Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Boston 2016, I'm Doing It!

I never planned on doing Boston again. It was amazing to do it once, but I've still got 22 states left to get done on a finite income and with limited vacation time, and Boston is not cheap and takes an extra day of vacation because it's held on a Monday. While I had thought I probably had another BQ in me -- especially since I move up to a new age group with five more minutes of cushion next year -- I did not think it was imminent. I knew Pocatello was a fast course and I knew I was in pretty good shape, but I was not as skinny as I was when I qualified in 2010, and I had never had a long run at BQ pace.

Pocatello went surprisingly well. Not looking at my watch the whole race, and then looking at it when I had the finish line in sight and seeing the beautiful numbers 3:33 on my Garmin (when I needed 3:40 to qualify) was an amazing feeling, one of the best in all my years of marathons, something I will remember again and again and privately rejoice over every time I think of it. But even when I finished Pocatello, I did not think I would be going to Boston next year, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I got home and started googling Boston registration, and found that my registration window opened up two weeks after Pocatello. Wow, the whole process has changed since 2010. In 2010, it was still a given that if you qualified for Boston, you could register. The online buzz that year was that it was expected to fill up fast and that you shouldn't delay in registering. But no one suspected it would fill up as fast as it did -- eight hours. I remember my single-minded determination that day in 2010 --NOTHING was going to stop me from registering, not if I had to sit at my computer all morning and try again and again. My registration was smooth and by the end of the day I had my confirmation email and a lot of people were bitterly disappointed because they were shut out. Following that day, registration procedures were changed and qualifying times were dropped by five minutes for every age group. There now exists a Facebook group called "Team Squeaker Strong Run for Boston One!" It is for "squeakers", those who beat their BQ time by five minutes or less.

Here is how the registration works now. On Monday, September 14, everyone who beat their qualifying times by 20 minutes or more was able to register. All of these people got in. On Wednesday, September 16, it opened for people who beat their time by ten minutes or more. All of those people got in. On Friday, September 18, it opened for people who beat their time by five minutes or more. All of those people got in. Then, on Monday, September 21, it opened for the masses -- people who had beat their time by less than five minutes. Registration opened at 10:00 a.m. and I submitted mine at 10:01 even though it is no longer a race to see who can Internet the fastest. For this last, biggest group, everyone can submit during the same time period -- September 21 through September 23 -- and then the race organizers were going to sort through the thousands of entries, order them by time, and establish the official cutoff (which depends on race capacity and number of people wanting to register).

There was endless, rampant Internet speculation on what the cutoff time was going to be. In the Squeaker group, you are identified by the minutes and seconds by which you are under your cutoff time. For me it was -4:33, a pretty good squeaker time. The people who were less than -1:00 know they were not going to get in; the people over -2:30 pretty much thought they would, but the people between -1:01 and -2:30 had to sweat it out for the last week, waiting for today when the announcement went out. Even though I was relatively safe with a -4:33, I have been sweating too and wishing I didn't have to wait. This morning the announcement came, no doubt hurried along by my obsessive checking and rechecking Facebook and the BAA home page every few minutes, practically every time I came to a down curb while I was working a dog. At 11:15 my name wasn't on the entrant list, and at 11:16 it was, and at 11:20 I had an email confirmation.

The cutoff time this year was -2:28, the toughest it's ever been. I don't think anyone was anticipating that. There were an awful lot of disappointed people out there, and a couple real heartbreakers with times of -2:27 and -2:25. Ouch! To think you were well under the cutoff and were surely going to get in, and then to get shut out... wow. But if that had happened to me, I think I would've been okay with it. Boston is supposed to be competitive, and getting in is supposed to mean something. It's really about how you measure up to all other runners finishing marathons during the qualifying window. Every year besides this one and 2010, I have not measured up. This year and 2010, I did. Next year I probably won't. Either way is fine with me.

So why did I sign up for it after all, when it's expensive and complicated and won't help me finish 50 states? Well, because... it's Boston. It's epic and iconic and thrilling. I am going to do better this year than I did in 2011; I am going to bring a sleeping bag to the start line and curl up inside it until 15 minutes to gun time as opposed to shivering away all my energy sitting outside in the cold for three hours, and I am going to train on hills and I am NOT going to get a layer of Michigan winter fat and I am going to carry salt with me. I can actually wear my Boston Marathon jacket and shirt from 2011, which I hardly ever wear because I've always been afraid I would wear them out and there would never be a chance to replace them. Sure, I should be able to qualify again but there are absolutely no guarantees, ever for people like me when it comes to BQ'ing. I could never be that fast again; I could get a running-ending injury; I could have a car accident or get some disease and never be able to run again at all. Some things you just have to do when you get the chance, and Boston 2016 is one of those things.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Surprise B.Q.! Pocatello Marathon Race Report

I signed up for this marathon, my 28th state and I think 33rd or 34th marathon overall, way back in February. It is my sixth marathon of the year. Getting to Idaho was a pretty big pain in the neck logistics-wise -- an expensive flight, eight hours in airports, a rental car, and a two and a half hour drive through country that was not as pretty as I had expected. But at least Pocatello is a cheap town to stay in, and all the hotels are close to the marathon hotel, the Clarion Inn. I got into town in plenty of time to go pick up my race packet. Although the expo was so tiny I didn't even bother to walk through it, they did give us a pretty cool race backpack, that was already tagged with our name and number and was to be used for our gear check bag in the morning. Also, the shirt was cool -- long-sleeved and Day-Glo yellow, which is a color always desirable for visibility but seriously underrepresented among race shirts.  I actually went to the pasta dinner, mostly because nothing else sounded good, and ended up sitting with several other Marathon Maniacs and 50-staters. There were lots of them at this race. It seems like I hardly ever meet first-time marathoners anymore; I only meet people who are on their 20th or 30th marathons. Surely there are first-time marathoners out there, but I never seem to run into them.

My running has been going pretty well lately, with the exception of the nagging Achilles pain, which I was actually pretty worried about even though it has not (yet) done anything other than nag. I am pretty sure that the biggest reason I've been running well is that I am 27 pounds lighter than I was on January 1 of this year. Nothing fancy, just watching calories. It is easier to run fast when you're not schlepping around the equivalent of a bag of dog food on your body, just my opinion. I really didn't know whether the tendon would blow up in this marathon or not, but I knew that if it did I would be out of marathons for many months, probably well into next year.

The marathon started at 6:15. We had to catch a shuttle bus that took us up the mountain to the race start, which was about a fifteen-minute ride from the hotel. This is one of the few marathons I've done where you have to shuttle both to the start and from the finish. The start was at a little farm. It was chilly, with a good wind blowing. Luckily there was a barn for us to wait in. I was immediately sucked into a crowd of Maniacs, and soon we were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and no one was cold anymore. Into this crowd walked "Larry, 1400 Marathons" who had also been at Shires of Vermont. I think I read somewhere that he was now "Larry, 1500 Marathons" but I couldn't say for sure. I cannot wrap my mind around 1500 marathons. Does this guy do anything besides run marathons? He must be independently wealthy, or something.

It was still dark and cold when the gun went off. This marathon is well known for having a fast downhill first half, 1500' drop over 13 miles (and a vast improvement over my last three marathons, which have had about the same amount of elevation gain). The conventional advice is "Don't go out too fast, or you won't have anything left for the second half" (which was still downhill, with a drop of 150', but mostly flat). Bullshit, I say. I will always go out too fast, bank some time, and then walk at the end if I feel like it. Anyway, the first many miles -- probably eight or nine at least -- were a delightful romp down beautiful winding roads with spectacular mountain views and a gentle, cool sunrise. My Achilles was sore but no more than usual. My bigger problems were that my fingers were frozen and that I could not keep my phone armband on my arm. I've lost so much weight that even when it's pulled to its tightest it still slides down. Finally I took it off and held it in my hand, where it served as a quasi-glove until the feeling in my fingers finally came back around Mile Five.

The weather was absolutely perfect, with light cloud cover, temperature around 50, and what felt like no humidity at all. It has been a long time since I've run any distance without feeling like I was swimming through a murky pool of moisture in the air. The perfect conditions plus the downhill plus the fact that my Achilles wasn't acting up at all had me feeling great. I was passing all kinds of people and not breathing hard at all. I passed the 3:35 pace group knowing they would pass me later but not caring.

It seemed like we were at the half-marathon start before I knew it. In this race, the half-marathon starts at 8:00, an hour and 45 minutes after the marathon, and the two races share the same course. I had been looking forward to passing the half-marathon start and picking off slower half-marathons one at a time, but actually I got there right before it started, which meant I was doing way better than I thought I would be doing. A 1:50 is the first-half time I would need for a 3:40 marathon, which is my Boston qualifying time. I had not for a second thought I would Boston qualify in this marathon, and still didn't. I only wanted to run at a pace that caused me moderate exertion for as long as I could, until I got tired or sick or injured. I was about 2/10 of a mile past the half start when I heard the gun go off, and instead of me passing slow half-marathoners, the fast half-marathoners began passing me.

This was also when the course changed direction. It turned onto a road that was sort of like a frontage road off I-15. I'm glad I hadn't looked at the course map at all, because if I knew that we would be running basically straight on this road for pretty much the rest of the race, I would have despaired. We now had a head wind, for one thing, a fairly strong one. Also, I could see so far ahead on this basically flat road that the runners in front of me looked like a giant line of ants disappearing into the distance. I so much prefer a winding course where I can always tell myself that around the next corner is a downhill. Here there was no doubt that there was no serious downhill for a long time. Still, I told myself that I would just keep running as long as I could, to get it done as quickly as possible.

My Achilles flared up around Mile 14, and I had a moment of panic before it subsided again, not to be heard from again for the rest of the marathon. I can't explain why it didn't cause more of a problem. Maybe because I finally got new shoes? (And the guy at the running shop had me go up one full size, which I thought was ridiculous -- are my feet EVER going to stop expanding? -- but was so, so grateful for today, since I finished a race for the first time this year with no painful blisters.) Anyway, I never got sick, never got injured, never really had anything happen. The road went along a valley between two mountain ranges. There was lots of beautiful Western scenery, like a freight train running alongside us for a while and some beautiful horses running along a fence line, throwing up their heads when they reached the end of the fence, and then turning and running back the way they came. The sun was out but the strong headwind kept us from getting hot. That wind was more than a little discouraging because I could see from looking ahead that we wouldn't be changing direction any time soon, so the wind wasn't going to quit either.

I hadn't looked at my watch this whole time, not once. I got to 20 miles and realized the 3:35 pace group hadn't passed me yet. I knew it was inevitable that they would because I was getting mentally tired of the headwind and was slowing down. I also knew I wasn't going to qualify because there was no way I would have enough energy to stay strong to the finish. This didn't really bother me because I knew I was going to get my best time this year by far, and it's not like I set out to qualify at all or even thought it was a possibility. Still, the 3:35 pace group didn't pass me till well into Mile 23. I tried to keep up with them but absolutely couldn't. Oh well.

Another pace group passed me toward the end of Mile 24: the 1:50 half, which should have been going the same pace as the 3:40 full. I knew the 3:40 pace group would be coming soon, but then suddenly it was Mile 25 and 3:40 still hadn't passed me. Maybe I could pull this off after all. I was superstitiously afraid to look at my watch. We changed direction -- out of the headwind with a long, easy downhill in front of us. At the very end of the downhill, tiny in the distance, was the finish sign. I finally looked at my watch: 3:33. I realized that even if I walked now, I was going to qualify. But I didn't want to walk, I wanted to beat 3:35 so I could beat my qualifying time by more than five minutes and get to register for Boston in the second wave instead of having to wait for the third one. Well, that did not happen. I finished with a Garmin time of 3:35:27, still 4:23 under my qualifying time but not enough to put me in the second wave for registration. But who cares -- I qualified!

A surprise qualifying time has to be one of the best feelings on earth. I could hardly believe it. Still can hardly believe it. Even more unbelievable is the fact that I felt great at the end of the race. No nausea at all. I could hardly wait to stuff my face at the post-race spread, which was unbelievable. Everything from the standard peanut butter, bagels, fruit, and chocolate milk to steak-ka-bobs and rice pilaf and gourmet popcorn. They even opened up the showers at the community pool for us to use. So I was able to make the drive down to Salt Lake City without having to smell myself; that was nice.

The Pocatello Marathon was all-around a great experience. Beautiful course and great weather, well-organized, great shirt, nice medal, and the best post-race food ever. What a nice surprise. I am going to be basking in the glow of surprising myself with my second-best time ever for quite a while.