The 115th Boston Marathon—a race report.
As Dawgdoc and I churn out the 22nd mile of the 2011 Boston Marathon, the crowds call us by name: “C’mon Eric…Go Jay.!” The roaring crowd cheers us as we blaze towards Boston. We are racing—not against each other, but with each other.
I ran next to Jay (AKA dawgdoc on the discussion board that I frequent) for a brief part of the marathon. I don’t know if it was a full mile of the race; I think it might have been less. But this moment defines a lot of what this running of the Boston marathon means to me.
I am blessed to have the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon for a second time. After ’09, I thought I would never return. Don’t get me wrong. I had a blast in ’09, I have qualifying marathon times, and The Boston holds a special place in my heart. I just thought the journey was a little self indulgent. Of course, I succumbed to peer pressure. All of my imaginary friends were doing it.
The most significant social element of my running is participation in the Runner’s World discussion boards. I started participating in the discussions before my run in ’09 and never left. I didn’t know if I should stop posting because I doubted that I would return to Boston, but I had made a lot of friends through our daily discussion on running. Those friends are what made the 2011 Boston Marathon worth the trip.
I met a lot of people during Boston ’09 and Chicago ’10. The friends I have made online do materialize at races, and the opportunity to hang out with old friends and meet some new ones, combined with sharing the experience with my family, had me booking flights to Boston for Patriot’s Day. I think I spent two months whistling the melody from the Dropkick Murphys’ Shipping Up to Boston.
I was looking forward to the parties with friends, but was fearful of the race. My training was OK, but I wasn’t ever as focused and driven as I was in the lead-up to Chicago (10-10-10) where I set my PR. I worked through the training plan like a zombie (completing the workouts with little feeling) and tried to talk myself out of going for a best time in Boston. The same friends I looked so forward to seeing gave me an earful when I proposed shooting for a goal some 7 minutes slower than my fastest race. My wife called me names, including telling me to “toughen up, buttercup.” Oh the indignity.
The course in Boston is a tough one that invites the hapless runner to hammer 16 miles of relative downhill, and then chews said runner up in the grinder known as the Newton hills. After the hills, there are 5 more miles of downhill that can be a deathmarch if the early miles are run overly optimistically. So I feared going out too fast, but also didn’t want to sell myself short, start too slowly, and have no shot at a good time. My legs seemed good, but my head was a mess.
So I showed up in Hopkinton with a plan that would give me a shot at running my best marathon time. I figured it was better to go for it and run the risk of failure than to play it safe and have regrets. I met up with friends in the village, chatted, prepped for the race, headed to corral #2 of wave #1. I could see the tops of the heads of the pro runners as they were introduced and filed out into their starting place several yards in front of me. As I awaited the start, I fired up the Garmin (my GPS watch) to get a signal. It wouldn’t turn on, despite several attempts.
I found myself standing in the starting corral of the 115th Boston Marathon laughing aloud like a fool and talking to myself. “Honey Badger don’t care.” “Honey Badger don’t give a shit!” I had my race mantra.
Rather than obsess over the numbers and pace, I was going to run this one by feel, thanks to the expensive paperweight strapped to my arm. I ran freely. I tried to get other runners to talk to me in the early miles. I loudly sang “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” and tried to get others to sing with me. I high-fived kids. I kissed a girl in Wellesley. I smiled—a lot. I didn’t know my pace and didn’t try to figure it out as I went through the checkpoints. I was a honey badger. I didn’t give a shit. I went all “attacky” on that course and planned on having cobra for dinner.
My original plan was to run the first 6 miles at 5-10 seconds faster than goal pace, settle into goal pace for miles 7-16.5, then run the Newton hills to the best of my ability, and let it fly from Boston College (mile 21) into Boston. Well, I ignored the watch (as any good honey badger would do) and felt as if I was passing people for the first six miles. I wasn’t pushing nor zig-zagging through traffic, but felt as if I was moving up. At six miles, I consciously pulled back the pace a little (without having the slightest idea of what the pace was) and felt as if people were moving past me. They weren’t streaming past, but I felt as if I was slipping back. I worried that my effort might be feeling too hard, too early, but the honey badger don’t care.
I spread my arms like an airplane as I made the right turn at Newton firehouse. The crowd went wild[er]. One hill was behind me and now the three famous hills of Comm Ave were before me. I expected to see my family on this stretch, and really wanted to run within myself on the hills. I felt like I was going slowly, but there were a surprising number of people walking and running more slowly than myself as I picked my way up the hills. I worked the uphill and then tried to speed up on the recovery between the hills. I saw my family at about 18.5 miles. They didn’t know that I had been possessed by the spirit of the honey badger, but I informed them. They cheered wildly, and I set my sights on Heartbreak hill.
At the top of Heartbreak hill lies Boston College. While the girls of Wellesley scream loudly, have a lot of signage, and are willing to kiss sweaty runners, BC is louder, and most likely, more drunk. They were roaring! The din didn’t let up, either. The frenzy of the crowd built throughout the race and the course was lined without gap from the turn at Newton firehouse until Boston. They called out the names of runners who had put names on their shirts and howled. I honestly believe that the Boston Marathon has the best fans in marathoning. From the top of Heartbreak into Boston it got so that I could barely make out what was being said; it was a roar of support. Those awesome fans cheered for the runners like they were family! It was an honor. I didn’t want to let 500,000 people down. After all, it felt like they were cheering for me.
Many of those fans were calling my name. I think it is because I was starting to look pretty bad. I was a hurting runner, but just kept telling myself to keep the pace up—to keep it honest. To give anything less than my best would be, indeed, to sacrifice the gift—the gift of being able to run, the gift of returning to Boston, and the gift of a perfect running day (including a nice tailwind), to name a few. So I churned on. And that is when Jay (Dawgdoc) pulled up next to me.
I asked him how he was doing and he said he was hurting. I think I said something along the lines of “of course you are.” I had been following Jay’s training for months and knew (better than he did) that he was ready to break the three hour barrier for the marathon. His training was excellent. He destroyed his PR’s in his tune up races. He showed up on race day in great shape, and all he needed to do was execute. The honey badger might not give a shit about things like splits and his own time, but he doesn’t back down, either.
I talked at Jay. I didn’t need an answer in words, just in deed. I mentioned his awesome training, his toughness, and how his goal was there for the taking. I did my best Knute Rockne. Oh, and I picked up the pace. I would estimate that I sped up about 30 seconds per mile. Of course, I didn’t care about the numbers of my race. I didn’t want Jay to slow to my pace, which was turning into a death shuffle, but to chase his goal. I was willing to chase his goal too. We ran side by side for a while and then I had to let him go, having given him all I could. I wasn’t upset that I couldn’t keep up; I was thrilled that he could pull away from me. I believed that he was going to achieve his goal.
It seems like it was only a minute or two later that I heard the crowds cheering for Boston College. I knew what that meant. My friend, Phil, who was also chasing his first sub-3 hour marathon (and wearing his alma mater’s name on his chest), had caught me. He blew by me, and eventually passed Jay as well. I yelled out some words of encouragement and watched him take off. It was awesome. For the first time in my marathoning experience, I wasn’t all wrapped up in my performance. I wanted to run well, but was really loving seeing the hard work of my friends paying off. In the past I would be upset that I was getting passed and want to compete. This time, I wanted to share in their success and have fun.
I achieved all that I wanted in Boston. I had a blast both on the racecourse and off. I ran a solid time that I can be proud of, but didn’t let the obsession with time suck the life out of the greatest marathon on earth. I charged down Boylston Street with a grimace, milking everything from my body that I could, and saw that I had not gone under 3 hours. Of course, it was easy for this honey badger not to care; I shared in the fellowship of the marathon and knew, beyond a doubt, that both Phil and Jay must have achieved the coveted title of sub-3 hour marathoners. The crowd roared, and I couldn’t help but smile as I crossed the finish line. Of course, if asked, the honey badger was baring his teeth and not caring at all.
Since I had no watch, I didn’t see any splits until after the race. I went out way too fast, running nine and a half minutes slower in the second half than in the first. That execution is pretty terrible, but I finished in 3:00:36, which is my second fastest marathon ever, fewer than three minutes slower than my fastest, and a full eight minutes faster than I had run Boston in ’09 (which now stands as my 3rd fastest). I ran naked (no watch) which could have been a source of stress and disaster. Instead, it freed me to savor the day, sing a song, high five little kids, kiss a coed, run by feel, pick out my family from the masses, help out a buddy without a care about my own race, and have a Boston experience that I will never forget.
The numbers—(no thanks to Garmin)
Half Marathon (13.1M): 1:25:43
26.2 Miles: 3:00:36 (6:54/Mile avg)