Boilermaker is the essence of summer distilled into a few hours on the second Sunday in July. The race itself – 9.3 hot and hilly miles through Utica, NY – features an elite field, top-notch organization, and the best post-race party I’ve ever been to. Fabulous music, as much beer as you care to drink, and a crowd of happy, sweaty friends or soon-to-be friends. If you’ve never run this race, you should check it out. 2019 was my second time and I’m already making plans for 2020.
At 15K, it’s questionable whether I should even count the Boilermaker as part of the Short Distance Spaghetti Project, but I definitely wanted to run it again. Last year I finished in 1:18:16, which was good for 36th place in my age group. That really surprised me! This year, I decided to aim for a top 10 finish. My analysis of past results revealed that a 1:14:00 finish time would probably land me in the top 10 and Coach Mick thought that sounded reasonable. (Spoiler alert – didn’t happen!)
In the week leading up to the race, I felt pretty good. I had an excellent long run with Teacher Runner and did some solid tempo intervals with Pokey. I had moved on from the debacle that was the Westfield 10K. Late in the week I had a mental stumble where I fell into the comparison trap – I should know better than that! I let it take the wind out of my sails a bit, which is too bad. But by Saturday I was largely back on track. I was meeting Glitter-Mom in Albany and we had a fabulous dinner out. Boilermaker is supposed to be about summer fun! I needed to stop “squeezing the soap” – Coach Mick’s term for trying too hard at a race.
Like last year, we stayed at Nicky’s house, though she was unfortunately out of town. We missed you Nicky! Also like last year, we took the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners bus to the race. Aside from the insanely early start it requires, the bus is a great system. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Utica, I left my Mighty MP3 player on the bus. Forgetting my music or having it malfunction has been a long-time worry. I know lots of people think music is a crutch and it probably is, but hey, if it helps, I’m all for it. Even a year ago this mistake might have caused me major panic, but on this day, I reminded myself of something Coach Mick sometimes asks: What-Would-Deena-Do? Meaning, how would Deena Kastor flip this negative turn of events into a potential positive? I decided it was a good chance to experiment with racing without music and see how it went.
Glitter-Mom and I dropped our gear bag and found the Sub-30 friends we were meeting. Even the pre-race scene at Boilermaker is somehow extra fun! I warmed up the same place as last year, along the highway bridge. When it was time to line up, I pushed myself to about the 10th row of the corral, which seemed right. The beginning of the race is really congested so being closer to the front is a big advantage. The race was delayed and I ended up chatting to the woman next to me. Boilermaker might be the friendliest race I’ve ever been to. Did I mention it’s like summer in a bottle?
Right before the start, I took my tank top off. I realize that might seem like nothing to some people but like the lack of music, it was kind of a big deal to me. I’ve certainly never raced in just a sports bra before. Until last summer, I’d never even run in just a sports bra. Despite my claims to the contrary, I was probably worried about body image stuff. But for me, racing in a sports bra is also just straight-up image-image stuff. Like, who does that? Just the fast people. Therefore, not me. Sports bras at a race are for young skinny girls with blonde ponytails. But, the sports bra police didn’t show up to remove this 50 year old with the curly brown ponytail so I guess I got away with it. It was 70 degrees at the start with 80% humidity so I thought it was worth the risk of arrest.
Boilermaker is a hilly course, one of the reasons I like it. Strava says it has an elevation gain of 482 feet, but it’s how the hills are distributed that make the race interesting and fun. The first three miles are steady uphill and mile four has almost 100 feet of gain. But mile five – mile five drops 200 feet! Then it’s up a medium-sized hill to mile 7, and back down and up a small hill to mile 9 and downhill into the finish. Coach Mick worked up a plan for an 8:15 average over the first four miles, then two miles at 7:30, one at 8:00, gun it to the finish.
That was the plan, and I ran pretty close to it, but alas, slower than hoped. The first four mile splits were: 8:30, 8:24, 8:32, 8:40. It was congested, especially at the beginning, but more than anything, it was warm. By the third mile I was feeling pretty good, but at the end of that mile, BAM! the hill starts and it’s no joke. Mile four is a big sweeping curve through a golf course so you can see the hill laid out in front of you in all its glory. I had been practicing positive affirmations all week by telling myself “I am good at running uphill.” I had also been running up the biggest hill near my house a few times each week. The hill didn’t feel too bad, but I was slower than I would have liked. I was only a couple miles into a hot and hilly race and the effort level to hold 8:15 felt like it might be too much. I also remembered the panicked feeling at the Westfield 10K. I definitely didn’t want a repeat of that. I knew even if I lost a whole minute of time, I still had a decent chance at a top 10 age group finish. But my time at the four-mile mark was already 90 seconds behind schedule. I decided to stop looking at my watch and run the rest of the race by feel, hoping the lack of information would keep me from getting too discouraged. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I had stuck to the original race plan. Would I have blown up or would I have been fine, and faster? No way to find out.
Down the hill! If I didn’t feel quite the manic joy of last year, it was still pretty amazing. When I was trying to stop squeezing the soap before the race, I told Coach Mick I was going to try to chase a feeling, not a time. This was the mile to enjoy the feeling of flight that comes with a 200 foot drop! But then at the end of mile 5, things got somewhat less cheery. Mile 6 is still a good descent but coming off the big hill, it felt harder than I expected. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I started thinking about how much of the race was left. It felt like a lot. Splits for miles 5 and 6: 7:16, 7:58.
Mile 7 was much worse, just a slog. Maybe having music would have helped. Maybe looking at my watch would have snapped me out of my lethargy, but it might also have been discouraging. We had full sun by now and this part of the course is just ugly. It’s some kind of industrial neighborhood and you run on highway overpasses. It’s notably yucky and it went on a lot longer than I remembered. By now I was throwing ice down my sports bra and dumping water on my head at every water stop. I had had about half a Maurten at the top of the hill and I had a second half of one somewhere in here. I’m not sure I needed the fuel, but it’s just habit and that amount felt right. I generally think I manage racing in the heat pretty well and good grief, I’ve had plenty of practice. I know to use the ice and water and I’ve never become dehydrated (knock wood). I figure if it’s hot for me, it’s hot for everyone, so I don’t tend to let it get in my head too much. But I really just lost focus here and if I got a do-over, I would run this part of the race differently for sure. Mile 7: 8:39 pace. The plan was for 8:00. Ouch. Thankfully I still wasn’t looking at my watch so I didn’t see that until later.
Luckily, as I was nearing the end of mile 7, the 80-minute pacer came up behind me and that snapped me out of my slog. No way was I going to run slower than 1:20! I was 1:18 and change last year! I told myself, Girlfriend, I know you think you are running as fast as you can, but you really HAVE to find another gear and you have to find it RIGHT NOW. I knew there was some chance the pacer was ahead of her goal but I didn’t ask – I just took off. Luckily the next downhill started at the end of mile 7 and I figured I had 2.3 miles to put as much time between me and that pacer as possible. Sometimes at the end of a race, I will put a favorite song on repeat, but without my music I just counted and counted and counted. Yes, it’s downhill, but I also woke up. Splits for miles 8 and 9: 7:39, 8:06.
With about .3 to go, the woman I had been chatting with at the start came up behind me. She had on a blue singlet and had a long blonde ponytail. I had passed and been passed by her a couple of times on the course and I decided I was going to race her to the finish. She copped onto my plan right away and we both ran like crazy! But I beat her! I found her after the race and said thanks. We were both psyched about our strong finish! Last .3 miles at 7:13 pace.
I ended the race the way I always do, collapsing onto something in my general vicinity. This time it was a friendly volunteer. I tried to explain that this routine is normal for me, but perhaps I should start carrying a card to explain. Boilermaker gives you a pin rather than a medal, which is either cool and unique or sort of cheapskate-y, depending on your perspective. I collected my pin and some water and flopped on the grass to chat with Coach Mick while I waited for Glitter-Mom to finish.
I’m an analyser or an over-thinker, depending on your point of view, I suppose. In the days since the race, I’ve thought a lot about two moments during the race: the conscious decision to run more conservatively than planned during the first four miles and the mental lapse during mile 7. But I think two other moments might be more important. The loss and then partial-recovery of confidence prior to the race and the chase after the feeling of exhilaration as I ran down the hill. I sometimes write a mantra on my arm with a Sharpie and for Boilermaker I wrote “#extraordinary”. To me, #extraordinary is about two things: that feeling of flight that sometimes comes from fast running and the feeling of achievement that a high age group placing in a big nationally-known race would bring me. It’s about a relatively new image of myself as a 50 year old woman who can run pretty fast and the feelings that go along with that. Extraordinary is a good weapon against imposter syndrome. Maybe extraordinary and ridiculous are sort of the same thing, just depending on which direction you tip it, and I want to tip toward extraordinary. My finish time was 1:16:28, by the way, good for 16/380 in my age group. Those are the numbers – not top 10, but not half bad.
Those are kind of Deep Thoughts for a race that is supposed to be about summer fun. Rest assured, a lot of post-race fun was had! It’s the only race I’ve ever been to where the volunteers serving beer insisted that you take two cups! The sunshine that was a little warm while running felt spectacular afterwards. Spending time with new and old Sub-30 friends is always a delight. If my schedule allows, I’ll be back next year to run down that hill and try again to snag a top 10 spot.