Monday 16th April 2018
by Aaron Chai
Marathons are like gambling. You accumulate your chips and eventually go all-in and hoping you cash in, big time. I had that feeling 4 years ago in a very blustery New York City when I ran a PB and sub-3 hours for the first time. Throughout training over the winter, I was hoping that Boston would be the race to do it again. Unfortunately, on the day, I didn’t get the winning hand I wanted.
The training phase went as well as it could, but the “Beast from the East” showed up, blowing very cold winds and dumping a fair bit of snow for around a week. Considering what was given out on race day, it probably was the closest conditions to train in. In week 4, I ran the Wokingham Half a bit too aggressively and paid for it with some very sore legs, which required extra recovery time. In week 8 the Reading Half got cancelled, courtesy of the “mini-Beast”.
Not feeling too concerned by the lack of racing, I was feeling confident that the consistently high mileage over the 12-week training cycle would be enough to get me a good time in Boston. However, the weather forecast threatened to put a dampener on my aspirations. Early forecasts looked like cool, wet conditions, but as race-day got closer the weather was looking very threatening. It was going to be very cold and there was the promise of torrential rain and some sleet. The biggest blow was the 30mph winds from the north-east. Since Boston is a point-to-point course that starts in the small town of Hopkinton and heads north-east towards Boston, it meant that I would have to consider drafting behind a lot of people.
Boston was buzzing with runners from all over the world, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the marathon expo where everyone is clambering over each other, trying out the latest swag from Adidas and scoring the 2018 Boston Marathon jacket. This year’s jacket was in one of my favourite colours so I had to get one! Fortunately, there were still some in my size available rather than a glut of size XLs on the rack. After picking up my number and buying the jacket, I had a quick look around the various stalls and made a quick exit.
Race day came. After some broken sleep, I got up at 4:30am and slowly readied myself. The easiest method to get to the start line is to take the organised buses that transported runners from Boston Common over to Hopkinton. I was staying some distance out from the Common and getting there via public transport at such an early hour would’ve been a bit of a mission. Instead, I had arranged with some other runners at our accommodation to share an Uber.
We arrived at Boston Common in quick time and, after convincing myself that I had everything I needed for the long wait at the start line, I dropped my bag at the bag tent and boarded the bus for the hour-long ride to Hopkinton. The rain was drizzly at this stage but the wind was strong. To keep myself warm and dry, I bought a hooded waterproof jacket and a pair of tracksuit bottoms for around a tenner from the charity shop in Kingston. I also wrapped my shoes in plastic bags; unfortunately the water still managed to get through and my shoes were already wet before the race had started. Lesson for next time — bring a spare pair of socks.
The weather in Hopkinton was pretty much the same in Boston — absolutely rubbish. The athlete’s village is in a field of a middle school and I knew that it was going to be a wet and muddy sight where the marquees were. I wasn’t wrong! Tiptoeing over the mud and puddles on the grass to get under shelter, there was only going to be so much space for runners to keep dry and warm so I basically sat on the ground for over an hour wondering whether the conditions were going to improve. As a result, I didn’t get a decent warm up in.
When it came time to leave the village for the 1,000m walk to the corrals, the rain got heavier. I managed to get into a portaloo closer to the corrals to shed my outer layers and apply Vaseline to places where it’s needed. With reluctance, I chose to wear a plastic poncho over my SHAEF vest to keep dry. I’ve suffered from hypothermia previously and having wet clothing against skin increases the risk. Almost everyone around me was dressed for the elements — jackets, leggings, bin liners, shower caps, the works. It was not about fast times that day, it was about getting to the finish in one piece. As it turned out the DNF rate throughout the field was one of the highest.
The gun sounded. It took me about 5 minutes for my corral to cross the line. Immediately, I hit the downhills. I’ve heard a lot about the course and how you should take the first half conservatively to save your quads. I hit the first km split, 4:16. This is good, I’m hardly puffing. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully appreciate that the course had several rolling ups and downs. My 2, 3 and 4 km splits were slower than target pace. That’s fine, I normally get a bit faster and can claw some time back.
Unfortunately, that never happened. Despite my best efforts to push the pace, there were too many splits in the 4:20s and I never really got going for some reason. The rolling course proved very challenging, which threw my pacing off. Or maybe, I didn’t get warmed up properly. I decided to assess things at halfway and hope that I had enough in the tank to climb the hills and run at an even pace. At that point we passed through the Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College where a very large group of young ladies were standing in the persistent rain, holding big cheer signs asking for a kiss. While it was a nice show of enthusiasm from them despite the elements, I didn’t stop to oblige.
I got to half way at 1:32:32. With any luck, I was hoping that would give me a 3:06 or better. As it turned out, I was very naïve to think that as I didn’t even reach the famed Newton hills and I didn’t bank on the conditions deteriorating. Most tellingly at that point, my legs started to tire.
The rain got heavier as the first of the four Newton hills came at mile 16 and my pace had dropped to around 4:40/km. It was supposed to be the longest and steepest hill and there was no respite from the headwind and rain, but I climbed it steadily saving myself for the next three. After each crest, there was a gradual downhill which provided a bit of relief and a chance to pick up the pace.
The second hill came at mile 17 after the Newton fire station and the first turn of the whole course. There are only 3 turns in the Boston Marathon and the last two are in the last mile in the centre of Boston. The famous saying “Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston” is often said amongst Boston Marathon enthusiasts. This time the hill was more forgiving but the pace was slightly slower than the first as I fought the elements. Another long gradual downhill greeted me; while the pace increased slightly at that point, the pace was well inside the 4:40s. It was quite a long downhill and I was wondering when I had to climb the third.
4:40s became 4:50s on the third hill at mile 19. Again, it was not a big hill, but it was at a time when the long distance of the marathon really tests you. Still, I kept pushing into the rain and wind. The terrain flatted out as I was counting down the miles to Heartbreak Hill where Louise planned to spectate.
Heartbreak Hill is the last of the four Newton hills. It was on this hill in 1936 that defending champion Johnny Kelley overtook Tarzan Brown and giving him a consolatory pat on the shoulder as he passed. This gesture renewed Tarzan Brown who rallied, pulled ahead of Kelley and went on to win — thereby it was said, breaking Kelley’s heart. While it only lasts 600m and has a vertical ascent of 27m, it was my slowest hill. I saw Louise at the base, stopped for a couple of seconds to give her a kiss and say to her, “this is not my day”, and quickly went about climbing Heartbreak. I normally consider myself a good climber but after running over 20 miles in wind and rain it was the last thing I wanted to do. My pace had dropped to over 5:00 min/kms for the first time.
Once I crested Heartbreak Hill, I knew that it was all going to be downhill from there. I had a fast 4:49/km heading past noisy Boston College followed by a 4:59/km. There were only 4 very small rises from there, but it was a combination of leg fatigue, rain and wind that meant I was always maintaining pace to the end. The support got thicker as I ran into Brookline and down Beacon Street. However, the wind and rain was brutal and at one stage a huge gust of wind stopped me moving forward. I rallied quickly to keep moving forward against the wind, looking for anyone around me to draft off. There were only three runners with me. Boston doesn’t have pace makers in the field, so it’s hard to know who to stick with — everyone had their own plans on how fast they wanted to run. In a time where teamwork was called for, like the time I broke 3 hours in New York City by mainly drafting behind a pace group, that was most definitely the time.
I ticked off a number of low 5 min/kms in the final miles heading into Boston. The famous Citgo sign appeared high in the distance — this is the point where you are around a mile away from the finish. It eventually got closer as I climbed an incline (which felt like a mountain) over the Massachusetts Turnpike, passed Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox) and into Kenmore Square. I knew that I was close to finishing and managed to put in a 4:50 min/km split as I turned right on Hereford Street and left on Boylston Street. The 600m straight stretch towards the finish is probably the best marathon finishing experience I’ve had, and to experience it again really brought a smile to my face (maybe I was glad to finally get away from the rain and wind).
After crossing the finish, I collected my medal, finisher poncho and goody bag and made my way to the bag tent. Unfortunately, the bag tent queues were long due to the numbering system where the faster qualifiers in Wave 1 all deposited their bags in the same tent causing congestion and bottlenecks. With the rain falling and the cold setting in, I was concerned that I wouldn’t get dry in time. The finish area was like a war zone with many pale-looking, violently shivering runners in wheelchairs being taken to a busy medical tent. What seemed like ages, but was probably only 5–10 minutes, I got my bag and made my way to the warming area. The organisers appeared to have set them up in the various building lobbies around the finishing area for runners to get warm and dry. It wasn’t much warmer in these areas (there were still runners shivering inside) but at least it was dry! I was thankful that I packed a towel, a warm sweater and tracksuit bottoms and, most importantly, a pair of dry compression socks.
After meeting up with Louise as she headed back into town from her supporting position, we had a quick bite to eat, headed back to the hotel to change into more dry clothes and then went to the airport. We only stayed in Boston for 3 nights so when I managed to get home after not sleeping much on the flight home I basically crashed into bed and didn’t wake until the early hours of the evening.
So, it wasn’t the race time or the conditions I wanted. But, at least it tidies up my 2014 Boston Marathon time I had run (3:48), which was done in much warmer conditions and on tired legs having run London Marathon the week before. Speaking of London Marathon, I only read on the Whatsapp chat group after finishing Boston that the London organisers had quickly tightened the GFA standard for my age category, breaking the hearts of many a runner who previously thought they had met the standard and now find themselves a couple of minutes short. I don’t think I’ll be able to get GFA in time for next year’s London, so I may be looking at a return to Boston next year as I still have the required qualifying time. We’ll see how things turn out later this year before I commit to further races next year!
Other than running the marathon and visiting the expo, the rest of our short time there was spent running/spectating the BAA 5k (shame the new parkrun in Boston had launched after Louise had entered the race), meeting up with some friends from Boston, and my aunt and cousin (who were also in town for the marathon) and eating lots and lots of nice food. I also had to lend my 2p to Louise on whether she should buy a Macbook from the Apple Store. And we paid a visit to the Tracksmith store to pick up their broadsheet containing artwork from our very own SHAEF artist, Owen Delaney.
Thanks to the SHAEF crew for their support over the winter, and also to Louise for her patience and understanding in going after a seemingly lofty goal. The warmer months will be spent mainly on getting faster over shorter distances before attempting another crack at a sub-3 hour time, this time it’ll be the Berlin Marathon in September.