Thursday, April 22, 2010

2010 Boston Redux - (Final) Part 3

Tom Petty said it best: The waiting is the hardest part.  Maybe not just the two hours it took for the gun to go off, but the two years leading up to that moment, a moment I wouldn't fully appreciate or really begin to comprehend until Rachel brought it up in the car on the way home from the airport.  But there was long road of 26.2 miles to tread down before being able to contemplate that.

Right before the gun went off, the Boston veterans were giving final advice.  More dread.  More foreboding.  A couple guys talked about trying to go under three hours and my ears perked up.  They seemed nice enough and I thought about glomming on to them and running as a pack.  Someone nearby said simply, "It's a nice goal, but just go and run it.  It's your first.  You got here.  Enjoy it."  Then the gun.  And I was in my own head.

We did the starter shuffle up to the line, that awkward "we're walking faster, we're jogging, STOP, we're walking again."  A camera swept over the crowd and we raised our arms to cheer.  This was the first time I really noticed the crowd, about three deep along the course.  The air was crisp, the sky wind-washed and blue, and we were off.

I felt a slight tightness in my IT band, one that seems to always be there.  I settled my mind down, telling myself, "Just needs to loosen up.  Just need to warm up."  And soon enough, I forgot about it altogether.  My next task was to, for-God-sakes-whatever-you-do-don't-go-out-too-fast.  I concentrated on getting a smooth stride going and trying to find a rhythm.  

Kids extended their tiny palms along the side of the course and it was impossible not to want to run by and high-five all of them, especially after they cheered as you went by.  It seemed like such a thrill for them to be engaged by the runners.

Feeling smooth, I saw the first yellow banner, and thought time was going by awfully fast.  The other runners around me seemed to share the sentiment.  We were churning downhill but it seemed like an easy pace.  Then I looked down at my watch: 4:42, 4:43, 4:44.  I furrowed my brow knowing that I had never broken 5:00 let alone 4:45 for a mile.  As the banner came closer, the KM became clearer and there was a collective sigh of relief.  When the first mile marker did come around, I was happy to see a more cautious 7:15.

The crowd began to thin out some around mile 2 but I could feel the full effect of the sun and thought about ditching the sleeves.  Trekking past mile 3 a pack of kids were huddled together but one in particular stuck out.  He had on faded blue jeans, hands shoved in his pockets, a blue and black flannel shirt, and a blond crew cut.  He reared back as I went by, and with as much conviction as a four-year-old can muster, he screamed, "Believe in yourselves!"  I don't know why, but I could have broken down then and there and started crying and I don't know I could tell you why.  "Keep it together man, we've got a long way to go," I told myself.  

I checked my splits and saw 21 and change on my watch as we coasted through 5K.  It was at this point that I tried to summon the long runs I've done through the training program and the various courses I ran.  I thought this might bring some good karma, so my 18-miler on the Mt. Vernon trail came to mind and how, at this point, I'd be turning around to head back toward Gravelly Point on my way out to Roosevelt Island.  It helped some, but I started to feel like I might be in trouble.

I did a quick mental check.  This was no ordinary long run.  Legs: good.  IT band: good.  Breathing: good.  Head: so-so.  I started to feel a little foggy.  My pace had dropped into the 6:45 range, nothing strange about that, but from time-to-time, that quicker pace puts me off kilter a bit.  I was locked into the pace, seemingly running well, but couldn't get out of my own head, couldn't find the flow I wanted, and just felt like I was battling the race so far.  In hindsight, I'm wondering if the constant change in terrain, up then down, then down some more, then up again, made it difficult to find that rhythm.  I wanted it to end.  I wanted to be done.  

At 10K, I crossed the chip reader and thought about everyone in my office, my friends, and my family who'd signed up for the athlete alerts.  Hopefully they'd be sharing in my relief that everything had held through 10K.  That gave me a little jolt and carried me through 10 miles.

I like to break the marathon down into two, ten mile segments, then simply gut out the last 10K.  In fact, "Guts" was my mojo word for this race.  Passing 10, I still felt like I was in trouble.  I closed my eyes for moments at a time, trying to steal some serenity and reset things.  I told myself that if I could get to the half, the tunnel of Wellesley girls would carry me at least a few more miles.  So, I locked in to conquering that 5K.

It sucked!  I could already feel my hips starting to hurt, but a mental weight lifted when I saw the sign that we were entering the town of Wellesley.  People talk about the Wellesley girls, but the residents of the town deserve a shout out as well. They are out in full force with signs, cowbells, four deep at points, and screaming their lungs out.  

Leaving the town, the course gets wooded and you can start to hear it.  It's a slow, gathering roar that continues collecting, growing stronger until it's upon you: the screams of hundreds of college girls.  It is ear-piercing, but most of all it's adrenaline pumping.  If ever there was a way to get your mind off of being miserable, running past the girls of Wellesley will do it.  Coupled with this, I knew there was a chance Rachel and her dad may have made the trip out to cheer me on here.  So, I was being carried by the noise and the hope of seeing them.  

What I will always remember about this part of the course is not the noise level going through it, but how long you can hear it after you've gone by.  I swear I could hear them a half mile down the road.

The next big landmark was the sign for Newton.  Home of the hills.  Still on 2:58:00 pace, I had a renewed sense of vigor.  My head was clear and my legs were churning.  I looked at this section of the course for 16 weeks since the course map was posted on our fridge.  Every time I wanted OJ, went to make my lunch, or add half-and-half to my coffee, I was reminded of the hills.

I felt like I glided up the first hill, though it seemed never ending.  I used the downhill to catch my breath and find my stride again.  I knew that if I could make it through Newton, not only would I be passed Heartbreak, but I'd be at mile 21.  

We made the right turn at the fire station at mile 17 and chugged up the second of the four hills.  This one took a toll on my quads but I kept driving my arms forward, keeping my eyes on the curving hill, and passing a few who had started cramping.

My pace had noticeably slowed here, but I put the sub-3:00:00 out of my mind and just focused on tackling each hill as it came.  

My hips were on fire now and my IT band started to twinge just on the outside of my knee.  I started to feel awful and felt the life flow out of me.  I wanted to walk so badly but demanded my body continue driving forward.  The mental tug of war began and I remember thinking that if my IT band burned badly enough, I'd have my built in excuse.   I could walk.  I could walk it in.  And the pain could end.

But I crested the third hill and the pain disappeared.  Mixed emotions, here.  

Finally, Heartbreak Hill came.  BC students screamed, cheered, belted out encouragement like only drunk college kids can do.  I fought the urge to stop again, if only to get away from their shouts.  I didn't want to stop in front of them, somehow I felt I'd be letting them down.  The ITB burned again, and again I welcomed it because it might mean I could stop.  Bill Bowerman dramatically said on one of his first jogs, "I kept going through the pain only with the hope that it might kill me."

A stoplight glowed at the top of Heartbreak and I threw a lasso around it with my eyes and let it guide me up the rest of the way.  I relished the downhill that came after it even though so many have said that that's where they truly lose it, their quads giving way or hamstrings cramping.  I just glided down, somewhat disembodied.  

At mile 23, clouds had rolled in and chill came to the air.  I was thankful I had not ditched the sleeves.  And it was here you could steal glances of the Citgo sign and Prudential Center if the building gaps were just right.  Still wanting to call it quits here, my hips tightening, my will dying, the sub-3:00:00 long gone, I wanted to stop, walk in if I could, desperate to be finished.  I swore at myself.  I didn't care anymore.  A requalifying time was still within reach but what would it get me?  If I didn't make it, I wouldn't have to subject myself to this again.  Then I heard someone belting out my name, "Yeah Brad! Gooo Brad Gooo!"  I turned and saw my friend Brent running along side me, pumping his fist and screaming like a madman.  I raised my arm to him, felt the chill of adrenaline shiver through my body, and knew that I could keep going.  

Finally, the Citgo sign came up beside me.  One mile to go. The crowd was tremendous.  We ran out of real estate and hooked a right turn onto Hereford street.  "Is this it?" I thought.  "Are we there? No? No, it ends on Boylston street."  Up a slight hill and you could see the sign: Boylston street.  The crowd was frothing now.  I begged to be able to see the finish after that turn onto Boylston.  Sure enough, the great blue banner was off in the distance.

My stride grew longer, the arms pumping fluidly.  Yes, I was going to make it now.  Off to my right, I spotted Rachel hanging over the barricade yelling for me, behind her my dad and father-in-law.  That was all I needed.  I took off for the finish.  A brisk 400m left until the merciful end of my first Boston Marathon.

When it was over, my body from hips on down clinched.  I teetered along with the rest of the walking dead, accepting water, a blanket, the medal.  We passed through like ghosts in a graveyard, no one saying much.  I had requalified in 3:09:25.  But that was farthest from my mind.  I thought about where I'd come from.  Seeing my family at the end.  And I thought of that kid at mile 3.  I fought for control, overriding the involuntary face contortions when you're trying not to cry.

I finally made it to the family and was embraced hard by all three and that's when the tears finally came and I couldn't pinpoint why or how to stop them.  
"How do you feel?" they asked.
"Awful," I said.  And we all laughed.

Rachel shouldered me to the curb and I stripped off my singlet.  She handed me my Boston marathon tee.  I stopped to rub the stiffness out of my hips and stretch out my quads.  Then, I took careful measure to slowly pull on THE jacket I had coveted for six years....

I started this blog toward the end of 2009.  Named it after one sentence that caught my attention in the book "Again to Carthage."  Then asked followers to come with me on my ride to the finish of my first Boston marathon.

I want to say thanks to everyone who's supported me (and put up with me) for the past two years.  Thanks for all your support, kind words, and comments in this space. 

Of course, the journey doesn't end here.  I'll just need a new subtitle.  

Back at the hotel, I got asked if I would do Boston again and my immediate answer was no.  

Three hours later in the airport, sitting around, seeing all the finishers medals, the jackets, a wry smile crossed my face.  I looked at Rachel and said, "I think I'll do it again."

"Everyone who finishes the Boston Marathon has their own great moment in sport - each one of us on this day has achieved greatness."
-George Sheehan, M.D.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Boston Redux - Part 2

When the phone rang, I shot up out of bed.  Rarely (perhaps for a past race or a vacation flight, certainly not for work) have I gotten up with such energy at 5:30 a.m.  I wish I could I say I slept through the night, but I woke up at 12:45, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:45.  Nervous?  Nah.  Excited?  Absolutely.  

Rachel squinted at me through light-struck eyes.  Ever the good wife, "Go ahead and turn on the light," she said.  Our morning routine usually involves someone groping around in the dark to get ready for work so as not to interrupt the other, but this morning was a special occasion.

Dressed in my hastily bought Target sweat pants (purchased on clearance Friday) and an old long sleeve t-shirt, I shoveled in oatmeal, got one last good luck kiss, and headed out the door.  Foreshadowing alert: I chose not to bring the bag given to us at the expo to cart my stuff around in at the athletes' village.  I hate doing the bag check at races, namely because I don't want to fuss with having to 1) turn it in and 2) get it back after race.  Too nervous in the beginning, too tired at the end.  

Instead, my pockets were stuffed with a bag of pretzels, a banana, a heat patch for my IT band, and my Pearl Izumi black sleeves.

On the way down to the lobby, another runner joined me in the elevator (the unmistakable yellow addidas bag thrown over his shoulder).  We stood on opposite ends and tossed each other a nod.  "First?" I asked.
"Twelfth," he said.  My bad. 
"'s my first."
His face lit up.  "It's brutal, man.  But you're gonna love it."  And then the warning that every previous Boston runner has given me, "Don't go out too fast," he warned.

We parted ways in the lobby, something haunting in his voice about the way he said, "You'll be wobbly for days, it's unlike any other marathon you've run."  I could only nod.  Breaking off, I followed the lead of others heading down into the T station to make our way over to the buses. 

The train swept by and we stepped on, adding to the mass of runners already inbound.  The conductor, in some kind of east European accent came over the PA, "Congratulations!  I will drive you to finish line.  Already done!" he exclaimed.  And the tension on the cars broke as everyone shared a laugh.  "We're already done?" someone said.  "That wasn't bad at all."  If only.

The herd of runners made its way up to Boston Common where long lines and buses awaited.  We were ushered through and placed in boarding lines.  Think TSA security at the airport.  The more I stood there and watched everyone step onto the bus, I thought of soldiers piling in to be driven off to the front line.

While the line moved quickly, my immediate thought was, "Crap, it's cold!"  Somewhere the sun was rising behind the tall Boston buildings, but it hadn't made it's way out to us yet.  The crisp air was perfect for running...not for waiting.  The next thing I noticed was more yellow f'ing bags.

Finally, I got onto my bus and moved toward the back.  I made for an empty seat but realized a second too late why it was still empty: the dreaded hump seat with the wheel well sticking up.  I folded my 6'3" body in and surprisingly drifted off to sleep.

The ride out to Hopkinton took about an hour.  I checked my watch and saw that we had two hours to go until race time and thought, "What the hell am I going to do for two hours?"  Well, I'll tell you.  I was going to shiver.

More funneling between the buildings of Hopkinton high and through to the baseball fields where giant tents and rows of porta potties greeted us.  I felt like I had two rocks in the heels of my shoes but soon found that they were actually asleep from being on the wheel well for an hour.  Continuing the war analogy, it looked like a field of bivouacs only instead of soldiers, wispy runners milled around, stretched out, waited in lines, and stretched.  

I meandered into the first tent and quickly got in line to grab a bagel.  My morning oatmeal started to wear off.  Joy is not found in trying to choke down a dry, untoasted bagel...but I managed.  That effort at least took my mind off the cold.  I walked out of the tent thinking the sun would warm me, but instead, it was windy and, therefore, much worse.  I hit the porta potty both because I had to go and I figured it could be warmer in there.  It was, and I loathed myself for it.  After, I retreated to the tent and stopped for a moment to take everything in.  Not so much to savor the moment, but to fully appreciate the feeling of being a rookie, a first-timer, the out-of-towner.  

Packed in those yellow bags, people had managed sleeping bags, air mattresses, towels, blankets, plastic bags, magazines, cameras, iPods, hats, gloves.  Biting my lower lip and nodding my head, I came to the all important realization: I am an idiot.

The announcer, perched atop the football press box called out, "The unofficial official time is 7:55...just two hours and five minutes until the 114th running of the Boston Marathon."  Insert string of self-deprecating swear words here.

So, I plopped down in the grass, in the tent, and tried to think warm, fast thoughts.  I slipped on my sleeves, which helped some, then simply sat down cross-legged, arms folded across my chest and hands  Mary Catherine Gallagher style tucked under my armpits.  Still, I shivered.  I looked over and I guess caught the eye of a runner in close proximity.  He had a winter cap, sweats, gloves, two pairs of shoes, one wrapped in plastic bags, a towel to sit on and garbage bags wrapped around his legs.  Oh, and yes, a winter coat.

Well, taking pity on the fool I must have looked like, he handed over an extra plastic bag.  "Really?" I asked in sweet sweet disbelief.  He only nodded.  I poked a hole in the top and slid it over me, potato sack-style and felt the warmth return.  

Time continued to slog by.  At 8:45 I decided to start downing my pretzels and made the executive decision to hit the porta potty line one more time at 9:00 and that that would bring me up to about the time it would take to start walking to the start.

When I stepped out of the tent to get in line, the sun shone, the wind had died down, and damn it all, it was almost hot.  Hopkinton is clearly a meteorological oddity.  

By the time I finished up, I started heading over toward the start...a .7 mile walk from the high school.  I fell in with the other cattle, I mean wave 1 runners.  Remembering that it usually took about a mile to get into a rhythm, I got a slow jog on (also to test out the IT band).  If the cold did one thing, it took my mind off any potential IT discomfort I may or may not have been suffering (or preparing to).  

We turned onto the main road and the street was already thick with spectators.  Kids, families, buddies, old, young, truly the whole town had come out.  I found a patch of grass by my corral and did some last minute stretching, then ditched my "warm clothes."

The corral system at Boston is flawless.  Volunteers check your bib to ensure you're not moving up and ropes block off others from encroaching.  So, when the gun did finally go off, you weren't stepping on others in front of you.  

The chatter in the corral wasn't so much nervous as...informative.  I've never heard so much talk about how brutal a course is.  And no one sugarcoats it.  I suppose if there's to be a be all end all marathon for runners, the course should be as challenging as possible.  But there's something epic, dark, and saddistic about the way runners talk about the point-to-point course.  "You'll want to go out fast...don't.  It's not the uphills, it's the downhills.  You'll feel great at the half.  Don't expect to by the time you get to 17."  Not very encouraging, especially when you're worried about your leg holding.

In those final minutes, we had the National Anthem, a flyover (which always gives me goosebumps), and the trotting out of the show horses, I mean male elites.  And then the wait was over.  The gun went off.

Check back with me tomorrow to read about how a four-year-old who nearly brought me to mile 3, what eventually did, and what's truly heartbreaking about Heartbreak Hill.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

2010 Boston Redux - Part 1

Two years.  Two marathons.  Three Half marathons.  Two ten milers.  Two 10Ks.  A handful of 5Ks.  Six pairs of shoes.  New PRs in every distance.  Pages of training plans.  Hours in good weather, in bad weather, in the heat, in the cold.  Boxes of Gu.  Cartons of Gatorade powder.  Blisters.  One lost toenail.To say the least it's been quite a long road to Boston.  

My running has taken me to new cities, new trails to explore, and new limits both physical and mental.  There've been highs (the PRs) and lows (the injuries).  There've been the mornings where the last thing I want to do is lace up and other days where I simply can't wait to get out and feel sorry when it's time to come back inside.

But above it all, I persevered and did so with the unbelievable support from family, friends, fellow runners, and strangers alike.  That's what brought me to the line in Hopkinton yesterday and the motivation to get me to Boylston street 3 hours 9 minutes and 25 seconds later.

So much happened over the last three days since I last blogged that I felt it best to break this recap into several parts so as not to feel rushed to compress it all, and God knows when it comes to writing, brevity is not always my strong suit.  With legs propped up, fresh from a massage, but still tender to the touch, here's what transpired...

It's no secret that the week leading up to yesterday was torturous.  "Will my IT band hold?  Will I have to walk 20, 18, 13 miles of the race?  Why does this hurt now?  Where's the ice? etc."  None of this really changed when I got up on Saturday morning.  However, I'd sort of come to terms with the injury.  I was going to Boston no matter what and would take whatever the race gave me.

Rachel and I got to BWI and quickly realized we were not the only ones headed to Boston for the marathon.  The camaraderie of the race had already begun.  As we moved through security, running sweats, jackets, shoes, all moved along the conveyor belt, and even the famed-Boston jacket.  Rachel and I exchanged a smile, already knowing that we were part of something special, or as Joe Biden might say, "This was a big f'ing deal."

First thing was first, though.  I was starving and ready for my second breakfast so we had to walk from the A terminal to the B terminal to find the Starbucks to get oatmeal before making our way back over to the A terminal to catch our flight.

It was at this point that I saw a couple people wearing THIS year's Boston finisher jacket.  I'm pretty sure I've made my feelings clear about this in past posts, but just to reiterate, I can't think of any worse joo-joo, mojo, karma, or what have you than wearing the t-shirt (or in this case jacket) of the race you're about to run before you've actually completed it.  Perhaps I'm just too superstitious, but that just seems like you'd be condemning yourself to some horrible GI incident for pissing off the marathon gods.  I digress.

When we lined up to get onto the flight, the Southwest crew earned major points by giving a shout out to all the people going to beantown for the marathon.  And then the real bonding began.  Like alcohol, I find running to be one of the great equalizers.  If you run into another runner, one whom you've never met, it's so easy to use running as an icebreaker.  We started chatting with a man who never could quite qualify for Boston, but was on his way up to cheer on his daughter who was running her first Boston.

We landed in Boston to typical New England weather: cold and dreary.  I graduated from Holy Cross and remember when October came around, we essentially said good bye to the sun until March or April. It was cold.  It was wet.  It was Massachusetts.  Nothing had changed.

My father-in-law drove out from Providence to pick us up and we made the family rounds for the afternoon, ten of us gathered around a small kitchen table in Medford, eating lunch and talking marathoning.  All was well until Rachel's Uncle flung a chair into my knee, causing a collective gasp to go up from the room.  No one was harmed.

Later that night, Rachel and I met up with some college friends to hang out and grab an amazing dinner in Jamaica Plain.  We were doted on the moment we walked in.  One of our friends whom we went to see worked at the restaurant and ensured we were well taken care of.  I watched in jealousy as Rachel and our friend Rosa downed pints of beer.  "Wait for the Chimay, wait for the Chimay," I kept repeating to myself.  When my salmon arrived on a bed of lentils and pureed eggplant, I was lost to everything but my appetite.

Our friends were so excited for me.  They had so many questions and I took relish in being able to talk about running, the process, the training, the nerves, the excitement, and the build up.  I remember watching an episode of The Soup where Joel McHale quipped that there's nothing more boring than listening to your friend talk about their marathon training...wamp wamp.  Most importantly, they wanted to know what my number was and what I'd be wearing so they could look for me on the would prove a fruitful conversation for late in the race.

What I hadn't anticipated was the number of strangers who came up to me to ask if I was in town for the marathon.  The weekend offered several congratulations and good lucks that it was impossible to not feel like you were apart of something so large both in the running community and the city of Boston.

Sunday, my dad arrived.  After grabbing breakfast, it was finally off to the expo to pick up my number, packet, and yes, the coveted jacket.  Having run only once in the last eight days, I thought it might be a good idea to walk to the expo from Cambridge (1.2 mile each way) to stretch things out a bit.  The IT band felt the best it had in a week so my spirits lifted.  Runners passed by us along the Charles River and we wondered if it was people getting in one last run before the big day or simply Sunday runners out for a jaunt.  

Once we crossed the river, the city was abuzz with people and you could feel the energy in the air.  Similar to the plane ride, it was one of those ah-ha moments that made it feel special.  We were in the company of people from all over who'd gotten to Boston in different ways, by qualifying in different cities, and were there for the same reason.

Rachel played photographer and captured a ton of great photos I didn't even know she had taken of me: getting my number and diving into the throng of people sifting through jackets.  Like piranhas to prey, people swarmed to the teal and yellow racks.  Well, wouldn't you know that there were no more larges left and the medium sleeves were just a little too short.  So, we branched out among the expo looking for a large in ANYTHING.  My dad came across a fleece-lined pullover and I found the finisher jacket in black (which I think is a sharper jacket, anyhow).  We held them up, studied them both, then decided, "What the hell, you only run your first Boston once, let's get both."

The rest of the expo was pretty crowded and we got frustrated sifting through the crowd so decided to go find some lunch instead.  The sun had come out but the hope of a nice day quickly washed away as the sky darkened and opened up again.  

I fell asleep in the afternoon watching the Phoenix/Detroit hockey game, while my dad read through the marathon program, and Rachel did school work.

Somewhat refreshed and certainly hungry, we walked down the street to Legal Seafood (rumored to be serving a special pasta dinner for runners) and had an early dinner.  After that, it was back to the hotel to pin that beautiful blue bib on my singlet, lace my championchip through my shoes, and prep my food and running accessories for the morning.

My dad held out as long as he could, but went to bed soon thereafter.  But before he left, he passed me the phone for one last chat with my mom.  We shared what would become a tension-relieving laugh about making sure the alarm was set correctly a la the Seinfeld episode when Jean-Paul misses the marathon because, was it the a.m./p.m.?  "No, man.  It was the volume!"

Rachel and I didn't make it much longer, hitting the light at 9:45 to dream the dreams of fleet feet and nimble IT bands.

Check back in tomorrow to find out how grossly underprepared I was for the athletes' village in Hopkinton.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Chimay All the Way

The fridge has been empty for the last two-and-a-half weeks. Not empty of food, of course. The furnace is still burning bright and the weeks still seem to require an extra trip to the grocery store at lunch. No, I’m talking beverages of the alcoholic persuasion.

I try to cut back on the beer during my training but feel compelled to celebrate the successful long run with some brand of tasty beer that does not have the words “light/lite” in the title. But I decided to go dry, prohibition-style a couple weeks ago after my last 20-miler.

It hasn’t been too tough. Only the occasional curious looks from friends when having dinner out before going to a Caps game. Then I tell them why and it seems to be an acceptable decision…though I could have used one after last night’s game one OT loss to the Canadiens, but I digress.

There is one thing waiting for me in the fridge, though, that I purchased at the store last weekend: a big beautiful bottle of Chimay red. I first had this at my favorite pre-Caps game restaurant, Matchbox, so called because it is indeed narrow like a matchbox. If not for the throngs of people waiting outside for a table, you could probably walk right by it.

My next time ordering it was at a mussels and frites joint in the Capitol Hill area of D.C. that has pages and pages of sweet sweet beer from all over the world.

I’ve managed to work myself up into quite a mess of nerves this week, particularly with the IT anxiety I’ve suffered since last Saturday.  Let me go ahead apologize to my wife and colleagues.  One of my coworkers was sitting in my cube when she broke off from conversation, paused, then narrowed her eyes.  "You have no idea what I'm saying do you?"
"What if I just quit?"
"You didn't did you?"
"No, but, I could and all you'd hear is 'IT band, IT band, IT band.' "

Ahh, harsh but fair.  So I've tried to simplify things, you know, stay positive.  I've focused on things like the jacket, seeing my family at the finish (no matter how long it takes me to get there), the post-marathon shower, my massage on Tuesday...and this big, red bottle of Trappist beer.

Now comes the waiting game.  I'm packed.  My belly is full (but not too full) of a nutrient rich dinner.  My bag of snacks is bulging, and dare I say, my IT band is much better than it was five days ago.

All that's left is to run this thing.  We head out, Boston bound, tomorrow morning.  The Saturday agenda calls for a visit with grandparents-in-law, college friends for an early dinner, and hopefully hotel bar to catch the Caps game before an early bedtime.  Most importantly, I'm trying to relax, take everything of this experience in, and stay out of my own head.

Monday, April 12, 2010

ITB Anxiety

Over the past 16 weeks, I’ve quoted Greg McMillan as though every word he writes, podcasts, or speaks is gospel. When I opened my e-mail this past week, I found the following quote from McMillan, “The week prior to the marathon is what I call the 'great marathon freak-out' that occurs during the peaking process.”

Oh, the words couldn’t be truer. (Cue the somber, violin music). You see, I’ve read all the tapering articles and the claims of these mysterious injuries cropping up, aches and pains that suddenly appear, and even *gasp* the occasional cold. I’d not experienced this phenomenon for any of my four previous marathons…until now.

I felt like Tonya Harding on Sunday night, complaining to my wife (who is writing grad school papers now…so the stress level and self-pity is at an all-time high): “Why me? Why now? Why anyone?”

It started toward the end of last week. It was that knowing twinge, that stiffer than normal tightness down the outside of my right leg. At first I pretended not to notice. Then I tried to blame it on floor hockey, that it wasn’t actually what I thought it was, but something just, you know, in the area of my IT band. In the end, there was no getting around it: my IT band was/is sore.

I set out anyhow on Saturday for my last “long” run, a fast finish 12 miler. It actually went very well with no pain during the run…only pain after. That’s what’s so vexing about this whole thing. I’ve had some aches and pains along the way – to be expected during marathon training – but my IT band (knock on wood) has only ever hurt after runs. I’m hoping to chalk this up to a “sore muscle” you might get after a hard workout rather than a chronic injury.

And of course, this is my fixation now. I spent the majority of my work day contemplating my IT band. However, when I got busy or headed to meetings and couldn’t dwell, miracle of miracles, it didn’t hurt anymore. Which leads me to wonder just how much of what I’m going through is mental and how much is physical?

I can’t deny that that side of my leg feels like a taut bow string when I run my fingers over it, but the irritation only really comes with the fixation. I go back to the box office giant “Batman Begins” when that creepy guy Dr. Crane who wore the freaky burlap sack over his head said, “Only the mind can grant you power.” If it can grant you power, it can most certainly take it away.

I’m focusing on being mentally strong because, after all, that’s what this (any) marathon is going to call for. I’ll head out for an easy four miler tomorrow in the rain and hope that it’ll wash all these fears and insecurities away.

And so, I’ll end this post with a little more Gospel according to McMillan:

“Use this peaking time to reflect on all your successes in the training. Think good thoughts. Run strong in the remaining workouts and focus on relaxing the body/mind. Negative thoughts will creep in but just push them aside and focus on the positive.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Riding the Lightning

Sitting at my desk this afternoon, I was slowly working toward wrapping up for the day, when it flashed across the bottom of my screen: Severe T-Storm Warning.  I let the crawl finish then whipped my head around to get a glimpse out the window.  Could it be true?  Sure enough, the clear blue skies from lunch had yielded to what I've come to know as the spring time afternoon sky.  

There's an ominous yellow pall that hangs lazily.  The air thickens.  Benjamin Moore might call it "pollen yellow," but that would instead be the color of my car right now.  No, this is more of a diffused yellow, the kind you might see on storm chasers or expect right before the world is about to end.  Sunlight gets diffused and the wind stirs the budding trees.  Thunderheads bloom in the western sky.  

This is going to be some serious shit.

With a marathon in April, I thought by some miracle I would bypass this volatile time of year, where training runs hang in the balance.  Do I go?  Do I not go?  What if I go?  What if I get struck by lightning?  

I've made the mistake of setting out only to turn an easy run into a tempo workout (or all out sprint) to make it back to the house.  The phrase, "Running for your life" comes to mind.  I can remember one particular incident when the lightning flashed, the thunder boomed right behind it, and it's hard to fight that advice to not hang out under a tree to wait it out.  My dad drove nearly my entire loop before mercifully pulling over, flinging the car door open, and hauling my soggy butt in.  Other times, I've called off workouts, erring on the side of caution, only to have it 1) not rain at all or 2) rain for 10 minutes and suddenly disappear as if there was never a storm at all.

So, it was with these past experiences weighing on me that I began to rapidly close things down and prepare to leave.  My boss looked at me with concern, "You going to get your run in?"

"That's the plan."
"Get out of here then!  And don't go out too far."

It's like she knew.  Scheduled tonight was a 3x2000m interval workout followed by 3x200m (remember, tapering but keeping the engine revved).  

And I drove as quickly as the wind blew, got home, changed, walked the dog, and kept peering up at the  darkening clouds.  The hour-by-hour forecast called for the storm to begin around 7:00 and it was only reliable (and hopeful) source.

I trotted out on my warmup, a quicker than normal pace out to the 2K part on my course, stood for a moment to catch my breath, the words of Metallica lingering in my head, "Take a look to the sky...just before you die.  It's the last time you will," sighed, then turned and set off for my first interval.  

With the wind at my back, I floated up and down the hills, my singlet fluttering at my sides.  The lactic acid beginning to build in my quads made me forget all about the bruised clouds rolling in.  I just focused on turnover, getting through.  I clicked the watch, threw my hands over my head and started a slow 2:30 recovery jog.  That was one.

When number 2 came around, I took off, coasting through the downhills that tortured me just minutes before when I climbed up them.  But now, that tailwind was a headwind.  My singlet still fluttered but the stiff breeze blasted me with pink petals (trust me, they aren't as pretty when pelting you in the face), and choked me with pollen.  I clicked the watch again and fought the urge to go hands to knees.  "Take a look to the sky...."

Half my recovery went and I turned to jog back to the starting line for number three.  I cleared my throat, telling myself the yellow was pollen and not infection (incidentally, I stopped eating pretzels out of a bag today a woman whose husband is sick stuck her hand in...paranoid? overreaction? germapobe? Guilty as charged).  

A few stray, fat raindrops splattered on the sidewalk.  I fought the urge to panic, telling myself I had to do the interval because I had to get home anyway.  The Yield sign on West Ox Road came up..."just before you die."  Click of the watch and off I went.  Half the sky looked normal, the other half (the half I was running toward) looked like night had descended.

This one started to hurt...and bad.  I tried to talk myself out of it: "It's a peak week.  We don't need this.  Find the flow and ride the current.  Smooth stride."  But then I kept looking at the sky in front of me and my legs churned even faster.

As I rounded the corner into the neighborhood (.4 to go), there was a moment similar to the one in the Perfect Storm.  You know, they've turned the boat around to ride out the storm in calmer waters and suddenly the clouds part and the sun peeks through, one brief glimmering moment of serenity...and then disappears again. Well, the sun poked through for that moment and disappeared just as quickly.

The yellow speed bump was in sight.  I churned harder, pumping my arms...clicked the watch.  "It's the last time you will."

I waited two-and-a-half more minutes, bracing for the onslaught.  But it never came.  Not then anyway. I banged out my 200s and went inside for some much needed gatorade.  I stretched in our living room, letting the sweat trickle down my face and enjoying that soaking, summer time exhaustion I think you can only appreciate after running in the heat.  I'm talking the looks-like-you-just-got-out-of-the-pool-type soaked and that tiredness hits you all at once.  Sweet, satisfying exhaustion of a job well done.

I came to the kitchen to make my recovery drink.  I watched the trees whip on their sides, the chairs on our deck blow askew, and finally, the deluge of water and flashes of lightning that I'd braced for came.   Only this time, the panic and urgency had subsided and I just stared and enjoyed that serene sound of the rain lashing outside.  Summer running is here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Heat, My God the Heat

The mercury continued rising today toward record setting temperatures.  I think we topped off at close to 93 or 94 degrees today.'s headline was "July Temps in April."  With the sun descending,  I took off on what I hoped to be a productive seven mile fartlek run.  It was indeed that, but as I picked up the pace heading into the woods at mile 2 to take on the Big Rocky Run trail, I was already thick with sweat and wondering, "What gives?"

I've been monitoring the 10-day forecast religiously since April began roaring like a hot furnace last week, hoping, nee praying, that the heat would break in New England.  So far so good as we're looking at temps in the mid-50s next week.  I had the good fortune (read with sarcasm) to take part in the Chicago Marathon meltdown in 2007, and one experience like that is enough thank you very much.

Embracing "peak week," I set off at a nice trot to get the tightness out of my legs that lingered from Saturday's last 18-miler, and to warmup the IT band that I hate to even mention has been a touch stiff the last few days.  

When it came time for the fartlek portion (10x1 min at slightly faster than 5K pace with a one minute rest), whatever lingering fog remained disappeared and I slid into a nice flow -- a far cry from yesterday's easy six and an even more pleasant surprise considering how unacclimatized I am to the heat.

And as the fatigue crept in some toward the end, I thought back to the neat little package that arrived in the mail last week: The Welcome to Boston Marathon Package.  I remembered back to the day I signed up for the race and the day my formal acceptance came in both inbox and mailbox.  There was talk of this package that would arrive in April, essentially talking about what you need to know to pick up race packets, getting to Hopkinton, post-race festivities, etc.  

Not so much a big deal, but in my head it began to take on mythic proportions, not quite as much as having the jacket (how could it possibly?) but close.  I don't know why I attached so much meaning to it so I began to unpack that as one can do with 5 miles of time on their hands, and it's certainly better than thinking about sweltering in the unseasonable warmth (a record setting winter...why not a record setting spring?).

What I came up with as I flew through the woods was that this was yet another confirmation that Boston was actually going to happen, that I'd qualified and gotten there.  Plus, the Web site, letters, and e-mails forecasted an April delivery, and at the time, April seemed so far away.  The leaves were still on the trees, my training program hadn't even started, and 16 weeks seemed like an eternity...that's an entire winter, all those holidays, annual trips at work, a friend completing 16 weeks to her first marathon, and nearly the whole of the NHL regular season (Go Caps!).  

But last week, it arrived and with it, the month of April.  The countdown on my whiteboard at work started with a 1, which meant the race was getting dangerously close.  My parents visited from Florida last week and were here when this magical package arrived and shared in my excitement.  I read the booklet cover to cover taking in every direction, every tidbit.  I revised some nutrition strategies (no more carrying a cold english muffin with me to Hopkinton since apparently they serve bagels there) and simply let myself get wrapped up in the excitement of the event.  

Really, there wasn't much too it but information, and the all important postcard to bring so you can pick up your packet.  But, like I said, it somehow made it real running the tune up race three weeks ago and blending all the workouts.  Like Quentin Cassidy said, "Oh, so they're actually going to have us run this thing."

Before I knew it, I had reached my tenth rep and began the slow 2 mile trot back home.  That's when the heat began to hit me.  My throat felt coated in pollen despite attempts to wash it down with a couple shots of warm gatorade.  

I reached the steps of our townhouse, unlaced my shoes, and sat back to let my feet breathe and the sweat trickle down my face.  A neighbor came out and we chatted about idle things, namely grilling, the heat, and how we'll probably be reminiscing fondly about the snow and cold soon.  

And I chuckled to myself unlocking the door, recalling the scene in Seinfeld when Jerry and Elaine visit his parents in Florida.  Elaine walks out of the bedroom, looking like she's just run a marathon herself, and says, "The heat, my God the heat."  But the air conditioning inside was cool, and I thought a certain jacket would be perfect to throw on to stay comfortable.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


When I went to bed on Friday night, I tried to do so with a clear mind, but, pardon the pun, it was racing.  My final long run loomed just 8.5 hours from the light going out.  All week I tried telling myself that however it went, I was ready, illustrated by my "crushing" 20-miler the Saturday before.  The mercury's been climbing all week and an 18-miler in 80 degree weather is not my ideal scenario for rounding out the dubbed "Marathon Training" part of my program.

I've spent the week convincing myself that "It's only 18 miles" essentially saying, "The final mileage doesn't start with a 20."  But 18 miles is still 18 miles.  It's a lot!

Beyond that, I've been logging some serious time on the Runners' World/Running Times Boston site.  The race prep, post-race sections are great, but I was after the course advice.  All I've heard from friends and read in articles is how much this race beats up your legs.  It's not the uphills, it's the downhills.  It's the uphills because of when they come.  It's the potential for good weather, for bad weather.  The inevitable thoughts of "what have I gotten myself into" and "have I done enough" crept into my head.

I started to express these to my wife yesterday and she had the perfect reply, "It's going to be hard.  It's a marathon.  It's Boston."  I must have given her my own version of Mattie's head cock when she's intrigued because she let a beat go by, then, "But you're ready.  You've done the work."

And so, I drifted off to sleep, a belly full of rigatoni, and my racing outfit laid out for me to complete the 18-miler I've looked at as the pinnacle of this program.  

When this all began 14 weeks ago, I flipped through and dreamt about this run, knowing that all the work will have been behind me, and this run would be the last hurdle to the final two week taper. 

Who doesn't love a good taper?  You're in top shape.  You're cranking out easy 5-7 milers like they're a joke.  Confidence is high, and, my favorite, you get to pound carbs.

The alarm went off and I hopped out of bed at 8:00, having given myself a little bit of sleeping in time, but still early enough to hopefully beat the tourists out to the mall and the sun from glowing full blast.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my breath when I went out to get the paper as well as a blanket of gray clouds blocking out the sun.  Goosebumps raised on my bare arms and legs, and I thought this could work out just fine.

Gravelly Point teemed with bikers, joggers, and runners early on.  I waded through them to the least disgusting of the porta potties, "emptied the tank," and set out.

The Mt. Vernon trail is a meteorological oddity.  You could go through several changes of clothes because each section of the trail has its own climate.The wind blows in hard off the Potomac, pushing you sideways as planes fly overhead, close enough to think you could jump up and touch them...or they're going to land on you.  But running out toward Old Town Alexandria, the wind dies and the air gets stale and dank.  I could still see my breath but felt the Virginia humidity already clinging to me.  Cue the self-doubt.  

When I reached my turnaround point, I saw the Capitol poking above the river at what seemed like hundreds of miles away and knew that I'd have to get to it...and back during this run.  Still, I felt life returning.  I tried not to think about the fact that I was supposed to finish the last six miles of this run at marathon goal pace, which would start just before hitting that white dome on the horizon.

At mile 9, I headed across the Roosevelt Bridge, the Kennedy Center and Georgetown to my left, the Jefferson Memorial and 14th St. Bridge to my right.  I strode smoothly past the clogged lanes of traffic trying to get in to see the Cherry Blossoms in full bloom and I groaned inwardly at the thought of navigating through the tourist hordes.

I trotted down the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and set out down the reflecting pool, the entire Mall laid out before me.  I dodged long lines of tourists stretched out five and six across with little regard for looking where they were going.  As I scoffed going by, I noticed by pace quickening more out of frustration to put distance between myself and them than any cue to begin the "fast finish."

I rounded the Capitol and felt the crowds thin out the farther from the Jefferson Memorial Tidal Basin.  But, I prepared to head directly into that storm.  I worked my way up Independence Avenue, periodically jumping into the street to avoid the throngs of slow moving, camera clad invaders.  

To my horror, the trail around the tidal basin was choked.  This dashed any hopes of taking my usual route around it.  Despite living in this area for more than 20 years, I've never been down to see the Cherry I know why.

Suddenly, I found myself running down a foot wide median on the exit ramp to go over the 14th street bridge, but it provided the room I needed to get by.  Running out of room, I darted through a school of out-of-towners and back onto the grass.  

I stole glances over at the Cherry Blossoms, and truth be told, it is a remarkable site.  Pink blossoms ring the Tidal Basin.  A strong breeze shrouds you in a brief blizzard of pink pedals.  Despite the masses, it still gives me that, "Ah, D.C." feeling.

I trekked down the backside of the FDR Memorial and worked my way back to Lincoln.  When I hit the Memorial Bridge, I had two miles to go.  Two miles to tapering.  

I ran a quick mental check: Legs good; breath good; body good; head good.  And felt the extra kick of adrenaline drop in and tingle every end of my body.  I took off buzzing down the trail, passing strollers, joggers, and even bicyclists.  I clicked the watch and felt the burden from the night before leave me.  I big smile creased my face as I picked my way back to the car, stretched, through on a dry shirt and blared "Dance to the Music" with the windows down.

When I returned home, I moved into the kitchen, a satisfying stiffness starting to settle in my legs, and went to check off this final run and get a glimpse of what was left.

My program is broken up in phases: Base, Pre-Marathon, Marathon, and the last I expected to be called "Taper."  Instead, McMillan puts a great spin on it.  The final phase is called "Peak."  And I think it captures exactly what I was (and should have been) feeling.  The next two weeks are time to refuel, reenergize, and unite 14 weeks of workouts.    Taper sounds like you're winding down.  Peaking means you've reached the pinnacle.  You're at the height of your training and as my Uncle said, you've put the "edge on the sword."  

There's a note that goes along with the start of the new phase: You now enter the Peaking Phase to rest the body/mind but keep the engine revved for racing!

The machine is ready.
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