throat, and wiping a runny nose. What better to do than to expose your imaginary friends to it? The weekend was what I expected--great company, good beer, and a lot of laughs. For those of you who aren't reading this on the forum, I should explain that while I headed to Boston on my own, I was, in reality, meeting 40 or 50 people who have been my friends, virtually, on the Runners World Online forum for the past 3 years. Of that group, I'd only met one of them who was going to be there in person. But when I walked into the hotel bar on Saturday afternoon, it was like attending a college reunion. What a group!

Sunday was the usual--quick and easy 2 miler after watching the BAA 5k race (and being touched on the shoulder in passing by marathon legend Uta Pippig!). I attended the rain-delayed Red Sox game with friends, lucky to be under the grandstand even if we were crammed in chairs that were obviously made, size-wise, for a different generation of Americans. After Twin Cities, I realized I freaked out too much about what I ate and drank, so like Twin Cities, I had a beer at the park and ordered a glass of wine at the pasta dinner that night. Dinner was with a large group of friends, and we laughed like crazy throughout it. You wouldn't guess that we probably all felt those familar butterflies in our stomachs. The only downside to dinner was that the cough returned...and wouldn't go away. I went to bed around 10:30 p.m. with a crazy cough.

The alarm sounded around 5 a.m. the next morning, and I was off with the group by 5:45. The weather was perfect--the sun was rising, temps in the low 40's, and not a chance of rain after a rainy weekend. We set up at what we called the Red Dot--a spot where the RWOL forumites all decided to make a home base. Again, laughter, hugs, and a general good time. One wouldn't guess that we had to run 26.2 miles back to our hotel! It really was the most calm I'd ever been before a race, which is saying something given that this race starts at 10 a.m., while most others fire their starting guns by 8 a.m.

When I got to the lobby in the hotel that morning, I met an imaginary friend for the first time: bkw1982! Blake and I realized after our fall marathons that our times that fall, despite different courses, were very similar. We also realized that we ran almost identical times in our last Bostons--his in '09, mine in '08. At some point last fall, we thought it'd be good to run together. In retrospect, we couldn't imagine what a good idea that was!

Blake and I walked down to the start corrals with our friend Cope. We all needed one more pit stop, so I'd like to say it was a relaxed atmosphere, but I'd be lying. We finally found some portapotties in the Hopkinton Town Square. Cope was smart and picked the line without kids. Blake and I fell in the shorter line behind some parents and their kids. We didn't see Cope again until we were out on the course. I think you can guess which of the three of us had kids of our own. Fortunately, one of the fathers let Blake and me cut in front of him and his little one. We were quick, and then we jogged back to the corral. For the first time, I was in Corral 1, which put me in the first 1000 runners of 13,000 in the first wave. Every runner is assigned a starting corral based on their qualifying time. I barely made it into Corral 1 (I think I made the cut by 13 seconds), so I expected to be run over by the hares flying out of Corral 2...and I knew I couldn't keep up with the likes of my friends Bird and Tom, who are 2:35ish marathoners, almost 20 minutes faster than me.

I'm a talker (surprise!), and I was having fun in Corral 1. This was a lean group of guys and gals who looked like runners, not football players like me. I'm 190 pounds, probably the heaviest guy in the corral. So what better to do than to challenge the entire corral to an arm wrestling match? No takers. My guns must have been too intimidating. Maybe next time. It was good for a few laughs, if nothing else.

In spite of the illness, I felt pretty good. Pre-cold, I thought I was in 2:50 shape, which would have been a huge PR. With cold, I figured I'd pace out on Nike's 2:54 pace band, with a positive split, and hoped to have a little kick to bring it in.

We were off, crossing the starting line 23 seconds behind the elite men. From the get-go, I felt good. Blake and I fell into a steady pace, maybe a tad fast from my wristband, but nothing too bad. He told me early on that he'd never run with another person. Little did he know he picked the most talkative guy he could for his first effort.

Blake was clicking his lap button on the mile markers:

Mile 1: 6:32
Mile 2: 6:30
Mile 3: 6:23.

I was using a Garmin, and I ended up being slightly ahead of the mile markers by Mile 2. We crossed the 5k in 20:02. This was pretty much what we had in mind early on, maybe a tad fast, but we were both feeling good. Somewhere in there, we found Cope and talked to him for a few minutes. Since I hadn't had a chance to wish him good luck, I was pleased to see him on the course. He looked good, and his finishing time proved it (even if he'd say it wasn't a perfect race, he ran a pretty darn good one).

It might be the product of nearly a week passing us by, but I really don't have a lot of specific memories from the race. I know I "gu-ed" around miles 4, 9, 13, 17, and 21. (That was for Dhuey.) I always love the biker gang that hangs out in Ashland, I think it is (or is it Framingham?)...they rev up their Harleys and just look bad ass. I'm not sure what brings them out for the race, but they're there every year, and I'm always happy to see them and their ZZ Top beards. I was wearing my name on the front of my shirt, something that came in handy as the race wore on and I realized I was only the second guy passing through that the crowd knew the name of....after Ryan Hall, and he needed no introduction. I guess it's one of the luxuries of being a bit of an attention whore. I do distinctly remember some guy sitting at a bar on a built-in open air patio room on the third story of his house that yelled down at me "Go Chad!" He was a long ways away...I couldn't believe he could see my name. Beyond that guy, I've run several big marathons, but nothing is more amazing than 26.2 miles of point to point racing with people shoulder-to-shoulder on at least 23 miles of the course, and thick crowds in every city, and every single one of them cheers for you. You. Like you're related to them, and they came out there just to see you pass through. Chicago is nice, and the crowds have their moments...but the Boston suburbs and their residents know how to cheer on a marathon. Simply amazing stuff.

As I recall, we passed by Rick and Dick Hoyt, the father and son wheelchair legends, in Mile 9. I started a little tradition back in my first Boston, and when I see them, I start yelling at the crowd to cheer for them. They're just about the most inspiring athletes I know, and if you're reading this (Grandma, this is for you) and don't know who they are, run a search for them on Google and watch the movies and read the stories and prepare to cry. Inspiration at its best.

Blake's watch showed the following splits through Wellesley:

Mile 4: 6:27
Mile 5: 6:41
Mile 6: 6:30
Mile 7: 6:29
Mile 8: 6:33
Mile 9: 6:26
Mile 10: 6:35
Mile 11: 6:27
Mile 12: 6:26
Mile 13: 6:22

Mile 13, in Wellesley, hit me the wrong way, and I really felt it in my stomach. As a result, I didn't even think to look for my buddy D-man, who was manning the first Gatorade position as I passed through. And here I gave the guy a hard time about making sure I could see him.

To recap our official splits, we hit the second 5k in 20:28, a tad slower than the first one. We came through the next 5k to 15k in 20:11. The 20k 5k split was 20:10, and it was somewhere in here that I did the unprecedented...I mentioned to Blake that we might be on to something special that day. I think he wanted to kick me in the shin. He quickly mentioned something about his hamstring, so I talked about my cough (which did rear its ugly head on at least two occasions, but overall, was pretty subdued) and a faint pain I felt in my left calf and hip. Luckily, the Gatorade and Gu mix gave me something very real to be worried about in Mile 13, so I did spend much of the rest of the race wondering if I was going to actually hit the confessional (a portapotty stop, Mom) or just let it fly. Nothing happened...thankfully. I was a believer before those 13 miles, but I have no doubt my prayers were heard along the way.

I've read that a few folks have criticized the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel. I don't entirely get it. I'll agree that Boston College seems to fuel their cheers with more and more alcohol each year (thankfully for us), so they're getting louder and louder and out on the curbs for longer. But it's not the Wellesley girls' fault they can't form a tunnel anymore, and it is inspiring stuff to hear that high pitched monotone scream from a quarter mile away. I don't know if they were quieter this year or not, but they got me jacked and pumped, to quote my least favorite and disgraced college football coach Pete Carroll. I moved in, not for a kiss (that'd cost me a second and lead to a minute), but for some high fives, and I gave a high five to every single girl I saw along that campus. The tunnel is about a quarter mile long, and I dropped my speed to a sub-6 pace accidentally through there. When I emerged, deaf and ready to go, I looked for Blake, and he was about 5-10 seconds behind me, laughing. He mentioned that we should slow things down for a bit before we hit the hills in Mile 16, and I we promptly ran a 6:26 mile. We crossed over the half marathon point in 1:25:11, and I think we both figured we'd go positive splits and finish in a 2:52 or 2:53 (PRs for both of us). But forget that....we still have 13 miles to run!

We did cruise through Mile 15, which is mostly flat, before entering Hell's Alley and the first of the hills. Looking back, we didn't really talk about our hill strategy. I knew I was strong on the uphills, and I figured Blake's long legs would allow him to catch me on the downhills. Overall, I guessed right.

Mile 14: 6:26
Mile 15: 6:34
Mile 16: 6:24
Mile 17: 6:37
Mile 18: 6:28
Mile 19: 6:31

I think I spent most of the first three hills talking to Blake about the Johnny Kelley statue. He'd never seen it, and based on my role as a tourguide, pointing it out only to discover that it was not, in fact, the statue, but just an intersection, or a portapotty, or someone's house, you'd think I never had either. But I finally did point it out, and I saluted him and noted that I only needed to finish this race, and 58 more Bostons, to tie his record of 61 Boston Marathons. Whew.

Blake and I got separated on the third hill, but he caught back up to me as we climbed Heartbreak. In fact, he actually shouted at me that he was there and was going to try to hang on. We both were feeling it a bit, but I think we both were more afraid of a big crash and burn than anything. I knew my stomach had settled to a managable level, and while my hip and calf were sore on the left side, I figured I could fight through it. It wasn't pain, just a little niggle, as L'ard might say. When I saw that Blake had caught a second wind and fought up Heartbreak Hill (which, honestly, isn't that big, for those of you reading who haven't run this's just placed at a bad time...Mile 20 or so, when your legs are shot and you start believing your self-doubt), I knew he was going to be fine . I had no idea how fine that really would be.

The BC crowds were great. Sorry, BC, but I hate you guys in football season. You're insufferable. You're like the ugly stepchild of my existence. Yes, you've got my boys' number and beat us more often than not, but it's because you seem to care so much that we fall like Goliath. But on Marathon Monday? You're all my best friends. Unreal. Entire groups of drunk young men chanting my name. Offers of beer (I said no). Even a "Go Irish!" or two (well, okay, I didn't hear any THIS year, but in '08, I heard several) in response to my Notre Dame sweatband and the fact that I write "Go Irish!" under my name on my shirt. Someday, I may just come spectate, and if I do, I'll bring a keg of Bud Light and a tap to the top of Heartbreak Hill and enjoy the day with the heirs to the fine men and women who inspired me to chase my goals.

When you peak Heartbreak Hill, you're on top of the course. It's "all downhill from there," except the hills you still have to climb. But it is a fast downhill, and I did pass through campus without having to pull over to stretch like I did in '07. Blake was somewhere close behind me, so I was on my own inaccurate Garmin readings from here on out....

Mile 20: 6:22 (which basically is coming up and over Heartbreak for the non-Boston runners reading)
Mile 21: 6:26
Mile 22: 6:03 (WTF?)
Mile 23: 6:11
Mile 24: 6:14
Mile 25: 6:09
Mile 26: 6:10
And the final .2...who cares? It was going to be a huge PR!

My better half has watched each of my previous two Bostons at Coolidge Corner, around Mile 23, on the left side of the road next to a nice little pub. I had made a habit of saying hello to her as I passed over each 5k course chip reader, and when I passed by her old look-out point, I blew a quick kiss in that direction. The girl standing in Beth's spot liked that. Or so I'd like to think. A few minutes earlier, when I passed over the 35k marker in a 20:27 split, I wasn't quite as nice in saying hello. Like Twin Cities, when I saw my dad at Mile 17, I told her, in slightly cleaned up terms for this story, "I don't know what I'm doing, but let's hope I can hold on."

I was flying, by my standards, at this point. I felt good. I do not recall seeing anyone pass me in the last 6-8 miles. I was picking off runner after runner, a half-smile on my face, and I knew that if I just didn't fall victim to the sniper I saw shooting the leg muscles of those around me, bringing them to a stop on a dime after running 6 minute miles for 23 or so miles, I was going to meet my goal of a sub-2:50 6 months earlier than planned. The crowds were energizing. They were buzzed from the excitement of this event and the cold beverage in their cups. They cheered me on like I was heading for the big pay day that Robert K. Cheriuyot got that day. In their eyes, there was no difference. And I started to cry. I remember the tears forming for the first time when I saw the Citgo sign, about 2.2 miles from the finish. The Citgo sign marks the 1 mile to go mark, and I knew then that I had the gas I needed to finish this race strong. I started to cry, thinking about an email I'd received the night before the race, telling me and so many others who had been hoping for a miracle that our friend JJ was in his final hours. I started to cry, thinking about all of those late night meals I'd shared with Beth after my runs, selfishly, really, since she got up each morning for her run, but I couldn't...I wouldn't. I'm just not a morning person. Marathoning is such a self-centered sport. In the end, we run the 26.2 miles for ourselves. We might raise money for charity. We might dedicate our race to someone. But in the end, I have no choice but to use the first person plural. Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know. But I can't ignore the fact that we do it to make ourselves better, to look at the world through a different scope, to dream, to achieve dreams. We do it for an old friend who fought, for 8 months, an ultimately lethal disease, knowing that the pains I felt as I "dropped the hammer" compared nothing to his looking death in the eyes and still punching back...again and again, when so many thought it hopeless. I didn't know it then, but one day later, he lost that fight--we're all going to someday--but that extra day on this earth, that extra moment with a loved one, that's what we're pushing for every single day. That's what makes it worthwhile. And as I made that right on Hereford and left on Boylston, missing my friends Troy and Sully's gift of a cannoli along the way (don't worry, guys, I looked for you, but I would have turned it know that!), I found the emotions overcoming me.

I crossed that finish line in a new personal record of 2:48:50, five minutes and 38 seconds faster than I'd ever run a marathon before. And I cried. I couldn't help but not. A volunteer approached, probably expecting to take me to a medic tent, but when she saw the smile on my face and the tears on my cheeks, she let me go. She knew. I was going to be okay. I was okay. And it was a journey I'd never forget.

Not more than 30 or 40 seconds passed and I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Blake. He'd crushed his PR by about 4 minutes, finishing sub-2:50 for the first time. We hugged. We cried....okay, maybe that was just me. But we were emotional, bonded by that experience we shared together. To think I'd just met him that morning for the first time in "real life." I don't think I'm out of line when I say that I think he'd agree with me--we've each got a friend for life.

You guys know the post-race. I couldn't find a portapotty, so I shuffled through the streets of Boston, thanking volunteers along the way, got my stuff, and walked the 10 feet to the hotel. It might have been 50 feet, I don't know, but that was a one close hotel. My friend (and WS100 pacer) Bird was already there, and I walked in, triumphant, singing "Bird Bird Bird....Bird is the word." He was gracious enough to swap finishing times with me (2:33, buddy? Really? With the blueberry beer and cannoli incident?), grab my stuff, and watch me sprint to the men's room....not that this story needed that. I kept thinking that I'd head back out to Boylston to cheer folks on, but I forgot just how fast this gang as each of you came in, each with your own 20 paragraph story (some of you were nice and shortened it...significantly...not me!), we toasted our days, our races, our friendship. We took calls from friends and family across the country and the world. We had those little golden moments, like my conversations with my wife, my mom, my dad, and my mother-in-law, all of which were emotional, powerful, touching...and then I wandered up to my room, long after most of the group had showered, to cleanse myself. I was buck naked, water running, when I heard my cell ring in the room. I wandered out--why not? I've got the room to myself--and saw it was a seven digit number starting with 0. No idea who it was. And the voice on the other line opened with a taunt--"I thought you were supposed to get slower when you turned 30." I laughed, a bit buzzed, mystified at who it was...we bantered for a minute, and then I must have said something funny, because I recognized the laugh. It was my little brother, from Iraq, and he'd watched the entire race on Universal Sports over there on his Army base. He'd been gone for 5 weeks, and we hadn't talked yet. As I told him, his wife and son were more important calls than me. But he found some crappy connection (it took three calls to complete our conversation) and we shared that moment together. I'm no soldier, and I'm no hero. But he is. I'm thankful for that 10 minutes we shared together (though I wish I had been wearing some pants), and like JJ, I'd be lying if I said he wasn't there with me on that run. I wrote two sets of initials on my name sticker--MC, for my brother, and JJ, for my friend. They both were there with me in spirit on that run.

So...that's my day. I'd tell you about what happened next, but that's what I call my "second marathon," where I complete 26 of something entirely different...gotta get the carbs. And I think I was successful, as some of you could attest.

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