Wednesday 20 April 2016

3 Ultras, 3 Weekends

Pre-Boston Red Sox game with Clif Bar

Saturday before the marathon includes mile races looped around the finish line. This was the pro women.

It’s Saturday night in Boston, right before Marathon Monday, and I’m sat at a sushi restaurant with Brian Beckstead and Kyle Petrieri. Brian’s at his fourth Boston and has told me he’s running the Boston double, starting early on marathon day to run the course in reverse then run the race as normal. He’s done this every time he’s run Boston. He also co-founded my shoe sponsor, Altra, so he really walks the walk of a passionate ultra runner.

Despite running ultras the previous two weekends and wanting to run a hard, fast marathon, I can’t think of a good reason not to run the double with him. It’s my fifth Boston and it sounds like an interesting opportunity that will make this year stand out from the other Bostons I’ve run.

Fast forward 36 hours and my alarm goes off at 5am on Monday then I remember what I’ve agreed to do and I’m tempted to roll over and get some more sleep, a typical race morning feeling. Yet when I meet up at 5:30am with the five other runners who decided this was a great plan I feel more of a buzz than ever before about seeing the entire Boston course twice.

Those other intrepid (ultra) runners are Nicole Kalogeropoulos (Rocky Raccoon 100 record holder and three-time champ), New Yorkers Stephen England and Keila Merino plus Utah’s Alison Memmott. So we take the obligatory selfie at the Boston finish line in the dark then start running. It takes until the first turn (less than half a mile) before we’re off course, but we soon get back on it and follow the rows of barricades as a guide for the course route.

5:30am at the Boston Marathon finish before starting the double

As the sun rises I find myself running with Nicole, a little ahead of the others. The first few miles are mainly uphill, running Heartbreak Hill in reverse (which makes it harder and longer). Two minor missed turns later and we’re enjoying ourselves but have added on some extra distance and are somehow behind the other guys. Then we catch back up around the half way mark and start seeing more and more people out for the race. At first it’s a few cops then it’s volunteers setting up the aid stations every mile or so. Already tipsy students cheer us at a couple of places, some confused into thinking we’re in the official race at that point, despite no other runners being around, a slow pace and running the wrong direction.

As we approach the final miles a cavalcade of police motorbikes goes by, each representing a different police force in the local area, totaling maybe 20 in formation. Then we see a few military men and women running in full combat fatigues and boots with race numbers. They’re spread out over several miles and it seems there’s some kind of early military start. In the final uphill miles to the start (it’s a big uphill in that direction, meaning a big downhill the other way that gets lost in the adrenaline and huge crowds of runners trying to overtake each other) we see the other early start races. First the wheelchair racers fly by on a downhill, maybe going at 20-30 miles/hour. Next the hand bikes at almost the same speed on a lesser descent. Disabled runners, some with prosthetic limbs and guides, come next and the crowds cheer them on enthusiatically, as we do. These other races are something I see little of in a straight forward run at Boston.

Then the final early start is for the elite women, which we witness about half a mile from the start line, running closely in a pack of around 40. Already this is the most memorable marathon I’ve ever run and I’ve technically not even begun yet. Nicole tells me that she might just come next year to run this reverse Boston and not even bother with the standard marathon too. I know just what she means…although I don’t think I could fly over and not fit in the official event too.

Finally we arrive at the official start from the wrong direction and security guards wave a metal detecting wand over us before letting us pass with an orange wrist band. Security is much tighter since the 2013 bombings, as you’d fully expect. We pose for another group photo and split up into our respective corrals, some starting in later waves. Now I’m back to my usual Boston morning experience, except my legs are a little tired after around four hours of running. Within seconds I see the bunch of ultra runners in corral one, mainly from the Bay Area. It includes Jorge Maravilla with the goal of (soon) running a sub-2:19 marathon to qualify for the Olympics for El Salvador (how amazing would that be!?), Alex Varner, Scott Dunlap and a whole host of SF Running Company guys.

Arrival at the hot start of the Boston Marathon, around 27.5 miles into the run

A few minutes later and the US national anthem is sung, then we’re off. Things are a fair bit faster than the casual run to the start but I’m pleasantly surprised to feel good cruising around a 6:15/mile pace. As always the race has fantastic support and amazing volunteers. If you’ve never run Boston then it’s well worth working towards qualifying for it, even if you’re a die-hard trail runner. After all, all the people mentioned above are mainly trail runners, as am I.

Overall it was an extremely memorable and unique experience which I’ll definitely replicate again in the future. I paced things fairly evenly, losing a little time in the Newton Hills between miles 16 and 21 for a 2:49:42 marathon (here's the Strava data). I was mindful about Scott Jurek’s words at a Clif Bar event the day before about the importance of enjoying the race experience at Boston and taking it all in. So I kept things more relaxed, high fived the crowd a lot and just plain had fun.

Surprisingly I felt fine afterwards and less sore and wobbly than after American River 50 two weeks earlier or even Gorge Waterfalls 50k nine days earlier. My intention before these races was to use them to boost my endurance and really kick start the three month build up to Western States. It looks like it worked perfectly as I’m stronger now plus I’ve had a great time at three classic races so far in April. Two shorter races remain ahead - the Bend Half Marathon this Sunday then Bloomsday 12k the following Sunday. No need to double these distances up and a healthy dose of speed is just what my legs need.

Gorge Waterfalls 50k in Oregon, one of the most beautiful ultras in the world. Photo: Ryan Kaiser.

Congratulations to all the runners over these past three races and I can only imagine the variety of life changing experiences people have had at each. One last thing to mention is that American River was the culmination of the second season of ‘Becoming Ultra’ so I know that two runners in particular had profound days. Krystalore Stegner was coached by Liza Howard in the project to complete her first ultra as well as scoring a Boston qualifier in a build up marathon. Then my client was Janet Patkowa and she went from very little running and a half marathon or two under her belt to back-to-back long run weekends and an epic 12 hours out on the trails to complete her first ultra. Thanks so much to the two girls who put in all the hard work and shared their story publicly, as well as to Liza and the master-mind behind the project, Athlete On Fire’s Scott Jones. The podcasts are available from the whole season, plus a short video will come out soon covering the project. Season Three starts soon and we’ll be searching for candidates in the very near future.
Krystalore finishing American River 50 and showing why she won the Spirit Award for the race.

Janet and Krystalore at the start of their first ultra, pre-dawn


  1. That's no Clif Bar, that's a lobstah bar.

  2. I'm excited you're going to Bloomsday, my hometown race! I grew up walking it every year, and got the opportunity to return as an adult and run a couple years ago. It's still a fun environment. I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Wow dude, running a 2:50 marathon as your *second* one!

  4. Nice! Love to see Nicole, too.

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  6. Wow, that's incredible that you completed THREE races within such a short amount of time! I hope to someday run comfortably at 6minute pace. Good luck on your next race!

  7. Planning to run the Double in '17. Did you use a headlamp on the way out? Thx

    1. No, the streets are lit up enough, plus it would be a pain to then run the normal marathon with the headlamp (I didn't have a backpack).