Monday, April 17, 2006

The story of Boston #5270

Today is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, the third Monday of April. It's a state holiday commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord. But for me today was supposed to be the culmination of a ten-year dream… running the Boston Marathon. This is the running story of #5270 for the 2006 Boston Marathon.

A year or so before I ever ran my first marathon, a college friend who was a fast marathoner told me that if I ever attempted to do a marathon, I would learn a lot about life in the process. I’ve found Bruce’s words to be amazingly prophetic for over a decade now. I’ve found marathoning to be quite an experience… the rigors of daily training, the mental tenacity it takes to do the regular long runs, the struggles to overcome obstacles such as weather or tiredness, the euphoria of a race well run, and the frustrations from little things that can derail the best marathon plans.

I never was an athlete in junior high, high school, or college. I just never felt like an athlete so I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself by trying out for sports. It’s kind of funny to look back now, but my grandfather, who had played hockey at the University of Wisconsin, actually encouraged me to run cross country in high school, but I was too shy and scared to consider it seriously.

When I was in my 20s, I started jogging daily just to stay in shape. I entered a local 2-mile race and got hooked on the experience. My next goal was to run the Crescent City Classic, the big 10K in New Orleans where I was living. That would be an accomplishment because I had never run farther than 4 miles at any one time in my life. But in April 1993, I did it and it was a great experience. I was too driven and competitive to be content with only running a 10k. I wanted the big kahoona, to finish a marathon. I began increasing my weekly long run and planned to run the Mardis Gras Marathon in January 1995.

Training went great for the Mardis Gras Marathon. My long runs increased from 7 to 8 to 10 and to 12 miles. But then I got in a rut and couldn’t seem to go any farther than 12 miles. I tried for quite a few weeks, but my legs just were shot after 12 miles. But one Saturday, I determined to slow down to what seemed like a crawl just to make sure I could go farther than 12 miles. I ran 18 miles that day and suddenly realized maybe I actually could complete a marathon. My running continued to go well and I did a 25k (15.5 miles) and a 30k (18.6 miles) race as part of my training. I ran each of those at better than 8 minute pace (7:38 and 7:49 pace, respectively). But then I got a bad case of bronchitis and ran hardly any miles in the 3 weeks prior to the marathon. I thought about just not even doing it, but I didn’t want to quit after so much training. I figured I’d suck it up and just gut it out even though it wouldn’t be pretty. And it wasn’t. I finished in 4:02, but it was an epic struggle just to stay focused to get to the finish line. I was very disappointed with my time, but I made it to the finish and proudly wore my first finisher’s medal and marathon t-shirt.

I ran my next marathon in Jackson, Tennessee that fall. Training went well for it. Unlike the Mardis Gras Marathon ten months earlier, I ran every step of the Andrew Jackson Marathon and finished in 3:31. I did the Jackson Marathon just a few months before the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in April 1996. Those of you who were into running at that time probably well remember all the hype and fanfare surrounding the 100th running of the Boston Marathon. It didn’t take me long to know for sure that I wanted to run the Boston Marathon. The only problem was that I needed to carve 21 minutes off of my time to BQ (Boston qualify). So I ran and ran and ran. I ran through good weather and bad weather. I remember doing an 18-mile run in January with a wind-chill around –15. I got home and found my sweatshirt was solid ice from my breath freezing to it as I ran. I ran and ran and ran. My long runs were getting stronger and faster and my weekly mileage was in the 60s or 70s. (I know that doesn’t seem huge now, but for someone who was still relatively new to running, it seemed extreme, especially since I never did 2-a-days.)

I registered for the Mardis Gras Marathon in January 1997 and felt very prepared to qualify for Boston. A few weeks earlier I ran a 30k race in 2:12 (7:08 pace per mile) and my fastest mile was my last one. I only needed to run 7:14 a mile to get a BQ with a 3:10.

Unfortunately, on race day of the Mardis Gras Marathon, I started out too fast. My opening miles were well ahead of what I should have been running. I made adjustments and backed off some, but the damage had been done. Around mile 12, I started battling a cramp and was reduced to a walk. The cramp subsided and I was able to begin running again but at a much slower pace. I battled it off and on. I considered dropping out at mile 13 when the "figure 8" marathon course came back through City Park where my car was. But I couldn’t drop out because I knew my wife and my 5-month old daughter would be waiting to cheer me on at mile 18. I struggled on to meet them and figured I’d call it a day when I got to them. But when I saw them, there was no way I could quit in front of them. I determined to finish what I had started, despite the pain. I ended up running 3:20 which was a PR, but still a disappointing 10 minutes off of my goal.

Little did I know at the time that that would be the closest I would get to a BQ for years. I ran the San Diego Rock-n-Roll marathon in 1998 and struggled to a 3:29 finish on an unexpectedly warm June day in San Diego. My hectic schedule got the best of me for the next several years. I didn’t attempt another marathon for almost five years. In 2003, I ran 3:48 at the Los Angeles Marathon in my return to marathoning. That summer, I had done a lot of hiking and peak bagging and realized I’d probably never be better acclimated to attempt the Pikes Peak Marathon so I signed up. It went much better than I expected and I finished in 5:25, but considering the halfway point is at 14,100’, I was very, very pleased with my time (which was fast enough to put me in the top 10% of the participants). I used the Pikes Peak Marathon as my launching pad for another attempt to qualify for Boston at the flat and fast Long Beach Marathon in October 2003.

I came into Long Beach in good form, but the marathon is an unpredictable event. The opening miles felt light and easy, but by mile 6 or 7, I could tell that my body wasn’t feeling right. By mile 10, I could tell I was losing energy fast and my body was revolting against me. Around mile 11, the course splits between the full and half marathons. I could tell I was not doing well and had little chance of hanging on so I went with the half marathon course. Soon thereafter, my body cramped up and it was all I could do to make it to the finish line for the half marathon in 1:42. I was very, very sick, literally and figuratively. I couldn’t keep any food in my body the rest of the day. It must have been some kind of intestinal bug that had sidelined me. It was very frustrating to know that a tiny microscopic bacterium or virus ruined months of training.

In 2005, I decided to make another attempt at qualifying for Boston. I entered the lottery for the St. George Marathon and in May I found out that I had won a spot. Race day was October 1, 2005. Now that it was May and I knew for sure I was entered in the St. George Marathon, I began building up for a serious attempt at a BQ. Now that I was 37, I only needed a 3:15:59 marathon time to qualify for Boston. I had a solid base of running in the winter and spring of 2005. In February, I ran my PR for a half marathon on a tough hilly course at San Dieguito (1:29:31; 6:50 pace). In March, I did the California Half Ironman triathlon in Oceanside. In May, I ran a strong half marathon (1:33) on a hilly course in Redlands. Two weeks later, I did the XTerra West Championships off-road triathlon in Temecula.

With such a solid base of running, in May 2005 I drew up my training plans for a fast marathon at St. George. I would make two specific runs every week to be my top priority: the long run and the "Yasso 800s." The Yasso 800s are a tough workout and you are supposed to build up to be able to do 9 or 10 repeats. I wanted to over-prepare for St. George to make sure I was in my best shape possible to get a BQ at long last. I decided to do my 800m repeats on the TM and to do them in 3:00 each (10 mph) with a 3:00 recovery jog at 6.7 mph in between. The first time I attempted the workout, I could only do 4 repeats. But week by week I improved and gradually could do more and more of the repeats. I progressed throughout the summer to the point that in August and September (the two months before the marathon), six different times I ran 9 or 10 of these repeats for a ten-mile workout (including a 1-mile warm-up and 1-mile cool-down). The Yasso 800s were a gut-wrenching, tough workout but I could see my speed increasing.

Besides the Yasso 800s, my other key weekly workout was the long run. I wanted to be strong to the marathon finish so I decided to run all my long runs as negative splits. Basically I would start at an easy pace and then pick it up at the end. As I increased the length of my long runs from 16 to 18 to 20 to 22 to 24 miles, my endurance grew stronger as well. All of these long runs I was able to run as negative splits and I pushed the pace hard in the last 2 or 3 miles when my body was the most tired. My last long run before the marathon (3 weeks prior) was a 24-mile run and I was sprinting amazingly fast and easy in the last 4 miles. It was a huge confidence boost as I began to taper my weekly mileage back to have fresh legs on marathon day.

The day before the marathon I drove to St. George and scouted out the marathon course to see what was ahead on the next day. The St. George Marathon is touted as one of the fastest marathon courses in the country because it has a net elevation loss of 2600’. It’s a point-to-point course that starts 26 miles north of town at 5,200’ and descends to 2,600’ at the finish. On paper, it sounds like an easy course, but as I charted the course, I realized it would still be a tough run. The first 14 miles could be best described as rolling hills since there are several significant uphill sections and at mile 14 you are still around 4400’. But then the course descends quickly for the next 11 miles. Running downhill makes for some tough running, especially that far into a marathon. The quads take a beating.

Race day dawned (only metaphorically because the sun wasn’t beginning to rise yet when I awoke at 4:30am MST, 3:30am for my body which was still on PST). I got my things together and drove to town to catch a bus to the starting line. The race organizers had a whole fleet of busses lined up to take us 5000 marathoners to the starting line 26 miles away for the 6:45am start. I was on one of the first busses and found myself at the starting line in the cold morning air (40 deg??) an hour before the start. I sat on the ground next to a fence and relaxed as I anticipated what was ahead. A few minutes later the race organizers started lighting dozens of campfires to keep the runners warm. We all huddled around the fires and exchanged stories about our marathon experiences.

At 6:30am, we all lined up for the start. I was happy to be in the front corral with an expected finishing time of 3:15. The race started and I’ve never had a more peaceful, serene experience in my twelve years of long-distance running. Since the course proceeds down a highway that is closed to traffic in both directions and there are few if any houses anywhere around, there was no one on the road except us runners. At 6:45am, the skies were dark and the stars were out as we ran through the open country of southern Utah. The sounds were most amazing. Since there was no traffic or crowds to cheer from the side of the road, all you could hear was the gentle patter of thousands of feet plodding down the pavement. The air was crisp, the surroundings were pastoral, and no one was saying a word. The gentle patter of footsteps was as calming as ocean waves gently lapping on a sandy beach. It was utterly peaceful... a sound I’ll never forget.

The opening miles of a marathon should be light and easy… and these were for me. My biggest challenge was simply to make sure I didn’t run too fast in the opening miles which would ruin my chances for a strong finish. I realized it would be better to run the opening mile too slow than too fast. If I was 30 seconds too slow, I could easily make up that time over the next 25 miles, but if I was too fast, I would be tapping into my reserves way too early in the race.

Around mile 3 the sun began rising. It slowly allowed us to see the wide open country through which we had been running. The beauty of the scenery is hard to put into words. Even pictures don’t do justice to the redrock landscape of southern Utah. St. George is not only known as one of the fastest marathon courses, it’s also rightfully touted as one of the most scenic.

Mile after mile, my pace was right on track where it needed to be. Gradually, I was accumulating some time in the bank without overdoing the pace. I had a pace chart on my wrist which I consulted at every mile marker. Gradually, I was 60 seconds ahead of schedule, then 90, then 2 minutes, then 2 and a half, then 3. By mile 17, I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule and realized that unless the wheels fell off, I was at long last going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Others in the race were trying to qualify for Boston as well. There were signs on the side of the road stating such things as, "Only 9 more miles to Hopkinton." (Hopkinton is where the Boston Marathon begins.)

Around mile 17 while we were running downhill, I encountered my first significant problem. I could feel that I was starting to get a side cramp. I rarely get side cramps, but about the only time I get them is when I’m running hard downhill which I had been doing for some time at this point in the marathon. Knowing that I had almost 5 minutes in the bank, I used the restroom at the next aid station hoping that would alleviate the cramp. It didn’t help much. Basically for the next 7 miles, I backed off some on the pace and had to walk for about 20 seconds at each mile marker with my arm stretched over my head to ease the pain in my side. By mile 24, I was still 4 minutes ahead of schedule but I could tell my body was getting very tired. I decided not to walk out the cramp anymore for fear that if I slowed to a walk I might not ever start running again.

This strategy was tough because my body was wanting desperately to slow down, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to lose a qualifying time for Boston at this point in the race. I had trained too long and run too hard to back off now. When I passed the 25-mile marker, I knew I was only about 9 minutes from the finish. I kept up the pace, but now my heartrate was racing as it would at the end of a hard 10k race. The last mile at St. George is a flat straitaway into town. I kept up my form and concentrated on the finish line which I could see way in the distance. It seemed like an eternity as I pushed with every ounce of energy left in me. Finally, I crossed the line with the clock reading 3:12:03. My official chip time was 3:11:50. I had qualified for Boston with 4:09 to spare.

I collapsed in the grass of the park, too tired to get water or food. I just basked in the euphoria of accomplishing a goal that had eluded me for ten years. Finally after about ten minutes, I got up and got food and water and never was more proud to walk around with a finisher’s medal hanging around my neck. I made my way to the car and back to the hotel. I called my wife on the phone and all I could say was, "I did it! I did it! I did it! I did it! I did it! I did it! I did it!" She knew exactly what I had done.

After I showered and relaxed in the pool, I was feeling great. I had nothing to do that afternoon, so I decided to drive to Zion National Park which is only about 30 miles away. I wouldn’t have time to do a long hike so I decided to hike up towards Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is one of the most breathtaking hikes in the park. Despite having run the marathon that morning, I went floating up the trail knowing I had achieved a long-time dream. I made my way up roughly 2000’ of elevation over the 2-mile trail to what is known as Scout’s Landing. Scout's Landing is the resting spot with great views of the valley 2000' below just before the last 500’ ascent across a narrow ridge to Angel’s Landing itself. I decided not to do that final part of the hike up to Angel's Landing because it was a class 3 scramble and I wasn’t sure my legs would cooperate for the descent. I sat for a while and enjoyed the views of the redrock walls of Zion valley. Zion has to be one of the best kept secrets of the National Park Service. It is one gorgeous place. I had someone take my picture on Scout’s Landing as I proudly wore a huge smile and my marathon medal. Then sun was starting to descend so I decided to call it a day… and what a day it had been.

After such a great experience at St. George, I had high hopes for the Boston Marathon 8 months away. I took it easy on the running in October and November as my body recovered from such a hard run at St. George. Actually, this wasn’t so much by choice as by injury since I pulled a back muscle in mid-November and missed the Mission Inn 10K (our only local race in Riverside) and the Philadelphia Marathon (when I was at a conference there). In December, I was getting back on track and my training was progressing. I registered for the Boston Marathon (bib #5270) , got my plane ticket, and a place to stay. My training was coming along. Even though I didn’t feel the pressure to push myself at Boston like I had for St. George, I was running long runs and Yasso 800s like I had before St. George.

But suddenly in February, I started getting soreness in my left hip. I ignored it for a few days because it wasn’t too painful. But it kept getting worse and worse and worse. I took some days off and then tried to run but the pain was still there. Then I took 2 weeks off and tried to run, but the pain was still there. After talking to a physical therapist and a trainer, I realized that I had a hip flexor injury. The only remedy was to stop running and let it heal. I saw my dream of running the Boston Marathon quickly going down the drain. At first, I thought this injury would just mess up some of my training and I would still be able to run Boston, just not as fast as I had anticipated. But soon I realized I wasn’t going to be able to run Boston at all this year.

Not getting to run Boston today after trying for so long to get there is very, very disappointing. But I have to keep all things in perspective. I can’t be too disappointed because we all eventually face bigger setbacks in life than merely a nagging injury that prevents us from running a race, even if it is the Boston Marathon. I also can’t be too disappointed because my marathon time at St. George actually qualified me for Boston next year as well. My wife would not have been able to be there with me today, but we’ll be able to go together next year. It’ll be a nice getaway trip for us since we honeymooned in Boston and Maine way back in 1990 and we haven’t been back there together since. So next year on April 16, 2007, I know exactly where I’ll be. Even if I have to crawl on my hands and knees over shards of glass, I’ll be a part of the 111th running of the Boston Marathon (kind of has a Tolkien ring, the "eleventy-first" running, doesn’t it?)

Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to spend another Patriot’s Day at home watching the Boston Marathon on TV as I’m doing today. As always, it looks to be an exciting race. It could be the first time in over twenty years that an American wins at Boston. Meb Keflezighi and Alan Culpepper are world-class marathoners and either one of them have a serious shot at winning it all.

The highlight of my day today is not the marathon this morning (9am my time), but my attempt just now at a return to running. It’s been five weeks since I last donned my running shoes. I’ve waited patiently hoping that my hip flexor has had plenty of time to heal. I did a little 4-mile route just a short bit ago. It’s a scenic loop with plenty of views of all the area mountains (the Santa Anas, the San Gabriels, the San Bernardinos, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto). There was quite a bit of cloudcover this morning though so I couldn’t see the mountains. But just as I crested the last big hill near my house, the sun came peaking through the clouds and I was showered in the beauty of a brilliantly orange sunrise. I couldn’t help but think as I ran the last bit home, maybe this is the dawn of a new day for me.

I can tell my body isn’t used to running right now, but it felt outstanding to be back out there running in the crisp morning air at sunrise. My hip flexor doesn’t seem to be sore but it may take a few days to make sure there isn’t any residual pain. My time was far slower than what I’m used to running, but it felt great just to be back out there running again.

I had better shower now and clean up since the race starts in a few minutes. But for me, the race starts in 364 days.