Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Race Report: Boston 2019

Going into Boston, my main goal was to negative split. Starting too fast at Boston bites you harder than on other courses, because the hills in the second half will make any slowing exponentially worse. The last two times I’ve run Boston (2013 and 2014), I fell apart around mile 15 and I didn’t want to repeat those performances. Even though it’s mentally hard to wrap your mind around trying to run faster on the part that’s more uphill, I knew that was the way to do it and was reassured by countless others.

But I also figured I needed some time goals as well, to keep me pushing when things got rough. Common advice is to have three goals: an A goal if it’s a perfect day, a B goal that’s more safe and realistic, and a C goal for when things gone wrong and you need something to keep you from throwing in the towel.

My training this season was frustrating and disappointing; I never hit the paces I wanted and knew a PR was not in the cards. My marathon pace workouts predicted a 2:42 marathon (6:12 pace) but based on results from other workouts, a half, and that I often did those marathon pace runs in less than ideal conditions (one in hail/snow, another when I was battling a cold), I knew I was in far better shape than when I actually ran 2:42 in 2014. I set 2:42 as my B goal and figured starting in the 6:10-6:15 range would be smart. Some of the workouts in the final weeks were faster than when I set my current PR of 2:39:08 at CIM and I thought on a great day I could squeeze under 2:40. Finally, my C goal was a 2:45, for no reason other than I needed a C goal that was more than just finish. I didn’t even really think about it. Surely I would get the C goal, which would be a big course PR. (My previous best at Boston was 2:52.)

Running in the elite women’s start—an opportunity I’ve never had before—was one of the things that made me most eager to run Boston again, despite the poor buildup. (I was frustrated with the lack of information about the elite women’s start so I've written a little bit about the minutia for anyone interested in running it in the future.) To some, there is an obvious downside to a women’s-only start, which takes off about thirty minutes before the masses: with only about sixty women and obviously no men, you may find yourself alone pretty early. But interestingly, it seems (to me) that it’s overwhelmingly men that mention that downside of women-only starts. (I also raced the women’s-only start at Cherry Blossom last spring and first noticed this phenomenon then.) One of my friends debated doing the elite start for that reason, but every other woman I talked to was either psyched to do it themselves or psyched for me. Personally, I mostly ignore the men I’m running near. Sometimes they are a helpful distraction (like at CIM), but I’m focused on keying off the women. I’m not sure if it’s because I subconsciously (a) don’t trust their pacing (there have been studies on this), (b) I feel both more camaraderie and competition with the women, or (c) I make excuses for myself and think they aren’t working as hard as I am. (I'm not alone in this.) At Pittsburgh and Richmond I ran alone for most of the way; I wasn’t scared to run alone at Boston. If anything, I told myself if I was alone the whole crowd would be cheering for me.

The elite experience started with getting on a bus around 7 am for the drive from downtown to Hopkinton. It was POURING rain when we left. People were reassuring each other that the forecast said it was going to stop, but I personally was telling myself I’d rather have rain than the predicted warmer conditions. We were dropped off by a church near the starting line and all hung out in the church’s gymnasium. The pros were given mats and prime spaces along the walls; they put their feet up (Lindsay Flanagan), listened to music (Desi), stretched. There was also some space upstairs to hide away or do drills (Jordan). The rest of us sat in folding chairs in the middle (and were also offered yoga mats to stretch on).

Behind the church was an alley about a hundred meters long we could warm up on, out and back, over and over. My usual warmup (taken straight out of Advanced Marathoning) is five minutes of jogging, a couple minutes of drills and stretching, and then another five minutes ending with thirty seconds at goal pace. I’m not sure I did that as I felt ridiculous trying to fly by Jordan, Sara Hall (and her husband Ryan), and the other pros who were jogging (slower than me and for longer). The turning around also made it hard to get in a rhythm, but I felt whatever I did was fine.

About 15 minutes before the start they lined us up by number. We walked outside and it was… sunny?!? A couple women ahead of me asked the volunteers for their bags to get sunglasses, I just ducked back in the church and grabbed mine. Some people mentioned how warm it was (I was totally comfortable in what is roughly the size of a bikini) but I tried, pretty successfully, to ignore them. (This is strikingly similar to my thoughts at the start of my last Boston.)

We did a few strides off the line (don’t run into Des!) and then they did the introductions, told us we had maybe 30 seconds left, and then bang! No “ready, set, go.” Just the gun. Which surprised me into laughing, leading to a big smile right off the line.

All smiles at the start. Photo credit: @bostonmarathon
When I’ve watched the elite women’s start in the past, I’ve often been shocked at how slowly the leaders go out, shouting, “6:15 pace! I could do that!” at my TV. I’d hoped they’d start slowly again so I could enjoy an unbelievable moment in the lead pack, but they seemed to take off right away. (Post-race editor’s note: they ran a 5:47, not that fast for them, but too fast for me.) I let them go, along with seemingly everyone else. I wasn’t trying to start fast, I was trying to run smart. I hit the mile in 6:12: Perfect.

When I mentioned my goal of starting at 6:10-6:15 to one of my Oiselle teammates, she mentioned her friend (“a solid pacer”) was doing the same. I immediately forgot the woman’s name, but remembered she had red hair. After a couple miles, I was in a pack of four women knocking off 6:10 miles and realized I was right behind a redhead and she was pacing solidly. She also sort of reminded me of my friend Kate. Honestly, I have no idea why exactly (her strength and positivity, the encouragement she was sharing?) but as soon as I had the thought, I grabbed onto it: Just out for a long run with Kate! Then I decided the tall blonde on the other side reminded me of my friend Lindsay, for no reason other than that Lindsay is also tall and blonde and the three of us running together (Kate, Lindsay and me) would be perfectly logical in another time and place. It was a serious stretch by even a mid-race marathoner’s imagination, but it gave me something to think about. (Maybe that’s a creepy thing to do, to compare strangers to your running friends, but I say do whatever makes running marathons easier.)

With a small pack at the 10K.
After 10K our group split up a bit, but I tried to stick with Fake Kate. (Editor’s note: her real name is Cait.) By 15K (9.3 miles) I had fallen back and Fake Kate had caught another woman (who reminded me of Deena Kastor; again, please excuse my delusional mid-race impressions) and the two of them were working together. My mile 10 was a hair slower than we’d been running (6:15), so I knew they weren’t dropping the pace, I had just slowed. It wasn’t hard yet, I just lost contact at a water stop and needed to focus a bit more. But I also told myself to reel them in slowly. It was slow progress, but by the time we hit the Wellesley scream tunnel (mile 12.5) I was nearly back on them. The twelfth mile was too fast (6 flat), though it has some downhill and I don’t remember thinking much about it at the time. Either I didn’t notice the split or I just didn’t dwell on it. I thought I hit the half a hair ahead of 6:10 pace, which surprised me as I had been sure my slowing around miles 9 and 10 had been costlier. (Editor’s note: I was actually exactly on 6:10 pace, so not sure why I thought we were ahead. The clocks had switched to the men’s time at mile 8, so I was looking at my watch from then on and apparently got confused.)

Just after Wellesley (mile 12.5) (Thanks for the photo, Ashley Fizzarotti!) 
It’s okay, I’m still on it! It’s going exactly according to my plan. I always have patches of wanting to drop out and these thoughts came and went from about mile 9 on. Was I going to make it? But I told myself it was just unwarranted fear, it was going to get hard. But it wasn’t hard yet. I wasn’t even tired. If I drop out now, it will be a waste of all this energy I still have to give. Halfway done and still perfectly fine.

My plan had been to pick it up at the half and I expected that was Fake Deena and Fake Kate’s plan too, based on something I overheard just before I joined them back in the early miles. Sure enough, even though I picked it up, I dropped back further. I hoped to get back alongside them before the hills started, but it wasn’t happening.

Mile 15 was slow (6:20) for no reason I can remember, mile 16—with lots of downhill—was fast (5:59). I don’t remember seeing either of those times on my watch, I guess I just let those miles roll off my back. But I did stop looking at my watch entirely soon after mile 17. One of my pre-race plans was to ignore the watch in the later stages since a slow time would be discouraging and a fast one might scare me into slowing down (something that I think happened at Rock n Roll DC). The 17th mile (6:23) actually seems not so bad for going uphill (the first of the infamous four Newton hills), but I decided it was time to stop looking at my watch.

[Editor's note/post-race analysis: Whether ignoring my watch was smart or not, I’m not sure. I wanted to run more by feel, not berating myself, but I’ve never done this before for a reason. A slow mile can make you feel like it’s all unraveling and there’s no hope left… or it can keep you honest and be a kick in the briefs when you need it.

When I stopped looking at my watch it seemed like I was abandoning all my goals, but actually I feel like I had already given up on them. I’m not sure why, I was running pretty much according to plan. Even if I didn’t pick it up enough to achieve my A goal, I was still on pace for my B goal through at least 30K (18.6 miles). But maybe I didn’t really care much about my B goal; maybe when the A goal seemed out of reach I gave up. Maybe when the gap to Fake Deena and Fake Kate seemed unsurmountable (early in the hills) I gave up. Looking back now, it seems like what I've written before applied: it’s only after you tell yourself you can’t that it becomes true. I told myself I couldn't do it, and although I was still on pace at that point, suddenly I couldn't keep it up anymore. Nothing was actually wrong, I just didn’t have the fight. When is it accepting it’s not your day and when is it plain giving up?]

One thing that always keeps me going is my family. I felt bad that I was giving up: They came all this way to cheer just to watch me run poorly? I wanted to give them something more to celebrate. But the ready-to-give-up, apathetic part of me tried to take the pressure off with the popular reminder: No one cares as much about your running as you. As my family would reassure me later, they had a blast cheering me on as part of the elite field, a new experience for them as well. In the moment, I told myself that I would at least finish for them. (Editor’s note: That seemed good enough then, but of course it doesn’t now. Jasyoga has a race day meditation that says, “Don’t bargain with yourself.” I definitely bargained. Finishing was fine.)

Blowing kisses to mile family, around mile 17.
On my way to the finish, I’d enjoy the elite experience. The crowds were amazing. As predicted, being all alone—while not ideal—meant everyone was cheering for me, yelling Burrell when they saw my bib or “head up, wings out!” when they saw my Oiselle kit. Whenever someone yelled for Teal, it was extra special because I knew that person actually knew me, and I tried to give them a small wave. (As the race progressed, these waves got smaller and smaller until they were nonexistent on Beacon St. Sorry to everyone in the last 10K! You guys were truly amazing!)

Mile 19.5 (Thanks @perfectine!)

Through the hills, I tried to keep my eyes on whoever was in front of me. I told myself I’m good on hills and there’s lots of flats in this section. I was trying to count the hills, but I couldn’t tell if I had hit the third one yet (Did that little uphill count as hill #3 or was it just a blip?) which seems dumb now given the elevation chart. But I felt like the first three hills came bang bang bang and then I was just waiting for Heartbreak. Is there another one before it?? (Whether or not abandoning my watch was smart, I’m glad I didn’t look at my Heartbreak split because it was incredibly slow, 6:56!! Again, it makes me wonder now how much I was really trying at that point.) I think I caught a couple people here and was surprised no one caught me, until…

The lead men did. And… OMG SCOTT FAUBLE IS LEADING!! I freaked out. I’ve been a big fan of Fauble’s since reading Inside a Marathon. (If you are a running nerd who likes the nitty gritty of training for a marathon—and if you’re reading this tome of a race report I assume you are—definitely check it out.) I was so pumped he was leading, I nearly tripped myself. I screamed for him, though we were coming through Boston College at the time and OMG AN AMERICAN IS LEADING and it was SO LOUD that I was sure he couldn’t hear me. People later told me I made it on the TV broadcast (I assume the WBZ one; I watched the NBC one and they cut away) and I would love to see what my freak out looked like, because it was genuine excitement in the middle of pure exhaustion. Honestly, this was probably my favorite part of the race. I couldn’t believe it. (Fauble would finish in 7th in a huge PR.)

What seemed like a little while later (but probably wasn’t), Jared Ward and another male passed me. We were in a much quieter section (nicknamed Cemetery Mile) so when I screamed “Go Jared” he actually heard me and gave me a thumbs up. (He would finish 8th, 16 seconds behind Fauble.)

Not long after, we turned onto Beacon St. My family was there cheering and, as predicted, the crowds were absolutely insane from the turn onto Beacon to the finish. I was still avoiding my watch, telling myself to run as fast as possible to the finish, but it was really more like: Just get to the finish. I caught a few more women and again was surprised no women passed me (I think?). By mile 24 I felt like I was going to throw up, which was karma because earlier in the race I had almost wished I was sick; If I have to pull over to puke at least it will be an excuse for why I’m running crappy. Now I was so close I just wanted to finish. I did throw up a bit in my mouth (TMI? This whole post is TMI…) but managed to avoid anything worse. (Editor’s note: My stomach was messed up for about 36 hours after this race and I couldn’t eat my typical post-race burger and beer, something that’s never happened to me before.) The last elite water stop was at 40K (1.25 miles to go) and I almost got my bottle just to wash the taste out of my mouth, then I thought, Screw it I am so close. Just finish this thing.

Turning onto Beacon St. (Mile 22.5)
At a mile to go, I finally looked at my watch and tried to calculate if a sub-2:45 (my C goal) was still possible. I had assumed it was, but had zero evidence. Turns out I was cutting it pretty close but it seemed doable, so I kept trying to push to the finish. Yuki (last year’s men’s winner) flying by took me by surprise and nearly knocked me over, I had no idea he was coming. Ritz followed, clearly struggling as he didn’t immediately leave me in the dust. (I mean he did, but it wasn’t as ridiculously fast as expected.) Finally, finally, finally, I made the right on Hereford and left on Boylston, checking my watch to be sure sub-2:45 would still happen. I wish I had thought to try to beat my Pittsburgh time, but finished about ten seconds slower in 2:44:45.

Finishing. (Photo credit: Michael Scott)
The final perk of the elite start: a finish line tent just for us. (Though the pros went straight to the host hotel for press conferences and pee checks.) I caught up with teammates and sat around trying to get my stomach to calm down, while watching the sweat continue to pour off. I wasn’t distraught, as I have been the last two times I’ve finished Boston way off my goal. In fact, the only other time I didn’t cry after a non-PR marathon (with the exception of my post-partum return) was the 2016 Trials. The Trials are a good comparison; they were miserably hot and I gave up on any hopes of a decent time early on, instead trying to enjoy the privilege of being there. In Boston, I experienced a similar apathy towards my poor showing, while the prestige of the elite start and constant cheers carried me through. It’s not my day, but I’m going to enjoy the fact I get to be here and how far I’ve come.

Another perk of Boston: getting to see, meet,
and run with so many Volée and Haute Volée teammates! 
Also, while the day was nowhere near 2016 Trials hot, it was warm and humid, not my favorite conditions to run in. (In fact, close to my least favorite. I would have preferred rain.) Many people struggled with the conditions and as I said a million times before the race to the annoyance of probably everyone around me, temperatures in the 60s feel a lot worse in April, after training in freezing temperatures, than in October when you’re acclimated. Add in the fact that the race starts later than most and conditions that don’t look that bad on paper become a lot worse. I didn’t initially blame the conditions, but I felt better when other people noted they were far from ideal. (Though I did benefit from starting earlier and getting my own water bottles, so I could, and did, drink to my heart and stomach’s content. Well, possibly more than my stomach's content...) I was sweatier and more salt-encrusted than I've been in a long time. Maybe I can just blame the warmth and humidity! But no, I think it was me mentally giving up more than anything else. I went out at a pace that seemed like negative splitting was possible. But I gave up on myself way too easily, on the race and on the whole frustrating season, just wanting to get through it and put it behind me.

Writing this a week later has brought up some of those emotions that the amazing Boston crowds managed to suppress. Every marathon is an opportunity to do something special and I feel like I wasted this one. I tell myself I’m tougher than what I showed on Monday, and this performance gives the doubts a little more ammo: “Yea, well maybe you’re not that tough.” On the other hand, I put a lot into my training and something just wasn’t there this time around. While I don’t think this race represented even the work I was able to put in, at least now I can take the time to assess why training didn’t go that well and learn from any mistakes I made. (Starting with getting my iron levels checked and taking a more significant break than after CIM.) Also, I know from past experience that the races that leave me the most disappointed and frustrated are also the ones that lead to the biggest breakthroughs. So watch out, Atlanta.

Like the 2016 Trials, I can’t say I enjoyed every moment. It was demoralizing and, yes, heartbreaking. But it was also truly special to be part of the elite start, to have the crowds screaming wildly, to be part of the Oiselle team, to finish what I still refer to (no matter how many times it breaks my heart; the count is now 3 out of 5) as my favorite marathon. So while I can’t say I enjoyed every minute, I did—and will—treasure it.

Dream big,

Elite Women's Start at Boston

In the past, the elite women’s start at Boston has been a little shrouded in mystery; it seemed like you needed to know someone who knew someone to get in. After the 2018 debacle where women in the mass start beat women in the elite start, Boston tried to make it a little more obvious about how to get in (so they could put their foot down on the rule that only those in the elite start can win prize money). I still found information a little lacking, so here’s a bit more about my experience for those interested in running it in the future, especially the Type A folks like myself who need all the info upfront. Though perhaps next year things will run more smoothly!

The 2019 Elite Start.
Photo credit: @bostonmarathon

First and foremost: if you qualify, DO IT. (Read my race report for more about what a special experience it is.)

I signed up in September and paid my registration. Later (in December) a friend of mine was given free entry for running under 2:42. I didn’t know about that possibility in September and was worried if I didn’t sign up with everyone else I would have no way in, so I went ahead and paid. (Sarah Sellers also famously paid her entry to the 2018 race, where she finished 2nd and won $75,000.) I would probably pay the $200 again just for the assurance of being able to run, no matter whether the rules changed down the line.

Within a few days of registering, I emailed the address listed on the site (which said to contact to express interest and get more info). I emailed again when I ran a new PR in December and again when a new email address appeared on the site over the winter. Friends assured me my time would be good enough, but I didn’t hear anything until I took to Twitter in March after Women’s Running posted an article saying Boston was letting all OTQs in. I found it frustrating they were advertising that but not telling the athletes if we were in or not. We were officially notified on April 2.

So don't freak out if you don't hear back for a long time, but--although I realize I seem crazy for emailing so much--I definitely suggest you tell them your interest early on. Another friend waited to email until March and wasn’t initially accepted (despite an OTQ) until some women dropped out.

This year, Boston offered elite fluids to the top 40 women and top 40 men. (There were about 60-70 in each field.) You won’t know if you are in that group until the email in early April, so if you think you are borderline, I’d suggest training with what’s on the course (Gatorade Endurance).

The elite field gets special busses that leave from downtown. In the past I’ve stayed farther out and driven to the busses at Hopkinton State Park, but wasn’t sure if I would be able to access the elite holding area if I didn’t come on the elite bus. It turns out you don’t need to take the elite busses, but as a friend learned, the other busses don’t have the same time constraints (after all, everyone else on those busses has an extra 30 minutes) and making the early start can be tight.

The elite host hotel is the Fairmont Copley Plaza. If you can find/can afford a room there, take it. Bib pickup, water bottle drop off, the mandatory technical meeting (on Sunday afternoon), and the busses to the start are all at that hotel so it will help immensely. (I stayed super close by but was still concerned about all the walking back and forth I was doing.)

If you have any other questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer!