One of the many things that sets the Boston Marathon apart from other marathons I’ve done is that the training has to be completed during the cold, dark winter months. From November through mid-April, I’ve been getting up early, usually in the dark, to run in all kinds of uncomfortable weather: bitter cold, snow, freezing rain, howling headwinds, you name it. And this having been a particularly rough winter, I’ve frequently had to train in a combination of these conditions. So, by the time April rolled around I should’ve been hardened and even over-prepared to face any weather Boston would throw at me, right? Wrong. Very wrong.
I’m coming off a huge training block and feeling peak fitness, probably the best shape I’ve ever been in. I ran the NYC Half on a tough course with strong headwinds and still managed to PR (1:26:15). My brother in-law and ultrarunner extraordinaire, Michael Arnstein, gave me a simple directive to finish off the final weeks: lots of long slow distance runs. This, he promised, would turn me into an aerobic machine and “get distance in my legs” for the marathon effort. When Michael gives running advice, you listen - this guy is a bona fide jedi when it comes to running, sporting a 2:28 marathon PR and multiple 100 mile wins (including a jaw-dropping 12hr, 57 min 100 mile PR - that’s 7:46 pace for 100 miles!) Plus, as an added bonus, he offered to run Boston with me and pace me the whole way, provided I put in the prescribed miles.
So the next three weeks I dutifully ran 77, 100 and 115 miles, capping off the stretch with a 10 mile tempo at 6:28 pace (which happened to be a 10 mile PR - in training!) Unsurprisingly, Michael was right: I truly felt like an aerobic machine. On some of my runs I was registering a HR below 120, barely breathing after 10, 15, 20 miles. I was physically and mentally primed to crush my marathon PR (3:17:38 at NYC, which was also the time that qualified me for Boston). I was looking to go low 3 hours at Boston, and Michael suggested that even sub-3 hours was a realistic goal. Could that actually happen? In the week before the race I started to believe that it could, but I just needed to have a great day... with perfect conditions.
As we get closer to race day and the weather forecasts become more reliable, the running community is abuzz on social media about how bad the conditions will be: 26.2 miles of direct 25-30 mph easterly headwinds (i.e., the whole way), in freezing rain, with a real feel temperature below 30F. In other words, the exact opposite of “perfect conditions”. I try to ignore it all and stay positive but it’s nagging at me and I keep getting texts and emails from friends about it (some of which I initiated).
Is it time to face reality? Revise my goals? Perhaps make it a fun run - a kind of victory lap with no attachment to the clock? I’ve always envied people who can show up to races all relaxed saying they’re just out to have fun and take it all in. I NEVER show up at a race expecting to have fun - at the finish line and after-party, yes, for sure, but not before, and certainly not during. Racing to me is about pain and endurance - getting to see the best version of myself and hopefully exceeding my perceived physical (and mental) limits. The joy and fulfillment is in overcoming, quieting the voice in my head imploring me to quit (or at least slow down) and soldiering on. Can I really run - not race - Boston? This, the most important race of my life thus far? No, I’d have to show this event my utmost respect by gutting it out, good weather or not.
The final few days before the race I obsessively check the weather reports. Maybe it’ll all change. Oh look, one weather website disagrees with all the others and shows the wind direction is now showing Southeast. That’s not directly head-on! Perhaps there will be some reprieves along the course? Besides, how reliable are wind forecasts anyway? Also, I remind myself that I like running in the rain - it’s refreshing, right?
A few random blogs I come across buttress my increasing delusion: one blogger who ran Boston in 2015 implored this year’s runners not to give up hope. That year, cold rain and wind were forecast, but, she assured her readers, the wind ended up not being that bad and she ran her best Boston ever. Yes! I’m emboldened, professional meteorologists be damned.
On top of my best training cycle ever, Michael generously gave me every possible advantage with race logistics. We stayed at his friends’ house in Hopkinton, a lovely, wonderfully gracious couple who have been hosting Michael for each year’s race for nearly a decade. The house is an unheard-of 5 minutes from the start line (!) which gave us the luxury of not only sleeping late (hello, 8:30am wake up time!) but also not having to wait at the start for hours in the freezing rain. This one accommodation alone was absolutely massive and sort of felt like cheating. After all, even the elites had to come in from Boston on race morning and wait it out.
We get to the start area in light rain and many runners were already completely soaked and some were even shivering. They had been there for 2+ hours. Michael and I (along with Michael’s awesome older brother Jesse, a talented runner in his own right) stroll right up to our corral, all dry and ready to go, just 20 mins from the horn. I’m used to the endless wait and agony of big races like the NYC marathon which tighten you up and exhaust you for hours before you run a single step - but not today. At this moment I feel such gratitude to Michael for setting us up. Walking right up to our corral after a good night’s sleep felt like getting past the velvet rope at the hottest club in town.
We’re in Corral 3 and my new friend, Boston-area running veteran Gary Cattarin (whom I met months earlier on a run on the West Side Highway - more about that here: http://thesecondlap.blogspot.com/2017/11/expanding-horizons.html) is supposed to be in Corral 4. Would be great to see him at the back of my corral and front of his, but after a moment of scanning there was no sign of him. Michael wants us as close to the front as possible, so I quickly give up the search and we inch our way forward.
Even the weather seemed, gasp, not so bad. Rain was light. Wind? Yeah, it was there but it didn’t seem to be an issue. Hey, it wasn’t even that cold. I ask Michael, so are we revising our goals? What’s our pace? His answer was unequivocal and went something like this: “Let’s go out the first few miles at 3 hour pace (6:50’s) and see how it goes. I’ve been through races where the weather changes. You’re 45 years old - how many chances are you gonna get to do this? Let’s at least give you a chance. If you go out too slow then there’s no chance.” Sounded like it could be a kamikaze mission but OK, I’m sold, let’s do this!
Start to 5K
We start our journey into the unknown. I can’t see too far ahead of me but the mass of people begins walking faster and it feels like that moment car traffic finally starts moving after a long standstill. We cross the start line and immediately Michael tears out! This is something I’m not used to seeing or doing in the marathon distance. He can’t stand crowded starts and this was a slow herd of runners looking to start as conservatively as possible. Add to that the narrow streets of Hopkinton and soon enough Michael jumps onto the muddy dirt trail adjoining the right side of the course. He’s a skilled trail runner and his legs are turning over fast. I stay on the road and immediately fall behind about 5 or 6 rows of people. There’s no way I’m running on mud or weaving around people in the first mile of a marathon, it just seems too ludicrous. But, Michael is the jedi. After all, this was his 22nd Boston, he knows what he’s doing. I have to catch up to him. Over a quarter of a mile I make my way up to 2 rows back. He keeps looking over his shoulder and beckoning me to “come on!” The pace is quick but it’s downhill so it doesn’t feel too hard.
Where’s the bad weather? All seemed OK, until the road turns and suddenly all of us get whacked with a massive headwind that just doesn’t stop. Ah, we were just getting out of the start area drafting off of each other like emperor penguins - here’s the real Boston course with its as-advertised weather conditions.
Less than a minute later we all stampede through a 20 foot stream of water of about ankle high depth. The runners near me are audibly gasping, some even laughing at the absurdity of it all. If your shoes were not waterlogged from waiting around at the start, they were now. I feel it in my toes first - this was ice water.
Fully drenched from the rain, the cold wind continued its assault. I have a running cap on with a brim and keep it tightly snug below my eyebrows. My area of view is just the few feet in front of me. Occasionally I look up to see if I can spot Michael. He’s about 50 or so feet ahead. But it hurts to look at him because lifting my head causes horizontal freezing rain to pelt me in the eyes and cheeks.
After around 5K of this, I take a gel. My plan is to take a 100 calorie gel every 5K, so about 8 in total (this has worked well for me in previous marathons). I figure Michael will just slow down and accept that, hey, we gave it the college try but it’s just not our day. But there he was still darting ahead. So I give chase, eventually catching up to him. That’s when he says something like “I’m sorry this really sucks man, but stay with me, I’m pacing exactly 6:50’s.” What? He was still pacing me to go for a 3 hour marathon? He hadn’t given up yet, so I shouldn’t either. Things could still turn around, right? That was the plan after all. I follow the jedi and see what happens. If I don’t pay for this by blowing up later it would be a miracle, I thought.
I keep up the pace until 10K. I take another gel. I’m on pace for a sub-3 hour marathon in miserable conditions. What was I thinking? This cannot possibly end well. At this moment, I catch up to Michael (or, more likely, he slowed down for me) and he says something along the lines of “Hey, we knew sub-3 hours was a long shot. This is ridiculous. I’ve never run in conditions this bad for a marathon” - he’s run over a hundred marathons - “today is just about finishing.”
OK, the pressure to perform is off. I’m relieved that he agrees to back off of the faster pace and I’m secretly happy that I can no longer let him down with a sub-par performance. But somehow I don’t feel like it’s possible to now sit back and enjoy this event. The weather was miserable. My toes were frozen and going numb. My fingers were tingling and I couldn’t curl them the way I typically do when running. And my body was quickly getting very very cold.
I determine to run an honest effort the rest of the way with one goal in mind: finishing. There was no shot I was traveling from NYC to Boston and back without finishing this thing. I resolve to get that medal no matter what.
The miles are passing but they’re extremely unpleasant. Our pace has slowed but I don’t have pace as a field on my watch so I’m not sure exactly how much we’ve slowed. I intentionally kept pace off my watch so I wouldn’t be a slave to mile splits - keeping up with Michael and running on effort would be all I needed. Also, effort-based running was what I practiced in training and it had worked well for me. I would learn later that our splits were in the 7:20’s at this point (still faster than my PR pace) but it felt OK and somewhat sustainable - this was my new level of fitness at work.
Michael says something about stopping in a medical tent but would be right back and that I should just stay on the median of the road. Was he OK? I don’t quite get what the issue is before he runs off. All good, I have no doubt he’ll catch up to me. This guy could shower, change and have a meal and he’d still be able to catch me, even on a day like today.
I try to take another gel but this time I can’t even pull the zipper on my waistpack (even though it has a loop latch on it making it super easy to grab). I realize I’ve lost all manual dexterity. I keep fussing with it. Eventually, success. I fish a gel out of the pouch and slowly close the zipper. I try to rip the gel open but my gloves are too slippery and I just keep swiping at it. I try to tear it with my mouth but it slides right through my teeth. I try again, same result. Third time’s a charm? Nope. I manage to tear it open but the contents explode all over my shirt and gloves. Fuuuuuck! I start licking my gloves, lapping up the watery gel like a dog, in a frantic effort to salvage what I can. Maybe I got 20 calories worth. OK, I guess that’s the last time I’m taking a gel today.
As I approach the halfway point in Wellesley I find myself singularly focused on the guy right in front of me, just gutting it out. This guy runs exactly like Gary. Wait, is this Gary? I shout “Gary!” and he responds “Ralph?” without turning around. “Yes, hey, Gary, it’s me! I know that form anywhere - your running form is as distinct as Billy Joel’s voice.” Interacting with another human during this misery, let alone a friend, is a tremendous morale booster. He stays a few paces ahead of me but won’t turn around to look at me (he’s battling forward as we all are and I would learn later he feared tripping if he looked back - I don’t blame him, I never looked back). He asks me how I’m doing and I shout back “I’m laboring!” And with that he was off ahead of me, widening our gap to 25, 50, 100 feet until he was gone in the distance.
I get through the Wellesley College scream tunnel and pass the halfway point in 1:33. Holy crap, I’m on pace for a very respectable 3:06 marathon, but, of course, I don’t expect to hold pace for the second, notoriously hilly, half. I’ve got no access to gels and the weather is actually getting worse. Besides, where is Michael?
Another mile in, my pace slowing, I start to feel queasy. I burp up some gel into my pharynx and spit it out. I’ve got a nauseating acidic taste in my mouth. I grab a water cup and take down one swallow but I suspect there’s more spit-up coming.
Michael catches up to me. He was chafing badly and went into a medical tent for some Vaseline. It’s good to see him but I’m not in great shape. My core body temperature is noticeably low and just not warming up. The rain is merciless. I tell Michael I threw up back there (even though it was just spittle, “throw up” seemed like a good enough description). Moments later I get so nauseous that I have to stop on the side of the road. I shout to Michael to wait. He stops and sees me vomiting uncontrollably along a fence.
I cannot believe this. I’ve never vomited in a race before - not during and not after - and I’ve put myself through some epic gut-wrenching efforts. What was this? Was I becoming hypothermic? Was this a health warning sign? Or, wait, lightbulb… shortly before the start, as we were leaving the house, my stomach was unsettled. I thought it was the typical race day nerves, but when I had to use the restroom twice within five minutes I thought it could be a problem. In a quiet panic I asked our host for Imodium, which she had in the medicine cabinet. I popped two tablets thinking what’s the worst that can happen, I’ll retain water and I guess stay hydrated? At least I won’t have diarrhea during the race.
But here at Mile 15, after stopping to vomit, this now struck me as a massive misjudgment. The simplest, most basic rule, that even every beginner runner knows is: NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY. It’s a commandment. You don’t violate it. But I did and now I was paying for it. I did this to myself. I’m such an idiot. (I would later learn from a gastroenterologist that the Imodium probably did lead to vomiting which probably led to dehydration, which worsened my general condition, making me more susceptible to hypothermia. Fantastic.)
Although the initial vomiting actually made me feel better right away, I know it isn’t gone. I’m still nauseous and I keep burping up acid and spitting it out along the way. Sure enough, I throw up about six more times over the course of the next 8 miles, each time stopping on the side of the road, losing precious time. Did I even care about time anymore? Part of me still did - I just can’t let go of the clock in a race. After each vomit stop, I’d pick up the pace again, sometimes even sprinting to make up for lost time. Stop to vomit, run hard, slow down, stop again - it was a bad plan, but I had to keep moving.
What kept me going? I knew I had to finish this race for sure, that was non-negotiable. But small things also helped along the way. Before the race I arranged with another Boston-area friend - Sam Richardson, a lawyer I’ve worked with professionally for the past 11 years - to meet him for a cheer and a high-five at around Mile 18. I just knew he’d be there and I sure as hell was going to get there too.
I make it to Mile 18 and there he is, standing alone in the pouring rain and wind in a poncho. We give each other a quick high-five and hug and he urges me to keep going. Sam will never quite appreciate how meaningful it was to me that he was there. He would later tell me that it was nothing compared to what I was doing - but he really got me through a tough spot in the race and I’m so grateful.
I make my way up the Newton hills, including the infamous Heartbreak Hill, and, but for the vomit stops, the effort doesn’t feel too bad, but, of course, the breaks are giving me rests and helping me gather myself too.
I can see the sympathy on Michael’s face every time I shout “Wait!” and pull over to grab onto the course guardrail. The last time I hurl, nothing comes up - my stomach is empty. (I see later that Mile 24 was a pitiful 9:28 split.)
It’s time to get this damned thing over with…
Mile 25 to Finish
Improbably, I’m still running. Other than the vomit breaks, I never walked in this race. I hit Mile 25 and glance at my watch. 3:11 and change - wow, that’s way better than I expected! The wheels in my head start turning faster than my legs - hmm, if I could get the final 1.2 miles done in under 10 minutes I can still qualify for next year’s race! My math is a bit fuzzy but I reckon that would take somewhere between 7 and 8 min pace, definitely not 7 pace, that’s too fast for me now, and not as slow as 8 min pace. Time to take off and leave nothing to chance. I gradually start pushing myself. Michael and I aren’t speaking anymore and I suspect he thinks I’m just trying to reach the damned finish line (not secretly focusing on a BQ). He of course matches every stride with ease, staying right on my shoulder.
The rain and wind are so powerful and I’m just praying to get through this. I know there’s a famous right turn onto Hereford Street which goes a few blocks before the left turn onto Boylston Street and the finish line off in the distance. But we’re not making that right turn soon enough. Where is that goddam turn!? I can’t see ahead of me but I’m just hoping it comes soon. GPS is off so I’m just going off my sense of distance and time (both of which are probably as unreliable as GPS given my state of mind).
Sometimes funny things cross my mind towards the end of a race. I recall a thought I had weeks prior to the race, one that is so comical at this point: that I would be disappointed towards the finish because I wouldn’t want this wonderful Boston experience to end! This memory is so absurd that it causes me to grin. I keep pressing.
The runners immediately ahead of me are finally turning right - this is it! The stretch on Hereford Street is strangely quiet as it’s the only portion of the entire course that doesn’t have a headwind. This lights a fire under me. I tear out and start sprinting towards Boylston - a bit soon with about a half mile to go, but, hey, I’ve pushed harder for longer distances and I know how to suffer from my shorter races and time at the track. I’m going for it and not leaving it up to my bad math. We cross the finish line and I glance at my watch. 3:20 and change - well more than needed to qualify for next year. Where I found the strength I don’t know but wouldn’t you know it, when I thought all was lost on this day, I still managed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
This is the shortest-lived thrill of finishing a race I ever experience. Michael and I get our medals and spot a photographer. We force smiles (later laughing at exactly how much effort it took to actually smile) and suddenly my body starts to shake uncontrollably. My teeth are chattering. Someone wraps the foil heat sheet over me, but that thing never stays on well. I see a wheelchair and just reflexively sit down. Michael asks a volunteer to take me somewhere warm. The volunteer, shockingly clueless, asks another volunteer “he’s cold, where can I take him?” The other volunteer says “I think there are some warm buses up that street.” What the hell was going on here? Why is there no protocol for this? I’m hypothermic and I assume thousands of others are too.
Michael loses his patience and barks at them “c’mon are you trying to help people or hurt them!?” (He would later tell me that my lips were purple and he was really getting worried for me.) He grabs the handles on the wheelchair away from the volunteer and rushes me out of the finishing chute and down a side street. God bless him, I don’t know where he gets his superhuman strength but he’s pushing me at like 6 minute pace - we are absolutely flying! He gets me into an office building lobby which is warm. There’s a coffee shop inside. He runs to get me hot water. He then sits me down on a windowsill radiator. I get my wet clothes off still shaking, teeth chattering. A kind stranger, who I can never properly thank, gives me a dry shirt he had in a bag. I wrestle my arms and torso into it and continue shivering for the next 30 or so minutes.
After I get back to normal we struggle to find an Uber for 10 more long minutes outdoors. We find him and make our way to Michael’s friend’s apartment where we left dry clothes the day before. After what feels like the best hot shower in my life, I head out to the airport, medal around my neck and, at long last, a real smile crosses my face.
I am not at all disappointed with this experience. Would I have liked to have my first Boston be the race of my life, set a PR, maybe even break 3 hours? Sure. But there will be other opportunities for this and it just wasn’t meant to be on this day. You can do all the right training but, when the one day comes to perform, there are just things you won’t be able to control and you better be prepared for that; that’s just racing.
I’m used to having my finishing times dictate the success or failure of a race. But this race was about getting satisfaction not from the clock but from other sources. Veteran runners, including elites (23 of whom did not finish the race) have said that these were the worst conditions they’ve ever run in for a marathon. The rain on its own could have been manageable. The wind alone is something we’ve all put up with. Cold temps? Sure, that was the case all winter. But no one prepares to run at goal race pace in all of these conditions at once for the full marathon distance. So I managed to complete what was, by anyone’s standards, an epic and historic event - one that people will be talking about (and that others will want to stop hearing about!) for years, maybe decades, to come. Put another way: I’m proud to have earned lifetime bragging rights!
Finally, finishing this race took fortitude and guts (and maybe some stupidity). I could have folded multiple times and I would’ve been forgiven by everyone - everyone, except me. I don’t quit. As long as I can, I keep going even when it’s really hard and miserable. For better or for worse, I’ve learned through running that that’s just who I am.