More inspiration: Boston Report #2

by Brian Plunkett

Criss and I flew up to Boston on Saturday. My daughter Adele came up from New Haven, CT by train. We met in our hotel, just a few blocks from the finish line.

Adele and I wore our gaudy Boston marathon jackets we got last year (blue and yellow), the only time I have worn mine. Downtown Boston was full of people walking around wearing similar jackets – a spectacle that is part of the Boston Marathon experience, kind of like the swallows returning to Capistrano.

We got up Sunday morning and went to watch the four invitational Mile races – high school boys, high school girls, professional men and professional women. Each race has about 8 runners, and is 3 laps around a city block. It was very exciting – several races were decided by just a couple of seconds.

After the races we went to the expo and picked up our race bibs and bought some marathon gear. Madhouse in the Adidas Boston Marathon gear area – jackets, singlets, short sleeves, long sleeves, hats, pants, gloves, mugs, keychains, etc, etc, all being snatched up at an astonishing rate. Amazing how a little 3 inch logo can make something a necessity.

My sister and her husband from New Hampshire came down and had an early dinner with us. She is a psychiatric nurse. I got her professional opinion: I am nuts to run marathons (and other assorted reasons).

Got everything ready for the morning, and early to bed.

Up at 5:45 Monday morning and Adele and I took a cab over to Cambridge to catch a charter bus to the start 26 miles away in Hopkinton. The race provides school buses to the start, but the charters let you stay on the bus for the 2 hours until the start which is useful if there is bad weather. Even more important, the buses have toilets on them – a spectacular treat when the porta-potty lines are 20 deep. Jim Gelb was on the same bus, and it was very nice to see a familiar face. He looked strong and ready to run.

The weather was perfect – 50 degrees, clear sky, slight side/tailwind. No weather excuses today!

There was a very organized “Athlete’s Village” – big tents, bagels, bananas, Gatorade, water, coffee, powerbars. 25,000 runners all sitting, laying and wandering around trying to kill 2 hours. Looked like a refuge camp.

We walked around a bit, and spent most of the time sitting in the bus resting our legs and exchanging stories with other runners from all over the country.

A woman near us had “the trick” written on her arm. We asked her about it – she told us the story:

In a famous scene from David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence (played by actor Peter O’Toole) cooly extinguishes a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter (Harry Fowler) surreptitiously attempts to try it himself:

William Potter: Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

The “trick” would come in handy around mile 22…

About 20 minutes before the start Adele and I walked the half mile over to the starting line and made one last pit stop (lots of porta-pottys at the start – no waiting!). We were in the second wave, starting 30 minutes after the elites and the faster runners. I figured I did not have much chance to win the race but giving the elites a 30 minute head start really was going to make it tough to win this thing!

Masses of people, lots of nervous chatter, everyone eager to get started. The runners are arranged based on their qualifying times in “corrals”. There is a corral for each 1,000 runners – we were in corral 17, meaning over 16,000 runners had faster qualifying times than I did (Adele could have been in corral 14, but was willing to run back with me). This system is really nice –when the race starts you are surrounded by people running approximately your pace, with faster runners ahead and slower runners behind. You can start the race immediately running your pace.

The starting gun went off for the second wave, and we got across the start line in about 2-3 minutes.

My goal was to finish in under 4 hours, which would qualify me to run Boston again next year (running being one of the few things in life where it is good to get older). My target was to keep my pace just under 9 minute miles – easy to calculate my status at each mile marker, and would bring me in just under 3:56.

The first few miles are mostly downhill, and the tendency is to start off too fast. We averaged around 8:35 min/mi for the first 7 miles – I was kind of nervous that I would pay for that later, but it felt so comfortable, I told myself that the downhills were helping. After mile 7 I did consciously pull back a bit, and we ran 8:40’s and 8:50’s through mile 16. It is so hard to describe the sensation of running on a 2 lane country road that is packed continuously with enthusiastic spectators.

At mile 12 we reached Wellesley College, a famous milestone on the course. The women of Wellesley have a tradition of all gathering along the course and shrieking at the top of their lungs. You literally can hear them from ½ mile away. Many hold signs, “Kiss Me”. As we got past the college, Adele thanked me for behaving myself (why would she think I might do otherwise?). Frankly by mile 12 I was tired enough that I did not want to move the 10 feet to the side that it would have taken to kiss one of the coeds. My favorite sign: “Forget your Personal Best – let me have your Personal Worst”.

Miles 16 through 21 are the “Newton Hills”: 4 long hills, with the last one being “Heartbreak Hill”. They are not super steep, but they are quite long (1/2 to ¾ mile each) and progressively steeper. Kind of 4 Cima Serena’s back to back.

The hills come right at the point when you are running out of energy. It really accelerates the “I hit the wall” feeling. I was able to keep in the low 9’s for the first three hills, and high 9 for heartbreak.

Right after Hearbreak Hill, the course goes through Boston College. The students there were even louder than the Wellesley women – and they pushed into the street and formed a narrow tunnel to run through – for a couple hundred yards we were packed in like sardines, about 6 runners across, surrounded by screaming students. It was an incredible energy boost.

I got below 9 minute pace for the next mile, but then completely felt drained. For some reason I started obsessing about the “trick” from the bus. I really wanted to slow way down and just jog/crawl the last 4 miles, but Adele kept blathering at me to keep going. I don’t actually remember what she said, but whatever it was kept me going. I was only able to average 9:22 the next very painful 4 miles. (I did compulsively use James’ “Right Here, Right Now”, and Jim W’s “The More it Hurts, the More you Smile” – I smiled the whole 4 miles…)

The last 2 miles are a flat run through Back Bay, Boston. We turned onto Boylston street and I knew I was going to make it – although when we turned onto Boylston street, it was still 4 long city blocks to the finish. The finish line seemed far, far away. Adele claims I was incoherent for the last couple of miles, but I do not remember…

The finish line scaffolding kept getting bigger and bigger and we finally crossed the line – together the whole way. What a relief to be done, what a great blessing to share it with Adele again! She of course looked like she could have turned around and run back out to Hopkinton, and I was just thankful that we were only a couple of blocks from our hotel.

Adele and I both took ice baths, and the three of us went for a great post-race meal. Criss and I walked Adele to the train station for her train back to New Haven that evening, and then back to the hotel for a quiet evening.

Adele and I both finished in 3:56:07, an average pace of 9:01. Over a minute slower than last year, but right about where I wanted to be – qualifying at Boston for next year’s Boston Marathon.

Although Adele basically carried me the last 4 miles, I finished in 14,458th place, Adele in 14,459th. Age before beauty.

This was my 11th marathon, and my 3rd fastest time.

I started running at 52, and it took me 6 years and 8 marathons to qualify for Boston – Steve Sisson and Ruth England for some reason kept encouraging me to keep going although I was always one of the slowest in the group. They pulled me into their first Performance Project experiment and then Team Rogue – and then coach Karen Smith found the right recipe to get me over the hump and qualified. I was tolerated as the slowest of a 3:40 training “clump” and that made all the difference.

Is the Boston Marathon mystique all that it is advertised to be? Yes and then some.

Having Criss there for the weekend, and getting to run it again with my daughter seems like way more than I deserve.

Only 362 more days until Boston 2011…

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2 thoughts on “More inspiration: Boston Report #2

  1. That was an enjoyable and inspirational read. I hope to one day be conditioned to the point for a Boston qualify. Thank you for sharing!

  2. First off, yes, he is crazy to run a marathon…but then I think EVERYONE who runs is crazy, and marathoners even more so!! And yes, that is my professional judgement….not that Brian doesn’t have many other things that could make him reach my ‘he is crazy’ diagnosis (and remember, I have 57 years of memories to draw from)…Isn’t that true for all little sisters??
    Seriously, I am AMAZED that anyone runs, and blown away by marathoners….you go, Brian (and Adele)!!!!
    Brian’s psychiatric nurse sister

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