I spent Sunday with 668 fellow adrenaline junkies and a whole lotta LSD. This wasn’t a rave; it was a crazy little thing called the Boston Prep 16 Miler. (Remember, dear reader: LSD stands for Long Slow Distance. Most of the runners did LFD, “F” for fast, but we’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say it was LSD for me and I’m a-OK with that.)
How I came to be part of this peculiar party has a story of its own; while driving Daughter # 2 around selling Girl Scout cookies one day, I concluded that I was falling short on one of my (too?) many goals in “running Boston”. I’m doing fine mileage-wise and I’ve thusfar escaped (major) injury; at the same time my fundraising is on track due to a slew of new supporters (a special thanks to my NetScout buddies who apparently still love me despite the fact that I abandoned them for Cisco Systems more than a year ago, and also to high school friends Darlene and Laura who took my kooky MHS Alumni Challenge and made pledges in dollar figures that hint at our year of graduation—what fun!). Mileage and money aside, I was also hoping to meet other like-minded people along the way and I’m dogging on that goal. For me, marathon training has been a mostly solo experience. I have only one close friend in the universe who has experienced the unique mix of dread and relief a tubful of ice offers after a 2.5 hour run. Caveat: LeeAnne lives 3,075 miles away—in Oregon. We’ve never actually met in person. Our uniquely 21st century relationship has been built via email, IM, web cam and a rather cool technology called Cisco TelePresence.
So I cracked open the roster listing all 189 runners on the 2011 Children’s Hospital team and emailed everyone within the Metrowest Boston area. There were a good number of folks on the “To” line of my “hey I live in Marlborough and just wanted to say hi to nearby runners and see if any of ya’ll say hi back” email. Two wrote back. One is this fantastic woman Wendy who has run 23 marathons (that’s TWENTY THREE!) from whom I am already learning tons. The other is Doug, a husband, firefighter, writer of a running blog and father of two young children—one newborn even—who is training for his second consecutive marathon and since his first has lost a stunning 45 pounds (that’s FORTY FIVE!). Long story short: Doug said he was “doing Boston Prep” (the day after his daughter’s christening, no less–what a slouch, huh?). I had never heard of it; he assured me it’s huge in running circles—the quintessential prove-it-to-yourself-you’re-ready-for-Boston run. You should come and run the BP 16 too, he said.
Now, my long run for the week was slated to be “only” 14 miles—I’d never broken the 14 barrier before and wasn’t slated to see 15 even until the end of the month. The rule of thumb is to never increase your mileage by more than 10 percent in any given week; bumping up to 16 would be pushing it. But somehow this seemed right, and within the hour I had signed on the dotted line (well, in an electronic, credit-card-transaction-ish kind of way). I emailed my coach, confessed my premeditated off-plan transgression and asked how I should modify the rest of the week to continue to (mostly) avoid injury.
Race Day Sunday arrived—much earlier for me than for the saner subset of humanity; I was up burning nervous energy at 2:30 a.m., two hours before my usual get-up-and-go time (I know what you’re thinking: FREAK). I packed, unpacked and repacked my bag. Three times. I read the news (no good news). I checked weather.com (no good news there, either—Derry NH would hover near zero degrees). I contemplated how many layers one should wear during a 16-mile footrace in sub-zero weather. Two? Three? Four? Finally, after a hug from drowsy Daughter #1 (who slept on the couch hoping my early a.m. coffee-getting would rouse her so she could say good luck–love that kid), I got in the car and made the hour-long drive to Derry. I arrived early enough to get one of the best parking places (a bene of pre-race sleeplessness: no need to be bused in from off-site parking).
It was freezing, but we had use of a school gym, which was most excellent since we’d two and a half hours to kill. I got my number (367) and watched from the bleachers as the gym slowly filled with super-fast looking Maseratis. I tried not to stare at the guy wearing a Team Psycho shirt—that’s an uber-elite triathlon team which includes the likes of Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. It was definitely overwhelming for former-queen-of-the-elliptical me. I found my teammate Doug right where he said he would be, introduced myself to him and his friends and his mother. Chatted a bit.
But soon I felt I needed space to contemplate the enormity of the day’s undertaking, migrated to a space of my own next to the announcer’s booth. Stretch. Watch. Breathe. I re-read the email from the race director, which to my mortification warned us we would be disqualified if we wore shorts or peed in driveways along the route. No worries there—the chances of me showing leg or urinating in public were lower than the day’s temperature. It also said the race director could pull runners off the course after three hours. That one worried me; the weekend prior I had run 14 miles in 2:28…so there was a chance that 16 could take me more than 3—especially since the pre-race chatter seemed to be focused on the insanity of the hills, whose elevations were commemorated on the race shirts in frenetic fever chart fashion. What if I’m yanked? I was here to boost my confidence in my Boston-readiness; being ousted in Derry would certainly be a downer.
The race announcer, local sportscaster Andy Schachat best known to local athletes as Andy on the Run, sensed my fear—he ducked down to meet my gaze (I was in my own pathetic version of yoga’s Cobra position, soothing my finicky spine into submission). He told me to smile, reminded me that this was supposed to be fun. His booth my confessional, I affirmed my nervousness, unloaded my 30-second story: I’ve never run Boston Prep. I’ve never run more than 14. Ever. As in never before in my life. I’m running Boston for Children’s. At least that’s the plan. In between his announcing he told me of his three Boston Marathon finishes. We talked about the course, about Alberto Salazar, about the insanity of running 26.2 miles but how if you’re going to be that crazy you might as well do Boston and not some lesser marathon. I felt a lot better after that chat.
Race time. We walked en masse a chilly quarter mile to the start, past a field full of horses who looked to be chomping at the bit to run 16 miles. I thought of offering my number to one of them. An odd cast and crew stepped onto a cold, snowy stage; some wore fuel belts, others had shades and hats. Others fearlessly faced both frostbite and a DQ: they were actually wearing shorts. (As one bare-legged runner passed by, someone conspiratorially snickered, “Rule breaker! I bet he’ll pee in a driveway too.”) Most looked like real runners. A few looked like me. We all waited for the same “GO! GO! GO!” from the race director and when that signal came we all went went went.
I pushed START on my Garmin and settled into an 8:50 pace—that’s wicked speedy for me, most of my LSD being done in the high nines and low tens and even the (gasp) elevens on a decent uphill climb. But it was apparently not fast enough for this crowd—I was passed by platoons, no make that battalions of runners. I kept looking at my watch; is it working? Is this really 8:50 pace? Is everyone really that much faster than me? We rounded the first corner at .44 miles; several Greater Derry Track Club members were there to direct us to the right. “YOU’RE LOOKING GREAT!” one chirped. I sure as hell hope so; 99 percent of the course remains ahead of us! I thought.
For the first five miles I was passed often, and never once passed another runner. This was such an odd experience for me—in my triathlons, I’ve become accustomed to being the passer more often than the passee (well, except for on the swim—but you can’t see the passing happening during the swim, as your face is mostly submerged). That was oddly OK with me; I was not going to challenge anyone—we had a whole lotta miles to peel off, and this girl was gonna run her own race.
At five miles a runner appeared from behind; I came to call her Little Miss Blue Cap. When we hit a hill, I would shorten my stride and keep a fairly consistent pace while she would dog it and fall behind me. Then at the apex she’d hurl her 5’3’’ 100-pound frame downhill, leaving me in the dust. This is a hilly course, so we repeated this odd little ritual many many times. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’d wait for her to pass me, then catch her without trying on the uphill again. I spent miles 5-8 being entertained by this; hers seemed like an odd race strategy, but I am admittedly a complete newbie and admired her enthusiam.
We banked right again, passing the big orange “Mile 8” sign. Someone drove by at a snail’s pace with his windows down, blaring music with a pulsing beat for those of us pounding the pavement. To him I am forever thankful. Assisted by the backbeat, I mentally pushed RESET, insisted that my brain count the miles in the rearview mirror as a nice light warm up. I’m all loosened up, I told myself. My synapses are perfectly firing, my muscles more ready for action than ever, my glycogen levels just right. That was my story and I was sticking to it. I chased away negative thoughts (You whack job! Eight miles is a damn far distance not a freaking light warmup! a more rational lobe of my brain protested). I had to believe that eight miles was nada and I was bringing entirely fresh legs and gray matter to the “real” race. I shook out my arms and, in anticipation of the water station we’d encounter at Mile 9, I popped two Clif Shot Bloks in my mouth, trying to practice refueling on the run—one of the myriad tasks the endurance-athlete-wannabee must master to avoid keeling over before the finish line.
At Mile 9 I gulped some water to chase down those oh-so-yummy (not) Bloks, banked left and saw a sight I had heard Doug and his buddies chattering about: a hill like no other. Now, I know the Guinness Book of World Records says the steepest street in the world is in New Zealand, but at that moment I was pretty sure those editors had never been to Derry, New Hampshire. It seemed like mountain-climbing gear may be required. Little Miss Blue Cap immediately acquiesced–even earlier than she had on the lesser hills. I did not know it at the time, but I had seen the last of my 5’3” friend–she would never pass me again. I focused not on the summit but on a tree some 10 yards away, imagined pulling it towards me. Once I was there I picked another. And another still. I shortened my strides, pumped my arms letting them do as much of the work as possible. Many of the runners ahead of me were walking. I will not walk, no, no, no. Not one step.
Little did I know this was not the biggest hill in my future. I am forever thankful that I had not stumbled upon this elevation map prior to the race or I may have joined the 150 or so runners who paid their entry fee but failed to show. From Mile 9 to 12.5, the course is literally all uphill (really—check the map if you don’t believe me). Still I tried to pick up the pace, or at least not slow down, wanting very badly to achieve this crazy thing called a “negative split”—where you run the second half of a race faster than the first.
Here the game changed 180 degrees: I was no longer passee but passer. Others slowed down while I sped up; not a soul passed me from Mile 9 on. I was glad I purposely left my heart rate monitor at home—seeing my HR hit the 170s makes me slow down. But I needed to speed up to feel ready for Boston.
On the steepest grade of the race, a woman I passed saw the Miles for Miracles logo on my windbreaker and cheered, “Go Children’s!” I had no breath to spare to return the favor. I simply shot a thumbs up behind my back, hoped that was OK, hoped she understood.
Later, I would read Facebook posts from runners commiserating about the insanity of the race’s second half. One cursed the long, lonely stretch of open field at Mile 14. Another chimed in about a brutal wind plaguing the final three miles. I remember no field, no wind. My foci: short strides, foot strikes, shake it out, myelin (maybe I’ll explain “myelin” in a post someday—too off-topic for now). I’d set my sights on a runner some half-dozen ahead and will him to come towards me. I passed people wearing the coveted Boston Marathon windbreakers you can only get if you’ve finished Boston. My cadence quickened as my confidence soared. My cadence quickened even more when I visualized uploading my Garmin file for my coach; do the final five at 8:25 was the gauntlet he threw me via my TrainingPeaks account. I wanted so badly to meet, no, to exceed his expectations. Either way I would far surpass the goals I would have conceived of on my own.
I passed the START line again—the course loops back on itself and finishes at the school where I had nervously cobra-ed earlier. As I banked the final right, a runner with no kick left to give waved me on. I accepted the offer—my final pass du jour.
As I willed myself up the final hill, the announcer boomed “AND HERE COMES NUMBER 367, CHRISTINE YO-HAN-SON OF MARLBOROUGH MASS, WHO WILL SOON RUN HER FIRST BOSTON MARATHON FOR CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL!” That was Andy. He had remembered. That was oh-so-very cool. Fully hidden behind shades and what Daughter #2 calls my “robber mask”, my face lit up. I revved as his energy took me across the finish line.
And then the rush was gone. The void filled with pain pain pain. Complete sentences not an option. Doug was there. He had big whole sentences. I grapsed for syallables but none came. If someone told me a double-leg amputation was the answer to post-race pain, I may have begged for the procedure. My jaw dropped and simply stayed in that position. Hide the pain so the EMTs don’t come! OMG that’d be embarrassing! one side of my brain pled. You idiot, seek them OUT! Let them HELP! the other side spat. I was incapable of arbitration. I searched the faces of other runners—everyone else seemed absolutely a-OK. Why was I falling apart?
In a brief moment of clarity, both cranial lobes united to deliver a singular query to their caretaker: You really think by April 18th you’ll be able to tack on another 10.2 after that, girly girl? You up to 26.2?” I told them both to shut the BLEEP up.
A total of 669 runners started the race; 665 finished. I came in 427th. (For those of you who speak the language of splits, mine are here or check out the full race results—you just have to scroll way, way, way down to “427” to find little ol’ me.) That’s right: 94 percent of the folks who stood with me at the start crossed the finish line before me. My time was 2:24:52; the fastest woman—a 39-year-old goddess from Amherst, NH—finished in 1:47:25. And yet, I feel a greater sense of accomplishment in finishing the Boston Prep than I did when I placed first in my 40-44 age group at the Title 9 All-Women Sprint Triathlon this summer.
I was honored to run with such amazing athletes.
Correction: I was honored to run BEHIND such amazing athletes.
Boston? Bring it on!
Correction: Boston? Bring it on after 12 more weeks of training! 🙂
As always, thanks for reading, consider becoming a sponsor of my run and enjoy your day!