I’ve always feared the Marathon. And for good reason.
It’s well known that the first guy to run one actually DIED. From the sheer distance, to the infamous “Wall” at 20 miles, to the dozens of variables that must come together on the day, there’s a lot to be concerned about.
Before Monday I’d run six marathons, each with varying degrees of caution.
I ran Boston ’05 as a charity runner to see if I could finish. Boston ’06 to see if I could break 3 hours. Chicago ’14 to see if I could break 6min pace. In hindsight each goal was conservative, fairly doable for my fitness. Last fall I ran New York City in 2:34.44 and the comments started from my friends, “When are you gonna stop running scared and take a crack at it?”
“Crack at what?” I replied half knowingly.
“Sub 2:30. You know you’ve thought about it.”
The Boston Marathon on Monday April 18th would be the day. The day to cash in caution and take a chance on a dream.
It’s a bit awkward when you want to finish in the top 100 of a major marathon. The start is packed with tens of thousands of runners, each filled with nervous energy, who all want to stretch, stride out, and get their own space. Even in corral 1 you have to politely ask if you can move by to get closer to the starting line, closer the leaders who can help you achieve your goal.
Just before the start the elite men are introduced and escorted to the front. I try to remember that if I’m nervous, they must be a wreck, this is their job, their livelihood is at stake in the next few hours. A friend asks my pace and we make plans to go out at 2:30 pace, 5:43 per mile. But honestly, I know I’ll go out fast. I’ve run Boston enough to know I need the time in the bank.
National anthem. Military flyover. Then “Boom” the gun goes off.
I’ve lost my teammate Patrick in the walk up, and as much as you want to “run easy,” you also don’t want to run slowly for no reason. Seconds are the difference between a good day and a great one. I should know. I broke 6 minute mile pace in Chicago 2014 by 22 seconds and 2:35 in the New York City Marathon last fall by just 16. You can “make up time,” but you can also waste it.
I find Patrick. We are surrounded by very good runners. A pack from Central Park Track Club, several of whom ran at Tufts University after I graduated. But they were All-Americans. They’re young and fast, which is good and bad. Youth is often fearless, but also inexperienced. I say hello to Greg Cass, the most famous Sub-Elite runner in America, who had a whole story written about his amateur marathoning in the NYTimes a few years back. He’s a smart runner and I know he’s wanted to break 2:30 for a few years. He’s headed out on pace.
We see the second mile is 5:25 and Patrick declares, “Okay, no more in the 5:20s till mile 15.” The guy knows Boston. He broke 2:30 here in 2014. He’s my training partner/coach. When ever I’m uncertain how to train I turn to him for guidance. Training with him is what gave me the confidence to dream of 2:30, train for 2:30 and finally to state publicly that I wanted to break 2:30. I trust him.
Miles 3, 4, 5
5:37, 5:27, 5:41
The next few miles clip along. I realize that if you want to run 5:40s, the nervous runner in you is happy to see 5:37. Fast feels better than slow, like you’re leaving less work for later. Yes, too fast can spell disaster, which is why you must run by feel, assessing your threshold minute by minute.
At mile 4 I try cruising with the pack. In a theme that would continue for the day, each time I try to settle in I find myself back in the lead. My father, knowing my penchant for emotional racing, had advised me the night before, “Try to let others lead a bit, if you can.” On several occasions I move right, let the pack pass, and tuck back in. This is a mental as much as a physical challenge. I want to lead. I like leading. But it’s more efficient to follow.
10k (6.2 Miles)
“When I cross this mat a bunch of my buddies are gonna freak out,” I tell a friend as we approach the 10k marker.
I’m fast and my friends will know I’m fast. “I wouldn’t do it any other way,” I reassure myself. For me an “other way” would be playing it safe. I’ve run too many marathons safely, cautiously, because I was afraid to fail. Today I will not run with fear. Today I will run with belief.
Miles 7, 8, 9
5:35, 5:40, 5:45
Near mile 8 I go to a dark, dark place. The eighth mile is a horrible time in the marathon. You’ve been running fast for 40 something minutes and you still have an 18 miler to go. Demons of doubt creep in. Have I gone out too fast?! I’ve heard the refrain from many runners before, “I felt so good through 10!” All those stories end poorly.
I’m not hurting, but I’m not comfortable, and I have 18 fucking miles to run, including the infamous Newton Hills.
And it’s getting warm. People are beginning to suffer.
“Pro move,” Patrick advises, “The elite runners have a table of water bottles set out for them. If they’re still there when we arrive, we can have them, cause they’ve run through.” Great point.
We begin grabbing full bottles from the elite tables, pouring them over our heads and passing them around the pack. This would prove priceless.
Miles 10, 11, 12
5:44, 5:43, 5:27
The miles tick on and I begin a mantra that would grow to full volume near the end, “Have the courage to believe. Be here now!”
I’m daydreaming of coming off of Heartbreak Hill, but fearing I won’t make it that far in one piece. I’m imploring myself to be present, to run this mile, or just run this BLOCK. When I do I relax and feel better at pace. When I’m not checking pace, I’m checking my heart rate — it’s a balance of science and feel. 158 and I can go faster, 166 and I need to be careful.
As the scream tunnel approaches Patrick and I are rolling with a young group of guys. They're pretty excited for the girl tunnel. I tell myself to keep high fives to a minimum, but once Patrick moves ahead with his hand out it’s on. We’re now running single file, slapping high fives and grinning stupidly.
The wall of girls behind us, we resettle, refocus, back to work.
I spot my brother on the side of the road, something about how he cheers gives me confidence that this is going well.
I have always felt that half marathons are harder than going 26.2 miles. Pick your pain. Halves are just raw. You run right up to the line and hold onto it for over an HOUR.
I know I can run a hard half. Even a hilly half. I’m 13.1 miles from home and have 1:16.06 to get there. Breaking 2:30 is possible.
Miles 13, 14, 15
5:38, 5:41, 5:39
These miles come and go. Patrick and I are working together, along with Rob Bond from Greater Boston Track Club. But really, this is all a lead up to the roller coaster in Newton.
Earlier I’d lamented the headwind to Patrick and he’d confidently disregarded me, “meh, not that bad.” By now he’s changed his tone, “Screw this wind.” It’s forceful, in our face, and constant.
No one ever remembers the wind. “That was the hot year” people will say. “Oh, it rained that year” they’ll sympathize. But when the wind is in your face for 2 hours, it doesn’t leave a trace.
The wind is costing us time. We’ll see if it costs us our race.
You drop 121 feet. Free seconds for the taking if you roll it through. In 2002 I jumped in with a friend who was unprepared for the hills and he winced, “No. More. Downhill.” His quads were done. I was 20 years old and had no idea what that felt like. I’ve come to know that pain, and to train for it.
A few years ago I started lifting legs, and it’s paid off. Squats, lunges and swings done with kettle bells of increasing weight over time. As a college kid the idea seemed preposterous. “I’m a runner! My legs are made of honed steel!” By your 30s you realize, straight mileage isn’t going to tear your legs up the way they need to be rebuilt for Newton. The Newton Hills go up for miles 17–18, flatten out for 19, and spike hard for 20–21.
The thing about running hills is, you can only do what you can do. The science of hill running spots you 15–25 seconds on some of these assents, meaning a 6:00 is worth the effort of a flat 5:32. You just have to find your gear and crank.
I switch my watch into heart rate mode and try to be tough without being dumb. Then an old friend shows up.
There are certain personal truths that only reveal themselves while marathoning. My right calf cramps in the later stages. This is my pain to manage.
I’m a few steps ahead of Patrick. That’s odd. Not far, but we’re no longer together.
By now it’s clear, I cannot wait for Patrick. This wasn’t the plan, but such is marathoning.
The flat mile affords enough oxygen for me to ask, “Wait, where is everyone?!”
I can only see a few runners in the distance, wobbling, drifting backwards. I check behind and it’s Rob from Greater Boston and Patrick behind him. The race is ahead of me, I need to embrace it.
But doubt and fear start growing louder and louder. In the middle of a marathon you can be your greatest hater. “What am I doing up here?! “When is this going to fall apart?!” The pressure can end you if you let it.
But I gain confidence from the doubt, “It’s too hot! It’s too windy to run fast!” I laugh internally. I’m still running quickly when it supposedly isn’t possible! I’m somehow relieved by this burden. Today isn’t a fast day, but I’m running fast! Pressure’s off, just run.
Climbing steadily, I’m still close to pace. Every stride is a mini squat. Each lift off feels soft and slow. But I begin to gain mental momentum. I’m hurting, but everyone else, the former All-Americans, the D1 runners and all the young guns are behind me!
Mile 21 — Here comes Heartbreak
I’m not running fast, but no one does here. This 94 foot climb comes right when most people hit the wall. AND THE FANS ARE GOING BANANAS!
This is where we used to cheer in college. We’d lose our voices willing runners to push just a little bit harder. And when they started to walk we’d plead with them to run again. I’ve watched countless runners crack here. That won’t be me. I can die later, but I cannot fold in front of the Heartbreak faithful.
Top of Heartbreak, Top of The World. Now it’s time to roll. In college we ran 8k cross country. We suffered over hills and dirt and rock. From here to Boylston it’s 8k. “I can suffer for 8k” I tell myself.
The BC kids are drunk, bored, and working on a sunburn. They got up early to chug away the holiday, lined up for the elites, and here we come 15 minutes later, skinny white guys one by one, hardly enough to hold their attention. I can’t help myself. I wave my arms, taunting them to cheer, and they respond. Throngs of screaming, jumping for high fives. Momentary rockstar status.
By the BC reservoir I nearly fall over looking back for company. Seeing open pavement I realize I’ve gotta get to Boston alone. I’m running stoplight to stoplight just to keep from mentally slipping. The map says this mile is downhill, but that’s bullshit. This mile sucks.
I begin to emotionally prepare for seeing my family in Coolidge Corner. The crowds are deep and I don’t want to miss them. My buddy Bruno, a founder of Stumprunners, nearly hurls himself over the fence to cheer. I throw up a hand in recognition and am off downhill.
I’m slowing, but not by much. I have a margin on 2:30, but not by much.
I see my Father-in-law with his arms extended screaming at the top of his lungs and I can’t help but smile and laugh at an otherwise gentle Jewish man losing his mind on Commonwealth Avenue. I raise my arms to the crowd, and they respond in waves of hysteria.
I begin counting laps of the track. After so many miles training on the track I yell at myself, 6 LAPS TO GO, DON’T BE A BABY!!!
Then I start looking for it. Where are you Citgo sign, you son of a bitch?!
While I know the famous billboard signals a mile to go, I also know it doesn’t come quickly. It taunts you to hurry up.
In Kenmore Square I see a clock, but I’m too tired to do the math on breaking 2:30. “Finish this!” I demand.
The final mile. I allow myself to entertain the excitement of this accomplishment. I turn my hat backward, to snap into the moment, focused on driving my arms and appreciating the crowds.
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston…and then I see it. The Boston finish line is a spot of historic beauty and tragedy.
I’ve watched epic duels down this finishing stretch, Desi Linden in 2011. Kara Goucher in 2009. I’ve held my breath and watched their hearts break as victory slipped away. Running can be brutal, pro running just cruel. But having worked up the courage to share my dream of breaking 2:30 with the world, I’m about to cross the finish just before my deadline.
A 2:30 marathon is 9,000 seconds.
I’ll get in with 27 to spare.
Crossing the line I take a breath, and then go wild. Screaming and fist pounding, I’m releasing every wild emotion I’d contained for the past hours, weeks and months.
Since last fall when I turned my attention to Boston I’ve run for over 200 hours.
I’ve lifted weights, stretched endlessly and collapsed from exhaustion.
And I’ve asked so much from my wife and my baby boy. Those hours were spent selfishly investing in my goal, for this day.
I stand alone in the middle of Boylston Street waiting for Patrick to finish.
“Are you alright?” asks a volunteer?
“Yeah. I’m wonderful,” I reply with tears running down my face.
A 5 minute personal record at The 120th Boston Marathon
2:29:32 | 31st Place | 10th America
If you got this far in this essay, appreciate writings about running or have questions or comments I’d love to hear from you,
Splits, heart rate and cadence data on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/549448434
Enough people asked about my training that I wrote up my philosophy & methodology in “How I Run, aka Dad Strength”
And finally, you may enjoy the essay I’m most proud of, Raised a Runner, about my Chicago Marathon 2014.