Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Boston Marathon 2011 or "Doing It the Hard Way"

Strangers stopping strangers
just to shake their hands
Everybody is playing

In the Heart of Gold band
-Robert Hunter

Last year, my marathon report was all about the journey and how surreal the trip was. This year, I think the most appropriate theme for my report is teamwork. This is not what I had expected going into the race, as I had only done 1 training run with my team (or anyone else for that matter). But as I discovered during the race, even though running is an inherently solo endeavor, I really couldn't have made it to the finish without a whole lot of people. I was hoping to keep this year's report shorter, but there are so many people I need to mention, I'm not sure it's possible.

Okay, so first off, I need to thank all of my financial supporters. Over the past 2 years, I have raised over $19,000 for the American Liver Foundation. The team overall has had another successful season, raising over $1 million. Your support not only helps the patients, it also keeps me motivated to train through the long winter. I wouldn't have made it to Hopkinton without you.

I also have to thank my wife and kids for putting up with my training schedule. Their love and support is what keeps me going. Once again, I wrote "Grateful Dad" on my jersey because it really embodies the spirit that drives me to run. Thank you to our nanny Stephanie too, who worked overtime and weekends so that I could get out there and run for 3 hours at a time.

Liz dropped me off at Hopkinton State Park where I picked up a bus to the start. I ended up sitting next to Liver teammate Dick C. Like me, Dick has dealt with a bout of liver disease. It was a pleasure finally getting to meet him and it made the journey to the athlete’s village a little more fun.

Once at the village, I realized that I had made my first mistake of the day – not bringing along enough clothes to keep warm. As I sat there shivering in the cold, trying to use the sunlight and a trash bag to retain heat, I worried about how much glycogen I was burning up just trying to stay warm. Oops. On the positive side, I did get to meet up with my friend Luau. I ribbed him a little bit about his outfit, his shoes and whatever else I could think of, because well, that’s what you do with old friends.

As I was getting ready, I debated whether to put on black or orange calf sleeves (like last year). Given the grief I had put Luau through about his outfit, I decided to just go with black. Besides, I was already wearing my orange Liver team hat and jersey, and I thought the calf sleeves would be just way too much orange. Then I saw my teammate Lynn getting ready. Lynn is an amazing runner - regularly running below 3:15 - and he has also survived a bout of liver disease. In fact, he ran his first marathon with the Liver Team right after completing interferon therapy. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that interferon treatment is no fun - the months of low grade fever, body aches and other flu like side effects made it hard for most patients to even complete a full round of therapy (luckily the protocol has improved in recent years). Lynn is an inspiration to me, and when I saw that he was putting on bright orange arm warmers in addition to his orange jersey ("Mr. Sunshine") and orange hat, I decided go ahead and put on my orange calf sleeves to add a little bling. I may not be fast, but considering that I'm lucky to even be here right now, I guarantee that running the Boston Marathon means as much to me as it does for any qualifier.

I got the chance to catch up with a few other teammates including Jim S. who was running his first marathon. As lucky as I am to be able to run, Jim has an even better story.  Amazingly, he had a liver transplant back in 2009 and has since run numerous races for the team. Even more amazing, he somehow managed to get Gregg Allman as his "Patient Match". I have to figure out how he pulled that one off. I shook his hand, wished him a good run and headed up to the start.

Miles 1-5
9:13, 8:52, 8:40, 8:48, 8:52
I was much more nervous this year than last for some reason. I even had trouble sleeping the night before, which wasn’t the case last year. I think it’s because I now knew how much pain and suffering there could be if things went wrong. I was also better trained this time, so I was eager to see how my body would react. I still had some butterflies in my stomach as we finally passed the starting line. The first five miles were pretty uneventful. I was trying to hold back to keep enough juice in the legs for the last half of the race.

My main goal was to come in under 4:00 (9:09 minutes/mile). But my double-secret probation target was 3:49xx (8:46 mile pace). Based on my half-marathon PR of 1:44:24 back in November (8:00 min pace) and the fact that I had a great training season, this didn’t seem like an unreasonable target. I averaged 8:55 per mile in this section, so I was on target with my plan – start off a little conservative, get on pace through Newton, climb the hills and get home with whatever I had.

Miles 6-10
8:59, 8:28, 8:27, 8:29, 8:39
Around mile 6, I saw a Liver runner to my right and decided to say hello. His name was Brian, and he came in from Chicago to run with us. It turns out that he is also friends with Luau through DailyMile and had been on the lookout for me. We ran a mile or two together, and the conversation helped me stay relaxed.

Further up, I saw another Liver teammate. I recognized her because I used her as a pacer on the only team training run that I attended this year (a 21 miler from Hopkinton to Newton). Her pace was perfect and smooth on that run, so I went over to say hi and thanks. I’m embarrassed to say I still don’t know who she is, but we ended up running near each other for probably the next 10 miles. We must’ve passed each other about 4 or 5 times. I found that having a teammate running the same pace was really helpful, so whoever you are, thanks!

I also ran into teammate Ruth B. at almost the exact same spot as last year. We chatted for a little while as we came into Framingham, and I really enjoyed getting the chance to socialize a bit because I had trained alone for the whole winter.
Mile 9, I don’t know what it is about mile 9, but this year I saw a guy dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog in almost the exact same spot as I saw the Cat in the Hat last year. I didn’t even think about chasing down the Sonic guy this year – I just stayed on my pace and let him go. I did hear that he finished sometime over 4 hours. So technically I beat him, but I don’t remember seeing him again after mile 9.

In retrospect, I realize that I was going a little too hard at this point. Those 8:2xs should've been more like 8:39s or 8:49s. Ten or twenty seconds per mile doesn't sound like a lot, but when you bank those seconds this early in a 26 mile race, you usually pay them back with usurious interest in the last 6 miles.

Miles 11-15
8:54, 8:46, 9:04, 8:35, 8:53
Looking at my paces through Wellesley, it's now apparent to me why I kept passing and getting passed by my mystery pacer. I was all over the place, while she was clipping off consistent miles. Anyway, after enjoying the Wellesley scream tunnel (they were much louder this year), I hit the half way point in 1:55:14. So far so good. I felt pretty strong - no weird mystery pains or numb feet like last year.

Miles 16-20
8:31, 8:59, 9:19, 9:07, 9:40
Mile 16 is the big downhill and once again I used it to pick up speed (even though I noted in last year’s report that it was mistake). I just can’t help myself I guess. But really, I think this is where I made another tactical error. The downhill is pretty steep, and the eccentric motion does a lot of damage to the quads. Although I took the initial downhills out of Hopkinton easy, I think I hit this one a little too hard.

I started up the 128 overpass hill and said hi to Brett G. as he passed me on his way to another negative split (which very few people manage to do at Boston). As we hit the top of the hill, I was surprised to see my friend Tracey standing there cheering. Tracey and her husband Zeke have been great friends of ours for years, so I reversed course for a few steps and gave her a hug. It gave me a nice mental boost.

Next up was the Liver Team Cheering Section. This was a highlight in 2010, and it was again this year. It was so awesome seeing the sea of orange hats and shirts and hearing them make so much noise.  There are so many people that make this event happen for us, and seeing them all there really pumped me up. I saw some of our Liver Champions there too which made me really happy.  They are the reasons why we run.

As I neared the mile 17 marker, the first sign of trouble hit. I had a side stitch appear out of nowhere. I was taking in water much more often than I did in training because even though the temps were cool, the sun was quite warm. Plus, we’d been training in tundra-like conditions all winter, so even 55 or 60 degrees felt hot. But I think the extra water caused that side cramp. I started digging my fingers into my side (right where my liver is) hoping that it would go away.

Augie cheering the runners
Maya waiting for Dad

I took the corner around the firehouse and started up the 2nd of the 4 Newton hills. No problem except for the cramp. Coming over the top, I could see my family waiting for me right past the 18 mile sign. Apparently my kids had crashed a marathon party at Brett’s house (he lives right on the course), helping themselves to snacks and drinks and jumping into the bouncy house that Brett had set up for his kids. Hilarious. When I got to the 18 mile mark, my son (4 years old) said, “Dad – you ran 18 miles! Great job!” I laughed and told him I still had 8 more to run. Man I love those kids. I gave my wife and daughter a kiss and hit the road. No need to get overly sentimental - they know where they are on my list of inspirations. My shirt said it all. Anyway, taking those few seconds of break seemed to have helped the cramp, so I was able to get back running on pace. I still felt really good.

At mile 20 is the 3rd Newton hill (2nd if you're not counting the 128 overpass). This is where I slammed into the wall. Although I ran 9:07 for mile 19, that included about 15 seconds of break with my family. So I was still pacing in the high 8:00s and feeling good. Mile 20 though was significantly slower at 9:40. I suppose that's why they call it the "Wall". When your body runs out of glycogen, you just shut down and it happens pretty quick. At this point, I started burning fat for fuel. That sounds great for weight loss, but it's really bad during a race because it's a much slower conversion. My breathing started getting labored and my heartrate increased quite a bit . The hill at mile 20 isn't really that bad, but the timing of it couldn't be worse. I went from feeling pretty good to feeling like crying. My quads (that I had just trashed on the downhills) were burning. I tried to get my cadence up, but my legs felt like they were moving in quicksand.

Finally I finished that hill, and then I heard a "Go Liver!" next to me - it was my mystery pacer. I hadn't seen her since I blasted through that downhill in mile 16. But just like in Wellesley, she kept putting up steady splits and re-passed me as I slowed. We stayed together for a little bit, but I was cooked. I slowed down to have a Gu and some water at the next stop, and that was the last I saw of her.

Miles 21-26.2
9:50, 9:33, 9:51, 9:18, 10:03, 12:23
After losing my mystery pacer, I started to despair. I still had Heartbreak Hill in front of me, my quads completely trashed, and now the pain was starting to chip away at my resolve. Despite all the runners and the crowd, I felt completely alone. I took a deep breath and started up the hill.

I had hit this hill countless times during training but never with trashed quads. I couldn't believe how painful it was. Last year I ran the hill without walking and as a reward, my hamstrings seized up immediately afterwards. I started to think about that, started to think about how no matter what I did, there was going to be nothing but a tunnel of pain ahead. Even though I was still in sight of my sub-4:00, my brain started coming up with all sorts of reasons why I should just stop running. When you're in that much agony and the solution is so easy and simple - stop moving your feet - it becomes really hard to keep justifying the misery. The devil on my shoulder won. I decided that I would start walking.

My right foot landed and I was just about to bring my left foot down to stop the run when it happened just like in the movies - deus ex machina. Was it the hand of God? No, it was just the hand of my teammate Corinne patting me on the back. I looked to my right and saw her smile and give a "Go Liver!" cheer. Corinne was one of the first people I'd met back on my first team run in Dec 2009. Since I didn't train with the team this year, I hadn't really talked to her in awhile and I hadn't seen her all day. Yet here she was out of nowhere, just when I was moments from throwing in the towel. She slowed a little and I sped up a little and we ran that stupid hill together. This was doubly good timing for me because a few moments later I heard "Go Mike!" from the crowd and unexpectedly saw my friend Stephanie K. and her family cheering. So at least they didn't see me walking.

We ran together until we crested the hill and descended into the madness of Boston College. I was dying of thirst, so I hit the next water stop and told her to get on to the finish (I think she PR'd!). I was able to use the big downhill to pick up the pace a little, but I could feel my hamstrings and quads twitching a little. Now that my mental resolve had returned, I didn't want to risk having my legs seize up on me like last year, because then I wouldn't be running despite my resolve.

As I passed through the Haunted Mile, I heard someone shouting "Let's go Liver! We're almost there." It was teammate Jared, who I'd never met before but was now making sure that I wouldn't quit. We ran together through Cleveland Circle until I lost him on Beacon Street.

Somewhere at this point, I noticed a few "pace bands" lying ripped on the road. Pace bands are little wristbands with printouts that people use to monitor their splits through the race. I wondered if they had ripped them off because their dreams were shattered, or because they had their goal "in the bag." My money was on broken dreams. And while my dreams were still alive, my legs were doing their best not to make it happen.

I was still running and passing a lot of people, but I was getting passed a lot too. One of those passing me was Coach Brian. Although he has something like a 3:05 qualifying time, he was running a 4:00 pace group for the team. Unfortunately, I didn't see anyone else with him. Even more unfortunate, I couldn't stay with him either. We talked for a bit, and I was able to hang around with him for about a quarter mile, but I couldn't stay at his pace. I started to get confused and concerned - if he started behind me and he was running a 4:00, shouldn't that mean I need to be ahead of him? I looked at my watch but my brain wasn't working well enough to calculate where I was (thus the need for pace bands).

Coming through Coolidge Corner, the slight downhill was really causing the pain in my quads to crank up in intensity again. I thought I had already maxed out on the pain, but as Nigel Tufnel once said, "This one goes to eleven." Then I heard the voice of one of my co-workers, Rich F., in my head (okay, he's more like a boss than a co-worker). He's been my #1 donor over the past two years, and the last thing he said to me before the weekend was, "Okay, I want to see that sub-4:00 on Monday!" So there it was. Giving up was not on the table. Shortly after hearing his Obi-wan like wisdom in my head and switching off my targeting computer, I noticed that the Jae's Cafe on St. Paul street (a really bad Korean restaurant) finally shut down and was now some other restaurant. I don't know why, but I started thinking about how I'd have to try the new place some day (which makes no sense since I don't live in that neighborhood anymore).

Approaching St. Mary's street, I saw another liver teammate walking on the side of the road. I didn't know him either, although I recognized him because I remember seeing him pass me way back in mile 3 or 4. As I slowly ran by, I tapped his shoulder and gave him a "Go Liver". A few moments later, he's running next to me. I learn that his name is Ezra, and that's about all I learn. I don't know how he's feeling or how his race is going or anything. Conversation is superfluous. We just keep going. Everything hurt so bad, but I knew I was still within striking range of my goal.

When we passed the 24 mile mark, the math finally got easy enough for me to process. My watch said 3:35, so I had 25 minutes to run 2 miles. I started to believe that I could pull it off, that it's in the bag. I usually run more than 3 miles pretty easily in 25 minutes. So I eased up a little. Of course I forgot about that pesky 0.2 mile that is attached to the end (and which added about 2 minutes at the pace I was running). And I forgot that I wasn't running even close to my usual pace anymore either. At any rate, we climbed the Mass Pike overpass (which looks like a mountain at that point in the course) and hit the next water stop. I felt like my body was shriveling into a dried husk. As we downed the water, Ezra asked, "How do you want to do this?" I had no idea what he was trying to say - my sugar deprived brain couldn't even process a simple conversation.  I blinked cluelessly for a couple seconds, then I just mumbled, "Let's go."

Right on Hereford
We ran through the immense crowds around Kenmore Square and finally passed the "1 mile to go" mark. As we dipped down in the Mass Ave underpass, the sudden darkness made me hallucinate for a little bit - the road looked squishy and covered in paisley. I guess that's another symptom of bonking. Thankfully it only lasted for a few seconds because soon we were back out in the sunlight making the right onto Hereford Street. Just like last year, I wondered when they put a hill in Back Bay (there is no hill). But unlike last year, I wasn't enjoying the crowds.  The contrast between the photo on the right and the one taken from the same spot last year is quite telling.  After what seemed like hours, we made the left onto Boylston street and I realized that I miscalculated back at mile 24. I looked at my watch ticking closer and closer to 4:00, and then I looked up to see the Finish Line way off in the distance.

Crap, I'm not gonna make it, I thought. Then Ezra started asking me again, "How do you want to do this?" He's yelling at me. Finally, I figured out that he was trying to get me pumped up for the last push. He'd been trying to get me to think about finishing proud with everything I had left. I didn't say anything, but his coaching worked.  I clenched my jaw (see bottom left pic) and just zoned in on the Finish Line.  There were immense crowds on Boylston, but I don't remember hearing anything. All I could see was that clock ahead.  Before I knew it, we were there, crossing the finish line. I looked at the official clock and it said, "4:00:xx" but I knew that since I didn't cross the starting line until a couple of minutes after the start, I had made it. I stopped my watch to see my final time of 3:58:25.

So I PR'd, beating my time from last year by about 6 minutes. I bonked again, but with a little help from a few more training miles and a lot of help from my teammates, I was able to stay running through the whole race. It wasn't pretty, and more than once I had the thought that I'm never going to do this again. As painful as my 2010 race was, this was way worse. But for some reason, all I can think about right now is training for the next one.  Thank you again to everyone who made this possible.

See you next year!