Andy Mellon relives the Boston Marathon. 3 hills or 4?
Boston Marathon: Monday 18 April 2016
I’ve read that every marathon you do is different. I’d learnt that from my two previous Autumn marathons at Chester; the first a 5 minute negative split run when the second half felt great as I pushed hard off a conservative first half pace, the second a much tougher race with hills in the second half I didn’t even know were hills first time around. But I benefited from that with a PB by 7 mins. These races first got me a Boston qualifying time and then gave me a better start position for Boston 2016 – the 120th time the race has been held.
The third Monday in April is the traditional day for the Boston marathon. It’s Patriots Day which in Massachusetts is a big deal, imagine us in the North-East combining VE Day with Blaydon race day on 9th of June and running the Great North Run on that day since 1897.
I read everything I could about the race over the last few months. Boston has a reputation as a tough marathon. It starts at Hopkinton and the first half is pretty much downhill all the way. Hard on the quads, easy to overcook.
There is then a series of four hills in the second half around Newton ending with the one many will have heard about called Heartbreak Hill. It’s about half a mile with a gradient of 3.3%. I’d talked to Craig Smith from Heaton Harriers who has 2 Boston medals (at least). He felt that wasn’t a problem it’s just where it is in the race at 21 miles. The rest is pretty much downhill to the finish in Boston. I joined TBH last November to build some strength during the winter and slogged my way round muddy cross country races, up hills, tempo runs. I followed a plan (run less, run faster) 3 runs a week plus 2 cross training sessions (which I have to be honest I didn’t add in reliably). Some S&C work every week. My training plan based on 5 km pace was for a 7:15 pace on the day.
Every weather forecast I read predicted race day as the warmest day of the year. It looked like temperatures up to about 14C with some cloud, even the night before. Monday morning we woke to clear blue skies. I packed gloves and arm warmers just in case and walked the 100 yards from our Airbnb to the buses at Boston Common. It was already 9-10C.
The Boston experience has to include the bus to the start. A convoy of yellow school buses crammed with noisy excited athletes, some with 30 Bostons under their belts. Mind you, I’d far rather catch the number 12 in Newcastle than get in a bus with the lunatic driver we had who must have watched too much Indy car racing. Screeching brakes and swerves not a good start to the morning.
The start at Hopkinton is in the middle of a state park, a small American Community with its annual day in the sun. Sort of Blaydon in reverse. There are 4 different starts for the main event with each wave containing roughly 7500 runners. You get a wave number and a corral number and you don’t get into a different corral if you try. I followed the crowd for my start, wave 3, from the holding area at the high school, and took my place in corral 1, about ten feet from the start line! Looking back up the Main Street I couldn’t quite believe it. This is all based on your qualifying times so you know you’ll start with people of similar ability. The run up to the gun is a bit like the scene from Groundhog Day with local dignitaries, a patriotic song or two then off. The sky was still blue, the temperature was around 19C, I was sweating before the start. My aim was to run around 7:15 to 7:30 pace for the first 20 miles and see if I could push on after Heartbreak Hill. 3:20 might be possible. But it was hot! Best marathon conditions are 7-8C, and above 12C you find times drop off significantly I had read.
Descent starts immediately and there are very few people around as you drop through pine forest. I could see the front runners with their motorbike escort only a hundred yards ahead of me. That won’t happen again any time soon. I kept thinking “don’t go faster than the plan. Run your own race.” I felt good. Occasional spectators called out for “Bridge” but Tyne and Harrier seemed to cause a problem. I had applied sunscreen but ran in the slightly shadier road edge where I could while spying the shortest route. There was plenty of space to move around.
First 5 k in 22:49 and not under stress, drinking electrolyte solution from a bottle I carry and tipping water over head from mile 1. A rhythm began to emerge. Started to see a few vests repeatedly – New York road runners, GLRR, and lots of very athletic women. The commonest call out was “go ladies. … And gentleman” – wave 3 standard brought together many good age group women.
The run flattens out going through 3 or 4 small towns on the edge of Boston. Main Street, a central crossroads packed with noise, lots of kids high fiving. Around mile 9-10 the excitement had worn off and I was starting to think about the uphill’s which I had checked out 2 days earlier. They seemed OK on fresh legs. Halfway time of 1:39:19 seemed alright, 6 minutes off recent Northumberland Half pace.
At halfway you hear the screaming before you see it. It is the insanity of Wellesley College, an all girls college who traditionally scream for the best part of 4-6 hours while waving banners requesting kisses “French kiss a French major” was one I remember along with “Kiss me or I’m voting for Trump”. As a sweaty, middle age man I thought this was possibly going to lead me to break some important local law so I gave it a miss. But it was distracting and the noise was huge.
Possibly too distracting as its only 13 miles in and from then on the crowds just grow. My pace up the hills inevitably started to drop but I made the fatal mistake of miscounting my hills. Thinking you’ve already run up Heartbreak hill only to find you haven’t is not good. Struggling to take gels or liquid. Seeing lots of people starting to pass you and they all look strong. Knowing there are still five miles to go and you can feel the heat coming off the road. I don’t think it was hitting the wall. Been there and done that on many bike rides. I was worried about the heat and felt light headed and then just stopped and walked for a few minutes. I had some oranges and bread from a spectator. That bread was delicious after sweetened gels and Gatorade. I managed to get jogging again and after one more short walk section found myself on the finishing stretch on Boylston Street with packed crowds and the iconic finish line. Whatever you think about American foreign policy you suddenly get why 2013 hurt so much. This not just a big city marathon. It’s a big city marathon wrapped up in a small town fun run. It takes you through America in its 26 miles and you struggle through and everyone is rooting for you. 2013 must have felt like somebody bombing a summer fete.
Finish time didn’t really matter. I knew it wasn’t what I’d aimed for but on the day I wanted to run up Boylston Street savouring the sensation. I heard a comic on the radio recently who said ” when doing a marathon, keep running til someone wraps you in aluminium foil”. So I did
As I met my family I said “Never again.”
Two days later. Sunburn improving, legs okay, relaxing, it feels more like unfinished business.
And I still have my qualifying time from Chester for next year….