From Issue #50: Boston Marathon: Boston Strong!

A Race Report By David Holmen

On April 21, 2014, I ran the Boston Marathon. This was my third consecutive Boston Marathon and my fourth overall. Each year, I keep finding new reasons why I have to return to this race. This year, it was because of the bombings in 2013. Almost everyone who was at the race last year felt the need to need to return this year.

I wasn’t affected as directly as many people. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t prevented from finishing the race. I wasn’t in the finish area when the bombs exploded. I had already finished, and I was back at my hotel when I heard the news. Within minutes, I was glued to live TV coverage for the rest of the afternoon. At first, little was known about the origin of the explosions. Even when it became clear that they were homemade bombs, little was known about who was responsible. I remember going home, not knowing if the bombers would ever be caught. I felt restless all week. It wasn’t until the manhunt ended that I was able to sleep at night.

This year was about closure. It was about reclaiming the race from the bombers. It was about honoring the victims. I would have been angry if the bombings had merely been an attack on the runners. They were something much worse. They were an attack on the people of Boston. The people most seriously injured were spectators. Some were watching for friends or family members. Others were local residents who watch the race every year. In Boston, the third Sunday in April isn’t just race day — it’s Patriots’ Day, a holiday which commemorates the first battles of the Revolutionary War. The bombers attacked the people on a holiday that celebrates some of the most important events in their history.

One of the reasons I love this race is because I love the Boston spectators. There are other large cities that turn out large enthusiastic crowds, but no other city has spectators for whom the race is such an important part of their history. I love these spectators, and they were the ones who bore the brunt of the attack. I had to return, if for no other reason than to show my support for the people who have been supporting the runners since 1897.

Because so many people were interested in running this year, the field was increased by 9,000 runners. That included over 5,000 who had guaranteed entry this year, because they didn’t have an opportunity to cross the finish line last year. Instead of three waves with 9,000 runners each, this year’s field was divided into four waves. My qualifying time was 3:13:19. In past years, that would have placed me near the back of the first wave. With the increased interest in running this year’s race, average qualifying times were faster. I missed the cut for the first wave, but I was seeded in the first corral of the second wave. While I wouldn’t be starting at the same time as the fastest runners, I would have the rare opportunity to line up right at the starting line.

For a variety of reasons I wanted to have the best race I could. In the weeks leading up to this race, I had reasons to be optimistic. I was gradually rebuilding my mileage base, and I was doing more strenuous training runs. I also had an encouraging result at the Tokyo Marathon, where I ran my fastest time in five months.

My optimism was shaken when I had a less than stellar performance at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon. It was further shaken when I came down with a bad cold the next day. I had two weeks to get over it, but it was one of the worst colds I’ve ever had. I didn’t do much training while I was sick. The first week, I just did a couple of short runs, but mostly I rested. My number one priority was to get healthy. The next week, I started feeling stronger, but I still held back in my training. Colds start quickly, but fade away slowly. That made it hard to know for sure if I would be 100 percent. If nothing else, I would be well-rested.

I flew to Boston on Saturday afternoon. When I originally booked the flight, I had a connection in Detroit. There were non-stop flights, but I was booking with miles, and the non-stop flights would have taken more miles. As is so often the case when you book way in advance, my flight itinerary changed. Usually when that happens, it means less desirable flight times. This time, I got lucky. They switched me to one of the non-stop flights. The day before the race, I got lucky again. There was a last minute equipment change to a larger plane. Suddenly there were more seats in first class, so I was able to get a free upgrade.

My flight arrived a little bit early, and I walked out of the terminal just in time to catch a Silver Line bus. These buses connect to the subway system, and the bus from the airport to South Station is free. When I got to South Station, I bought a seven day pass. Although I would only be in Boston until Tuesday, I knew I would make enough trips to get my money’s worth.

For the second time in three years, I stayed at the downtown Doubletree. Having stayed there before, I knew it was next door to a T station on the orange line. It’s also within walking distance of Boston Common and the finish line. I got to the hotel around 5:30. After checking in and dropping off my bags, I still had time to get to the expo, which was open until 7:00. I didn’t take the time to shop. I just picked up my race packet and went back to the hotel, knowing I could go back Sunday morning. After dropping my race stuff at the hotel, I had dinner at a downtown bar.

Sunday morning, I went back to the expo. This time I was there to check out the booths and look for people I knew. I bought a few things I needed, and I had an opportunity to learn CPR. Then I bumped into Bob Hearn. Bob and I went straight from the expo to the finish line on Boylston Street, where we met dozens of other Marathon Maniacs for group photos at noon.

After the photos, about a dozen of us went to Durgin Park for lunch. Most of us were running the marathon, but Betsy Rogers came all the way from Seattle just to watch the race and cheer. Conspicuous by his absence was Tony Myrie, who was nearing the finish line when the first bomb went off last year. I must have seen footage of Tony crossing the finish line at least two dozen times. He wasn’t able to qualify for this year’s race. It didn’t seem right that Tony wasn’t there.

Durgin Park is my favorite Boston restaurant. They have traditional New England fare, such as their signature Yankee pot roast. They also have a dessert I like called Indian pudding, which is made with cornmeal and molasses. I’ve never been to Boston without eating at Durgin Park, and I’ve never been to Durgin Park without having Indian pudding. This was the third straight year that I had lunch there with other runners on the day before the race.

After lunch, I went to a Boston Marathon museum that was nearby. Then I returned to Copley Square to go to the Boston Public Library. They had a special memorial exhibit for the victims of the 2013 bombings. Although the library isn’t open on Sundays, the memorial was open. Lots of other people had the same plan. The line to get in was long. The memorial exhibit included hand-made tributes and messages from local residents and distant countries. Some were handwritten notes by local students. One of the most moving displays had four crosses with the names and photos of the three people killed by the bombs and the MIT police officer who was killed in action during the manhunt a few days later.

When I got back from the library, I had to spend some time relaxing at the hotel. My feet were feeling tired, and I needed to stay off them for a while. Later in the day, I had dinner with my friends Joan and Jill, who came from Philadelphia to watch the race. We had plans to go to a pizzeria in the North End, not knowing they were closed for Easter. Fortunately, there are lots of Italian restaurants in the North End. Unfortunately, it was hard to find one where we could get a table without a reservation. Eventually, we found another pizzeria where we could get seated right away. The beer and pizza were OK, but the service was interesting. (That’s Minnesotan for not very good.) There was a Red Sox game on TV. The sound was off, but from what we could see, they started the game with tributes to many of the people associated with the events of last year’s race. After dinner, I organized my clothes for the race and did my best to get to sleep early.

I didn’t sleep well. Despite lots of wishful thinking, my cold wasn’t going away. I felt OK during the day, but I couldn’t lie down without coughing and that kept me awake for hours. It took half the night, but I eventually learned that if I could suppress the urge to cough long enough, I could relax and get to sleep.

Ever since the bombs in 2013, most large races have improved their security. This race was no exception. Despite the obvious difficulty of securing a venue that’s 26 miles long, race officials and local law enforcement were determined to make this the safest marathon ever. That meant a few rule changes. In the past, runners could check a gear bag at the start village in Hopkinton, and it would be delivered to the finish. This year, no large bags were allowed in the start village. If you needed warm clothes at the finish, you could still check a bag, but it had to be checked before boarding the buses at Boston Common.

Because it’s a point to point race, and because it takes hundreds of buses to transport runners from Boston Common to the start village in Hopkinton, runners need to board buses hours before the race starts. With morning temperatures in the low 40s, everyone needs to wear extra layers until they’re ready to walk to the start corrals. Anything you weren’t going to wear during the race had to be left behind in Hopkinton. All the clothes left behind were donated to local charities.

The last forecast I saw called for an overnight low near 40 with temperatures climbing into the 60s in the afternoon. Those are warm temperatures for running, but it was going to be cold sitting on the ground outside for two hours. I needed to bring enough layers to keep warm, but not bring anything that I wasn’t willing to lose. Most notably, I had to remind myself not to bring accessories, such as the case for my sunglasses.

Because I wasn’t in the first wave, I didn’t need to board a bus until after 7:00. Doubletree starts serving breakfast at 6:00, so I actually got to eat a real breakfast on the morning of a race. I set my alarm early, so I could be ready to leave in time to eat breakfast. I didn’t need a large meal, but it would be nice to have some solid food and some warm tea.

I woke up before the alarm and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I had plenty of time to get ready. I made myself a cup of tea in the room. At 6:00, I went downstairs for breakfast. I had two more cups of tea and two small pastries. By 6:15, I was already done with breakfast.

I remember waiting in line for a long time to board a bus in the past, so I started walking to Boston Common. This year, I was able to board a bus right away. By 6:30, I was already on a bus. It was about 10 minutes before enough buses were full for a group of buses to leave. After that, the ride to Hopkinton took about 45 minutes. The grounds of the high school are used for the start village. Because there are so many buses, there are different drop-off points. The previous two years, I was dropped off at the bottom of a long hill and had to walk the better part of a mile to get to the start village. This year, I was dropped off right next to the high school. By 7:30, I was already inside the village. I was one of the first runners there, so I had no trouble finding a nice spot to wait. I spread out a Mylar blanket on a patch of grass in the sun. I would be waiting in the start village for 2 1/2 hours, but it wasn’t as cold as I expected. With the sun shining, I had no trouble staying warm.

Waiting that long after so many cups of tea, I needed to make a few trips to the port-o-potties. At first the lines were short, but as more and more runners arrived, the lines kept getting longer. On my last trip, I was in a line that snaked back and forth. There were continuous PA announcements. Among other things, they told us when we should head to the start corrals, depending on which wave and corral we were in.

When it was time to leave, I dropped my warm-up clothes in one of the donation bags and walked down the hill toward the corrals.

On the way to the corrals, there’s always a table where you can take care of last minute needs. I realized I forgot sunblock, so I stopped to put some on my nose and ears. Most races start early enough in the day that the sun is at a low angle for the first half of the race. If I had thought about how late we were starting, I would have applied sunblock to more areas. Another thing you pass on the way to the corrals is a parking lot full of port-o-potties. Since the only people using them are runners headed to the start, the lines here are short. I always count on making a final bathroom stop on the way to the corrals.

I reached my corral about 10 minutes before the start of my wave. Since I was in the first corral, I lined up in the back. As tempting as it would have been to line up in front and race down the first hill, I knew that would be a mistake. I was worried about starting too fast, so it was good to have several hundred runners in front of me. The starting line announcer said it was 58 degrees. I was surprised it was already that warm, but it explained why I was comfortable without any extra layers. I wondered if it would get up to 70 degrees by the end of the race.

When the gun went off, I went out easy. I didn’t make any effort to pass people. I just followed the other runners at a pace that felt comfortable. The first mile is mostly downhill, so without really trying, I was going a bit fast. Then we reached the first small rise. The early miles have a downhill trend, but there are still a few short uphill sections. I immediately felt short of breath. There was no longer any doubt how my cold was going to affect me. I apparently had a diminished aerobic capacity. I didn’t notice it running downhill, but I tired quickly going uphill. It felt similar to racing at a high elevation. As the road turned downhill again, the pace once again felt easy. I reached the first mile marker in 7:29. I would have been alarmed with that split if not for the fact that the first mile was mostly downhill. I probably should have been alarmed anyway.

I ran a similar pace through the next few miles. I knew it was too fast, especially with the cold, but it was hard to slow down. All the people in my corral had similar qualifying times, so they were all running at a fairly fast pace. I wasn’t trying to keep up with the crowd, but it still effected my perception of how fast I was going. I started reminding myself to let the other runners go by. Slowly but surely I moderated my pace, but it took several miles.

In the early miles, we were running on a two-lane road through small towns. You would never know it from the crowds. Even in the early miles, there were people cheering us on from both sides of the road. It’s estimated that a million spectators lined the course. They were enthusiastic too. There was a bond between runners, spectators and volunteers that everyone could feel. A year ago, something was stolen from us. People died. People lost limbs. The race had to be stopped, and the city temporarily shut down. The Patriots’ Day holiday was violated. Today we were taking it back. The people of Boston and the surrounding communities united with runners from around to world. The people were taking back their city, their race and their holiday. I saw a local runner wearing a shirt that said, “This is Our F’n City.” That spoke volumes.

I saw numerous runners wearing shirts with the names of the victims of the bombings. There were 100 runners who were part of “Team MR8.” They were honoring the memory of Martin Richard, the eight-year old boy who died a year ago. I didn’t just notice shirts and signs. Throughout the race, I must have seen at least a dozen people running or walking with artificial limbs. It really got my attention after so many people lost limbs a year ago. Overcoming obstacles was another big theme of this race.

At the 10K mark, I saw Joan and Jill in the crowd. In all, I recognized at least seven friends who were cheering or volunteering at different points along the route. I also recognized several friends who were running. As my pace gradually slowed, friends who started behind me caught up to me. I recognized several as they passed me. Since they were coming from behind me, a few recognized me first.

In the tenth mile, I began a stretch that was slightly uphill for a little over a mile. For the first time, I slowed to an eight-minute mile. If nothing else, I wanted to beat 3:30. To do that, I needed to average eight minutes per mile. After 10 miles, I was ahead of that pace by almost four minutes, but I suspected I was going to start gradually giving that time back. To maintain my pace, I would have to fight for it, and 10 miles is way too early to be working that hard. I accepted that I had to conserve my energy and hope that I could fight hard in the second half.

At twelve miles, I knew I was approaching Wellesley College. Wellesley is a women’s college along the route where the students have a long-standing tradition of cheering the runners and offering kisses. They hold up signs, and they scream. Last year, I could hear them from a mile away. This year, I could see them before I could hear them. At first, I wondered why they weren’t as loud this year. I was running just a few feet in front of them when suddenly my ears started ringing. I think we had a tailwind, and the screams didn’t carry upwind, but they were definitely loud.

It was still a gentle downhill trend until the 16 mile mark. Through these miles, I was conserving my effort, so I could dig deep later. The last mile before entering Newton is sharply downhill. I picked up my pace there. Although I had given some time back, I still had a three-minute cushion before reaching the toughest part of the course. Newton has four hills, ending with Heartbreak Hill. The first one is long but very gradual. For the first time, I found myself passing other runners. It was getting hot, and this is where it started taking a toll. Seeing that I was running well in comparison to the people around me gave me a psychological lift. I maintained a good effort through that mile.

The next two hills took more out of me. I slowed noticeably. I reached the 20 mile mark in 2:39:50. I was now only 10 seconds ahead of my goal pace, and I still had Heartbreak Hill in front of me. I felt pretty sluggish as I slowly made my way up the hill. I checked my watch at 21 miles, and saw that I was now 31 second behind my goal pace. From there to the finish, it’s mostly downhill. At first, I made a serious effort to pick up my pace. Unfortunately, while the trend is downhill, there are still a few short uphill sections.

As I reached a small hill near Evergreen Cemetery, I slowed down again. I was drained. Mile 22 took me just as long as mile 21. I no longer had any hope of making up the time. For the last 4.2 miles, I was out of gas and just trying to maintain forward progress to the finish. I accepted that I wouldn’t break 3:30, and I stopped looking at my watch. I took in the sights and sounds around me. One of the best known landmarks on the course is a huge Citgo sign that we pass with one mile to go. You can see it with three miles to go. The crowds in those last few miles were great, and I wished I was running stronger.

Shortly after passing the Citgo sign, I saw a huge banner saying, “1K to go.” It was on a bridge that we ran underneath. I recognized this bridge as the point on the course where thousands of runners had to stop last year. After the bombs went off, the police had to seal off the finish area. Runners still on the road couldn’t enter the final half mile of the course. Those runners all got guaranteed entry into this year’s race. I’m sure running under this bridge had to be an emotional moment for them.

Anyone who’s run this course knows the last two turns. “Turn right on Hereford and left on Boylston.” We weren’t on Hereford very long, but it was slightly uphill. In anticipation of the final turn, I forced myself to run strong up the hill. When I turned onto Boylston Street, time seemed to stand still. I suddenly became aware of everything around me. I could see the 26 mile sign a block away. Two blocks beyond that, I could see the finish line.

Usually, after struggling in the late miles, you just want to be done. I felt that way until I reached Boylston, but now I didn’t care how long it took me to finish. I realized that this was where the bombs were. The crowd along Boylston was huge, and everyone there knew what happened last year. I’m sure some of the people in those crowds were also on Boylston last year, and they were determined to come back. There was a sign saying “We own this finish line.” Instead of sprinting to the finish, I slowed down and move to the left side of the street. I high-fived as many spectators as I could. I yelled, “Thank you for being here” and “You guys all Rock!” In the last block, there were numerous volunteers directing runners into the finisher chutes and watching for anyone needing medical assistance. I thanked the volunteers and gave them high fives. I finished in 3:38:01. Actually crossing the finish line was anti-climactic. The real celebration was running down Boylston Street. Those were the most emotional three blocks I’ve ever run.

After finishing, you keep walking forward for several blocks. In the first block, I received my finisher medal. In the next block, I received a bottle of water and a silver “heat shield” poncho. The ponchos were new this year, replacing the standard Mylar blankets. They were convenient, because they had arm holes, hoods and strips of Velcro to hold them in place. It was sunny and at least 70 degrees, so I didn’t really need the poncho to keep warm, but it’s a nice souvenir. It saved mine after the race, and I’ll probably use it to keep warm before the start of some future race.

In the next block, we received a ton of post-race snacks. They included protein drinks, power bars, bananas, pears, and a bag filled with other snacks. One of my favorite post-race snacks at this race was a package of four King’s Hawaiian rolls. After the block with the food, we reached Boston Common. For runners who checked bags in the morning, the progression through the finish area led them right to where their bags were. I just kept walking, because I was now only a few blocks from my hotel. On the way there, I kept eating. By the time I got there, I had finished at least half of the post-race food.

When I got to Doubletree, I discovered a special surprise for all the runners. They took chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil and attached ribbons to make them look like finisher medals. Then they placed each “medal” around the neck of a Powerade bottle. When I entered the lobby, I received a Doubletree cookie and a Powerade bottle. I had already eaten my fill of post-race snacks, but I can’t resist a warm Doubletree cookie.

By the time I got to my room, it was already after 2:30. I took my time getting cleaned up and stretching before finally getting dressed again. I must have been moving pretty slowly, because it was 4:30 before I knew it. When I received my race shirt at the expo, I didn’t take it out of the packaging, so I didn’t see what it looked like until I put it on after the race. This year’s shirt was blue with yellow writing. The design was similar to previous years, but they added something new. The back of the shirt had the BAA unicorn logo with the words, “Boston runs as one.” That was very appropriate for this year’s race. I thought last year’s shirt would always be my favorite, but I have a new favorite. I’ll wear this shirt proudly.

If I have one regret about running this race, it’s that I didn’t get to watch the elite runners. I was overjoyed when I heard the news that Meb Keflezighi won the race. I had a good feeling that this would be the year than an American runner would finally return to the winner’s circle. I thought it would be Shalane Flanagan in the women’s race, but I wasn’t surprised when I heard Meb won. He was overlooked as a contender by most of the analysts, because there were at least a dozen runners with faster PRs. Meb is a smart tactical runner. He may not be as fast on a course that’s pool table flat, but he’s proven that he can win on courses with hills. In 2009, he was the first American in decades to win the New York City Marathon. This year, he was the first American since 1983 to win in Boston.

Meb is a class act. Most elite athletes conserve their energy in the days before the race. Meb spent quite a bit of time before the race greeting other runners at the expo.

He also stayed to greet other runners and pose for pictures after the race. In the days since the race, I think everyone I know who was at the race has posted a picture on Facebook showing themselves posing with Meb either before or after the race. I was also impressed that Mob had written the names Martin, Krystle, Ling, and Sean on his race bib. He didn’t just want to win this race for himself. He was running for Boston, for America, and for the victims of the bombings.

At 6:00, I met several other Marathon Maniacs for drinks and dinner at John Harvard’s Brew House in Cambridge. Boston is such a large race that it’s tough to connect with friends during the day. Getting together for dinner gave me a chance to find out how everyone else did. I don’t always wear my finisher medal to dinner after a race, but everyone does at this race. Despite the fact that everyone at dinner has run dozens if not hundreds of marathons, there’s something special about wearing a Boston Marathon finisher medal. I was still somewhat full from post-race snacks, so I didn’t know if I would be hungry for dinner. Somehow, I still found room for three beers and a pizza.

All evening, the ribbon on my finisher medal was irritating my neck. When I got back to the hotel I found out why. One glance in the mirror revealed sunburn all around my neck and shoulders. I was running from 10:25 until 2:03, so the sun was always high in the sky. My sore neck didn’t stop me from sleeping well. Exhaustion from a tough race overcame everything else, and I had my first good night’s sleep in several days.

I had to get up early on Tuesday to get to the airport in time for my flight home. I still had leftover post-race snacks, so I ate two breakfasts. First I finished the snacks. Then I went downstairs for tea and pastries. I didn’t need to eat lunch that day. On the trains, in the airport and on my first flight, it seemed like everyone was wearing Boston Marathon jackets, shirts or medals. Comparing notes with other runners it seemed like most people had similar experiences. Most people struggled. It was warmer than anyone thought it would be. Those who had slower times didn’t mind. Everybody was impressed with the crowds, and found it to be the most emotional race they had ever run.

Boston Strong!