Thursday, 22 April 2010

Two marathons, three days - SLC/Boston

Start of the SLC marathon

View from the Prudential building in Boston at sunset

The 5k race using the Boston marathon finish

Looking strong a whole mile into Boston

The leaders at Boston - Hall and Meb lead the US charge

Still looking ok in Boston with my Fukuoka gloves on show

This last weekend could have gone badly. I'd run ultras or multidays for five consecutive weekends (including a very cool 60k of trails last weekend as I swept the course for the local Peterson Ridge Rumble course in Sisters, OR). I had the Salt Lake City marathon on Saturday then the Boston marathon on Monday. I booked it a long time ago before the preceding ultras with the intention of using it as a fitness test for Comrades. If I could run both under 2h45m then I'd feel that I could run Comrades at 2h50m marathon pace (i.e. sub six hours). It also has the benefit of being 'speed' work compared to the ultras.

However, being injured for almost two months meant I'd lost some speed even though the endurance seemed fine after the last few weeks. I really had no idea how it would go and wasn't even sure I could knock out one marathon at 2h45m (6m18s/mile), especially since SLC is at slight altitude (between 4,200ft and 4,800ft) and hilly.
I arrived in SLC on the Friday, went to the small expo and got an early night. I still felt sore from sweeping the previous week. Even though it was very slow being at the back of the race, bending down to pick up all the course markings had left me aching in new places.

The race had a an early start at 7am so the sun had only just risen over the university start-line when I warmed up. The athletes didn't seem too keen to push to the front so I knew there wouldn't be too many speedsters there. It also had a half marathon at the same time so most runners had bibs for that race, with around 1,000 in the full marathon. I started comfortably and decided to use my heart rate monitor to stop myself trying too hard, given the need to conserve some energy for Boston. However, after the first couple of downhill miles I felt like it would be a hard day.

The course isn't particularly pretty if you keep your head down, but when you look up you get great views of the surrounding mountains, which are very close. The first half had some nasty climbs, not that they were too steep, but some lasted a couple of miles and the combination of tired legs and altitude meant my heart rate was soon higher than it should be for a marathon. For me that means into the mid 160s. It was going to be a tough race.

The marathon added a loop around a park at five miles so the extra mile meant I started running through slower half marathoners when we joined them again. Then after under seven miles they headed off on a short-cut to the finish while the marathon went south to get in the extra miles. It got a lot lonelier from this point and a spectator shouted that I was in 10th.

I chatted to a couple of marathoners on the flatter sections but then pushed on to half way uphill knowing that there would be a gentle downhill soon after 13 miles. I was demoralised to hit halfway in 1h22m55s, just outside 2h45m pace. This was the first 13 miles of two marathons, so I basically accepted that I wouldn't be getting the times I wanted in the two races. How could I, when I'd run reasonably hard and still couldn't stay on pace?

My mindset quickly changed as I knocked out several faster miles over the downhill then flat and I was back on the average pace I needed. The second half was easier than the first, being much flatter. I constantly did calculations in my head, thinking that sub 2h50m was guaranteed and that if I could just keep close to the required 6m18s/miles then a fast last mile might get me there under my time.
I spent the rest of the race catching people and worked out I was in 4th, but that relied on the guy earlier correctly telling me my position and I find most people get it wrong, counting the wrong people (say, half runners) or just miscounting. I was on for 2h46m at worst with only a couple of miles to go, but was now weaving through the half runners/walkers who had joined the marathon course again, just 13 miles behind. Although I'd checked out the course profile, I hadn't noticed the 200ft hill in the 25th mile. This put me off pace again, but was a relief when I got to the top. It had heated up to almost 70 degrees F so I wanted to get off the course before the temperature sapped more energy.

I was tired and looking forward to the end, but at least there were great crowds now to pep me up. As the majority of people they were seeing were half marathon walkers, each marathoner got a loud cheer for running. At about a half mile to go I heard the thump of runner's steps behind me. I looked back to see a guy in a tri-suit flying up to me and my head snapped into (totally unnecessary) race mode and I flew off at a sprint, dropping down to under 5m/mile pace. He stuck behind me but as I went up the final straight I couldn't see him behind so knew I'd kept my position. In hindsight, this was completely pointless and potentially could ruin my Boston run. But I just don't like being overtaken and it's only happened in marathons where I've blown up and walked (luckily only about three times when I was learning how to do marathons).

Somehow I'd almost got back to my goal pace, but it was painful to run up to the finish and see the clock tick from 2h44m to 2h45m. The final time was 2h45m04s and I was indeed in 4th, so had positives and negatives to take away from the race. On the plus side, I'd basically hit the time I wanted, seen great mountain views, was uninjured, ran my fastest marathon with a backpack and had run a negative split. However, it had felt hard and I'd tired myself out way too much. I reassessed my chances of running a good Boston to being very low.

No time to rest, since I had a couple of hours until my indirect flights to Boston, so I squeezed in a quick shower then went to the airport where I spent a while stretching and with my legs up against a wall for recovery. The flights were on time and didn't feel too bad on the legs.

In Boston I got in late at night, just wanting a good rest. Sunday is fun due to the expo and short distance races each year, but it was also cold and raining constantly. A real contrast with the sunny weather in SLC. I watched Josh Cox win the 5k and the commentators mentioned he's training for Comrades. That means both the US 50k/100k champion, Michael Wardian, and the US 50k record holder, Josh Cox, would be running in South Africa. Always good to have more people to meet over there and they're both very accomplished pro/semi-pro athletes.

I'd hoped to meet up with a bunch of Serpies from London but the previous few days had involved numerous emails and ended with the conclusion that the Icelandic volcano had stopped all flights from London. None of my friends would make it. This was a shame, but at least Boston is such a fun race and all the runners and city get really into it. I'd picked the hostel near the finish on purpose because I knew I'd meet many, many runners there.

There were a few Americans who had lived in London and been a member of Serpentine RC, but I didn't know them already. I agreed to see the Red Sox baseball game on Sunday afternoon with them, so picked up my ticket by meeting them at the expo. The expo is great and I spent a long time there getting enough free food and drink to constitute a meal. I also bought a pair of Zoot compression tights as I needed a pair anyway, but particularly needed some help to be recovered for the next day. I've never used them before, but many people swear by the powers of compression tights, so I wanted to see if it would work.

The Red Sox game was a wet affair and not very entertaining with the locals losing badly, especially since the US Serpies told me when I got there that they'd decided to sell their tickets due to the weather. I've not been to a baseball game before and can't see me going again. It's just not that interesting. Now, I like cricket and people say the same thing, but I'll happily watch a five-day test match and it's just different, ok?.
Anyway, that evening the pasta party was excellent, as always. Plenty to eat and I went with some new-found friends from the hostel. That's one of my favourite things about the race - the openness of everybody there to meet new people. It really got the mood going for the race and I started to feel excited while chatting to people about how many times they'd run Boston before, where they qualified and all the interesting stories they had to tell. People who started late in life and spent years trying to get a place in Boston or those who come every year for the party atmosphere. Suddenly my confidence was back and I was thinking of going for 2h45m again.

Race morning started very early and I hadn't really adjusted from west coast time. But my legs felt almost normal, so I'm now a huge fan of the recovery tights. As with last year, I chatted to people while waiting for the buses at around 6:15am. Once again I met west coast ultra runner on the bus (Abi Stephens, who'd run the Rumble the previous weekend) and chatted for much of the time prior to the race start at 10am. Things seemed to be smoother than the previous year, not that I'd had any complaints. The bus wait was less, the toilet lines were shorter at the start and the weather was looking much better than expected with not a cloud in sight.

I just missed seeing the elite women's start at 9:32am but was raring to go at 10am when the first wave started. This time I made sure I didn't go off too quickly, as I'd done last year on the early downhills. I wanted to see if I could run just ahead of 2h45m pace given that the second half is harder with the famous Newton Hills. I just hoped to hang on as long as possible.

The crowds were great from the start and within a mile I'd been offered a beer. Next year I think I'll take them up on their offers and do it as more of a fun run. But this year I still had a target and it was increasingly easy to stay around a six min/mile pace, which kept surprising me every time I looked at my splits. Running past the Wellesley College girls at halfway was the usual soundblast and made everyone grin. I didn't see anyone stopping as they were all too focused on their running, but some did high fives. Still the best support I've ever seen, as ever, and something you hear well before you see.

Halfway was a decent 1h19m06s so I could afford to slow down a lot on the hills. Since they don't start until after 16 miles I decided to keep going as before until that far and bag a bit more time. The crowds were full of students, many with a few beers in them, so the cheering got rowdier every mile.
I remember that last year I'd been slowing down from five miles in and really struggled over the rest of the course, feeling bad for most of it but scraping through for 2h47m. I also remembered that the hills seemed small even as they slowed me right down. This year was different and I was trying to run in a group to avoid the light headwinds which kept popping up, but I found that each group kept slowing so I just kept pushing on and wondering when the tiredness would catch up with me.

By now I was enjoying myself thoroughly. I'd been waiting the whole time for my legs to fade but they were being very kind to me and even let me run up the hills at about the same pace as on the flat. The college kids certainly liked seeing someone running through the field on the hills so I had plenty of cries out for 'Serpentine', most even pronouncing it correctly.

Heartbreak Hill was more like a victory lap, although at 21 miles it wasn't a foregone conclusion, although 2h40m looked possible now. Somehow the best was still ahead for me. The last five miles are mainly down and flat but some people have tired their thighs so much that it's difficult to run them fast. However, I went into some new-found zone from this point which I've never reached before. I haven't done more than a couple of speed sessions in 2010 so even a six minute mile feels quick, but I started running quicker than that. As the supporters got thicker on the sidelines I was having the most enjoyable race in a long time (and I've had a lot of good ones recently).

As I looked at my watch I was amazed to see 5:40s for the miles and my aims shifted from 2h40m to see if I could break six minute miling (2h37m) for only the third time, something I didn't think I could have done if I'd tapered for this race and gone all out. I was going faster than marathon pace and finding it easy, even with a headwind for most of the last part. This is how running should always feel - hard but very sustainable. I wished the course was a 50k as I could comfortably have kept up the pace and smashed my best for that distance.

All good things come to an end and I got to the finish well before I'd planned, in 2h36m51s, good enough for 151st. The most important thing was that I'd hugely enjoyed it and also felt strong at the end, so this was a perfect milestone for Comrades. All my worries in advance had evaporated, about a lack of speed, sore legs and not being in shape for a good Comrades.

Thank you Boston for hosting a great race and creating such an incredible atmosphere the whole way through. I confirmed to myself that Boston far surpasses the other 70-ish road marathons I've done around the world. There's something about having hills in a race that means you have to use tactics much more and so when you nail it, it's more satisfying.

I'll be back next year to have fun on the streets of Boston again and it'd be nice to get a streak going until I can no longer run...maybe around 2099. I don't think I was the only one to have that much fun either, as even those who didn't hit their target time still loved everything else about the race. The elites put on a great show too, with a new men's course record in 2h05m52s (on Boston's course!) for Robert K Cheruiyot...but not the one who won Boston four times...a 21-year old with the same name, except the middle name, who has just made himself into a legend. The women's race went down to the wire too and was great to watch on TV, with Ethiopian Yeyba Erkesso of Ethiopia making a name for herself by just edging young Russian Tatyana Pushkareva - watch out for both of them in future too.

SLC could have been a disaster but ended up just about working out. But Boston went better. Why? Well, I think it's just one of those things where the science says one thing but reality turned out differently and can't quite be explained. Mind you, it probably helped to not wear the backpack and use my racing flats (Asics Hyperspeed 3s). I think it just shows that the human body can always do more than you expect, a useful thing to bear in mind during every ultra.


  1. Great post, Ian! Yes, it really it pretty cool what our bodies are capable of. And I definitley agree - running should feel hard but sustainable. I love getting in that zen zone where your body just feels like it can go forever.

    As for your spring in SLC - definitely not pointless. The tri dude was probably just trying to catch that ultra dude with the pack - nice job putting the hurt on him.

  2. Nice read! And good luck at Comrades! I was the first American at Comrades last year (looks like I picked the right year to PR there - no way I would be near the top with the Americans who are going this year). Your goal is very ambitious, but it sounds like you are pretty ready. Your Boston time is only 19 minutes shy of Bruce Fordyce's marathon PR.

    I think you might have liked baseball a little better if you came to our seats & let a Yank explain it to you.:-)

  3. Actually, that was Rick posting under Lois' account.:-)