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.


Guinevere Janes said...

Congrats! Amazingly inspirational. Great writing as usual!.-Guinevere

willrun4food said...

"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." You made me emotional just reading this Theoden! I am so happy for you and you captured this so perfectly. It brought back the enormous weight of memory at pushing through and reaching a goal I had wanted for so long... and then I bawled like a baby out of exhuastion and elation and it was in the newspaper's slideshow and CRC newsletter to boot. But hey... I did it!

Anonymous said...

Great story. Many congratulations. And hit that sub-3:10 at Boston next year.

Mike Beigay said...

Well done'll be bawling like a baby running down Boylston next year! I did in my first Boston!

Anonymous said...

Ran my first marathon in November. Trust me, you are not alone on the "F*** this" moment near the end. It got me through even after I told myself I wouldn't go there for motivation. Worked like a charm. Congratulations.

T Stank said...

I LOVED your post! I have been trying to get to Boston for the last year and a half and I really think I have it this time, my BQ time is 3:35 and am training for 3:25. To say I am committed to this goal is a understatement. Thanks for sharing your inspiration, I will think of it has I run Glass City in April!

Allen said...

Love this - I miss the days when you blogged frequently! Way to get that BQ man - see you in Boston!

Anonymous said...

Not to be a kill joy, but you will need BQ minus 90 seconds or so in order to register with phased registration process based on time.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Theoden! I know I certainly felt the same way at my first marathon - just finishing gave me the feeling that I was a freakin' Superwoman and I hung out on that pedestal for quite awhile. :) PR-ing at the half this year made me get a little teary-eyed and I had to tell my husband to not take a picture of my ugly cry face. Congrats again on your accomplishment! Kick some F-in a$$ in Boston!

Allen said...

Dear Anonymous (aka Killjoy),

You do not know what it will take to get in. 2 years ago, everyone that beat their BQ time by 1:14 got in. There are multiple variables. BQ-90 is a completely random guess. I think it will be BQ-11. So there.


Dave Munger said...

Anonymous killjoy:

To add to Allen's comment, this year, after the standards were toughened, *everyone* who beat their BQ and registered during the initial sign-up phase got in, despite a record number of deferrals from the 2012 Boston Steambath. Maybe someday these times won't be good enough, for 2014 my bet is that everyone who qualifies and registers in the initial registration period will once again be in.

Eric Wein said...

Great story. So exciting and inspirational. How awesome that your family got to run beside you for a stretch.

Looking forward to reading your account of your Boston Marathon race.

Marathon Mommy said...

Great story. I wrote a similar story when I first BQ'd at age 60. And it was also at mile 22 when I had to do the math and make my decision to suffer that day. Unfortunately, I did not get in as anonymous pointed out, I needed to be 90 seconds faster. However, I ran a redemption race in Myrtle Beach last year and had a bigger goal, just like you mentioned and had a 6-minute cushion and got registered for the upcoming Boston Marathon. I'm thrilled. I will be 62 when I cross the finish line! Good luck to you. -EDill

Beth Hernandez said...

Theoden, this blog really hit home with me. I've been training with Kelly Fillnow for the past 4 months for my first marathon in late April. I have attempted to PR under 2 hours on 8 half marathons before training with Kelly. That was not a goal of mine when I chose her as my coach. I figured, "hell, I've been within 50 seconds of that goal and can't do it, so I'll just run a marathon instead and be happy to finish." Kelly added the MB 1/2 to my training schedule and, as you described, prepared a training plan that would push me beyond any limit I ever set for myself. The runs were sometimes tough, but never ever hard. I not only PRed on my 9th half marathon in under 2 hours at MB, I blew my last PR out of the water by nearly 5 minutes finishing with a 1:56:20 finish. I did cry at the finish line and was not able to do the math but had the exact same "F this" moment the last 2 miles of my race. I am now so much more confident about the marathon in April although I have no idea how the next 10 weeks of training will look. Thanks for sharing your race experience with such heartfelt candor. It was just the motivation I needed today as I head out to run my longest distance to date - 15 miles in a cold rain :)

Jeremy said...

Great post. Congratulations and please keep us up to date preparing for and then beating 3:10 in Boston.

Joan Dodson said...

I enjoyed reading this & I can relate to it on so many levels. I qualified for Boston at Myrtle Beach a few years ago & totally relate to coming into the chute and seeing the clock knowing I had made it, best feeling in the world!! But I have since learned the road to Boston is more tough than making the qualifying time for that Sept when I registered I didn't get in with the "rolling registration" because the last lady they took in my age group beat my qualifying time by 14 sec! Lowest day of my "running career" not to mention that now the standard qualifying time was also lowered so I now had to run a faster qualifying time.. this past fall in Chicago I was right on track to do just that and crossed the finish line 3 SECONDS over! (doing math at mile 22.. MISTAKE!) another punch to the gut. But I am determined to eventually tow that start line in Boston one day! So this year I am doing what you have suggested and that is train to run under my qualifying time (which is 3:45) I plan to train for a 3:40 this time! I registered for Chicago again and I refuse to let 14 seconds or 3 seconds make me miss it this time! Thanks for sharing your story!! It motivates me to keep trying and never give up! :)

Theoden Janes said...

Thanks you all so much for the amazing comments! I really appreciate them, and love the fact that so many people either can relate to or have been inspired by my experience. Run happy, everyone!

Jubal Foster said...

I'm not a runner, far from it. With arthritis in my knees and ankles, some days it's all I can do to walk if there are multiple flare-ups. But I enjoyed reading your article and feel motivated to set what to me will be a hard goal. But I think it will work.

This is hard for me since I grew up loving the outdoors, hiking the hardest sections of the Appalachian Trail (Great Smoky Mtns) in all kinds of weather. Walking and hiking outdoors was always my way to recharge and reconnect. Now I struggle to make it around a 1.5 mile nature trail near my home. Thanks for the story. It's very well written. And stay strong young man.

Justin said...

Great post! I just BQ'd 2 days ago with a 3:03:58 (need 3:05:00). I'm really hoping I'll be able to register and be there in 2014! My story is very similar to yours but I'm not near as good a writer as you, nor can I remember in such details (even though it just happened for me 2 days ago). Hopefully I'll see you next year in Hopkinton ready to go!

Harriet May said...

I love this post. I really want to qualify for Boston but it's going to take so much. I think I'm almost ready for the pain........

Anonymous said...


I just checked the BAA registration for the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Theoden is not on their registration list. His great effort to meet the qualifying time was, as I had forecast, nixed by the new rolling time standards.

No slight to you Theoden, put your heart into your effort. Its just a shame that reaching a qualifying time now no longer means you'll actually get to go to Boston.


Anonymous said...

Quite a bit has been turned upside down by the bombings at Boston on race day last year.

Now the charity non qualified wogger contingent numbers 30 percent of an enlarged field (up from 22 percent last year). Though the race field was expanded to 36,000 - just 400 new time qualifier slots were added for this year.


Anonymous said...

Quite a bit has been turned upside down by the bombings at Boston on race day last year.

Now the charity non qualified wogger contingent numbers 30 percent of an enlarged field (up from 22 percent last year). Though the race field was expanded to 36,000 - just 400 new time qualifier slots were added for this year.


Daniel Chidester said...

First off I want to say Congrats!!

To qualify for Boston is a big ordeal that a lot of runners dream of! Me being one of them.

I am running my second marathon in a few days and my goal was to set out and qualify for Boston. It has been a childhood dream of mine since I was a little kid.

This taper week has me all antsy and anxious. Your story has really motivated me and got me even more excited for the suffer-fest I will be enduring in the next few days.

From one runner to another... I just wanted to thank you! Thanks for sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

What a great story? Even though I have not told other people, I am training for a BQ. Right now, I can run 5 miles in 35 minutes. And I need a 3:10 for a BQ. Your post has given me hope and one thing I take away from your post if I will train as if I need 3:05 for the marathon. Thanks so much. I kinda got welled up at the end when you got the BQ. Thanks so much for sharing your story.