Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Boston -- Completed.

There are lots of things in life that are fantastically hyped up and then turn out to fall far short of expectations once you actually experience them. The Boston Marathon was not one of those things. Everything about it was just as awesome as I had anticipated and looked forward to. My race more or less fell apart, but that really didn't do anything to change my overall impression of the awesomeness of the whole experience. It was worth all the hard training to qualify and the obscene amount of money the trip cost and everything else. It would have been cheap at twice the price! That's how awesome it was.

My flight got into Boston and I picked up my rental car at midnight on Saturday. It was rainy and windy and just generally disgusting weather. My hotel was in Weymouth, a town about 15 minutes south of Boston. I picked it because it was 1/3 the cost of a hotel room in the city. It was nothing fancy but was totally acceptable except that there was a little raised lip between the bathroom and the rest of the room that was the exact same color as the carpet. I didn't see it and kicked it so hard with my bare foot I felt like I could have fractured all 5 metatarsals at once. Luckily, no major damage was done. I told myself not to do that again -- and then promptly did it again the next morning. I worried obsessively that maybe I had broken something that would come back to haunt me in the race, but actually I had no foot or leg trouble at all in the race. My trouble was all about my stomach. But more on that later.

The next morning was cold and grey. Ewww, I remember this East Coast Grey from when I lived on the East Coast. I was glad it wouldn't be hot for the race, but even as excited as I was to be in Boston, those grey skies and still-leafless trees made me so homesick for blue skies and hot weather. The weather did get a little better that day but was cold and windy pretty much all day. The forecast for race day was also for wind, and I assumed that naturally it would be a headwind.

The expo was jam-packed. I could barely move. Number pick-up was easy, but it was not possible to move around inside the expo itself at any speed faster than a shuffle. The crowds activated a feeling of incipient agoraphobia I didn't know I had. I managed to buy my quota of official souvenirs -- the jacket (of course), a cap, and flip-flops -- and graze my way through all the exhibits, grabbing big handfuls of free samples and stuffing myself with all different kinds of energy bars and chews, yogurt, and recovery drinks. Conventional wisdom says you shouldn't eat too much at an expo. I say, that is at least one meal that I can count on eating for free in an otherwise very expensive weekend.

After the expo, I wanted to go see Plymouth Rock because it was the only tourist attraction I had somehow missed in my years of living back East. I typed "Plymouth Rock, MA" in my GPS and followed the directions mindlessly. Turns out they sent me to a tiny town called Rock Village, MA. I realized something was wrong when the GPS announced that I had reached my destination and I couldn't see the ocean or any tourist activity at all. Oops. I found out where the real Plymouth Rock was -- 20 miles away, in a different direction. The drive over there was through tiny little New England villages. Now, I don't like the East Coast, as I think I have made clear already, but it would be un-American not to love these adorable little 150-year-old houses, each one on its own little cleared piece of land with forest on all sides of it. I forgot how relaxing it can be to just take a drive for pleasure and look at pretty scenery. It was a perfect pre-marathon activity. (Plymouth Rock itself, by the way, was a major disappointment. It's just a big old grey rock sitting in a pit at the end of a road clogged with hundreds of tourist cars and overpriced rip-off shops. Even the marker at Plymouth Rock admits that they don't even know for sure whether this actual rock had anything to do at all with the Pilgrims. Probably not! Since it wasn't identified until 120 years after they landed. But anyway, it was the last remaining thing I wanted to see in Massachusetts, so now that is one more East Coast state I will never have to return to.)

After that, my friend Kris arrived from New Jersey. We drove right back into Boston for dinner. We walked around for a while and wandered through Chinatown and finally got so hungry we decided to just pick the next place that wasn't Chinese. That place turned out to be Jacob Wirth, a restaurant that has been there since 1868. Kris had a veggie burger and I had macaroni and cheese with buffalo chicken. That sounds questionable, but, oh my God, it might have been the best dinner I've ever had. Kris was equally enamored of her veggie burger. We didn't even talk during the meal because we just wanted to be alone with our amazing food. It'll be a long time before anything tops that.

After we ate, I went to Jolene's hotel in Cambridge to drop off a cheap blanket for her and James that I picked up at Walmart. It was for the start line the next morning because I heard it was going to be cold. I met her in the lobby because her hotel didn't have parking. The funniest thing about her hotel was that there was a uniformed valet guy out in front, and he kept blowing on his whistle for no reason. At first I thought he was blowing at us to get out of there, but soon I figured out that he was just doing it randomly. He would stand there, look around, and then, "TWEET! TWEET!" We tried to figure out what could possibly be the purpose of that, but did not succeed.

Race day! I was up at 4:30 a.m., out the door by 5 to catch a 5:35 train into the city, where I would then catch the shuttle bus that would get me to the start line. I had to swing by McDonald's on the way, of course, for my traditional race day breakfast of Egg McMuffin and hash brown. I left early because I didn't really know where the station was, didn't know about parking, was worried about the train, et cetera. As it turned out, those things all went off without a hitch. I was in Boston at 5:55 a.m. Buses started loading at 6:00. This race is a point-to-point course, and we were heavily discouraged from driving anything to the start line. They really wanted us to take the buses. Even though my suggested bus boarding time was 6:30-7:00, I got on the bus at 6:00 anyway, figuring it would be better to get to the start and just wait there.

That was a mistake! It was freezing, with an amazingly cold wind blowing. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts with a throwaway fleece on top and my cheap WalMart blanket. Pretty much everyone had warned me about the cold at the start. I blew them all off, like, "Yeah-yeah-yeah, I know cold start lines, it'll be fine." Well, I stand corrected. I DO know cold start lines, but I have never before had to stand at one for 3 1/2 hours. The wind in Hopkinton was amazing. It was like a knife that cut straight through the fleece and the blanket and my running clothes. There were giant tents set up on the fields of the high school where Athlete's Village was located, but no real shelter. I walked around and around looking for somewhere, anywhere, where there would be some shelter from the wind. Finally I found a spot between the dumpsters and the wall of a building, and huddled up there. The thought of ANY more time in this cold, let alone 3 more hours of it, was unbearable. I honestly didn't know how I would make it. Then I started wondering why I hadn't worn a hat. How stupid was that? I tried not to think about how 60% of your heat is lost through your head.

The wind was cutting through every little bit of open space between me and the dumpsters. Some guys showed up and found a bunch of flattened cardboard boxes in the recycle bin. Shamelessly, we pulled them out and sat on them, and then pulled more out to make little box shelters over our legs. Then another guy made the real discovery. He looked in the dumpster and saw that apparently the entire Hopkinton Tennis Team and Hopkinton Golf Team had thrown away their perfectly clean team jackets. There was a dumpster full of them. We all pulled them out and piled them on top of ourselves. I tied one over my head like a shawl and finally felt like maybe I would make it till the start. I couldn't believe they had just thrown all those perfectly good clothes away -- do they not have homeless people in Massachusetts? (Or did they just not want homeless people wearing Hopkinton jackets?) Anyway, sheltering in boxes and wearing throwaway clothes... all we were missing was a fire in a trash barrel and we would have been indistinguishable from bums under a bridge.

Eventually I had to get up to go to the bathroom. I surrendered my boxes but kept my jacket tied over my head. While standing in the Porta-Pottie line, I laughed thinking that I had brought the official marathon program with me to read at the start. I had pictured myself flipping through it idly, reading all the articles. I had never considered the fact that my fingers would be too frozen to turn pages.

I kept eating in Athletes Village because I was so hungry. I had a Power Bar, a bagel, and a banana, which is way more than I ever eat, but -- I was hungry! Even with all that food, as I was walking to the start line after the first wave of runners left, my stomach felt empty. That is never a good feeling as you're heading out for 26.2. Looking back I think I burned an incredible amount of energy shivering in Athletes Village for 3 1/2 hours.

I was in the first corral of the second wave, and it was so, so exciting walking to the start line and thinking of all the running history here, and how pretty much all of the greats in running had touched this start line at some time. I was completely proud to be there, and was happy to have one day in my running life where I, a decidedly non-elite runner, felt elite.

I was in a corral with much faster runners than me. I had managed to pull off a 3:24 to qualify, but that was strictly a one-time thing. A "fast" marathon for me is in the high 3:40's to low 3:50's, and an average one is right around 4 hours or just a little over. So I did know enough to hold back and let everyone, and I do mean what felt like absolutely everyone in my entire wave, pass me on that first mile. It was a screaming downhill and, even going slow and being passed by everyone, I was still way too fast. I have to say that right from the beginning, I did not feel good. I felt hungry, for one, fat, for another (18 lbs. heavier than when I qualified!), and stiff. My calves hurt, already. And it became obvious very fast that I had been smitten by the words "net downhill" when applied to the course, and had just underestimated the steepness of the uphills. The elevation chart had looked so innocuous. It was hard to reconcile the image of the elevation chart in my head with the reality of the hills that were quickly draining me on the course.

I managed to stay right on pace for qualifying again up until the half, mainly because I knew people were tracking me and I wanted to give them a good show at least to the half, but I knew from the start this wasn't going to end well. I had been feeling progressively more nauseous coming up to the half, so much so that I couldn't even really enjoy the "Scream Tunnel" at Wellesley. Too bad because that was probably one of the coolest parts of the race. For anyone who doesn't know, Wellesley is a women's college right in the middle of an adorable little New England town, and the course is lined with Wellesley girls screaming their lungs out and holding signs saying things like "Kiss Me; I'm a Senior!" or "Kiss Me; I'm From California!" or, my favorite, "Kiss Me; I Like Kissing Women!" Believe me, I would have but I was too afraid of puking on them.

After I passed the half, I had to walk because of nausea. The whole rest of the race varied between uncomfortable and miserable. GU helped temporarily when I took it, but within a mile I would be feeling lousy again. I have been afraid to look at my Garmin but am pretty sure I walked a huge chunk of Miles 14-17. I realized that somehow I was having an electrolyte problem, but wasn't sure exactly how that had happened. I tried drinking some Gatorade, but it was so disgustingly sugary that any electrolyte benefit was cancelled out by the sugar. Finally I got to a medical tent and asked if they had any salt. At that point if someone had handed me a salt shaker I would have taken the lid off it and upended it and dumped it in my mouth, but all they had was chips. I grabbed a handful of chips and forced them down and, miraculously, I felt better almost right away and was able to start running again, albeit slowly. I could care less about my time now and decided I would walk whenever I felt like it because I didn't want to end this race sitting on the curb and puking into the gutter. I was able to run for a little while at a time, like 2 or 3 miles, but nausea always came back and then I had to walk until I got to another medical tent and got some more chips. I actually ran up Heartbreak Hill and didn't even notice it until I got to the top and saw the banner that said, "The Heartbreak is Over!" I missed seeing the Johnny Kelley statue, which was a bummer. Oh, but I have to say how grateful I am to that adorable 17-year-old Boston College freshman, who saw my hat and said he was from Tucson and he was going to walk with me until I felt better. I told him he better watch out because I was about to throw up. He said it didn't matter and that he had seen hundreds of people throw up and he would hold my hair back if I wanted. My hair was in a ponytail and didn't need holding back, but still, how cute of him to offer.

I managed to jog most of the last 2-3 miles, although as the crowds got deeper and deeper I worried more and more about where I would throw up if I had to. Finally when I passed under the giant Citgo sign I knew I probably wasn't going to throw up if I only had a mile left. And then when I turned onto the home stretch on Boylston and saw the unbelievable crowds there, all I could think about was that I was about to finish the BOSTON MARATHON. That pushed all thoughts of nausea out of my head and I managed to thoroughly enjoy that last stretch. And crossing the finish line was one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life. I swear I will be thinking of that on my death bed. I had a lousy time of 4:14 but that was completely irrelevant; all that mattered was getting the medal and hearing everyone's congratulations and enjoying the excitement of having the entire city out supporting the race. I always thought qualifying for this race would be more exciting than running it -- since it took me 16 tries before I finally made it -- but I was wrong; NOTHING in running has ever been more exciting than running the Boston Marathon.

That having been said, I have decided that I will have to qualify again and come back and run it right. That is, do all my long runs on hills, weigh 15 lbs less, get to the start line later and bring more blankets and clothes, and carry salt with me. I'll probably have to do it next summer or early fall since this fall I'm planning to do my first 1/2 Ironman. Meanwhile, I am totally switching gears for my next marathon. I guess I'd better get some trail shoes and learn how to carry my own fluids because I'm doing the Pikes Peak Marathon in August.

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