Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Boston Marathon 2012 RR: Sometimes You're the Windshield...

"Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug."  --Dire Straits


Coming off a big -- and relatively conservative -- PR at the Cherry Blossom two weeks ago (6:20/mile for 10 miles), I was feeling good for Boston.  The equivalence calculators suggested that a time in the high 2:50s was possible, but given the hills and my historic under-performance at the marathon distance, I wasn't quite buying it.  Still, I felt at least as strong as I'd been when I ran my 3:07 in Eugene, OR last spring to qualify for Boston, so I thought I had a legitimate shot at a new personal-best time.  I felt confident that I could at least re-qualify for Boston 2013 by running a 3:09 or better.  What could go wrong?  Oh.

I'd checked the weather during the lead-up to race week.  At one point, the predicted highs for the day ranged from 62 and cloudy on one site to 82 and sunny on another, which I believe is weather code for "anything is possible, including a rain of fish."  When I expressed consternation about the forecast, some friends had offered their perspectives, including that obsessing about weather isn't healthy -- one should just show and go, and make the best of whatever the day presents.  I'd like to be sympathetic to that view, but I also feel that the weather is an important piece of information.  For example, given the forecast of possible wind in Ironman Wales, I'd brought a shallower front wheel so I'd have an option when I arrived.  And it's a good thing I did, because otherwise I'm fairly certain I'd have been blown clear across the English Channel.  

Dressed for success.
In any case, it would have been hard to ignore the weather entirely, because starting three days before the race, the racers started to receive dire "weather updates" from the race officials.  The first merely called athletes' attention to possible temperatures in the 80s, but by the afternoon before the race, the predicted high was 88, and the last warning email basically said, "It is possible that someone will finish this race without succumbing to heat stroke, but it won't be you."  In fact, the race officials announced that, in light of the weather, they would allow any competitor to defer his entry to the 2013 race, and about 4,000 people took up the offer.  Given that I needed a finishing time in order to compete in the Big Sur portion of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge in two weeks, deferring wasn't an option, but even if it were, I wouldn't have considered it.  I've never bailed on an important event simply due to less-than-ideal conditions, and the very notion strikes me as antithetical to the spirit of endurance sports.  If we wanted ideal conditions, we could all be bowlers.  Or Cross-Fit'ers.  

In a nod to the conditions, I did bring what hot-weather gear I had -- a white singlet, Zoot arm coolers, and a Zoot cap with fabric that shields the ears and neck from the sun.  I figured that any little bit would help.  My nutrition was a hand bottle of CarboPro C5 (600 calories), plus two Nuun electrolyte tablets and a little bit of caffeine.  A similar concoction had worked perfectly at the Eugene Marathon, where my plan had been to get all of my calories from the bottle, and to supplement it with water from the aid stations.

I awoke at 6:00, which is a downright civilized time for an event like this, and one that was possible only due to the rather unusual 10:00 start time.  We hopped aboard the chartered bus for a 45-minute ride out to Hopkinton, where we were released into the Athlete's Village, i.e., the mecca of marathoning.

It also basically ended here.
On race morning, one is accustomed to huddling for warmth and perhaps finding a little coffee -- anything to keep from losing energy through shivering.  Suffice it to say, that was not a problem this year.  Temperatures were in the high 70's and sunny when we stepped off the bus, and they reached 80 by the start of the race.  The Athlete's Village, though, was a sight to behold:

Welcome to my world of suffering!
There was coffee in the tent.  No one was drinking it.
Eventually I stumbled upon my friend Dave, who'd qualified for the race with the same time as me, meaning that we were assigned to the same starting wave and corral.  We walked the half-mile or so down to the race start, and took our places in the sixth wave.  Theoretically, this meant that everyone around us ought to have a similar time goal in mind.  The trick, however, was that no one had much of a clue what effect the temperatures would have on race times.  We knew they'd be slower, but how much?  A couple of online calculators I'd found had suggested that 20-30 minutes slower was a realistic estimate, but that seemed extreme.  I resolved to run the first half of the race at about a 7:15/mile pace, which would have been a 3:10 overall.  On any normal day, that would have been conservative.  I figured I'd assess things at the halfway point and dial it back if necessary.

After the Star-Spangled Banner was sung against a backdrop of circling news helicopters, we were off on the 116th running of the Boston Marathon!  

The first five miles of the marathon are very much downhill:


True to form, I went out a little bit fast -- according to my watch, 6:45, 6:52, 7:02, and 7:04 for the first four miles.  But it felt very easy; I was running conservatively and just rolling down the hills while trying not to apply the brakes through poor form.  Effort-wise, I think I was running close to a 7:10-7:15 flat-land pace, which was exactly where I wanted to be.  Halfway through mile 5, however, I realized that I was not feeling remotely good, with vague tinges of nausea and the odd sensation that I was breathing through thick fabric.  I realized that I had a long day ahead, so I pulled off and walked for fifty yards or so, something that's virtually unheard-of that early in a marathon.  My fifth mile was a 7:49, a rather pathetic concession to necessity.

Disturbingly, however, things did not get better, even with what became rather frequent walk breaks. Things did not get better at all.  Miles 6 through 8 passed in 8:07, 8:35, and 9:06.  I simply couldn't get my heart rate down, no matter how much water I dumped all over me and how much I slowed down.  In mile 9, I realized that I was having trouble breathing even when I was walking.  Whenever I'd breathe deeply, I'd get sharp pains in the sides of my lungs.  Not side stitches, which are lower, and with which I'm well familiar, but cramping, stabbing pains in the sides of my ribs.  I simply couldn't expand my chest to get air in, and I discovered that there is nothing remotely fun about struggling for oxygen in the middle of an endurance event.  I don't have asthma, but I felt like I could relate a little bit to what sufferers go through.  

Miles 9 through 13 didn't get much worse: 9:19, 8:55, 9:49, 9:15, and 9:40.  On the one hand, this was comforting, but on another, it was deeply worrisome -- I should not have been struggling to run 9:xx miles halfway through a marathon when my goal pace was 7:15/mile.  It did not bode well for the second half of the race.  In mile 12, however, I did encounter Iwan and Nelson, two friends who were racing for charity, and it was good to see such friendly faces.  I hoped they were doing better than I was.

As I approached the Scream Tunnel in Wellesley, which marks the halfway point, I noticed another disturbing thing: the world was glowing.  Or, rather, the runners whose clothes were bright (white, pink, or neon yellow) had distinct auras around them, and the brightness seared my vision such that I'd see spots when I'd shift my gaze.  I was also feeling a little bit unsteady, and I still couldn't get air in.  The Scream Tunnel was deafening and wonderful, but getting a kiss from the Wellesley women was the furthest thing from my mind -- I felt like I might simply collapse against the railing where they were.  So onward I trudged.

My first-half split was about a 1:50.  That was well off of my 1:35 goal time, but I reasoned that all I had to do was run a 2:10 second-half split (about 10:00/mile), and I could salvage a time under 4 hours.  That would be nothing to brag about, but given how I was feeling, it also wouldn't be a disaster.

It also wouldn't happen.  Miles 13-15 were a 9:38, 10:21, and 11:20, respectively.  When I hit the hills in Newton, things came to a grinding halt, more or less literally.  I was sucking air in, dumping water all over me as much as I could, putting ice under my cap, drinking multiple cups of water and Gatorade at each aid station, but I simply couldn't run more than about 100 yards without getting lightheaded.  It was also at this time that my calves and inner quads started cramping painfully, such that I had to stop multiple times to stretch.

The last ten miles were some of the toughest I've ever covered in my racing career.  I was completely shattered, couldn't breathe, couldn't run without locking up, and was just trying to keep moving in the right direction with an eye on finishing without needing medical attention.  I passed several athletes prostrate on the side of the road, covered in bags of ice and surrounded by medical personnel.  The ambulance sirens became a steady backdrop.  The only goal was forward, forward, forward.

Needless to say, any hope of a 4-hour finish evaporated as quickly as water on the sidewalk.  In the last twelve miles, my pace hovered in the 12:xx range, which was the result of 80% walking and 20% desperate, awkward shuffling.

When I reached the finish line, there was a sense of triumph, but not of the usual sort.  Instead, this was simply a survival exercise.  I briefly considered visiting the medical tent, but there were about 50 athletes in wheelchairs queue'd up to get in, many sobbing or looking dazed, and I didn't feel like I was quite that bad off.
The 4:34 total time is about two minutes fast, because my watch
auto-paused several times when I stopped to de-cramp.

I'm not sure quite where it all went wrong.  The first few miles were somewhat fast, yes, but they were downhill and not inordinately fast.  Even had I run 8-minute miles instead of 7's for the first five, I don't think the outcome would have been dramatically different.  I simply couldn't breathe or see straight, and I think the reason is that, as much as I was drinking (multiple cups from each aid station), it wasn't nearly enough.  Indeed, I had two bottles of fluid (about 40 ounces) at the finish line, but even including those, when I got back to the hotel, a scale confirmed that I had lost approximately eleven pounds.  In other words, I'd lost about 1.5 gallons (two hundred ounces, or ten bike bottles) of water since the start.  Frankly, it is something of a wonder that I was still upright.  When I got to the airport shortly thereafter, I was hit with a wave of vertigo and nausea, and I parked myself on a bench and drank about a gallon of water in an effort to put things right.  I didn't feel remotely settled until later that night.

In all, I'm not second-guessing very much about my race.  I just was nothing close to prepared, and neither was anyone else.  My training this spring was adequate to my goal, but it was somewhat rushed after a two-month winter layoff, and I had favored shorter, more intense efforts over long sessions in the sun.  Even with such sessions, however, I wouldn't have been ready for this.  There's simply no way to prepare for an 89-degree day -- a record by 5 degrees -- with full sun, in mid April.  What little tailwind there was only made things worse, as it matched our forward momentum and thereby made the air feel completely still around us.  

I have the Big Sur Marathon in eleven days, and I intend to see what I can do there.  It may not be much; my system took quite a shock, and even two days after Boston, my legs are still giving out periodically when I'm walking around.  But I'll do what I can do.  No one said this is easy!

I think someday I'd like to return to Boston to give a better account of my abilities.  Unless I pull off something highly unlikely at Big Sur, it won't be in 2013.  But who knows what the future will bring?