Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beaten down in Beantown

[For photographs, see below]

Veni, vidi, ivi. I came, I saw, I left. That about sums up my one and only Boston Marathon. There was no conquering, only a huge sense of relief when I crossed the heralded finish line in Boston's Back Bay in a time of 4:16 and change. My 15th and last marathon race started well enough but by the end I was hanging on for dear life. Yes it was that bad, a seemingly endless, painful plod from mile 19 or so onwards, sheer willpower forcing agonizing step after agonizing step from legs and feet that had nothing left in them.

In weeks and months to come, the pain will disappear and the painful memories will recede. I will always have that much sought after medal and the next time someone finds out I am a runner and asks whether I've run Boston, I will be able to say 'yes'. And then change the subject.

It is not as if I had gone into the race expecting great things. A knee injury and untimely travel disrupted and shortened my training cycle, and I knew that I would be lucky to break 4 hours. What I had no inkling of and certainly did not anticipate, was a grueling and painful death march which tested every bit of my resolve. In 15 times of attempting the full marathon distance, I've never had a DNF, and I wasn't about to mar that unblemished record at Boston. It is Boston after all. So despite every fiber in my legs protesting mightily step after step, I kept running - never walking - although at a veritable snail's pace towards the end.

Would I attempt it again? Probably not. Would I encourage anyone else to try and qualify and run it? Of course. I am taking back with me to Texas a little piece of the magic that is the Boston Marathon. Even though the Newton Hills and Heartbreak Hill in particular ate me alive, I am now part of a great and ongoing tradition, one of the relatively small band of runners who qualified for and completed Boston. I am thrilled and honored to have reached that cherished status and I will wear my Boston jacket with pride.

In retrospect, I suppose I should consider myself very fortunate to have even made it to the starting line of the Boston Marathon. It took a perfect set of circumstances for me to qualify by the headshakingly thin margin of one second. 3:45:59. A beneficial conflation of good weather, no wind, a flat (Houston) course, a great training group (all credit to Mark Coleman who was then heading up the Katy Fit Green Group) and a very fast last mile, thanks to timely advice from Sean Wade of Houston's Kenyan Way. So if I were being honest with myself, I'd have to concede that my long-distance 'career' peaked on that January day in 2007. That was my finest hour as a runner, even if I did not realize it then.

So what went wrong on Monday? Nothing extraordinary. Yes the course is difficult but conditions were quite good, other than for some pesky headwinds. I was just not adequately prepared. Most significantly, I did not have enough consecutive weeks of substantially high mileage under the belt. Some runners may do well on less, but long and painful experience clearly shows that I cannot expect to run a decent marathon time with less than 8 consecutive weeks or so of minimum 50 miles per week, preferably more. My other big mistake this year was to forgo my tried and trusted weekly tempo run during which I would do 7 or 8 miles or so at 10K pace. Too few long runs and too little 'serious' tempo running = lack of endurance.

My Boston experience was fun and rewarding in many other ways, beyond the actual running itself. On Saturday night, Kathleen and I attended a Runners World FE. For the uninitiated, that stands for Forum Event, when a bunch of widely dispersed internet running buddies get together and try to put names to faces, or rather faces to names or forum monikers. So 'Smick' becomes Jessica, RTN is actually Beth in real life, and so on. What was amazing, was how we all instantly got along, having shared months of daily runs, races, training programs, progress, hopes, dreams and the inevitable setbacks, on the RW Boston Forum. We even had a special technical shirt complete with logo, and many of us exchanged gifts. What a group! What a party!

I reveled in everything that makes Boston Boston. Taking the 'T' early on Monday morning with thousands of other runners doing the same thing, converging alongside the Boston Commons for the almost ritual bus procession to Hopkinton. Convoy after convoy of yellow school buses taking off en masse, with another set of buses charging up to fill the vacated space. Again and again, they swallow up several hundred slightly tense to downright nervous runners, chatting away to their seat mates about the weather, their expectations for the race, where they are from and invariably, whether this running of the Boston Marathon was their first time or not.

And so we ended up in the athlete's village in Hopkinton where I stood in a short line for water, bananas, bagels, coffee and Gatorade, and a very long line for a portable toilet. I bumped into a couple of people from the FE, but otherwise I just walked around and found a quiet spot to relax on my comfy stadium seat, trying to take it all in like a kid's first time at the circus. What a spectacle, what an experience!

Then it was time to walk quietly through the barricaded streets of Hopkinton down to the starting corrals, a bit like sheep being taken for a shearing. Due to yet another wait at a portable toilet en route, I just barely made it to my 18th corral, when we were off. Four minutes later I crossed the start line and pushed the 'start' button on my Garmin. My first few minutes of the 113th Boston Marathon were exhilarating, as they probably were for anyone who has ever run this greatest of all marathons. Here, before you, went Johnny Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and a string of unbelievably fast male and female athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Some of them, such as Dire Tune of Ethiopia, we've seen here in Houston as well. She's won the Houston Marathon a couple of times. Incidentally the overall male winner in 2009 - Deriba Merga - also won the Chevron Houston Marathon earlier this year. Note to would-be Boston winners: stop in Houston first.

By Mile 10 my heart rate still looked good, but the first sign of impending disaster showed up all too soon in the form of a painful and steadily tightening right (upper) quad muscle. At the halfway mark, boosted by the incredible cheering of the Wellesley College girls, I was still harboring ambitions of a respectable finish. By Mile 17, where Kathleen came out for a very welcome word of encouragement, I mustered a smile but my interior dialogue was grim. You're not even close to being done with the hills, I was saying to myself, yet you've already expended far more than half your energy. And so it was. By the time I hit the sharp downhill section after Heartbreak Hill, my day was over. Pain and suffering ensued as I tottered along on rubbery legs and blistered feet, grimly hanging on as hundreds of runners caught up to and passed me. Honestly, it was just the crowd support that kept me going. I have never seen such enthusiastic cheering at a marathon. You'd think we were leading the race, for the reception we got practically every step of the way.

When I took a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston I momentarily suppressed the agony to take in what will be my lasting memory of Boston. A grand spectacle of hundreds of wildly cheering spectators, urging us on to the finish line and yelling out congratulations. The Boston crowd is no doubt the best there is anywhere. Knowledgeable, vocal and highly supportive, they are out there in their hundreds of thousands, cold temperatures or not. A standout section was at Boston College where the cheers of support rivaled Wellesley. It was thrilling!

Had I known what Boston would be like, I would certainly have tried to train harder, short of running through injuries which can have bad long-term effects. Having qualified and completed the race, I will encourage all serious marathon runners to go for it. Just be smart: don't start out too fast and conserve your energy for the last third of the race.

One's first Boston is supposed to be a victory lap. So I will try to forget the pain and remember the joy. I doubt that I will ever make it back there (as I said it took everything I had to qualify and I am not getting any younger), but even if I never do it again, Boston will always be the pinnacle of my marathon experience.

Old North Square just half a block from where we stayed at La Capella Suites in the heart of Boston's North End.

Paul Revere House, just around the corner from where we stayed. Too bad about the cars in the foreground. Can't even pretend that this is 1775... I did not realize it until writing this report, that we were there on the anniversary of Revere's famous midnight ride which started on April 18 1775. Weird fact: the first brand of cigarettes I ever smoked just after leaving high school? Paul Revere. I quit more than 15 years ago.

A statue of Paul Revere on the Paul Revere Mall, along the Freedom Trail

Another view of the statue with the well-known Old North Church in the background

How you get around in Boston. On the 'T' of course.

Our single best meal in Boston (and there were several contenders!) was at Trattoria Il Panino in the North End

We discovered this natural food store just a block away from our hotel, on Richmond St. in the North End.

We get it that Yankees suck, this is Boston after all. France sucks? I thought that spat was over by the time M. Sarkozi became President?

No visit to Boston's North End is complete without visiting Mike's Pastries to purchase some cannolis and other baked goods. Not much there for vegans but there are lots of churches around to seek forgiveness, if you stray just this once...

This gentleman at Mike's Pastries was very gracious to allow photography inside the store. I was surprised at how friendly Bostonians were - and talkative! Particularly about the Redsox, baseball, the marathon, food and the weather.

Boston's Old South Church on Copley Square in Boston's Back Bay section

The VIP tents on Copley Square

At the finish line on Saturday, before picking up my bib and blissfully unaware that we would have to stand in line for 45 minutes to pay for the Boston Marathon jacket.

Me - and several other runners who no doubt beat me to the finish line - at around Mile 17.5. I was still feeling semi-ok but the smile was not a true reflection of my state of mind or body.

Just minutes after the end of the race, hungry and cold but smiling nonetheless. Having a Boston Marathon medal draped around your neck will elicit a grin even under the worst of circumstances. I was ready to get the heck out of Dodge by that stage!

The area around Copley Square is a zoo in the aftermath of the marathon.

Runners who had just picked up their bags from the buses, on their way to the family reunion areas, which is by the way the best place to meet anybody after the race.

Another pic of the area a half mile or so from the finish line. This was around 3:00P by which time approximately 20,000 of the 26,000+ runners had completed the race.

Part of the Boston skyline and waterfront as seen from the harbor - on a nice day! This and most of the pics to follow were taken by Kathleen. I was resting up in the hotel room. Fat lot that helped!

Another view of the waterfront

The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge is a Boston icon

The Fletcher-class destroyer USS Cassin Young, which saw extensive service during World War II, now berthed in the Boston Navy Yard

Part of the Boston skyline as seen from a tour boat on Boston Harbor

Another view from Boston Harbor

Old Ironsides as seen from the harbor cruise

On board Old Ironsides, aka USS Constitution

A U.S. Navy crew member on board the U.S.S. Constitution provides information about the guns used on the ship.

Not much privacy in the sleeping quarters on Old Ironsides.

Closer look at a gun on the USS Constitution.


Fishmagic said...

First of all congratulations!!! Second, cheer up, you ran Boston. I have to admit, my experience was similar to yours. I cramped at mile 13 and had to fight on to the end. My finish was bittersweet: a finish, but not in the time that had in mind, so initially, I felt a small sense of failure. But then as I thought about it, It began to sink in that I 1) qualified for the Boston Marathon, and 2) ran the Boston marathon. We will always have that.

Alexandra said...


Thank you for sharing your experience with us! You made my hair stand on end and I felt my eyes water!

I followed you and a few others on marathon day! Each time I refreshed the screen, I would hold my breath until I saw the updated numbers appear. When they were not coming as regularly, I sensed what was happening! Thank goodness you had it within you to finish! My friend Caroline didn't make it past the 32km mark! This is killing her! I am sure she would love to have been in your situation!

You demonstrated your amazing level of mental strength and courage!


Billy Burger said...

Very well-written race report Bert! So glad you enjoyed yourselves in spite of the not-so-spectacular race.

By a second, by a minute, by an hour - you earned your way there so I hope in spite of the aches and pains that came post-20 miles, you held your head up high. Most of us are still striving for the right just to get there.

Congrats again Bert. Rest up!

Minken said...

Bert - great report! It is too bad that it was not a better experience (other than the obvious fact that you are in BOSTON) but I guess if they were all good, then they would all just be mediocre. Nice perserverance and congratulations on a truely enviable accomplishment! (All Jennie has to do to put me back into my place is dangle her Boston finisher medal infront of me and ask me where mine is...ouch!)

Vava said...

Man, what an experience! Great report, terrific pictures, and absolute congratulations to you for not only qualifying for this pinnacle of events for the serious marathoner, but for making it to the finish. Like you say, the pain will fade and your memories will ultimately be fond.

Awesome stuff. I don't know if I will ever be able to qualify, but you can bet that if I do I will register, go, and I will crawl to the finish line if I have to.

Daleen said...

Veels geluk met jou Boston marathon,dit moet n groot voorreg wees om die beroemde marathon te voltooi.
Sjoe,26000 atlete,dis 2 keer soveel soos die Comrades !
Jy sal altyd die goeie herhinneringe van die Boston he,veral daar waar soveel geskiedkundige gebeurtenisse plaasgevind het.
Wat n jammerte jy het nie begin marathons hardloop toe jy net in die V.S.A. begin werk het nie,jy sou dan al n string Bostons onder die belt gehad het.
Hoe dit ookal sy jy het een van jou lewens ideale verwesenlik,n groot eer en prestasie.
Soos n mens ouer word is sulke mylpale des te meer kosbaar want soos jy self se n mens word nie jonger nie en dit word al moeiliker om fiks en beseringvry te bly.
Ons is baie bly vir jou en trots dat jy die guts gehad het om die Boston te doen.
Ek is bly Kathleen kon saam met jou hierdie groot geleentheid beleef.
Nogmaals baie geluk Bert.
Mooi loop.

doyoutri said...

Welcome to the Boston Club. Glad you enjoyed. Great Job.

Lily on the Road said...


as always, you are too gracious and humble. You and Kathleen always take such wonderful pictures and put together a great report. Thank you for sharing.

I was following you on race day, and as Alex mentioned, I too knew something was up, all in all, you did a great job during your race and are now part of the very elite...Be Proud of Your Accomplishment!

Rest up, take care of that cold and I will continue to read more about your exciting life.


Amy said...

Excellent race report and photos, Bert...very emotional to hear about your struggle to make it to the finish line and the level-headed considerations about why you had to dig so deep. It speaks to amazing determination and will power! Finishing in spite of all your obstacles took so much more of all that - congratulations!!