Boston 2021 Race Report, Part 2

I slept pretty well the night before the race. The hotel had kindly provided a hot water heater so it was easy to make my oatmeal in the room. Diamond and I were a little nervous and giggling getting ready, but no significant hiccups. We walked over to the Boston Common to get on the bus. Walking through the Public Garden was magical. It was misty and runners were everywhere. We saw one very fit looking guy just sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich, which struck us as hilarious for some reason. We had decided to talk to lots of strangers, as instructed in church, so we were doing our best to spread joy along the way. The wait for the bus passed quickly and soon we were on our way.

But to where exactly? We had been driving quite awhile when we turned off the highway, but the starting line didn’t seem to be coming into view. It turns out the bus took the wrong exit and we were lost! This could have been irritating but we decided just to laugh about it. The bus driver finally got it figured out and eventually we arrived at the starting line.

Coach Mick and I had talked about a range of approaches for the race. I considered all-out racing it, but it felt too soon after Berlin. I also considered a full-on party marathon, but that didn’t seem right either. I ended up settling on running the first 21 miles easy and then seeing what I had left for the last 5. This is a great strategy for Boston anyway and an especially great strategy if you are pretty clueless about how your legs are going to hold up. Diamond has spent the last six months moving and her training has been – let’s call it erratic. Badass Boomer was also interested in something along the lines of 21 easy / 5 hard and we agreed to meet at the start. Badass Boomer and Diamond had never met, but I was certain they’d get along. Thus, our trio was born.

It was a rolling start this year so you just got off the bus, took care of whatever you wanted to, and went to the starting line. They had the biggest collection of portapottys I have ever seen. We did our business and found Badass Boomer. I did my usual dynamic warmup, we snapped some more pictures, and headed to the start. Everyone was so so happy to be back! No starting pistol or anything like that. We just decided we were ready and started running.

Even without an exciting start, the Boston course is pretty magical. The early miles are downhill and we reminded each other to keep it in check. Badass Boomer’s coach had given her words for different sections of the course. Our first word was “Conserve.” We saw Spencer the dog at mile 3 and Badass Boomer even got a picture! Every time we crossed a timing mat, Diamond said something like, that’s another message into the world. She and Badass Boomer were high fiving kids and thanking volunteers and cheering up a storm. I was quieter. I definitely gave out some high fives, but I was a little worried about how the race would go and I really didn’t want to fade at the end. Badass Boomer seemed to know people at every water stop and loads of the other runners too! This really is her hometown race!

Badass Boomer wanted to hear about my Berlin race so I told her how I had lost track of why I was running the race and how that made it incredibly difficult. It was a gift to have the chance to review my reasons for running on this course, with these friends. When you’ve got 26.2 miles to run, you don’t rush any of the story telling so we savored each of my reasons, my 5Gs: Glory, God, Girls, Geeks……I couldn’t think of the fifth one, though of course Geneva came to mind. Then I hit on it – Gratitude, of course. Gratitude for the ability to run, for everyone who supports me, for the beauty of this activity. Just then we ran by a small lake to our right. Soaring back and forth across the lake was a heron, just taking its time. Out for a flight on an incredible October morning. Transcendent. I’ll never forget that sight. A gift I’ll be forever grateful for.

The B.A.A. provided a lot of information on how to handle Covid, but the funniest was this instruction: “Because of Covid protocols, please do not kiss any strangers at the halfway mark of the race.” Um, ok. Kissing strangers elsewhere on the course would be fine? In any case, the Wellesley girls were out in full force! No kisses offered, but plenty of high fives and awesome signs. A seemingly endless row of beautiful strong inspiring funny young women and I high fived as many as I possibly could. They were all out there, with their smiles and their screams and their signs! As we ran past the end of the line, Diamond said: There’s your girls. For sure. I run for them.

Photo by Hilary Swift for the New York Times

Shortly after the scream tunnel is the halfway mark. I checked our split: 1:57. Of course, one question in all our minds was whether we could break 4 hours. I wanted very much not to worry about this question. How I executed this race was much more important to me than the time on the clock. Boston is a tough course to get right. After not running how I wanted to in Berlin, I was looking for redemption of some sort in Boston. 1:57 meant under 4 hours was not out of reach, but that’s not a lot of buffer either. In order to come close to evenly splitting the race, we’d have to be very solid on the uphills that were starting soon. The forecast of mid-60s and high humidity was proving correct. It was nothing like Berlin conditions, not even close, but it was plenty warm especially when the sun poked out. Plus I could feel the fatigue in my legs. I wasn’t sure sub-4 was out of reach, but I reminded myself that that wasn’t the big goal today. I wanted to enjoy the race and finish strong.

I had another reason to run this race well. In talking to Rose and Mervus the night before, Rose asked me who I was running the race for. I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I always run for myself, trying to figure out who I am, how I react when facing a challenge. I was quiet after her question and then Mervus said: Run this one for me. He’s never asked that before. He’s one of the most generous people I know and actually barely ever asks for anything. This race was for him and after the halfway mark, that was never far from my mind. A good race for my absolute treasure of a husband.

Miles 14 and 15 slipped along and then the steep drop into Lower Newton Falls and the hills were about to begin. As Diamond would want me to point out, no section of the Boston course is really flat. It’s “New England flat” – which is pretty much rolling hills the whole time, with a few big downs and the famous four Newton hills. When Diamond and I ran this race in 2019, we also started together and we stayed together for about 17 miles before she got a bad calf cramp and had to slow down. On this day, I felt like I was the weakest link in our three-person chain. Badass Boomer and Diamond had continued their high fiving and thanking everyone routine while I felt like I had better run more within myself. Every now and then I thought: I am not going to be able to stay with them. I have to not let it crush me when I get dropped. Then I would think: Don’t lose contact. No wait – Deena Kastor said in her book to phrase everything positively, so: Maintain Contact! I’ve run with these two women enough to know that Diamond was also working. On the other hand, Badass Boomer truly seemed as fresh as a daisy. I’m not sure she was even sweating! Good for her!

We crossed the route 128 overpass between miles 16 and 17. When we watched the course video the night before, Diamond had noticed that Michael Connor, one of the commentators, took on the role of pronouncer of doom and gloom. He constantly warns the viewer of the various hazards on the Boston course, including the overpass where you are exposed to the elements. As we crossed over Diamond said something like “Now the fiery sun beats down on you like you’re in hell and you are BURNED TO ASH!” It’s really hard to laugh when you’re 17 miles or so into a marathon, but I definitely let out a little chuckle. Laughs on you, Mr. Connor, because we made it across intact.

A note on water and fueling. Same plan as usual, I take a Maurten gel every 30 minutes, alternating between caffeinated and non-caffeinated. With Boston’s late start, I had my usual oatmeal and Maurten 360 drink, but then also a honey and banana sandwich on the bus. Between the pasta dinner the night before and then the hotel snack-fest, we went into this race well fueled. I *highly* recommend that. Boston has water stops every mile. I would normally only stop at every other stop, but with the warmer temps, I stopped most times for a small sip or two. By mile 15, I was dumping water on my shoulders. Shortly after that, my Boston Buddies tank came off.

Up the hills and then also DOWN the hills, remembering to give it some gas on the downs. Badass Boomer had pulled a little ahead by now, maybe 50 feet in front of us, but Diamond was still right with me. On the hills!!! She lives in Florida and manages to get all of 18 feet of elevation gain on a 16 mile training run. The Boston hills kind of sucked her soul last time around, but here she was right next to me! HOORAY! It’s glorious to run a marathon with a good friend by your side.

We weren’t exactly “zooming” up and down the hills, but we were solid. I wasn’t looking at my watch except to get mile splits and I managed to remain pretty neutral in response to them. I think that was important to my being able to continue to stay relaxed. On the hills, it’s definitely important not to care too much about individual splits. I had no real way of knowing if we were still potentially on sub-4 pace and I was fairly good about not caring about that either. Late into the hills, a chant got into my head: I control this course. I control this course. I control this course. That was critical. In Berlin, I lost control and it did not feel good.

By now we were cruising up Heartbreak Hill where I was expecting to see a college friend. Our spectators mean so much to us. At least to me – they give me a destination that is closer than the finish line, so I was running for mile 20.5, hoping to see him. I didn’t find him, but it still helped to have something to aim for.

By now, I was really working. All the way through this race and even up the hills I had been thinking: Ok, the plan was 21 easy and 5 hard, but that’s probably not happening on this day. Just keep it steady. You really don’t want to be walking those last 5 miles. Steady pace is fine if picking it up doesn’t happen.

Then at the top of Heartbreak hill, a switch flipped. Game on! Time for five hard miles. I was able to speed up after all. I probably passed Badass Boomer in here somewhere because we had lost track of her. Diamond came with me. For most of the race, I had been letting the rhythm carry me, but now I was definitely in charge of the action. Nothing beats running Boston and having energy in the tank at the end. Forward lean, power down the hill. FUN! I had forgotten that there are a couple of turns in the course here [and railroad tracks to trip on, reminds Michael Connor]. But we weren’t tripping. We were just pushing and rolling right down the hill!

By mile 22, I stopped taking water and fuel. I expected to see another friend around mile 23, but missed him too. No problem, we were rolling! Unfortunately, there was one more hiccup to come. Around mile 24, Diamond started having trouble getting her breath. She has asthma so that’s serious. She stopped and did some power breathing while holding the fence. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I stop and try to help her? I was pretty sure she would want me to keep going. Just then “Good as Hell” came on my playlist. That’s our shared theme song! I knew it was her way of telling me to keep running, which I did. But I was SO happy when she caught back up a few minutes later, panting out, let’s finish what we started. WOOT!

That stretch down Commonwealth just goes on forever. Someday, some Boston, I’ll remember to look at the street names so I can count them down. On this day, I relied on my old standby of counting, counting, counting while looking for the damn underpass. FINALLY I saw it. Down and up! We took the turn onto Hereford and I heard someone yell “SARAH!” It was a former student! She had said she would be on the course, but I didn’t think she’d find me without more planning. SO fun to see her!

The section on Boylston feels so long. I had been pulling Diamond on the downhills but she was pulling me now. My legs felt like they were running through mud. Still – this is a glorious stretch of racing! I felt the crowds and heard the cheers. I had known back at mile 25 that sub 4 was out of reach, but I could see now that we could get under 4:05 so we kicked it into gear a little more, Diamond urging me on. We crossed together at 4:04:48, exactly the same time!

The rest of the day was fantastic. Once I had caught my breath, we returned to the hotel to shower and commence celebrating. Phone calls home, high fives, race memories, pizza and ice cream, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Boston doesn’t disappoint. See you again next April.


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