Friday, February 22, 2013

How I qualified for the Boston Marathon

So there I was, at Mile 22 of the Myrtle Beach Marathon. I'm passing the timing clock that's set up next to the mile marker, and I'm doing math. Generally, I'm horrible at math -- flunked out of it in college -- but I've done enough time-based calculations as a Garmin-obsessed runner that this much is clear: If I don't push through, if I start falling off the pace too much, it ain't happenin' today.

If you've run a marathon (and have had a time goal in that marathon), you've been here. It's decision time. It's make-or-break time. It's the time to ask, "Do I feel like suffering today, or not?"

I've certainly run marathons where the answer has been "HAHAHAHAHAHA! No." But today? Today, I wasn't taking no for an answer. I'd come too far. It wasn't so much the 22 miles I'd covered in the previous 160+ minutes. Rather, it was the long, hard months of training. The early mornings. The "Honey, I'll be late for dinners." The two- and three-shower days. The screaming legs. The burning lungs. All of it.

I haven't come this far or worked this hard, I told myself, to miss my goal by 30 seconds and endure all the "Oh, man, you were so close! Great try" pats on the back for the next two weeks.

Down went my head, narrow went my eyes. This was happenin' today.


We talk about goal-setting all the time as runners, and how goals provide motivation during training, how they act as a metaphorical carrot on the end of a metaphorical stick.

What separates Boston from other goals -- from breaking 30 minutes in a 5K to running 100 miles in a 24-hour race -- is that it leads somewhere. To a place. Break 30 minutes in a 5K and your husband might bake you a cake. Qualify for the Boston Marathon, and you have a plane ticket to buy and a hotel room to book.

But Boston means different things to different runners. Plenty of slower runners will never qualify, and might be jealous of people who do. (At the same time, many of those folks who will never qualify also couldn't care less.) On the other end of the spectrum are the fastest among us, gazelles who could run a qualifying time while pushing a shopping cart; for them, fretting about Boston would be like a millionaire coveting his buddy's new Toyota.

Then there are runners on the cusp. Fit, but not phenomenally so. Fast, but not freakish. Runners like me. In 2011, I gave it a shot, needing a sub-3:10 and falling more than three minutes short. I waited almost 16 months to try again.

Both in 2011 and this time around, while preparing for Myrtle Beach, I was coached by Kelly Fillnow -- a friend who also happens to be a professional triathlete sponsored by Timex. Her marathon training plans focus on quality miles instead of large quantities of miles, fierce intensity on hard days and true recovery on easy ones, as well as a significant amount of strength work -- core, legs, and upper body, too. Lot of workout variety, lot of goal-pace miles, some cross-training added to further mix things up.

This time around, since I turn 40 in September and would be 40 at Boston 2014, I had an extra five minutes to work with. But instead of training for a sub-3:15, I trained for a sub-3:10; doing so was, without a doubt, a huge key to my success. Hang on, and I'll explain.


Once you make it through a successful training cycle and you've reached the taper feeling healthy and strong, the last remaining unknown (excuse?) is always the weather. Watching the forecast over the two weeks leading up to this one was like watching "The Walking Dead" -- full of suspense, and sometimes you were afraid to even look. The night before, the AccuWeather app for my iPhone was even showing possible scattered showers in the morning.

So it was a surprise to be able to see stars in the sky while walking to the start on Saturday morning,  a surprise to see the sun come up during the first few miles of the race, and a truly great surprise that -- despite concerns the sun's presence might sap energy -- there wasn't a single moment in the race where I felt too warm. Or too cold. It was perfect. Weather-wise.

Legs-wise, it took me a long time to get comfortable. When I run marathons, I often do battle with shin splints during the first few miles. This almost never happens during training runs or workouts, and generally -- using my wisdom as an armchair exercise and sports scientist -- I attribute it to the fact that do no warmup before marathon. But this time, I had more trouble shaking the pain than usual.

My goal going in was to start slow: 7:40 the first mile, 7:30 the second, 7:20 the third, then get to 7:15 (goal pace). My actual was: 7:39, 7:29, 7:27, 7:27. I couldn't get comfortable. My shins were hurting. On top of that, my calves, hamstrings and quads -- OK, my entire legs -- just felt tight and generally crappy. Miles 5 and 6 were both 7:29, and at that point, I made a clear and conscious decision to adjust my game plan. 7:15 splits were out the window, at least the time being. Let's work through this stuff with your legs, I told myself. Let's stay relaxed. 7:26 pace will get you under 3:15; we can work with this. It was way early to be starting to lean on mantras, but I did it anyway. "Trust your training. Trust your training. Trust your training. Trust your training." I must have said it 300 times between Miles 7 and 10 ... and somewhere in there, my legs (shins included) started behaving.

The second segment of the race -- Miles 10 through 20 -- definitely were my most confident. My splits started trending down into the 7-teens, my breathing became less labored, there was more fluidity in my leg muscles, and my headspace was just cooler and calmer.

I hit the halfway point at 1:37:52, and took a gut check. Yeah, I was feeling good. Not great, but certainly way better than I'd been feeling half an hour earlier. Yet I couldn't see the end of the race, and it was frustrating. What I mean by that is ... well, let's put it this way: I worked so hard to visualize a positive outcome, and to think positive thoughts, and to stay in a positive frame of mind. But unless you're a machine, it's very hard to push ALL negative thoughts out of your head. And during the first 20 miles at Myrtle, every time I tried to visualize how I'd feel or where I'd be in the last 6.2, I was getting the equivalent of bad radio reception. It was just fuzz. Inky-black. Instead of a blank spot in my past, I had like this blank spot in my future.

So I started with another mantra, mixed in with the first one. This time, it was "Embrace the pain. Embrace the pain. Embrace the pain." Kelly had told me before the race, "Each mile, just keep believing in yourself, and know that the pain is going to be there. Your body can endure so much more than you think it can. When it gets tough, just tell yourself, 'Pain is my friend.' Make friends with pain, admit he is there, and then know that you can overcome the pain. Pain is a temporary state." I know, I know. It sounds like a line. But I was buying it. Mile 16, I was like, BRING IT. My split for Mile 16 was 7:15. It would turn out to be my fastest mile of the day, the only mile I hit what is the goal pace for a 3:10 marathon. It was the most familiar mile I ran all morning. (More on this soon, I promise.)

7:21, 7:22, 7:20, 7:18, 7:18, 7:24, and suddenly, here I am at Mile 22 of the Myrtle Beach Marathon. There's that timing clock next to the mile marker. There's me doing math, and I suck at math. It's decision time. That fuzzy, inky-black blank spot is starting to come into focus, and I'm all of a sudden, I just said "F--- this." Those two words would become the mantra that got me to a Boston qualifying time. It's crude, I know. It's a crutch to use profanity, I know. But I also know that sometimes I need to get mad to get motivated. I was just ready to be done. To get this done. To reap the rewards of all those long, hard training runs. Literally, the next 31-32 minutes would validate (or not) months of training, and serve as the difference between "Congratulations, you did it!" and "Aww... well, congratulations, that's still a great time!" I kept hearing the latter statement over and over and over and over again in my head. And once again, I was like "F--- this." Ain't nobody got time for that.


The last mile was a victory lap. On the corner before turning into the long chute near Pelicans Ballpark, where the finish line is, I spotted my wife and daughter. They raced along with me, on the other side of the netting, until I made the final turn and could make out the clock. That was my favorite part of the whole race. I crossed the timing mat and hit my watch right at 3:14:13 (which would match precisely my official chip time), pumping my fist a couple times.

I haven't cried in years, and there's really no good reason to cry over a silly running race, but I can't deny I got a little choked up after this one. It wasn't elation, I don't think. I hadn't fulfilled a lifelong dream. I merely set a tough (for me) goal, worked hard to put myself in a position to achieve it, then went out and got it done. So I don't know. I think it was a mixture of pride and relief. Pride because not everybody can do what I did; relief because now that I've done it, it's a badge I can always wear even if I never want to pursue that goal again. I didn't weep, but in an emotional sense it was really very overwhelming. I wasn't expecting it.


I really have no doubt that the quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon has turned many otherwise average runners into very good runners, because they become so driven to achieve a goal that -- for better or worse -- says something significant about a runner's prowess. The mere existence of the Boston Marathon makes the running community faster than it might otherwise be.

With that in mind, I leave you with this: Set big goals. Huge ones. Test your limits. You're thinking, Ugh, what a cliche, right? But as Kelly said, your body can endure so much more than you think it can. For example, say someone's got a marathon PR of 4:10, and they decide they want to break four hours. What do most people do? They train to run a 3:59. Right? So they get out there, and they run a 3:58, and they're ecstatic. Wait a second, though. What if that same runner had instead trained for a 3:50? Maybe they're not a 3:50 marathoner, but maybe the extra push puts them in such good shape that they go out and run a 3:54. I'm admittedly bad at math, but even I know 3:54 is four minutes faster than a 3:58. And they've found what, for now, is their limit, instead of doing "just enough" to hit their goal.

Now, I realize this is just a theory. But I've tested it. In 2011, my other BQ attempt, I trained for sub-3:10 and ran a 3:13. This time around, my qualifying mark was 3:15, but I again decided to train for sub-3:10. All my goal pace work was at 7:15/mile, and I went into race day planning on getting after a sub-3:10. So the truth of the matter here is that I missed my goal of sub-3:10, but still ran as fast as I possibly could, on as flat a course as there is, in as perfect weather as I could have asked for. I believe the limits of my ability today are a 3:14 marathon.

If I had trained to run 3:15, if my goal pace work had all been at 7:26/mile, then I'd gone in feeling "off" and was slower than that by 10-15 seconds per mile for the first 10 miles ... all I can say is that conversation I had with myself out there at Mile 22 on Saturday would have gone a bit differently.