Archive for May, 2015

The 2015 Boston Marathon – Third Time’s the Charm or Three Strikes You’re Out?

May 1, 2015

As we sat in the back of the bus, parked at Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton, Chris proclaimed, “Wow, look at it coming down out there!” If you looked out the windows on the right/starboard side of the bus, the rain was pouring hard. But on the left/port side, not a drop. Laura proclaimed, “We’re gonna be running on this side,” and pointed to the left. It was a nice, albeit not true, thought.

My stomach was doing somersaults. “Why can’t I relax?”, I thought. After all, this wasn’t my first go – I was running my thirteenth marathon and my third Boston. Shouldn’t I be a little more relaxed by now? But if you’d taken the beatings I had at Boston, you might be a little nervous too. If this was a boxing match and Boston was my pugilistic adversary, I’d been knocked out in 2012 and lost a split decision in 2014. I’d yet to run this race without spending hours afterward puking in the medical tent. So you’ll forgive me if I was, shall we say, apprehensive.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a sec (those of you anxious to get to the race itself, feel free to jump ahead).

Pre-Race

The trip to Boston was mostly uneventful. Already super anxious on Saturday, I dragged (okay, truth be told, it wasn’t a very hard sell) Laura into a bar in the Charlotte airport for a couple of pints of Hop, Drop, ‘n Roll. Beer is my antidepressant of choice, my calmer-of-nerves if you will. In retrospect, maybe we spent a few too many minutes bellied up to the bar because after we left and approached our gate, the attendants started motioning for me to hurry. Laura was headed to the bathroom when the flight attendant asked me, “Is anyone else in your party?” and I answered, “Yeah, her, Laura” and pointed in her direction. The guy yelled, “No! She’s gonna have to use the bathroom on the plane! Laura, come here, quick!” When Laura rushed over, he proclaimed, “Laura’s here! We can go now!” Embarrassed, we boarded. I really hated to be ‘those people’, but what can you do?

And in our defense, we were far from the most intoxicated people on the plane – that distinction went to our flight attendant, a young lady who seemed quite lit, complete with droopy, red eyes and slurred speech. As she gave us flight safety instructions, she said, “Exits are located on both sides of the plane. Wait. Did I say that already?” and started over. I didn’t have the warm fuzzies concerning her competence during an in-flight emergency. Luckily, there was none.

Hurray, calmer, and not the drunkest people on the plane!

Hurray, calmer, and not the drunkest people on the plane!

We made it to Boston on time after a quick layover in Chicago. Unfortunately, our luggage did not. I didn’t panic. I calmly walked over to the luggage guy and showed him our claim tickets and he assured us it would arrive on the next flight and they’d deliver it to our condo sometime that night. So we hopped the T and headed towards the condo we’d rented via Airbnb, sans luggage. We shivered, walking around in short sleeves – it was 70+ degrees when we left Charlotte – it was in the forties in Boston. We spotted a Marshall’s and made a beeline for it in hopes of procuring a couple of jackets, but to no avail – it was closing time and the worker literally locked the door as we walked up.

Now I needed another beer as the originals had worn off and the anxiety, thanks to USAir, aka Losers of Luggage, had returned. We hopped into The Merchant, a nearby restaurant/bar, and had a delicious, granted pricey, meal with a couple of tasty, locally-brewed, beverages. Dezi and Chris, our condo-mates for this year’s Boston adventure, met us there and we quickly hoofed it to the condo before freezing to death.

Here’s where things got a little dicey. We went to bed early while waiting for our luggage to arrive. Neither of us slept very well as we were nervous that we might miss the call from the luggage delivery guy and further delay receiving things.

We woke up the next morning, still luggageless. Laura found a number to call and found out the luggage had not been scheduled for delivery the previous night – please file under ‘things that would’ve been nice to know yesterday.’ Her family from New Hampshire drove in to visit and we all lounged around the condo and waited for the luggage to arrive. Finally we decided to go grab some lunch – my reasoning was this, if we were to go, that would guarantee our luggage to arrive as it would increase the hassle factor. And I was correct – while we were at lunch, the luggage guy called. We rushed back and, hurray, there it was!

The luggage guy was a good sport, posing for this pic - that's me on the left, wearing a jacket borrowed from my bro-in-law until mine arrived with the luggage.

Finally, luggage! The luggage guy was a good sport, posing for this pic – that’s me on the left, wearing a jacket borrowed from my bro-in-law until mine arrived with the luggage.

Luggage procured, we rushed to the expo, where we snapped the obligatory ‘Look I have a bib for the Boston marathon!’ pic:

Notice how I strategically cover the 12 on my bib so passersby think, 'Wow, that guy's bib is 147! He must be a sub-2:30 guy!' Of course the white bib gives me away as a wave 2, aka 'Slow Poke', runner.

Notice how I strategically cover the 12 on my bib so passersby think, ‘Wow, that guy’s bib is 147! He must be a sub-2:30 guy!’ Of course the white bib gives me away as a wave 2, aka ‘Slow Poke,’ runner.

I vowed to stay off my feet the day before the race this year as the last two trips to Boston I spent all day Sunday walking around town – oh well, best-laid plans. We walked to eat. We walked around the expo. We walked back and forth to the T. We walked up and down Boylston Street. At least, in the words of Ricky, we got two birds stoned at once when we combined our shakeout run with our trip to the grocery store, as evidenced here:

A trip to the grocery store doubles as a shakeout run.

A trip to the grocery store doubles as a shakeout run.

We ran home, groceries in hand, and cooked and ate. Then I spent the rest of the evening in a panic, trying to make sure everything was ready for the morning. Months earlier, we had bought tickets to ride Duke’s charter buses instead of the BAA school buses. The advantage was that we’d be able to wait around in the relative comfort of the bus, complete with bathroom, and avoid the potentially bad weather. The disadvantage was that it added another level of complexity to race day logistics. So Laura and I spent much of Sunday night figuring out transportation to the buses which would depart from MIT. We figured out which train to take to MIT, where to get off, and we wrote the walking directions from the train station to where Duke’s buses would be loading at MIT. The margin for error was razor thin as bag check opened at 5:30 and the buses would depart promptly at 6:30. Once we had everything figured out, we laid out our race day attire and finally retired for the evening, exhausted.

Obligatory social media pre-race attire layout photo.

Obligatory social media pre-race attire photo.

Race Day

My alarm went off at 4:00 after a fitful night of partial sleep. I jumped up, knowing I had a tight window of preparation. I frenetically ran around and got ready, putting band-aids over my nipples, liberally applying Aquaphor, and all that other bizarre stuff long-distance runners do. Laura made coffee and pancakes, our standard long run breakfast this training cycle. We left the condo right on schedule, 5:15, to make it to bag check at 5:30, the train by 5:45, and to MIT by 6:30.

Bag check went flawlessly as we were some of the very first arrivals – we dumped our bags and headed to the T. There we waited, my anxiety level ever rising as the arrival of the first train kept showing up as later and later on the board. But it rolled in a little after 5:45 and we got off at the Central Square station by 6:00 – still on time. We set off on foot, following our written directions.

We made the first few turns and everything seemed fine until we approached what was supposed to be Vassar Street, the street where we’d catch the bus, and ahead was a dead-end, a brick wall, a literal brick wall. Uh-oh. We saw a little campus office nearby with a gentleman seated at a desk so Chris and I rushed over and asked him how to get to Vassar Street. The poor little guy seemed very confused and gave us some walking directions that, if followed, would almost assuredly get us to the buses too late. I reiterated the back-up plan to the gang – if we missed our charter bus, we’d just hop the T back to Boston Common and take the school buses to Hopkinton.

We got lucky as a MIT cop drove by – we flagged him down and asked him for the location of Vassar Street. He pointed out the exact directions we’d originally been following – we walked over to examine and discovered our mistake – the dead-end/brick wall we’d been stopped by before was an optical illusion. If we had just continued walking, we’d have discovered a walkway through the wall, across train tracks behind the wall, to, you guessed it, Vassar Street. We walked up to the bus at 6:20, on time. We got on the bus and snagged seats in the back, directly next to the bathroom, or in the ‘pole position’ seats as Chris dubbed them. The bus ride was relaxing, albeit a little olfactorily unpleasant – note to self, don’t sit so near the back next time. We arrived in Hopkinton and waited.

The Race (Finally!)

Chris, in wave 1, was the first of our crew to leave the bus at 9:00 or so. Around 9:30, Laura, Dezi, and I departed as well. Having recently read Boston Marathon History By the Mile, I’d picked up some good advice from legendary coach Bill Squires. One nugget of Squires wisdom was to carry a bottle of water for the first few miles and skip the early water stops which were notorious for traffic jams and pile ups. So I wanted to hit Athlete’s Village to grab a bottle of water. Here we are entering the village:

Dezi, JITFO, and Carolina.

Dezi, JITFO, and Carolina.

Dezi and I were in the same corral – Laura would be starting 25 minutes later thanks to her broken-toe qualifier. Nothing left to do but line up and wait.

We made the three quarters of a mile walk at a glacially slow pace. It seemed to take forever. But I was oh so very grateful that for once I felt cold, the way you should feel before a marathon – my last two Bostons (2012 and 2014) I was already sweating at this point in only shorts and a singlet – not good. It was not good standing-around-in-shorts weather, but it was very good running-a-marathon weather with overcast skies (there are clouds in Boston!) and low forties temps.

Dezi detoured to the port-a-johns as I dumped my throwaway sweats and lined up in the corral, mere minutes before go time. As I waited, jumping around to keep warm, I surveyed the crowd and thought “How the $%^& did all these people run sub-3:25?!?” One guy next to me had a giant beer gut that made him look pregnant. Seriously?!? I quickly removed such thoughts from my head – if some chubby person passed me early on and I tried to go with them my race could be derailed early. I quit looking around.

Finally, after a few motivational words from the starter, we were off. Here we go again.

The hordes of runners in Boston force you to go out slowly, which is a good thing for me. The last two Bostons I spent way too much time and energy in the first few miles dodging and weaving. Not this year. I just calmed down and soaked it all in – it’s a pretty amazing sight to watch thousands of people running together.

I glanced at the watch a couple of times just to make sure nothing crazy was going on – it wasn’t. We were cruising along at just under 8:00/mile pace – exactly what I wanted to do for the first mile. There were already headwinds – if you looked at the various flags, you’d notice they were whipping furiously in our direction. But the running crowd that I was nestled into was so huge that I barely felt the wind at all.

We passed TJ’s, a local bar that gets quite rowdy on race day, and I chuckled – those folks were out in full force and, by the looks of it, already nice and toasted at 10:30 in the morning. They raucously cheered us on and I waved in gratitude. I came through the first mile in just under 8:00, right on schedule. My game plan called for a 7:59 first mile (I had a goal of running every mile under 8:00) and a 7:45 for the second. I ran 7:59 for the first and 7:42 for the second. I was on like Michael Kahn (Kahn ran virtually identical half splits in Knoxville, basically back-to-back 1:31:30s to run a 3:03, perfectly-paced, Boston qualifier).

The rain started in by mile one. My initial reaction was to freak out but somehow, miraculously, I convinced myself to ignore it. After all, what exactly could I do about it? I reminded myself it could be worse – it could be like 2012. That put things into perspective and I relaxed.

Somewhere early on, Johanna, she of our Blue Ridge rival team Stache & Dash, pulled alongside me and said, “Hey Allen. I only knew that was you from your singlet.” I was wearing my JITFO singlet from the Blue Ridge Relay, which looked something like this from the back:

The back of my singlet looked something like this, which is how Johanna recognized me. Point of clarification: This is not me.

The back of my singlet looked something like this, which is how Johanna recognized me. Point of clarification: This is not me. Imagine this logo on the back of a strapping man, rippling with muscles, or on the back of a skinny, decrepit old man, one of those two, I forget which.

Johanna and I chatted for a second, but then I shut my friggin’ pie hole. I have learned too many times how one needs every last ounce of energy in a marathon, and whether one realizes it or not, talking takes energy that might be better used running. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Johanna pulled ahead and it took a lot of will power for me to let her go. Stick to the plan, Allen.

I was locked in, clicking off casual 7:30s (which I knew to probably mean 7:40s as my watch is an optimistic, lying, PR watch). The weather conditions didn’t feel nearly as bad as they looked – the low 40s temps were perfect. I could’ve done without the rain and wind, but I somehow managed to ignore them – if you have to be in a race with headwinds, Boston is the one I’d choose – there were plenty of people to tuck in behind and draft. I was shocked at how many spectators lined the streets despite the adverse weather conditions – not as many as the year before when the weather was perfect for spectating and everyone was out to show the world we would not be deterred by cowardly terrorists – but still, thousands and thousands of people cheered us on. I felt both pity (“Oh my god, this is atrocious spectating weather!”) and gratitude (“Thank you sooo much for cheering us on!”) I called out “Thank you!” to every single volunteer who handed me a drink along the course – it had to be miserable for them. I saw one poor volunteer girl shivering and I wanted to stop and hug her, help her get warm, but alas, I had a race to run.

Around mile five, I discovered Dezi was directly in front of me at the water stop. I pulled up beside her as she drank and said something like, “Dezi, be careful, please don’t throw that cup of Gatorade on me. I wouldn’t want to get wet.” She laughed and we chatted for a second.

I soaked it all in, the spectacle that is the greatest road race in the world. I checked out the fellow runners around me, quite a few that were somewhere nearby for most of the race. People cheered to one guy, “Go Alabama!” and he always cheered back, “Roll Tide!” There were regular cheers of “Go Wisconsin!” and “Go Canada!” and apparently someone was wearing a USA uniform because there were many chants of “USA! USA!” People tried to cheer specifically for me, but I can see how JITFO with a silhouette for the T might be kind of confusing. I got “Go team!” a few times and one “Go team something eff oh!” I appreciated the effort and it made me chuckle a little.

Go team something eff oh!

Go team something eff oh!

Somewhere around mile seven, I had my first danger sign: My left calf cramped. “What the what?!? I’m at mile seven!! No, no, no, no, no!!!” I panicked. The calf cramped every time my foot met the pavement. I changed my gait, shortening my stride- it still cramped. I changed the angle of my foot when it hit the ground – it still cramped. I hopped – it still cramped. I started contemplating a DNF – there was no way I was going to be able to deal with this for 19 miles. But then the cramping got less frequent – it started happening maybe every fourth or fifth step. I thought I might be able to gut it out at this frequency. Then, miraculously, somewhere around mile ten, it stopped completely. “Oh thank god!” thought the atheist.

Once again, just like last year (and 2012, although that year focus was all about survival instead of pace), I was focused on effort, so much so that while I had vowed I would pay attention to my surroundings and see all the famous sites along the course, I still missed many of them. In a big race, I tend to zone out and just run. I continued to tuck in behind somebody whenever the winds got especially egregious. I took a gel every five miles. I hit every water stop and made sure to drink at least a little. You know the drill. Dezi and/or Johanna kept popping up along the course – the three of us leapfrogged each other over and over and over. Here comes Dezi passing me. I pass her. Johanna passes Dezi and me. Dezi passes Johanna and me. I pass Dezi and Johanna. For mile after mile after mile. I find it pretty amazing how out of some 27,000 runners, three people from Charlotte somehow repeatedly showed up at the same place, again and again and again. It was really kind of bizarre.

I vowed not to be a slave to the watch this year. I barely looked at it, much, much less than I normally would in a big race – I wanted to be in the moment instead of in my watch. When it beeped for a mile split, I’d check, and when I hit the halfway point, still enveloped by the sound of the girls of Wellesley, I glanced at it. Right at 1:40 – perfect. Suddenly, I felt good enough that I started to dream a PR might be possible. “Don’t get greedy!” I warned myself – I was still on the easy part of the course. Newton, foreboding, lay just a few miles ahead. Newton is to me what Mordor is to Bilbo Baggins. Steel yourself, Allen.

I felt a little fatigue starting to set in, but nothing too horrific. Then, just before the infamous Newton hills,  the ol’ bladder started to complain. Really, dude? Can I not run one Boston without your belly aching?!? I tried to ignore it, but the little bastard got more and more persistent with his complaints. Briefly, I entertained the notion of just, um, taking care of business without stopping. After all, it was pouring down rain – would anybody really notice? At this point, Dezi and Johanna were running close by. Damn. I spotted a couple of port-a-johns just ahead to the right so I headed towards them. “Let’s make this quick!” I told my stupid, annoying, apparently tiny, bladder. Just before I got to the port-a-johns, another runner darted in front of me and jumped in the one unoccupied port-a-john. I resisted the urge to curse him out – I needed to conserve that energy, remember? I waited maybe five seconds, anxiety skyrocketing while I looked around in a desperate attempt to spot another place to relieve myself, when one of the port-a-johns became available. I hit the lap button on my watch (no Jaskot to keep time this year), jumped in, and proceeded to do my thing. It seemed to take forever. “Come on, come on, come on!!!” 41 seconds later, I was done. It had taken me ten seconds longer than my pee stop last year – it was not a good pee split. I hopped off the curb and back onto the course.

Afterward, I hoped to god I didn't miss a BQ by 41 seconds.

Afterward, I hoped to god I didn’t miss a BQ by 41 seconds.

If I was smart and thinking clearly, I would’ve hit the lap button at the next mile marker, but I was neither so my splits are a little confusing on Garmin Connect.

Suddenly, without all that extra pee weight and with my bladder as content as a couple of just-fed dogs asleep on a couch (I use this metaphor because I am staring at that exact sight even as I type), I felt great. I cautiously picked up the pace, ever reminding myself not to get too greedy and not to try to gain back the entire 41 seconds all at once. But it was hard to throttle bag as the legs felt amazingly fresh without a hint of the cramping pain from earlier.

I felt like I had wings as I entered Newton. “Bring it!” I told the first hill. I cruised up, passing countless runners in the process. The juxtaposition between this moment and 2012 could not have been more different, a point that wasn’t lost on me. I cannot convey to you just how grateful I felt. But I also knew that I had three very tough hills to go.

Things were going exceedingly well. I made the Newton Hills my bitches, traversing all four of them as easily as hopping up a curb. Okay, maybe not quite that easily, but you get the picture. When I got to Heartbreak, I flew over it. “Whose heart is broken now, you little bitch!?” I owed her that after she had stomped on me while I was down in 2012. I ran over her so easily and so quickly that I had to convince myself that that was in fact Heartbreak Hill I had just conquered with minimal effort and not some random bump along the course.

This is me kicking Heartbreak squarely in the buttocks. Just an interesting aside: I looked up bib#13161. This lady, Sarah Strunk, is from the same state as I am, is the same age as me, and, get this, ran the exact same time on this day! Crazy!

This is me kicking Heartbreak squarely in the buttocks. Here’s an interesting side note: I looked up bib#13161 in the results. This lady, Sarah Strunk, is from the same state as me (NC), is the same age as me, and, get this, ran the exact same time as me! Bizarre.

“Don’t get too cocky, dummy.” Last year, my race really started unraveling in the mile after Heartbreak. I hadn’t forgotten. And while I felt great, I still had five miles and change to go. I pulled out one of my marathon mantras. “Be cool. Be like Fonzie.”

I spotted Dezi on the right and passed her for like the thousandth time on this day. Dezi’s my friend and all but she had dropped me in the race last year. I felt like it was only fair to return the favor in 2015. I started ratcheting down the pace.

I had never felt this good this late in a marathon. I was running on air, exorcising all the demons of Bostons past. But I still ran a little conservatively as I had crashed and burned many a time during the last miles of marathons. I ran faster and faster, but did so gradually. All the while hearing the crowds cheer, “Go Dezi! Way to run, Dezi! Looking great, Dezi!”

Just past mile 23, I dropped the hammer. I told myself, “Just like the Triple C 5K. Go!” A few weeks earlier, Laura and I had run the Triple C Know Your Craft 5K immediately after a 14-mile long run. I had run sub-7:00/mile pace in that 5K. I told myself I could do it again. I took off. And yet I could still hear all the “Go Dezi”s behind me. “How is she keeping up?!?!” I asked myself.

At the mile 25 water stop, somebody stopped directly in front of me, and I sidestepped them like a tailback dodging a defender. I deftly grabbed a Gatorade, zipped around the stopped runner, downed said Gatorade like a shot, stepped to the inside of a garbage can, and tossed the cup in. A spectator screamed to me, “NIIIICE!” I have never felt so proud. Sorry Dezi, but you’re getting dropped.

I looked up and saw the Citgo sign looming large. “Oh! This is what they mean!” I’ve always heard how happy people are to see the Citgo sign as it means you only have one mile to go. In my past two Bostons, that damned sign felt like the Eye of Sauron – I saw it miles before I reached it and it felt like doom, like “Oh dear god, there’s a mile to go from there and it looks soooo very far away! I’m never going to make it!” This year was like, “Oh, how cool, there’s only a mile to go!” I screamed, “Uno mas, bitch!!” in honor of Aaron Linz.

Then, from just over my shoulder, “Yeah, way to go Dezi, you got this!” Jesus, she’s still this close?!?

I was just about to cross under the famous Massachusetts Avenue, or Mass Ave as it’s more commonly known, when Dezi zipped past me. Unbelievable. I was going to counter when she slipped past a crowd of folks just ahead and something, an obstacle?, directly ahead. I suddenly realized what ‘the obstacle’ was as I got stuck behind it and the other runners around it – ‘it’ was Team Hoyt! Dezi had set a pick using Team Hoyt! I was trapped behind, stunned, as she gapped me up the little riser just past the bridge!

I turned sideways to squeeze between the runners and Team Hoyt and somehow managed to get past without plowing over somebody, or worse, upturning the Hoyt wheelchair. Now I focused on catching Dezi. I caught up on Hereford…

Catching up to Dezi shortly after the move that will go down in Boston marathon history as "the Hoyt pick".

Catching up to Dezi shortly after the move that will go down in Boston marathon history as “the Hoyt pick.”

We were moving now, but I was relieved, confident that I could out kick Dezi on Boylston. But to my shock and chagrin, Dezi continued to accelerate. The following is an exact quote (with my apologies to those with a more refined taste in words) that popped into my head as I chased Dezi down Boylston, “Jesus fucking Christ! Dezi’s a baller!” I gave it all I had but I couldn’t catch her. I was thoroughly impressed. And I thank her because I’m not sure I would’ve run the last mile as hard as I did without our little race within a race. Here’s a shot of me cranking down Boylston, desperately trying to catch her:

 

Wait, what? I'm sprinting and she's gapping me? How is this possible?!?

Wait, what? I’m sprinting and she’s gapping me? How is this possible?!?

I imitated the silhouette on the front of my shirt as I crossed the finish line, beaming with pride. I will admit a slight split second of disappointment when I glanced at my watch and saw 3:22, because I thought surely I had bested my personal record of 3:19. But this moment was fleeting: I had set my personal Boston best by over 5 minutes, and had run over an hour and forty minutes faster than my first Boston marathon finishing time. I’ll take it.

There’s a lot more stuff I want to share, but this post is already too long and I probably should do more with my life than sit around and write blog posts. I’ll add the post-race stories later. For now, I’ll leave you with this, my finest moment in the Boston marathon:

allen jitfo finish 2

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