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Boston Marathon : It’s the .02 that kills you

by Darren Osborne : Team Running Free Milton

I rounded the last corner of the Boston Marathon expecting to see the finish line about a block ahead. The finish line for the Boston Marathon is permanently painted into Boylston Street and has a giant archway as big as a bridge over it; it says “FINISH” right on it. You can’t miss it. My problem was I could not see it. “What the hell”, I thought. “I’m spent and the finish line is not here.” I looked at my GPS. I had two minutes left to qualify and I could not see the finish line. Was I lost? No, there are hundreds of runners all around me. Did they move the damn finish line? No, now you’re getting stupid. I looked at the distance on my GPS and saw 25.9 miles. What was going on? Oh my god… I forgot about the point two extra miles.

The marathon used to be 26 miles long – exactly. This was the distance that infamous messenger ran (2500 years ago this year) from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Syrians. When the inaugural modern Olympics were held in England, the Queen insisted that the finish line for the marathon be extended so the finish line could be in front of Buckingham Palace. The extra 0.2 extra miles has stuck ever since. Her 0.2 was costing me my race.

It took me three tries to qualify for the Boston Marathon. At the ripe old age of 43, I needed to run a sanctioned marathon in 3 hours and 20 minutes to qualify. The Boston Marathon is probably one of the only things in life that makes you feel good about getting old. The older you get, the easier it is to qualify. If I was in my fifties, my qualifying time would be 3 hours and 45 minutes. They are pretty generous about the time too. In fact, they actually give you an extra 59 seconds grace. So if I ran my marathon in 3 hours, 20 minutes and 59 seconds I would qualify. I took full advantage of this loop-hole. I did it in 3 hours, 20 minutes and 31 seconds – 28 seconds to spare.

I qualified for Boston last year in May. The lasting memory I have about qualifying is people’s reactions. Every time I told a female friend I qualified for Boston they would look me in the eye and say with a warm smile, “good for you.” Every time I told a guy friend I qualified he would say “really?” and immediately look down at my gut – like he was sizing up my waist against his.

When I began to train for Boston, I hooked up with a great group of Saturday runners who ran the hilly side of the “Around the Bay” road race in Hamilton. “This will prepare you for Heartbreak Hill,” they said. Our Saturday course followed North Shore Blvd in Burlington, through the grave yard and up the big final hill into Hamilton. We put in between 20 and 30 km most weekends. In addition to the hilly long slow runs on weekends, I did my hill training, speed-work, tempo runs and marathon pace runs. Looking back, I made all my targets and I don’t think I missed one day of training.

My goal was to run Boston in 3 hours twenty minutes. I wanted to qualify for Boston next year in Boston. My buddies told me I was nuts. They said the crowds in Boston are brutal – there are over 25,000 runners and 500,000 spectators. They said the course is brutal – in addition to the other hills, Heartbreak Hill is actually the last of 4 hills with the first at the 15 mile mark and the last one starting at the 21 mile mark and continuing for a solid mile. “Hey,” I would reply, “you gotta have goals right.”

When I found out the race started at 10:00 am I had this naïve dream that I could sleep in, have a light breakfast, putter about my room and meander to the starting line. Not quite. Even with a hotel at the finish line and I still had to get up at 5:00 am, catch a subway at 6:00 am to Boston Common, and board a school bus for the trip to Hopkinton, a small little town 26 miles out of Boston. My bus arrived in in Hopkinton around 7:30. All 26,000 of us were led to the Athlete’s Village – a fenced off area behind a local high school. It sounds like a refugee camp but the organizers really go out of their way to make it fun. We enjoyed music, sunshine, complimentary food and beverages, and a selection of over 400 porta-potties.

So, with two and a half hours to wait, how did I almost miss the start?
To accommodate more than 25,000 entrants, the race is split into two waves. The first wave of 15,000 was scheduled to start at 10:00 and the second wave was to start at 10:30. At 9:15, the announcer asked runners in the first wave to start moving to the starting line. I was in the first wave so I started walking out of the athlete’s village following the crowd to the start line when I noticed a long row of porta-potties just outside arranged in a perfect line like sentries standing guard over the whole field. As I walked by admiring this installation art-form I thought, “I am going to take one more pee before the race.” I got into a porta-potty line and waited. I waited and waited and waited. I talked to the guy behind me for a while. He was from Texas and was running his fourth Boston. I also chatted with the girls in front of me. They were from Minneapolis; one was a veteran and her friend was a first timer like me. I noticed that I had a blue bib which meant I was in the first wave at 10:00 am and everyone else had a yellow bib which meant they were in the second wave at 10:30. While we waited we all had to endure this feisty little witch three lines over who complained about everything to everybody. She would yell at people to hurry up and would complain when runners would not go to the porta-potty right in front of theirs. After what seemed like forever, I looked at my watch and saw it was 9:50. “Holy crap,” I thought. I still had three people in front of me and the start was only 10 minutes away. I edged up to my new friends in front of me and said in the nicest way, “if you have to really go then I will wait, but I noticed that you are in the second wave, and I am in the first wave. I have to start in less than 10 minutes. Would you mind if I cut in front of you two.” “Are you in the first wave,” screamed the witch from three lines over. Before I could answer she pushed her way over to my line, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out to no-man’s-land – that area between the porta-pottie doors and the beginning of the lines. She cocked back her head for better acoustics over the din and screamed, “This guy’s in the first wave. He goes next.” She leaned into me and said, “You still have three quarters of a mile from here to the start so you had better hurry.”
“Thank you so much,” I said as she shoved me to the next available porta-potty five lines over. Thirty seconds later (I timed it) I was out the door and jogging over to the start line. “This is good,” I was saying to myself, “I get a nice easy warm up so I can be loose for the race.” There were so few people around I was getting nervous; every 100 yards or so I would encounter a volunteer and I would ask if I was going the right way to the start. I jogged over a small rise and I saw where everyone else was. The starting corrals were running perpendicular to me and I was coming up to the centre. I was in corral 9000 to 9999 and right in front of me was my corral. A volunteer opened the portable gate and let me slide right in. I made it. I took a deep breath and looked around to better soak up the vibe. Before I had time to exhale I heard the announcer over the loud speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen.” I had just made it. The race started.

There were so many people in front of me it took a full seven minutes to get to the starting line. I was brushing up against runners on all sides as I crossed the starting line. I was still walking and started my stop watch. It was an odd sensation; I was in the most important race of my life and I was walking. Like a roller coaster going up the first hill, we slowly increased our speed to a jog going up the front side of a small hill. As we crested the hill it was like gravity pulled us all down as we broke into a run at full speed. Ahead of me, the 8,000 runners dressed in every colour imaginable were snaking along the road out of Hopkinton.

The first few miles out of Hopkinton were almost all downhill. The crowds were huge and at the first mile marker I saw a guy handing out beers in front of a sign saying “You’re Almost There.” This was my first realization that the Boston Marathon is once component of a huge party that takes place on Patriots Day.

All along the race route it was a huge party but the biggest party occurs every year at the midway point of the race – Wellesley College. During the wait in the athlete’s village, a buddy of mine told me that there is spot in the race where hundreds of girls line the course with offers to kiss the runners as they pass. I thought he was kidding — he wasn’t. When I got to the town of Wellesley I could hear the screams coming from the girls at Wellesley College a mile down the road. As I ran by, the noise was louder than anything I have ever experienced. Co-eds were hanging over the barricades with signs inviting runners to kiss them. “Kiss me, I’m a senior, Kiss me, I’m from Tennessee” and my favourite, “Kiss me, I’m desperate!” One of the guys in our makeshift pack went over for a kiss and the crowd went wild. I kept running.

I’m the kind of runner who is constantly going through checklists during a race. I check my time, my pace, my distance, and my heart-rate several times per minute. I also go through a body scan from head to toe taking physical inventory of all my systems. Head-ache – no / neck – loose / shoulders – low and relaxed / chest – out / pelvis – forward / quads – good / chafing – none / knees – uh oh, my knee hurts. Just after the half way point my left knee started to hurt. This was the same pain I felt my last marathon. The last time it happened, I was at the 17 mile mark and it went away on its own. I pushed on.

By the 16 mile mark, I was already into the first of four hills that finish with heart-break hill and my knee was really sore. According to my watch, I was ahead of schedule so I slowed my pace on the hills and this helped the pain. I went up heartbreak hill very slowly to protect my knee. I was so focused on my knee; it was over before I had time to worry. I did see a few people going up heartbreak hill and just stop dead. Some would hobble over the cub and try to stretch out their pain and others just stood there not knowing what to do next. The crowd was great for this second group. People would urge them on by calling out their number and the person was brave enough to have their name on their jersey the crowd would chant their name until they had the energy to start running again.
Near the top of heart-break hill, I saw a guy just stop quite a ways in front of me. People were going around him like water flowing around a rock. Someone in the crowd saw his name on his jersey and got the whole crowd of several hundred people to start chanting his name. “Jeff. Jeff. Jeff. Jeff” over and over until he finally got moving again. When he did start running the crowd high-fived each sharing in his victory.

After heart-break hill its down-hill for four miles into Boston. I was feeling a lot of pain and my checklist was depressing me. “Stomach – I feel like I am going to puke / chaffing – oh yeah lots / quads – really sore / knees – ignore the question / feet – sore / toes – blistering / time – check. The only good news at this point was that I was on time to finish in 3:20.

In addition to going through my checklists during a race, I am constantly calculating fractions. After the first mile, I think, one twenty sixth done, after 6 miles I think, one quarter done. In the final mile of the race I am going from my watch to the course and back again calculating when I am going to finish and if I will make my time. Do I need to speed up or can I coast in. As I passed the 25 mile mark I looked down and saw that I had nine minutes to run the last mile. I quickly calculated that a 7:40 mile pace would get me in with one minute and 20 seconds to spare. Perfect.

I rounded the last corner and looked for finish line. It wasn’t there. In all my calculations I forgot about the 0.2 extra miles. “Don’t panic,” I thought. Time to recalibrate – after accounting for current pace, distance required, time left, grade of terrain, and physical condition I realized I had to run my ass off to the finish in order to make my time. I pretended I was doing 400 meter sprints at the track. “C’mon, just 0.2 miles to go,” I thought. Ignore the pain. I felt like I was flying.

As the finish line finally came into view I ran ever harder. In the final half mile I must have passed 300 people and got passed by no-one. As I crossed the finish line I stopped my watch and checked my time – 3:20. I did it.

Race Day Equipment
Hat: Never – it messes my hair
Shoes: Red Saucony Grid Type A3 Racing Flats
I like these shoes because they are super light under 7 oz. These shoes are bright red with disco laces (black with silver thread running throughout). I exchanged the laces for elastic quick ties so I could get them on and off fast during triathlon. I also like the elastic laces because my feet swell a lot when I race and elastic laces keep the shoe from becoming too tight near the end of a race. The best part of the shoe is the sole – It says “Kiss This” on the heel.
Socks: Icebreaker Wool
I must have been a sheep in my last life because I wear wool for everything. I wear wool socks and wool t-shirts for running all year long. The wool socks offer a great fit, provide lots of cushioning, wick away moisture, hold up well in the rain, and best of all they regulate the temperature. They keep my feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer. After the marathon I had one small blister on my right toe.
Shirt: Icebreaker Super Light Weight Wool
Like the socks, a wool shirt offers a lot of comfort in adverse conditions. The super find merino wool does not scratch and fabric looks great when it’s on. Since I started wearing wool shirts, I have not had any chaffing. I no longer need to put lube on my neck or underarms when I run and I don’t need Band-Aids on my nipples any more either.
Pants: CW-X Compression Pants
Compression pants are supposed to make you faster because they keep the muscle stable and it reduces fatigue. They also claim the compression is designed to improve circulation. This makes sense to me so I wear them when I race. I am a big sissy when it comes to my knees and I cover up whenever it gets below 12 degrees. I also wear these compression pants the day after the race to promote healing.

Race Day Nutrition
Pre Race Nutrition: Granola and of course, coffee
I am paranoid about drinking too much the morning of a race. I make a point to hydrate in the days preceding the race so the morning of, I sip a coffee and that is about it for fluids. My morning meal was a cup of granola and then a Power Bar energy bar exactly 60 before the race started.

Race Nutrition: Gu Gels
I take four gels with me when I race. I take the first one 15 minutes before the race, the second one after one hour and then every 45 minutes. Gels really work. I have bonked in the past and a gel got me going in less than a minute. During the race I have nothing for the first hour and then alternate between water and gator aid for the rest of the race. I walk through the water stations for the last 15 km.
Post Race Nutrition: Everything in sight
I suffer from really bad cramps post race if I don’t eat enough. After the race I downed two bottles of water and a Gator Aid recovery drink, and ate everything I passed and everything in my post race kit – two bagels, one banana, a bag of organic potato chips, a pack of raisons, and two Power Bar recovery bars.

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  • Congratulations Darren on a great race! Qualifying again at Boston is a great achievement! Congrats!

  • Great read about your race Darren…..makes it feel like we are there with you sans the pain and fatigue. Congratulations! Maybe will do a marathon someday and who knows the Boston……good luck on the next ones!

  • Great report Darren and congrats. I was in Boston for my first time this year too and was in your corral. Quite an experience.

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