Ugh … My first DNF. But that’s ok, because I’ve since managed to make sense of why I got here, and where I want to go next.
Background to this Race and Why I Chose to run the 2016 Boston Marathon
This was going to be my third marathon. My first one was the 2013 Montreal Marathon where I ran a BQ time of 3:14:16. I swore off the marathon distance because I wanted to run shorter distances at a faster pace. So I registered for the 2014 Half-Marathon but a few weeks before that race, I found myself injured and sidelined by IT band syndrome.
Frustrated and desperate for some sense of accomplishment, I applied to get into the 2015 Boston Marathon using my 2013 marathon BQ time. Unfortunately, I was 12 seconds off the time needed to get in that year. NB: BQ means “Boston Qualifier”, because Boston is one of the few marathons that requires a minimum performance level by age and gender category in order to apply. Even then, your time must still be better than others in your category who have qualified because the race only accepts a maximum of ~30,000 runners per year. It’s tough to get in!
As soon as I got the news that I hadn’t made it in, I registered for the closest BQ’able marathon near home, the 2015 Ottawa Marathon to be held in May. I recovered from my injury and trained like a demon through one of the toughest winters we’ve ever had in Montreal to get fit again and it worked … I got fast, fit and mentally strong for Ottawa and blew away my previous time and the BQ threshold with a 2:54:12 time. On top of the world and full of spite because I didn’t get into Boston the previous year, I filled out the application for Boston 2016 (the 120th edition!), knowing that I would get in without a problem this time.
Background to the Background
What’s important about presenting that long background for why I wanted to run Boston is important. I wanted to run Boston for all the wrong reasons:
- I wanted to run Boston because I wasn’t able to get in my BQ time from my first marathon
- I wanted to run Boston because I was finally able to get in with a great BQ time
- I wanted to run Boston because it’s arguably “the Olympics” of the marathon. Boston has a reputation as the race that everyone wants to run. I should want to run it, too, right?
- I wanted to run Boston because if I set another personal record there, then it would be really, really official and really, really impressive (in my own warped view of things at the time)
Meanwhile, the reality is that over the past few years, I’ve really fallen in love with trail running. I feel so good when I run through forests, up mountains, on soft, uneven surfaces. Running on roads through cities doesn’t fulfill me at all.
So I faced a personal dilemma … I was scheduled to run a race that I felt I didn’t want to do, but that I had convinced myself, through a cascading series of smaller decisions, that I had to run in order to improve as a runner and “take the next step”.
Another Fall Injury
No less than a few weeks after hearing that I had made it into the 2016 Boston Marathon, while out for a very long run, training for the Gatineau Marathon (a tough road marathon near Ottawa with a huge amount of climbing), some hip/abdominal pains that I had been having over the course of the summer got considerably worse and I ended up run/walking for the last 14-15 kms home. (This story isn’t funny per say, but it’s a good story about not knowing how to operate my GPS watch and not running by feel).
So from early October until the Christmas holidays, I was either sidelined, trying unsuccessfully to come back, all the while doing whatever I could to hold onto the fitness I had worked so hard to build up, something that is almost impossible to do with an abdominal injury.
December: Ramp-Up to Running Again
In December, after two months of almost complete inactivity (with a brief stint of doing some spinning workouts, but that wasn’t pain-free, so I had to stop) I started to do as much Yoga and gentle core work as I could without making the injury worse. I was really feeling very anxious about the limited amount of time I had available to recover my lost fitness and not just get into marathon shape, but also record-setting marathon shape. After all, this was the Boston fricken’ Marathon!
By early December, I was able to start running at an easy pace four to five times per week, getting in about 45 km of weekly mileage in (about 28 miles per week). As someone who has averaged between 100-135 km per week (about 60-85 miles per week) over the past couple of years, this wasn’t exactly normal for me, but it was sweet victory just to be running again, and that’s an understatement!!
Also, I bought a treadmill and by just after Christmas, had the tool I needed to be able to start running without the risk of slippery snow and ice sabotaging my comeback. Almost my entire training cycle was done on a treadmill, amazingly (considering the fact that I had run outdoors during one of the worst winters the previous year, I ran indoors the entire winter in one of the warmest winters on record here. Thanks El Nino!).
January and February: Getting back in the saddle again
With a few weeks of low mileage running through discomfort (but not pain!) in the abdominal injury area, I was ready to bump up the mileage and start building a base for Boston. David had me running in an aerobic zone most days (by staying under a heart rate threshold), which was good because I was anxious to recover my lost training and would have fallen into the trap of coming back too fast without him.
Gradually, David also introduced strides into my runs, which were an awesome, low-impact way for me to develop some speed again.
My long runs got long and started to add in some speed and climb, since my treadmill is able to simulate the Boston course in terms of incline/decline while showing Google Street View images on the treadmill’s display.
I was able to run some decent mileage weeks during this period and did a routine of 15 minutes of Yoga after every run to keep myself limber so that I could continue to keep the progression.
- Feb 13th Long Run: 29km at 4:16/km
- Feb 20th Long Run + Workout (Birthday gift from David): 30km with WU, 4 x 44″ Strides, 4:44 Easy, 10 x 4:44 @ < VO2 (3:51/km) and CD
My Core Routine
As I mentioned earlier, in December I had been doing Yoga and core work as much as I could without re-injuring my abdominal muscle. By January, with a solid base of running, Yoga and core work, I decided to get and stay strong in order to ensure that I’d be able to handle as rapid a ramp-up in my training as possible over the coming couple of months. Also, given my age (I’m 44 years old), it was getting critical for me to make strength work part of my weekly routine.
So I built myself a core routine from many sources, especially David’s article “Build a Better Runner in 5 Minutes a Day” http://www.trailrunnermag.com/training/cross-training/1819-build-a-better-runner-in-5-minutes-a-day (disclaimer, it seems to take slightly more than 5 minutes! ;-) ), and exercises that my physiotherapist prescribed in my continued rehabilitation.
This core routine took me 25-30 minutes per day, three times per week.
- Leg swings (forward/backward: 20/leg
- Leg swings (side-to-side): 20/leg
- Side-lunges: 10/leg
- Hurdles (one is back to front, then front to back): 10/leg
- Fire hydrants: 20/leg
- Seated groaners (inner knee touches ground): 10/leg
- Glute bridges with one leg extended: 5 x 10 secs / leg
- Knee-raises: 25/leg
- Donkey kicks / Claw-backs: 20/leg
- Elastic resistance forward leg swings: 3 x 10/leg
- Single-leg dead-lifts: 3 x 10/leg (some people call these storks. Google it)
- Lunges: 3 x 10/leg
- Squats: 3 x 10
I would do this before my runs as a kind of dynamic warm-up, even though it’s arguably more than a warm-up! The single-leg dead-lifts made me suffer the most!
March: Peak Volume
Things were going well, and with the April 18th race day coming up soon, David scheduled an easier week and then a series of three higher-volume weeks. While these weren’t my biggest weeks ever, they were more than enough, given the short ramp-up we were working with since the injury.
- March 5th Long Run: 35.3km on Boston Course @ 4:19/km
- March 12th Long Run Outdoors: 36km @ 4:18/km pace (including bonk kms from insufficient nutrition)
- March 26th Long Run: 40km on Treadmill on Boston Course (0-40km) @ 4:19/km pace, during a high volume week
- March 30th Run: 22km around St-Bruno and St-Basile at 4:12/km pace during last high volume week!
- April 2nd Long Run: 32.3km @ 4:15/km pace
April: Tapering and Peaking for the Race
A couple of weeks of lower volume running always surprises me by making me feel like I’m falling apart, sore, lethargic and will never be ready for a race. Such is the nature of the taper. In the past, it’s usually resulted in some magic during the race. Suddenly, I’ve felt like nothing could stop me. I was started to feel that way today.
My wife and I traveled to Boston on Saturday, having dropped off the kids at my in-laws, who would have them for three nights, including bringing them to school on Monday and Tuesday (thanks so much!). It’s a five hour drive so not so bad, but not exactly short.
As we arrived in town around 2pm or so, we decided to get me into the expo to pick up my race kit and bib so that this would be out of the way. Keeping in mind Boston is a tough place for out-of-towners to get around and drive on any day of the year, but especially on Marathon weekend, when the city becomes a running circus. Leslie did a great job hanging around near the entrance while I raced in, did what I needed to do and found her.
We checked into the hotel and got a crumby room at the Marriott Long Wharf, and asked for something else and got a decent room. At the promotional pricing of USD$350/night, we had been hoping for better, but so be it. This would be home.
We went out for drinks and a bite to eat with some colleagues from SWAP (Jay, Seth and Stewart) and had a really nice time getting to chat and match Strava/Facebook profiles to awesome people. It was really fun. Our Boston hosts Seth and Jay were so welcoming and so generous. Thanks, guys!!
We went back to the hotel and had a bite to eat (I had garlic bread with garlic pasta) and went to sleep. I felt strange not having run, having been seated in the car for hours, and feeling the nerves of the upcoming race.
We both had runs to do. Leslie had a long run for her own training, and with the recommendations from Seth and Jay, she had a really nice time running along the Charles River. I had a shake-out to do so I ran around Little Italy (is it called that?) and ran a little too fast, but that’s what reducing mileage does to you, I guess.
We went out for a walk after our runs to have coffee and breakfast, and that afternoon, went back to the expo and walked around, saw the finish line and so on.
I had had enough, especially with the race being the next day and I decided to try and nap a bit while Leslie went out to explore around the Boston Public Market.
Napping wasn’t successful as far as sleep goes, but I was resting and off my feet. Mission accomplished.
Normally on a vacation out of town, we’d venture out to explore local cuisine but given the race being tomorrow, I wanted to make sure I got an early dinner and wasn’t feeling very adventurous, so we decided to go back to the hotel restaurant and I’d have the same as the day before, but without any garlic, which had unsurprisingly upset my stomach and digestion a bit. When I got the plate of pasta and bread, I was starved but also shocked to see that my request just to “put a little bit of olive oil on” had turned the bowl of pasta into an olive oil soup with pasta. I couldn’t believe it and had to hold up the pasta to let the olive oil drip off, then wipe it on my bread plate to get the excess off.
Not the best pre-game meal.
I prepared my kit and got to bed early around 8pm and planned on waking up around 4:45am to start my routine and get to Boylston street by 6:30am latest the next morning.
Monday: Race Day!
I woke up at 2:30am and tossed and turned until 4:30am and did my best not to wake up Leslie in our hotel room. That didn’t work, unfortunately, but I was greeted by a nice note on the bathroom mirror when I walked in. She’s awesome.
I was as ready as I was going to be (the proverbial hay had long since been in the proverbial barn) but as much as I tried to convince myself that my insides were fine and that I was just a bit nervous, I knew deep down (poor choice of words) that I wasn’t.
I ate the instant oatmeal we had bought at the grocery store on Saturday along with a banana and some honey (my usual pre-game meal), but didn’t have a coffee (not the end of the world, but not ideal pre-race for me).
I had planned on taking a cab up to Boylston street to give in my drop-bag and to head over to the buses, but found myself sitting in traffic waiting for the all the buses that would bring the runners to Hopkinton. I got out of the cab and walked the rest of the way. Luckily, there are 30,000 other runners in this marathon, so following people carrying the clear drop-bags was easy and effective.
The bus ride was long but smooth and I arrived in Hopkinton and entered the Athlete’s Village around 7:20am (runners in wave one of four arrive earliest to get into their corrals to leave between 10am and 10:25am or so). There are fields and fields of port-o-potties and no lines that I could see and yet, all of them were constantly in use. Considering the scale of the event, I was amazed at how perfectly the demand was forecasted, but then again, I saw this constantly throughout the Boston Marathon. It’s an incredibly well-organized event!
After my bathroom break, I saw that there were also some food and drinks available, so I took a banana and a black coffee when I saw that the only option for my coffee was Coffee Mate (nasty stuff that I didn’t want in my body before a marathon). I normally take cream but decided that a small cup of black coffee would have the caffeine I need and wouldn’t be a problem a bit less than three hours before the race.
After the coffee, I did what everyone else was doing and lay around waiting. The newspaper I had brought to read on the bus made for a great blanket and covered my eyes from the sun quite well, and the old sweatpants and sweatshirt that would eventually be given to charity kept me warm on a cool morning. That being said, I could feel that the sun was getting stronger and stronger, despite how early it was.
I reviewed my cheat sheet where I had listed my race strategy (Boston is anything but ordinary course, so it requires some planning and discipline). I felt ready for the challenge of the marathon distance with the Boston twist of what I had simplified to five different tactics for five different course segments.
I heard the announcer say that Wave one runners would leave for their corrals at 9:05am which seemed awfully early, knowing that I was assigned to corral #3 and expected to start the race at 10:10am or so but I didn’t have much choice in the matter and allowed myself to be herded along.
Once the runners in Wave one lined up to leave the Athlete’s Village, I wondered what would happen for the next hour but to my surprise, we only waited for ten minutes or so while runners in the first two corrals moved up ahead and runners in corrals three and four were released. I thought we had already been in the corrals, but it turns out this was more of a holding pen of sorts and we were directed to head down the road to the corrals. This seems like it was about 2 km or walking. I stopped at some port-o-potties along the way to pee and just hung out in corral #3 and chatted and joked around with the other runners.
This is where I really noticed that the day wouldn’t go well. My stomach was cramping up, and fast, presumably from the coffee and the food I was eating that my body wasn’t accustomed to, even though I made the best choices I could, eating fruits and veggies and the bread that we had brought from home. The cramps were actually becoming painful – this wasn’t just a little tummy ache.
When the race started, I put my focus on and ran fast enough to be on target to match my Ottawa performance the previous year. This was ambitious but not out of the question, either, so I went for it. The problem is that even if we were going downhill, that pace wasn’t feeling easy, and the sun was harsh for this early in the morning, beating down on my right side. I was hot and tired at a pace that I felt I should be able to run at easily.
I let myself be fueled by giving little kids high-fives along the way. They were so enthusiastic and it helped me forget how I was feeling. Marathons are hard, especially when you’re suffering, but young kids have a way of changing your outlook on life.
Around 14 kms in (around 8-9 miles), I started to feel the cramping in my stomach “descend”, and felt that familiar feeling of needing to go urgently. I held it in (avoiding re-enacting the familiar poop runner meme below) long enough to make it to a port-o-potty. After taking care of business, I got back on the road and started running and briefly though, “Phew! Glad I got that out of the way, now I can get back to the race!” but it didn’t work out that way. I couldn’t continue running and started walking. I tried alternating run-walking, running whenever I could, but the cramping was so painful that I couldn’t sustain even an easy running pace.
I had planned on alternating between drinking water and Gatorade at the water stations, but I started taking only water when things starting going badly, and then stopped even the water. Not good.
Walking at the Boston Marathon is kind of humiliating. It’s like a walk of shame as the fans and locals are cheering like crazy and then you sense their discomfort in cheering as you walk by them, dejected.
So I pulled over to a medical tent with the intention of withdrawing. I walked around on the sidelines and got angry with myself and at the situation. “It’s the Boston fricken’ Marathon” went through my head enough times that I got back on the course and kept the run-walk pattern going for another 5-6 kms before giving into the inevitability of the whole thing and stopped at the next medical tent and told them I was done. They wrote down my bib number on a piece of paper and they checked me out, but I told them it was just GI issues, so the attentive medical staff handed me a water bottle and sat me down on a cot.
At this point, I assumed that the Boston Marathon app that my wife was using would be updated to say DNF or something so that my wife would know what had happened.
I got into a van that brought me to Babson College, where we got onto a bus that brought us back into Boston near the finish line. This took forever, but I’m thankful anyways. I was just worried about how worried Leslie would be at this point, because she probably didn’t know where we would find each other. We had planned on meeting at the family meeting area at the “C” (by last name) based upon a start time of 10:10am and a sub-three hour finish time. When I arrived, people from two waves behind me were arriving, so I was really much later than I was supposed to be.
My relief at finally arriving downtown was quickly set aside when I got back into the crowd of finishers so that I could pick up my drop bag and get to the family meeting area. The volunteers (who are without an exception incredibly supportive and well-organized) were congratulating all the finishers. It was brutal for me to hear this … I felt like an imposter. Here I was amongst actual finishers.
When I got to the family area, I didn’t see Leslie at the “C” and was completely dejected but moments after I heard her call me. Her expression was very briefly angry but tears of relief appeared and we hugged each other for a long one.
We agreed for each of our own reasons that we just needed to get out of this circus. She had been trying to get updates from the medical teams there, then going back to the family meeting area to see if I had arrived, then repeating until she finally saw me. I felt terribly for her.
We got on the subway and then headed to where we were parked and drove up to New Hampshire to have a nice dinner and to stay the night before heading back up to Montreal the next morning.
In the end, the DNF didn’t show in the athlete tracking. I think this is the only blemish on the event, which is one of the most impressively organized big-scale running events I’ve ever participated in.
My Big Takeaway: Running is for fun and inspiration!
I didn’t want to run the Boston Marathon. Yes there were digestive issues, etc. but my love is for trail running. Road marathons are just uninspiring to me.
So with some good advice from David along the way, I’m focusing on doing what inspires me and not what I feel is “next”. I’m going to run to be better and I’m going to worry less about pace and metrics. That’s going to be hard, but this is for me, not for someone else.
My running from now on will be fun and inspiring!
I’m racing a local 20km trail race in June and a trail ultra (my first!) in October (the Bromont Ultra 55km).
Postscript #1: I’m Blessed With So Much Support
To my wife: My feet may be what touch the ground when I run, but I’m propelled by your incredible positivity, support and encouragement. I’m so lucky to have a partner in life like you! Thank-you.
To my coach, David Roche: With the Fall injury and the pressure I was putting on myself to ramp-up more quickly than could reasonably be expected, I was an emotional mess and you leveled me out when I needed it but also set me up to get fit again in such a short period. Thank-you so much.
Also thanks go to the ever-inspiring and supportive SWAP running community, my running friends from work, my running community on Strava, my family and friends, my doctor who recommended the scan (to make sure I didn’t have a hernia), Scott Sternthal, my Osteopath (and a fantastic runner, too!) and my physiotherapy clinic for helping me get back on my feet running again. Thanks to all.
Postscript #2: Do I wear the official Boston Marathon race t-shirt without reservation?
I shared this with my SWAP teammates:
I’ve always believed that if you don’t run in a race, it’s bad karma to wear the official race t-shirt, and I know from talking to other runners, that seems to be the general feeling in the running community.
So here’s my dilemma… Boston. Some of you may know that my digestive system imploded prior to the race start, and I had to withdraw a little after the half, not able to run through the cramping and dehydration.
In other words, I BQ’d last summer, I got in for this year’s race, I was on the Boston start line, but I didn’t finish and I didn’t get the finishers medal.
I’ve been staring at the t-shirt for the whole week, paralyzed by indecision. Do I put the official t-shirt away? Do I wear it? Do I wear it proudly?
(It’s a pretty nice t-shirt!)
The consensus seemed to be a resounding yes and I agree! Thanks to the SWAP community for convincing me what I knew in my heart!!