Boston Marathon Race Review 2019
I sit bolt upright in bed. It’s 4:45am when my alarm breaks the silence of my quiet hotel room. My hand hunts around on the nightstand for my phone as I attempt to stop the incessant sound of my alarm’s beeping. I roll over and my first thought is how restless the night’s sleep has been, sleeping with one eye on the clock – a typical night’s rest before a race day. That first spark of consciousness is immediately followed by another thought that gets my heart racing "oh crap, it’s race day!". After months of training in the summer heat back in Australia, marathon Monday has finally arrived. It’s Patriot’s Day in the United States – Monday, 15 April 2019 – and today I’m running my first Boston Marathon! Despite my tiredness, I’m absolutely bursting with excitement.
As I tuck into my carb-laden pre-race breakfast, I flick the TV on to watch the local news, in an attempt to distract my anxious mind from today’s events. The weather symbol in the news ticker on the TV prompts me to check the Boston weather forecast on my phone, again. Since landing in Boston late Wednesday evening after an unplanned 24-hour, three-flight trip from Sydney, I’ve checked multiple weather sites, multiple times a day, as the initial weather forecast for this year’s race was as bad as the weather was last year (which, from all reports, was horrendous). I’ve checked so many times that there feels like there’s a groove the size of my index finger in the glass of my iPhone screen. Fortunately, the forecast improved as we drew closer to marathon Monday. Despite the better outlook, as I open the curtains of my hotel room, rain strikes the windows and a dark, cold and miserable view of Boston greets me. I grab an extra pair of socks, the free poncho I picked up at the race expo (thanks Marathon Tours!), a plastic bag to sit on at the athlete’s village, a banana and a Clif bar and head out the door to brave the bleak weather and the walk towards Boston Common, in search of school buses that will deliver us to the start line in Hopkinton.
After a quick detour via a Starbucks that I spot in an alley near the Common, I continue to trudge towards Charles Street, cursing the rain as my running shoes and socks are now wet through. I join a bus queue and after only a few minutes thankfully, I’m ushered onto the bus by the friendly Boston marathon officials, who manage a welcoming smile and a "good morning", despite them standing out in the cold and the rain.
Driving down the highway towards Hopkinton, rain lashes the front of the school bus. Not a single one of the 80 or so eager runners who boarded the bus seem perturbed by the weather, as they nervously discuss how many Boston marathon’s they’ve run, what their training has been like, what events they’ve done in the lead up to Boston and what their goal time is. At least that’s what I discussed with the Canadian fellow I sat next to at the very back of the bus. I didn’t catch his name but he was very confident that he was going to positive split the race by banking a little time upfront on the downhill and flat sections and then hoped to run a reasonably strong last 4-5 miles to PR the race. All week I’d been contemplating my race strategy and had settled on an approach that was conservative and kept a lot in the tank, so as to avoid struggling in the last section of the race where the crowds would be bigger and louder, so that I could completely soak up the atmosphere. After an hour of listening to this confident Canadian guy talk about a PR, then and there I somewhat recklessly decided to throw my race plan out the window, thinking to myself "bugger it, I’ll give a PR and a sub-3 time a red hot crack!". Time would tell whether this last minute plan would work or would be a foolish endeavor.
After an hour on the bus we finally pull up at the athlete’s village in the little town of Hopkinton. The windows of the bus were completely fogged up from the mixture of hope and excitement exhaled by the runners during their race day chats. We disembarked into the rain again and shuffled towards the entry to the athlete’s village. Security is understandably tight but everyone understands. The athlete’s village at Hopkinton comprises of a couple of small sponsor’s tents where free nutrition and hydration is being handed out, a large number of portaloos (or 'Port o Johns' as they call them in the US) and two large white tents where hundreds of athletes are huddled together. Neither of the tents have any real estate to park my caboose, so I stand near the muddy entrance to the tent and snack on a Clif bar and banana and sip water slowly.
I survey the quagmire around me outside the tent, other runners tiptoeing around the mud and start praying it stops raining so I can go to the portaloo and sit down outside without getting my clothes and shoes wet any further. I wait and wait, listening to a volunteer on a microphone whose job it is to provide information to the runners say the same things over and over again ad nauseum until finally, about an hour after arriving, the rain eases up. After visiting the loo, I sit on my plastic bag (great call) outside and change my socks over (even better call), before being shepherded through the gate that marks the beginning of the long walk down to the start line. Butterflies flutter about in my stomach, dancing and playing as it dawns on me again that I’m actually here in Boston, walking down to the start of the marathon that I had dreamed about running for years! I smile to myself as a wave of excitement rushes over me. It feels like a dream.
We wander down to the CVS Pharmacy car park where the last portaloos before the race are located and I hear in the distance the end of the US national anthem followed immediately by two US fighter jets roaring overhead. This is quickly followed by a loud cheer from runners all around me. The wheelchair and elite athletes are about to kick off their race. I think of the build-up to the race earlier in the week, as locals stopped me in the street after seeing the Boston marathon jacket I was wearing and kindly saying to me "congratulations" and "well done on qualifying". I was amazed and humbled by these random acts of kindness from complete strangers. Then as I refocused on the present, I realised it was time to load into my starting corral. It was time to go chase down a unicorn!
Boston Marathon Start Line - Hopkinton
My heart started beating faster as we walked slowly up the slight incline towards the start line. I looked around to take in the beautiful old weather-board style houses and locals who clapped and gave a few cheers and then we walked quicker and quicker until we were jogging down the other side, through the start line and as I crossed the start line, I focused in on the race. It was game on…
The field was particularly bunched across the first 10km as we commenced the steep downhill from the start line through to the town of Ashland and on our way towards Framingham. As I cruised down the hills at the start of the race, being careful not to push too hard or go too fast, a few miles into the run the cheers and screams from the spectators lining the course grew louder. This brought a huge smile to my face as it dawned on me again, "oh my gosh, I’m finally here, I’m actually running in the freakin Boston marathon!". It was a special but fleeting moment as I turned my attention back to the race and my current pace.
10k - Framingham
At 10k the field spread out a little more and after picking up a Gatorade from the drink station and dusting another GU Energy gel, I felt the urge to check my watch and then to check in mentally. "OK how are we feeling, how are the legs?" I asked myself. "Good." I replied. I went on in my own head, "How about your breathing?", "Fine", I replied. I went through the 10k mark in a reasonably restrained 42 minutes (4:12/km average pace). I finished the conversation in my head concluding I was at this stage, "All good. OK, let’s maintain this pace and later pick it up just a little so that we can have a go at running a sub-3!"
I’d reached the town of Framingham at 10k and pressed on towards the town of Natick, just past the 15k mark. This was an uneventful stretch of reasonably flat terrain, allowing me to shake out the slightly tight feeling in my legs from running down the steep decline at the beginning of the race. I noticed at this point that the other athletes running around me were maintaining roughly the same pace and cadence as I. In hindsight this makes sense due to the starting corral system that places together runners whose qualifying times are around the same time, however, it was the first road race I had been in where I was running virtually lockstep with other runners and I found it very calming and allowed me to pace myself quite easily off others around me.
15k - Natick
The journey from the town of Natick at 15k to the halfway mark was more flat terrain with a few very small inclines and declines along the way. I ran through the halfway point in 1:28 (4:11/km average pace), feeling well within myself. After a little more rambling to myself to see how I felt – my mental equivalent of a systems check – I pressed on past the halfway mark and at this point I felt like I’d banked a little time but not so much that it would come back to haunt me later in the race.
Halfway - Wellesley
It was just after the halfway point that I started to hear a thunderous roar of screaming women in the distance, like I imagine The Beatles experienced every time they jumped off a plane or showed up to a gig. By the time I turned the corner and entered the stretch of tarmac directly outside Wellesley College, the sound of screaming from the banner-waving Wellesley College girls was almost deafening! The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I took it in. It was like a wall of sound hitting me from the right side. I didn’t have the time nor inclination to stop for a free kiss from a Wellesley girl, but what a wonderful, iconic section of the race I thought to myself as I continued on. At this point I cast my mind back to the Boston Marathon course preview that coach Greg McMillan held on the Saturday at the Sheraton Hotel (sidenote: I highly recommend it for anyone running Boston for the first time) and remembered that the first of the famous Newton Hills started in just two to three miles, with the Newton Fire Station marking the first hill, around the 25/26k point.
25k - Newton
After a slight incline from 23-25k, I hit a big decline that was my main reference point for the start of the Newton Hills. I didn’t notice the fire station at all. I checked my watch – 1:44, a few seconds/km under the sub-3 pace. I said to myself "you’re doing well so far but this is the real test. Shit’s about to get super real. Be tough, be brave and run hard!". The first hill in Newton was very manageable but I could feel it take a little more out of my tank. It was followed by a slight decline for 1.5-2k.
After I’d dispatched the second of the Newton hills and was running downhill towards the third of the hills, I was now 30k into the race, slightly confused as to whether I was on the second or third hill. This being the very first time that I had run Boston, I wasn’t familiar with the contours of, or landmarks along, the hilly section of the course. I checked my Garmin watch again - it displayed an elapsed time of 2:06. My average pace for the race at this point was still 4:12/km. I was still in with a chance of running a sub-3 time, I just had to press on and hope for the best.
I hit the third Newton hill which was a shorter but noticeably steeper incline than the previous two hills and as I arrived close to the crest of the third hill I started wondering if this was heartbreak hill, searching for the "top of heartbreak hill" sign that I’d seen before on a course preview. After looking for the sign and not spotting it, I realised there was still one more hill to go, heartbreak hill. I had a sinking feeling that the marathon was going to get a lot harder very soon and I was right…
Halfway up heartbreak hill the struggle became real and it was the beginning of the end of my dream to run a sub-3 marathon in Boston. Early signs of a fairly large fade had started to rear their ugly head. I tried to stay positive, keeping up the self-talk, "hang in there, you’re doing well, keep pushing".
With 8k to go I had eventually conquered heartbreak hill and as I did, I finally spotted the damn "top of heartbreak hill" sign and at this point I felt tighter than a playoff game going into overtime! The fade I thought was starting to happen a kilometer or two ago had now well and truly kicked off! I thought to myself for a second... What I needed was to react to the situation quickly, to get more carbohydrates in to try to fuel me to the end of the race. I reached into my 2XU Expandable Run Belt and ripped off an Endura gel and started taking on board more carbs, earlier than scheduled. It worked for a little while… another kilometer down the road and my right calf started to cramp a little. Then the left calf. I told myself to keep going as I headed towards Brookline. Approaching a much-needed drink station, I took in some Gatorade and prayed the cramping would subside. In hindsight I should’ve take on a lot more Gatorade to try to replace some of the electrolytes lost and prevent further cramping, but the pack of runners weaving in and out of the drink station prevented me from dwelling too long.
35k - Brookline
From 30k to 40k I experienced intermittent sharp pains in the top of my left shoulder. I swung my arm up and down to try to relieve the pain (which must've looked bizarre for onlookers) and it worked temporarily. The leg cramping continued to worsen between 35k to 40k, despite this section of the course being mostly downhill. The temperature was now edging closer to 18-19 degrees and everything gradually started getting harder... Thankfully in our Boston marathon race swag bag we were given some Leg Cramps tablets. I happened to throw them into my pocket before leaving the hotel for the race. I remembered this at around 37k’s and pulled to the side of the course temporarily to remove the small tablets from the foil pouch they were in as I struggled to do it on the run.
40k - Boston
Despite consuming these tablets, by the time I reached the outer limits of the city of Boston, I passed the famous Citgo sign near Fenway Park at the 40k point and my legs were toast! I felt cramp across multiple muscle groups every ten steps or so. Now I had to dig deep, repeating a sentence over and over in my head, "do NOT walk, whatever you do, do NOT walk, just keep running!". I battled hard over the last 2.2km of this magnificent race, barely able to take the crowds in as they built up bigger and louder towards the finish line. It was so disheartening seeing numerous runners pass me in the last part of the race but all I could do at this point was just hold on.
42.2k Boston Marathon Finish Line
I slowly turned right onto Hereford, now cramping every 5 steps or so. I’d come this far, I wasn’t going to give in and walk at this point, not a chance. As I turned left onto Boylston, the slight incline near that turn felt like a mountain! After 'surviving' the small, final incline, I could see the famous blue and yellow finish line structure in the distance, but it looked SO far away in my current state. In the final 400m I thought to myself as I was now cramping every two or three steps, "you may have to crawl over the finish line but we’re going to get there, no matter what!". 100 meters to go and all I could think about was the cramping. I clenched my fists and threw them in the air as I crossed the finish line of the 123rd Boston marathon in a respectable time of 3:10:04. With the late fade my average run time pushed out well beyond the sub-3 mark, averaging 4:30/km pace. A few minutes after I’d finished, I fought back tears from the wave of emotion that hit me. I didn’t care too much about my time, I’d given sub-3 a crack and I’d fallen short. That's running sometimes. Instead I was proud of the fight and determination I brought to the last 7k when the going got really tough.
I thanked the volunteers as I received Gatorade, crisps and most importantly, my Boston Marathon finisher medal! I then asked for directions to the medical tent as I couldn’t hear out of my left ear and my left shoulder was suddenly very sore. After 20 minutes in the medical tent where the wonderful volunteers looked after my now severely cramping legs, my ear finally popped, so I wandered very slowly across town to my hotel thinking about how wonderful the whole build up to race day had been. I reflected on the lovely locals in Boston who had approached me to congratulate me for qualifying or wish me luck. I thought of how incredibly expertly this event had been put together, resulting in a seamless experience across the whole race long weekend. My trip to Boston was nothing short of extraordinary. I highly recommend the Boston marathon experience to runners and support crew (family) of runners, it is a truly exceptional race, completely worthy of the prestigious title it receives on the global running stage as the oldest and best marathon in the world.
A huge thank you to the organisers and spectators of the Boston marathon and the city of Boston, what an incredible bucket list experience!
// Andrew Kidd
My Boston marathon splits:
5k – 21:18
10k – 42:09
15k – 1:02:59
20k – 1:23:49
21.1 – 1:28:19
25k – 1:44:43
30k – 2:06:50
35k – 2:30:49
40k – 2:57:31
42.195k – 3:10:04
My running gear: