Race Report by our US correspondent Gavin Finlay
Despite my disappointment with the slow(er) time, my first Boston was a wonderful experience. The famous atmosphere and that Boston “feeling” exceeded expectations. The organisation was slick, and the volunteers kind and brilliant. The locals were friendly and the whole city seemed welcoming, as if it gave the runners a handshake and a giant hug for two days. Even though my own race didn’t transpire as planned, I loved being part of the history and romance of the world’s oldest (and best) marathon. (And no, London, despite what you think and the BBC say, you are not the “greatest”).
Race report Gavin in bib number 150 with Donore Harriers’ Fergal Whitty on his tail
Training had not gone as well as hoped. Dental surgery in December delayed my planned 16 week buildup, and a week back home in my dear Dublin in March drinking copious amounts of Guinness probably didn’t help. Still I felt 13 weeks of high mileage (peaking at 102) and quality workouts would get me to Hopkinton in good enough shape to attack a 2:29-30. Well, I was wrong. Whether it was the warm conditions, the punishing course profile, sub-standard tempo workouts, inadequate nutrition/hydration or poor pacing strategy, I do not know. All of the above, perhaps. I’ll leave it to my future historian self to determine. For now, I’m not going to let the mistakes haunt me. In fact, I’m already looking forward to one day “conquering” this great road race.
Like other marathons I’ve done, I planned to try run at a constant pace for the whole race. I tend to be quite a conservative racer and it’s stood me well over the years. But because of the unusual, net downhill profile of the Boston course, I decided to approach it a bit differently. Boston vets Alan, Tim, Jason, Malcom, Dave and others all offered sage advice, for which I’m really grateful. Just wished I stuck with your advice lads! I then researched and came across a data analysis of elite and PR marathoners at Boston over 15 years by a Computer Scientist at UCD. This suggested to go out slightly faster than your average pace (-3%; so for me = 5:33 rather than 5:43), hit your average pace in the middle, then slow to slightly slower towards the finish (+3%, @ 5:53) I took everyone’s advice on board but decided – and this was still uncertain the night before – to go for this +/-3% strategy. I knew it was risky, especially with the warm temperature, but decided to go for it.
The first 5-6 miles ticked by at a “nice” 5:33-35 pace. Bang on, feeling really comfortable and letting the hills generate the pace. I believed this was sensible and not the exuberant abandon of some marathon rookie. Though in retrospect, it may have been! I was prepared to reign it in if this didn’t feel easy. I lost count of the amount of runners speeding by me but I was also passing guys too. A French runner asked me what pace we were hitting and I replied around 5:35/mi. Being French of course, he then asked for the km/pace! Around 3:32/km I said. I grew up in Ireland when the nation was making the traumatic change from imperial to metric, and so I’m one of the lucky ones who’s fairly “fluent” in both;) Tranquillo, tranquillo, I said. Oh wait, that’s Spanish. Oh well. Miles, kilometres, French, Spanish, Latin! It’s all the same when you’re running.
The atmosphere at the start in Hopkinton, an idyllic New England town, and during those opening miles through Ashland, Farmingham and Natick were extraordinary. I really enjoyed it and wanted to soak up this special event. The experience of milling about in the first corral right behind the elites was incredible too. I was right at the tape so got to see the top guys up close and running their strides.
No matter how much you’ve read, and been told by experienced runners about those opening Boston miles, it isn’t until you run it yourself that you truly understand. Thirteen-time Boston alum Alan had warned me numerous times. I honestly felt I could handle it. Alas, it turns out I could not at that opening pace. By 10k, I began to panic, overheat and worry about sustaining my potentially doomed strategy. I drenched myself in water at every mile and despite the initial cooling relief, I soon felt hot again and struggled to run strong. The pace slowed to 5:50s (around what I was hoping to run in the closing miles) and before halfway I accepted that the 2:30 was gone. Oh this is tragic. I quickly regrouped and recalculated what I could realistically run now. I hit the half in 1:16, so all was not lost. Mentally, though, with the heat and the miles remaining, I didn’t feel confident I’d be able to pick it up. Hopefully I hadn’t done too much damage in that opening 10k. Maybe then, I could avert an utter catastrophe. Bonking. Blowing up. Crashing. Collapsing. Wheels coming off. Disintegrating. Hitting the wall. The marathoner’s vocabulary of pain and despair.
I kept taking on more water. It became a ritual at this stage: Grab. Pour. Grab. Drink. Next aid station: Grab. Pour. Grab. Drink. Further on, kids were handing out little bags of ice and I unsuccessfully tried to wedge one between my singlet and my back. Oh the relief, albeit temporary. After I saw the footage of Galen Rupp the next evening doing this smoothly, I now know how inefficient I was. I was arguably the most outlandishly wet person in the race. And being Irish and pasty – possibly the milkiest person to run Boston since Ireland’s Neal Cusack’s romped to victory in 1974 – I must have looked a sorry state. All the stranger then, when I heard “Go on Italy!” from the crowd. At first I thought, ah there’s an Italian running alongside me. It brought to mind Italy’s great marathoning tradition. I heard it again a couple miles later. Ah, that Italian guy is still behind me. “Go Italy!” for the third and fourth time. Then I realised that perhaps they mistook the Irish patch on my BCTC singlet for the Italian tricolour of Green, White and Red! I had a little chuckle to myself. Small mercies that took my mind from the struggle I was enduring.
I have never dropped out of a race but when pace slowed to 6:15-30s, and I felt on the brink of ruin, I came really close. What the f@*k is the point of this? I simply cannot imagine finishing this thing. I tried to feed off the legendary Boston support (and it was amazing) but the only way I could maintain any decent form was to zone them out. As I passed low-bibbed runners who appeared to be melting away worse than me, it boosted my confidence, oddly. It’s all relative, eh. The quads and hamstrings were too beat up by now to speed up to 5:45-6/mi or anything. The cumulative descent had wreaked its havoc. I did manage to persevere and maintain, to my mind, respectable 6:30-45s through the Newton Hills. As I write this, this is definitely a positive I can take from the race: not giving in to self-doubt, pushing through the pain and staving off a catastrophe.
The valley of noise through Boston College, Brookline and on towards the Boylston Street finish was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a race. Unforgettable stuff. The cheers of “Ireland” and “Bull City” were really appreciated, and I even managed a pathetic wave to a lady with an Irish flag. I had forgot about the short uphill through the underpass and it was strange to run those few metres in relative silence. After passing the iconic Citgo sign I banged out a 6:18 mile to the flag-lined finish. Not the sub-6 I had trained for but still not that bad considering the state I was in earlier, and not quite the bonking I feared. It was one of those surreal miles where it felt like I was running well but at the same time it lasted forever.
Was I dissatisfied with my performance and time? Yes. Should I have raced it differently? Yes. Was my 2:30 target wildly unrealistic on the day? I think so, but I decided to attack it anyway when a more cautious approach would’ve obviously been wiser. Lessons learned. My first Boston was humbling but I am already plotting my redemption in 2018.
Thanks so much to Alan, Tim and David for a great time in Boston, before and after the race. Such a pleasure. And thank you to all the BCTC crew who wished us well and cheered us on. And to my friends and Sportsworld clubmates back in Dublin. I am, as always, very grateful.
Well done to all those who ran this year, and good luck to everyone in their Summer training and races!
2:40:….*cough*…*cough*…58. (I would have “won” in 1906!;))