Saturday, April 21, 2012

Race Report: Boston Marathon 2012

I survived. I wasn’t fast, and things certainly didn’t go according to plan. But I survived. The 2012 Boston Marathon will go down as one of the hardest and most incredible races I’ve ever done.

The story of the day was the heat. It ended up just as bad as they forecast, with temperatures reaching nearly 90 with a bright sun. I knew it would be a big deal, and in my head planned on adding 30 minutes to my goal time. One of the Tufts’ team captains advised us to add 45-90 minutes, but I figured being the tough guy I am, 30 minutes would do it. In the end, it was just about 60.

The day started off on a great note. I was lucky enough to be a VIP- the team had about 20. That meant I went straight to a waiting coach bus- instead of standing in a very long line waiting for a yellow bus with thousands of other runners. When the small group of coach buses pulled out of Boston, we had a police escort on the Mass Pike to Hopkinton, where we made our way to the middle school cafeteria to relax on floor mats as opposed to outside under tents. Very nice.

During the ride, I had a great time talking with other members of the Tufts Marathon Team, which was made up of undergrads, grad students, faculty, alumni and parents. Every single person had an interesting story to tell, and a bond quickly developed due to our common opponent. It was also comforting to see the other 95 Tufts singlets out on the course. I’m sure everyone got a bit of a lift by seeing teammates at a time when we were all suffering.

Due to the forecasted heat, I decided to monitor my heartrate on my Garmin. Although I haven’t trained with it in a long time, I knew my max was about 177, so figured I should stay below 155-160 for as long as possible. Just before the start, I turned on the monitor and saw an initial reading of 100- while standing still. Oh crap. It should be around 60. Was the heat going to make that much of a difference? (YES!) It came down to 90, but that was still way too high for barely moving.

After a slow stop-and-go walk towards the starting line, everyone began to jog just before the line and we crossed 10 minutes after our wave began. I was immediately surprised by the available space. I couldn’t go at the pace I wanted, but there was very little bumping, and navigating wasn’t too hard. I tried hard not to weave around people and felt I should be slow and controlled anyway due to the heat and downhill start. Mile 1 was around 9:30, mile 2 about 8:58. I was running very easily, slowly picking up speed, and already taking in fluids. All good things. One huge problem, however- my heart rate was in the upper 160s. If the monitor was correct, and I had no reason to doubt it, I knew this would be trouble. However, given how easy the effort was, I didn’t want to walk at this point. So I just tried to keep it as easy as possible and continue with my nutrition.

Mile 9.

My original nutrition plan was to drink a Hammer gel (2) and Heed mix from a 10 oz bottle on the odd miles 1-7 and water on the even miles. Since I forgot the 10 oz bottle, I bought a 20 oz bottle at the expo. I worked on just the Hammer mix for the first 4 miles, then combined a short walk at the water stops to take in added water and lower my heart rate. So by the time I reached mile 9 where Coach waited with a big Tufts group, I probably had 75% more fluid than planned. Calories and salt tablets were just about on plan, but as the race wore on, it got to be difficult to remember what I had done and it mentally became harder to keep taking in the same stuff while enduring such difficult conditions.

From mile 9 onward, I probably had twice the fluid intake as planned, taking from both Gatorade and water at every stop. I also developed a very dry mouth, a sign that dehydration is well established, way too early in the race. I thought I was taking in plenty of fluids, and knew that the body can only absorb so much and taking in too much can also be a problem. So I felt stuck. My solution, which I knew might just mask the symptom, was to suck on ice when I could find it. That helped the dry mouth, and may have also helped me cool down a smidge. I also put ice under my cap and held it in my hands. On top of all this, I felt the all-too-familiar stomach cramp setting in, also way too early. In prior hot triathlons, this cramping reduced me to a painful and slow walk, and at IM Wisconsin, a park bench for 30 minutes. I really didn’t want to go through that again. As a result, I took in even more fluids. Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick and the stomach cramp went away.

The disconcertingly elevated heart rate and walk at water stops cycle continued on. While running, my pace was around 8:45-9:00. The heat was taking its toll mentally and physically. Around mile 12, I connected with a Tufts grad student and we started chatting. It was a great and needed mental lift that lasted for about four miles. We walked much less than before, which let me think I might be getting better. This section also included the famed Wellesley College stretch. The coeds go nuts for about half a mile, screaming encouragement to everyone.

It was around mile 15 that my quads started to hurt- a lot. Every step was painful, especially downhill. My feet were also hurting- let’s face it- it just sucked all over. In addition to walking at water stops, I did the same on parts of uphills and mile markers. My running pace had also slowed to about 9-9:20.

While this drudgery continued to the finish, I’d like to turn the focus to the more positive parts of the race. The crowds were AMAZING. I’ve never seen anything like it. From the start to the finish, there was hardly a point without spectators. And they weren’t just watching and offering a few words of encouragement. They screamed, shouted, held signs, offered ice (all ice came from them, not the race), licorice, oranges, hoses and sprinklers, and frozen yogurt. And they did this for hours on end. The enthusiasm was incredible even though some 18,000 people were well ahead of us. Boston College, where Heartbreak Hill is, was perhaps the most intense. The road was still just two lanes wide and the crowd was several deep. They were loud-deafening- and outrageous.

It was also incredible to see the support for Tufts. I’m biased, but I swear I heard more cheers specifically for Tufts than any other jersey. Only “Dana Fahbah” came close. While many of the Tufts cheers came from random folks, there were also tons of Tufts groups watching all along the course. And I’m willing to bet there were more official water stops manned by Tufts students than any other organization. I couldn’t go more than a few yards without hearing a cheer directed at me because of my yellow shirt and blue hat. It was an amazing show of support, and made a huge difference.

Back to the race. There are four uphills from about mile 15 to 21, ending with the famous Heartbreak Hill. I had to walk parts of the earlier hills, but knowing this could be the only time I do this race, I was determined to run the entire Heartbreak Hill. I knew I might pay for it, but I’d be damned if didn’t get the memory of what it was like to run up that thing. As a stand-alone hill, contrary to popular belief, it really isn’t that bad. What’s tough about it is the point in the race and ensuing descent, pounding on already spent quads.

At that point, the debate in my head started- “Only 5 (4, 3, 2) miles to go, you’ve done this thousands of time”…”It’s just to the high school and back”… vs. “I don’t want to go another step.” The mile markers seemed to be spread much further apart. I just continued the slow jog/walk/drink cycle. Honestly, I felt guilty walking. The fans were so incredible, I felt I owed it to them to run.

It was around mile 23 when I decided I would run the entire last 1.2 miles. I owed it to the race. The mile 25 marker comes right at the top of the Mass Pike overpass, so I walked up that and then stumbled into a jog. It was a very long 1.2 miles, every step hurt, but I did it. I was lucky to see Christine, Nick and Leah about 200 yards before the finish and went over for hugs. That was awesome. They have put up with all of the training and chatter around the race.

This gives you an idea of how crowded it was, even at the end of the race.  Photo: NT.

Coach was at the finish. He said I was depleted, to keep moving to the VIP finishing tent and get something into me.

At that point a volunteer grabbed my arm and walked me to the tent. As she asked me basic questions, I knew she was screening me for the med tent. I felt like saying, “I know what you’re doing…,” but instead said I was fine and continued on. I’ll spare you of all the details, but suffice it to say I was toast. It was hard to function for probably 15 minutes, and it was another 30 minutes before I felt I could leave the sanctuary of the tent.

A few parting comments:

1. My 10K splits actually were fairly even- 57:25, 1:02:38, 1:02:54 and 1:06:01. I’ve seen plenty of splits that went parabolic, so it seems to me I gauged my effort fairly well. Sure, there’s a piece of me that is disappointed in the time. I’d like to know what I could do under better conditions. But I was able to 1) enjoy the experience, and 2) avoid injury- those were my two primary goals six months ago.

2. A big thanks to all of those that helped with my fundraising. It allowed me to run, but more importantly raised important funds for the Tufts Nutrition School.

3. Speaking of nutrition, I’m curious about what I could have done better. I took in nearly twice the fluid than planned, and about the same calories. I was probably a little light on the salt, but I figured the extra Gatorade made up for that. The one time I peed (mile 7), it was a very light yellow, so I figured I was OK. I think it’s possible to get into trouble from too much fluid, so I didn’t want to get ridiculous.

4. Next up? It’s time to get back on the bike. I’ve been on for a total of 90 minutes since September. Where did I put those training wheels? Polarbear should be interesting. By the time Pirate Tri rolls around, I should be better. I’m also signed up for Norway, which I’ve never done before. Then the big one is Sprint Nationals. I’d really like to improve upon my 2011 performance. That race was hot (sounds familiar) and mid day (familiar). This year, the race is in the morning and I’ve figured out several other things that should help. I’d love to win my age group, but the competition should be stiffer because the race will have 3-4 times the competitors, and many will likely double up from Saturday’s Olympic race.

5. “Coach, ” otherwise known as Don Megerle, is great. The fact that 95 out of 96 Tufts starters, most of whom were first-timers, finished the race on a day like this is amazing. In talking with many of them, I heard countless examples of his dedication to the team. If a runner was injured, he showed up at every PT appointment. He cut fresh strawberries as part of his multiple aid stations- for training runs every week for six months. The night before the race, he called me to ask what I thought about the message that was being put out by the BAA- which was alarming, encouraging people not to run due to the heat. We agreed that those at the greatest risk were the higher end athletes that wouldn’t adapt to the conditions. At the end of the call, I asked if he could send a couple of the Tufts Marathon hats sometime after the race. He said he would have them to the hotel before we left in the morning, “I’ll probably drop them off between 3 and 4 (AM).” Half an hour later, the front desk called to say we had a package. His dedication to the Team and school is incredible.

6. Lasting memories…Coach’s efforts…the support for Tufts on the course…the incredibly energetic crowd that stretched for 26 miles…seeing the family before the finish…the view of the finish line as I turned onto Boylston…running a race with TWENTY-TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED EIGHTY starters…


  1. Considering that you were running against the heat of Hades, you were just totally monuMENtal!

  2. Congrats, Steve! As I mentioned, I was sweltering just standing there and spectating! So impressed that you got it done in that heat. Kudos!

  3. Congratulations Steve! Glad your two primary goals where accomplished..You finished and finished safely, without injury. Thank you for letting me knows about this and I am glad, in some small way, I got to participate and help.

  4. Super job out there on such a hot tough day!!! You were so consistent and smart to listen to your body & respect the intense and unexpected heat. It really is tough when it's not planned on!!! ( Mary and I got nailed with it in Chicago a few yrs back.... it's mean.)
    I'm really happy for you and proud of you and Excited to see you at Polarbear and Norway!! Yay!