Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting it Done: Boston style

Running a marathon is so much more than a one-day affair. It is often a four to six month commitment that involves training and lot of preparation. For the first time in close to a year, I was healthy and truly committed to marathon training. Even while my skiracing unexpectedly took over February and early March, I still got in four days of running including all of my long runs. I ran five days during weeks I wasn’t skiing and even had my first six-day, 50+ mile week since my ultra-marathon. As I often say, I was trying to “get the miles in while the getting was good.” Finally, I was thrilled to meet a handful of new runners this training season, including my sighted guide Michelle Becker.

I had one setback in late March due to a minor respiratory infection that forced me to miss one week of running. I then struggled through my last 20-mile run due to a stomach bug. This left me less confident than I was in early March.

Marathon Monday is always a special day for Boston as well as most runners who are visually impaired and a part of Team with a Vision (TWAV). Our entire team gathers at a vision center about 200 yards from the start line which is temperature controlled, has two bathrooms, stocked with food and drinks, and full of some amazing athletes-runners and guides. This year the four hours seemed to fly by. I was so focused on being properly hydrated I spent most of the time in the bathroom line!

Michelle and I walking to the start.

All of a sudden it was 11:00AM and time to get moving. So much for stretching and rolling out. The plan was to run with Randy Pierce and his team because he was starting at the same time and had a similar goal time. However, when we got into the corrals with thousands of other runners, we could not find Randy or any other TWAV runner.  

The first mile at Boston is one of the toughest. You don’t want to go out too hard seeing that it is essentially a downhill start. More than that, it is INCREDIBLY crowded and very difficult to get around other runners. Michelle, who guided me for the first half, did a miraculous job guiding me safely and quickly around runners, including many who were wearing headphones (very difficult to hear a sighted guide asking to slide over a bit), and we were close to our target pace.

Somewhere around mile 1 Randy and his team came up behind us. Michelle and I slid in right behind Randy. However, the course was still so crowded and we continued to get separated at which point we fell behind.

Our 5K split was within seconds of our target and I was feeling strong. My legs had a ton of spring and energy in them and I felt as relaxed as you can be running a marathon. We held 8:30s to low 8:40s for the next four to five miles which was right were we needed to be. My breathing was even during a quick 8:27 (on my Garmin so somewhat accurate) mile 6 so my confidence was growing.

Somewhere around mile 6 Erich Manser and his team of guides (Peter Sagal and the super-fast Joe DeGutis) came up from behind. Erich was looking like the machine he is and was comfortable talking away. Within minutes our group caught back up with Randy and his team. It was really cool for the three teams to run together, even if only for a few minutes. Erich was pushing hard and pulled away from Randy and me. I slid back in behind Randy and settled into a comfortable pace.

I should add that Greg Hallerman, who was running with Randy, created this amazing spreadsheet that broke down the mile-by-mile elevation and created a fabulous breakdown (per mile and overall splits) of our target goals. So I knew we would be good as long as we kept up with Randy because Greg was keeping a keen eye on our splits.

For me, the weather was not a factor as I would rather enjoy running in cooler temps and rain than warm and sunny. However, the footing at time was slick and there were plenty of puddles and discarded cloths on the course. Michelle was spot on in calling out these hazards and ensuring that I didn’t trip over them.

I was still nervous about keeping an 8:40 pace but continued to plug along right behind Randy. Miles 8, 9, 10 and 11 were incredibly consistent with splits of 8:35, 8:38, 8:35, and 8:35. When we passed over the train tracks in Natick/Framingham I knew the Wellesley crowds were right around the corner.

Guide Transition. Photo courtesy of Darlene DeVita Photography

We picked up my second guide, Mike Flynn, at mile 12.4. Mike and I have done a lot of running together so I was excited for him to join in on the fun. We blasted through the Wellesley tunnel (sorry, no kisses as I had a pace to keep) and began counting down the miles.

Guide transition. Thanks, Michelle. Hello, Mike

My ½ marathon split goal was 1:53:50 which we bested by 6 seconds! My overall ½ marathon best is 1:51 so I was pushing hard.

I started to feel a lull setting in and began to question my ability to keep pace with Randy. I “jokingly” mentioned this and he built my confidence back up with strong words of encouragement and support.

My mind was focused on the Turnpike overpass that comes up around mile 15. Many people say this is the toughest hill on the course. I don’t think it is the toughest but it is definitely underrated especially seeing that you are completely exposed to the wind. The reward is a long downhill that for the most part carries you to mile 18 where the fun begins.

Turning onto Commonwealth Ave is one of the most energizing and exciting moments of the race. Your legs are feeling it and you know the real work lies just ahead. Making the sharp right onto Comm Ave. you are immediately greeted by the Newton Firehouse crew and both sides of the course are wall-to-wall of people screaming their heads off. It is hard not to feel like a rock-star turning this corner.

Our group became a bit more quiet as we knew it was time to get to work. This is where you learn if your training will pay off or break you. I thought about all the hills I ran; climbing up Summit Ave. at the beginning AND end of long runs, trying to keep my feet moving forward as I slowly climbed Parker Hill Ave, and closing my eyes while running up Peter’s Hill in the Arboretum hoping I was near the top. I was not going to let these miserable (in the best way possible) moments go to waste.

Our goal was to climb the hills in the very low 9s which we accomplished on the first one at mile 18 (9:03). We rode the downhills and small rollers knowing that Heartbreak Hill was looming off in the distance. Should add here that I saw a number of friends cheering and yelling my name which provided an incredibly boost and sense of accountability to keep moving forward. Thank you.

We were ready for HH and I whispered a few (Let’s go Robidoux) mantras to myself. In my mind we handled HH like bosses. Our group reminded one another to keep calm, relaxed, and to listen to our breathing. Although it was tough and I wanted to walk, we pushed through it. As we crested Randy, in his booming deep voice, yelled out “YOU DID NOT BREAK MY HEART!” This sent chills through my body and will be one of my all-time marathon highlights.

Randy & I and our teams banging out the hills. Photo Credit to Randy's team.               

One last hill at Boston College and the real race begins. Entering BC, Mike turned from guide to hype-man as he implored the BC students (Mike is a proud Eagle and was rocking his BC hat backwards) to “make some noise” and noise they did!  

We crested the last hill and made the big sweeping turn onto Chestnut Hill Ave. The crowds were loud and raucous which is what I needed. My quads were shot but I picked up some energy knowing we were close to Boston and Jill and Lucy were just a couple of miles away.

When we turned onto Beacon I wanted to ride the downhill while knowing I still had a lot to run. Like last year, this is always a tough stretch for me. I kept asking Mike if we had passed Coolidge Corner and he kept telling me no. We saw Erich and his crew right around mile 24 which provided some short relief to my constant thinking about how more miles I had to go.

As we neared Jill, Lucy and our friends at mile 23.5 I managed to drop into the high 7:00s for a minute or two (this is like flying for me). Mike was masterful in guiding me around the crowds as some runners had begun to walk. Finally, I saw Jill and our friends. I knew I was close to my goal so I threw out some high 5s and kept plugging along. Shortly after we passed the TWAV cheering section which provided yet another boost (DGs represent!).

I was spent and out of gas. I popped a shot-block for a final burst of energy and it backfired. I was breathing so hard that I chocked on it and just outside Kenmore I had to walk for a few seconds to clear my throat.

It seemed like it took days for me to get to the mile 25 marker. I thought I’d already passed it but then I saw it (sure I swore a few times right about here) just ahead. I somehow managed to run this mile in 8:36.

The rain drops and small text of my total elapsed time made it tough for me to read my watch. I thought I had 10 minutes to run the final 1.2 miles which I thought was doable. As we came up from the Mass Ave underpass I knew the “right on Hereford” was just ahead. My legs were lead and I was running on fumes. I was weaving like Glass Joe. One last “left onto Boylston” and this is it. I pushed as hard as I could while not knowing my time. I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was and Mike said to just keep running.

I crossed the finish line with my arms raised and nearly collapsed. I managed to stop my Garmin but couldn't see the finish time. We were kindly directed to the VIP tent (the elites were already likely showered & finishing their post-race meal) where we were able to sit and get some water and bananas. I got the race text saying that I finished in 3:50:18. I laughed (and dropped the f-bomb) because this matched my fastest marathon time.

I am very proud of my finishing time. Boston is a tough course and to throw up my fastest time in any marathon is special. I also know that I left absolutely nothing out there. Sure, if I would have known I was so close I could have run 1 second faster or maybe 21 seconds to reach my goal. But I know I did the best I could. I trained hard in one of the worst Boston winters ever, was prepared and ready to go come race day. No regrets.

Running is an individual activity but when you add in sighted guides and friends who are running with TWAV, it becomes a team sport. I was honored to share so many miles with Randy and his team, enjoyed a few strides with Erich and his guides, and got a little pick me up every time I came across another TWAV runner. WE rolled deep and kicked some ass out there. Most importantly, raised awareness about the abilities of runners who are blind/visually impaired.

My sighted guides Mike and Michelle were beyond amazing. Boston is the toughest course to guide on. Incredibly crowded in the beginning, packed water stops throughout, and more crowds and obstacles the last few miles. I felt comfortable and safe for the entire 26.2 miles which allowed me to run my/our race. All done while providing support and words of encouragement.

Thank you to Jill and Lucy who supported me throughout the entire training season. Your support is crucial and always much appreciated. Especially when I decided to do “some ski racing” on the side which made an already busy schedule that much more challenging. You two rock!  


Until the next (running or ski) race….


Mike and I near the finish line!