Of course running the 120th Boston Marathon necessitated being in New England, so I'd planned to arrive on Friday of the marathon weekend and return Monday evening almost immediately after the conclusion of the race. While I initially had intended on making the eight-or-so hour drive into the USA (because I do love a good road trip) I did figure out that it might well me more economical (and less mental stress) to fly down - and thanks to the generosity of my friend Stan I was able to capitalize on some tucked-away Aeroplan miles to get me to Logan Airport and back. I was also the recipient of a gracious offer of a place to stay over the marathon weekend. As anyone who's run this race before knows, accommodation can come at a real premium - room rates are jacked for this event that draws national/international attention, and hotel bookings are made literally almost a year in advance. So it was quite fortuitous/serendipitous when my wife Ally and I had dinner with a friend and his family last summer - and one of those family members happened to be a nephew who was on conference in Toronto but whose home was in (where else?) the greater Boston area. When this topic of conversation came up over the dinner table I casually slid my way over a few chairs to where he was seated and let slip that I had qualified for the Boston Marathon and had plans to run the 2016 edition. Well - doesn't he say "we love the marathon - we usually join a midnight bike ride down the course route the day before the race, and if you do come why don't you stay with us?"
Music to my ears.
-- Friday --
With those pieces in place Ally (together with Robyn, our 12 year old) was kind enough to wake up at 4:30 am to drive me down to the airport to catch my morning flight. The standard guidelines that they give you for flights into the US is to arrive two hours before scheduled departure - and this day I needed all of that. Who knew that a Friday morning would be so crazy in the customs and security area?
The flight over to the east coast of Massachusetts was perfectly uneventful, and having landed at Logan it was an easy hop onto a no-fare shuttle bus to the South Station train/bus hub to catch a commuter rail line out to the town of Needham (just south of Wellesley and about equidistant from the start and finish lines of the race). I was met at train station by my friend Mike and the family dog (Mocha), and after settling in at the house we took in an afternoon walk in the local forest.
The evening consisted of meeting the remainder of the Yeh family, enjoying a lavish spread of a meal together and then being schooled in a friendly (is there such a thing?) game of Exploding Kittens.
-- Saturday --
It was nice to be able to snag a true sleep-in after an early start the day before (I snuck in my 50 min. run at 3 a.m. before the pre-flight routine) - trying to bank hours of sleep is always an integral part of the prep for any marathon for me, and so waking up to a bright New England morning with no alarm necessary was just what the doctor ordered.
The morning was a lazy one spent reading and re-reading various posts about how to properly handle to the morning-of logistics for the Boston Marathon, as well as scouting out a few more race reports. After lunch my new friend Sunu was gracious enough to drive me into downtown Boston to hit up the expo and check out a few sights. I'd initially considered heading down solo earlier in the morning but decided not to be such a loner neglecting the company of my host family - and while I believe that that I indeed opted for the better choice I'm almost certain that waiting until the noon-ish hour to nab my race kit and check out the exhibitors put me/us into the most hairy window of time possible. It was an absolute zoo of people - not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart.
Guess who's making a bee-line for the Skechers Performance booth!
One of the most unbelievable moments at the expo happened while I was chatting with Anna from Skechers' corporate HQ and who should I see flowing by in and amongst the throngs of people but my buddy "Fast" Bill Steinburg! I was absolutely astounded that we should cross paths in the sea of humanity at the Hynes Convention Centre especially since we had had any designs on meeting there whatsoever - but then again we did happen upon each other in the aftermath of the Around The Bay Road Race in the FirstOntario Centre, so perhaps we each have our homing signals fixed on one another. Apart from that I really did use the visit to the expo only to retrieve my bib and race kit, exercising (what I believe to be) a high level of self-control in not purchasing anything from the multitude of vendors - not even the vaunted official 'celebration jacket' which was designed in some questionable colour combination to commemorate this year's Boston Marathon.
Sunu then led me down toward the finish line area on Boylston St., and after a few obligatory shots of the most famous painted section of road in the running world we extended our mini-tour down to Boston Common and back along the boutique-y Newbury Street. After one last stop at the Boston Public Library it was time to return to the car and out to the suburbs again.
-- Sunday --
Just about everyone who's prepped for the Boston Marathon says that this is the 'put up your feet and rest' day, despite the temptation to tour even more sights in and around Beantown. I did snag a crisp, early morning shakeout/Western Aussie carboload run and then decided to join Sunu and her son Christian for the morning service at their church. They were having a special 'hymn sing' Sunday given that many families were away as this was the start of "Spring Week", a holiday period for the school system that mirrors (and in this case complements) March Break. I just have to say that if my arrival in Boston could in any way be considered evidence of my so-called running prowess, attending a church hymn-sing painfully reveals my lack of any appreciable tone or voice modulation.
The rest of the day consisted of a giant plate of bucatini pasta for lunch, a couple of episodes of Daredevil on Netflix, watching Mike and Christian prep for their midnight bike ride along the marathon course route, and getting my gear laid out for the morning.
-- Monday --
Monday morning started in the same way that most marathon days start for me - a 15 min. kickstarter jog right out of bed followed by breakfast (this day it was a bagel with peanut butter + honey along with a blueberry muffin), then a shower and finally donning the race apparel. Sunu was kind enough to offer to drive me to the runner drop-off point in Hopkinton on her way to work - this saved me taking the commuter rail down to Boston Common to catch the buses to shuttle us up to the Athletes' Village in Hopkinton. Still, in order to avoid the traffic congestion in the small town roads of Hopkinton we needed to arrive there are 7 a.m. - a full three hours before the scheduled start of the first wave of open-class runners (to which I was assigned).
As you might anticipate there was a decent level of security as runners loaded up to board the shuttle buses (yes, even the drop-offs had to hop on a short bus ride) to the Athletes' Village, including a full wand inspection. On the short trip I had the opportunity to chat it up with my seatmate named Joe, who'd travelled in from the Dallas, TX area. He is an English professor at Texas Christian University, and a speedy 2:28 marathoner. I hit him up for any tips and tricks he had set his PB here at Boston, and his advice was much the same as everything that I'd read - go easy over the first five miles, and put whatever you have left into the final five because it's a smooth downhill stretch.
The Athletes' Village is basically two large sports fields populated by some giant event tenting (for shade), extensive rows of portable toilets and otherwise littered with runners sprawled out on the grass trying to stay as rested as possible before engaging the test of endurance before them. I tried not to wander around too much (as I usually like to keep moving) but before I plopped myself down on some trash bags that I toted along with me I had my first 'celebrity encounter' of the morning. I recognized the face of one runner as he was coming my way and clicked in that I'd come across J-Mac, or Jason McElwain. If you haven't seen his story on social media it's well worth checking out - and it was great to chat with him however briefly about his experience of running the Boston Marathon.
The next couple of hours were spent intermittently closing my eyes for a quick snoozle, doing a few warmup exercises and otherwise people-watching. As is usually the case I find it fascinating to see all the different ages, shapes and sizes that runners come in - especially ones that are faster than me (which were easily identifiable since for Boston the bib numbers are assigned based on qualification times and not order of registration - so the lower the bib number, the more blazing fast you are!).
My second celebrity run-in was as the PA announcer called all first wave/red-bibbed competitors to enter the walkway leading to the starting chute. By this time the porta-potty lineups were enormous and as I weaseled my way through the thousand or so people waiting to answer nature's call I happened upon - who else? - but "Fast" Bill. Seriously - what are the odds that two guys from the same hometown would bump into each other in unplanned fashion twice over the course of Boston Marathon weekend. It certainly defies my calculations ... anyway, a quick check-in with and wish of good luck to Bill and I carried on toward the chute entry point.
** Parental guidance alert - the following content may not be suitable for all audiences **
[In the process of doing my pre-race research I came across a helpful little series of Boston Marathon race tips on the Runner's World community web forum that I found helpful - not the least of which was a suggestion (for the guys) that a Gatorade-type bottle and a decently-sized garbage bag can make for a personal porta-potty. Believe me, that came in handy just before I made the trek toward the start line.]
** end of questionable content **
The third celebrity encounter occurred just as I joined the throngs who comprised the Wave 1 runners as I happened to spot a familiar-looking, deeply tanned and muscular man in a yellow North Face singlet. I immediately recognized him to be Dean Karnazes and I approached him just to say "can I get a fist bump for good luck?" He was incredibly gracious and said "I sure hope it helps - have we run together before?" I then let him know that I'd met him during a fun run with Team Running Free back in 2014, and again as he was the official starter for last summer's The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50 miler in Collingwood. To my amazement he said "I remember that day - it was really hot" (having hit a humidex of nearly 35°C) and also commenting "Blue Mountain was a lot tougher course than I thought it would be"! He wasn't in any rush to brush me off and in fact walked with me for a minute or two before being approached by other runners who similarly recognized him as a modern running icon.
After loading up on some free sunscreen and bypassing the last field of a hundred some-odd porta-potties I joined the other sardines in Corral 6 of Wave 1. The national anthem was played, starting field announced, and starter's pistol fired. We were off.
Crammed in as we were it was about a three to four minute shuffle to just get across the true starting line. The guy beside me in the corral (from Colorado) noted that we would likely be running in close proximity to one another for the first four to five miles due to congestion, and that that's why the corral system is so important - otherwise we'd be sandwiched in between slower runners or much faster runners, resulting in frustration and trip-ups either way. However, the saving grace during that initial stretch was that it is an elevation drop of some 200+ feet so things kept moving.
One of the first sensations to hit me was how hot it was already. The call was for a high of 66°F (about 19°C) but with no real canopy/cover and a near-cloudless sky the sun factor made it feel all of that and more by just after 10 a.m. While this might (and did) up the challenge for the marathoners it also lent itself to gorgeous viewing conditions and therefore tons of spectators out cheering us on and soaking in the pleasant springtime conditions.
The second sensation/observation was just how hilly the entire course actually felt ... most of the fame is reserved for "Heartbreak Hill" in Newton (at just after the 20 mile mark) but from start to finish it was like one big roller coaster ride. It wasn't enough to have the sun beating down on us (as my singlet-revealing sunburn can attest to) but the 'over hill and dale' terrain really did take a toll on the quads long before the famed rise near Boston College.
The third of my 3 Hs for this race was headwind, as this contributed not only to the fatigue level when it kicked in at around the halfway point but I'm sure that it also insidiously accelerated the dehydration process for almost all of us who were running into it. And it wasn't the gusty kind either - which could have made it psychologically devastating for anyone trying to hit a particular time goal for the day - but it was steady enough that before long it faded into the background such that you didn't notice it in a discernible way except to observe your per-mile pace continually creeping higher and higher.
With all that being said there were many great moments along the route for me - like
- seeing so many neighbourhoods and groups (even one motorcycle club, all in full biker colours) setting up their own unofficial aid stations
- being offered the equivalent of at least two full bags' worth of strawberry Twizzlers along the way
- high (or low) fiving kids and the kids-at-heart lining the streets
- the Wellesley College scream tunnel - yes, hundreds upon hundreds of girls holding up homemade signs and yelling at the top of their lungs "kiss me!" ... this was an unbelievable boost of energy (and unplanned injection of pace), and while I didn't kiss any of them I was momentarily tempted when I saw the sign "Kiss me if you don't want Trump to be president!"
- passing by and cheering on the uber-inspirational Rick Hoyt (being pushed by Bryan Lyons, stepping in for the now-retired Dick Hoyt)
- hearing someone yell from out of the crowds behind me: "do you run for Skechers Canada? I saw your post on Instagram!"
- making my way over to touch three Canadian flags being waved by roadside fans
- powering through a nasty right hamstring spasm at the 25th mile marker and not having to stop or be reduced to a walk
- turning down the four-block homestretch on Boylston Street and managing to shift into one more gear to pass four runners before finally crossing the finish line.
Immediately after crossing the finish line I kept on moving as I had designs on walking the 1.5 miles down to the South Station terminal in order to catch a commuter rail train back to Mike's place. What was very cool was that in a way I finshed the race where I'd begun - having turned to look around me at the finish line and spying Jay, the guy from Colorado, who was standing beside me in the starting corral. He'd finished just a few seconds ahead of me (talk about evenly grouped!) but confirmed that it was indeed a difficult day as he'd finished the 2015 Boston Marathon (in windy, cold and rainy conditions) a full 13 minutes faster than he had on this day - and this he attributed to the weather.
I guess if u run 26.2 miles it's reasonable to take the @MBTA_CR back congrats @pbfvoo @necn pic.twitter.com/YwzAfUxKbj— Mimi Wishner Segel (@MimiSegelNECN) April 18, 2016
I was able to snag a quick shower back at Mike's place before he graciously gave me a ride to Logan Airport to hop my homeward bound flight. One of the things that I was looking forward to on the way home was being able to fly with Stan who was catching the same flight back after having come to town to support the Adaptive Runners that he coaches. We deconstructed everything from race conditions to coaching conundrums to the state of the Toronto Raptors' post-season drive.
All told I had an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I've been asked whether or not I will return to run the Boston Marathon again (having actually clocked another qualifying time at the race), but I'm not sure that I will, at least for the foreseeable future. It's not for lack of enjoyment or appreciation of the event - it's because (a) it's not cheap, even with a standing invitation to stay with my good friends the Yehs; (b) I have other destination races on my list - like hopefully Chicago in October 2017; and (c) I know first-hand what it's like to try so hard for so long to qualify only to have your hopes dashed because there were so many registrants that you didn't make the cut (since the B.A.A. takes the fastest times first). If by my restraint an extra place opens up for someone else to cross off a bucket list item then I'm happy to help make a dream come true.
Because one of mine has - thanks to the support, interest, encouragement and sacrifices of my family and friends. Boston 2016 is now a memory ... one that I'm privileged and honoured to have.
Race gear for the 2016 Boston Marathon:
- Skechers Performance Division racerback singlet (Meb 2014-style) and split shorts
- Zensah compression calf sleeves
- Skechers GOMeb Speed 2
- Headsweats race hat
- Running Room no-show socks
- Garmin Forerunner 305
- PowerBar gels