The Long Lonely Road to Boston

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Wow! I can’t believe I’m finally writing this blog post. In truth, this one has been quite a while in the making. In fact, I’d say that it’s been in the works since I first started running many years back. So what am I talking about here? How about a Boston-qualifying marathon time of 3 hours and 10 minutes? Although this post is mainly about my race, don’t think for a moment that a marathon is limited to the 42.2km that you need to run. In truth, a marathon is a journey that starts long before the starting pistol is fired, and requires sacrifice, perseverance, and dedication. In the spirit of that, I’m going to have to ask your indulgence in my post as I’ll probably wax a little poetic at times about how I got to this point. As my title implies, I had to complete this journey over the weekend on my own. That unfortunately meant that my usual race photographer wasn’t with me 🙂 However, I did manage to take a few pictures on my own, but nothing from the race. I also had my GPS with me, so I put together a nice little map of the day that you can check out. Afterwards, wander on back and read the rest of my story.

So for starters, you may be wondering where I ran this race. Well, it was in the fine city of Hamilton, at the Road2Hope Marathon, which raises a lot of money for charity. But why Hamilton? Let’s start answering that question by clearing one thing up. There is NO such thing as an easy marathon. Running 42.2km hurts no matter where you do it. That being said, there were a few basic reasons I chose Hamilton; proximity, timing, and reputation. Hamilton is just over 5 hours away. It took place late enough in the season that I had time to prepare for it properly, and allowing me to run in cooler temperatures. As for reputation? Well, it has recently been rated the number one Boston qualifier in Canada, due to it’s terrain. The marathon starts at the top of the escarpment, and makes its way to the waterfront, which is significantly lower in altitude.

However, I’d like to point out something that I pieced together after the race. Although there was a nice stretch of almost 7km of significant descent, the rest of the course was your typical ‘rolling terrain’. In fact, according to my GPS, I still managed to ascend over 740m in altitude over the entire course. Although that works out to probably 20% or so less climbing than the Ottawa marathon, is still requires some work to push hard over the whole course. Overall, the course basically had 3 sections in my mind. The first 22km or so were rolling terrain. Then we hit about 7km of downhill running which took place on a highway of all things! Wrapping up the misery train was a final 13km or so of rolling terrain near the water. More on how that all worked out for me in a few paragraphs.

In the final few weeks leading up to the big event, I was increasingly paranoid about getting sick, and got into a fairly normal routine of hand-washing and using purell at every opportunity. It all paid off, as in the final few days, I was still healthy and felt relatively well-rested. It’s not unusual to get a little sick in the final week, but I avoided that this time. Great start to the attempt. This was to be my first standalone marathon since 2006! Granted, I’d kept training, and ran an Iron-distance triathlon in 2007 which concludes with a marathon, but I ended up taking all of 2008 off due to nagging knee issues. However, I was back in racing form, and plan to tackle a Rudy Award in 2010 (in honour of my turning 35). As part of that award, you need to complete a marathon, and I decided that what better marathon to race than Boston? In order to do that, I needed a qualifying marathon beforehand, and my time was running out, since Boston is run in April.

As I counted the days down, a few things got in the way of Jody being able to join me for my adventure, so that meant I’d have to make the drive down and back on my own, especially since it was Halloween, and most of my friends had already made other plans for that weekend. Instead of making the trip in one shot, I opted to stop at the halfway point, in Belleville , to get a good nights sleep, and not have to spend 6 hours in a car on the day before the race. Both hotels I stayed in had hot tubs, so in a way, this was a pretty good option, as I had no distractions whatsoever, and could focus purely on resting and soaking my weary body in hot water 🙂 I also managed to find a nice Italian place within walking distance of my hotel in Hamilton, and had a great pasta feast for mycarbo loading.

The arrival to Hamilton itself on Saturday was the cause for some concern, as the electric signs before the skyway (big bridge) were warning of high winds and that we should be cautious of. How high? Well, how about gusts of 55+km/h! Can you imagine how that could impact the race if the winds were that high the next day? It wouldn’t be pretty, I assure you. At the race expo, which was located outside in tents, it was a wild site. Merchandise was literally blowing away as I wandered around racks of clothes. I ended up helping to pick up some of the things that were tumbling away. On the plus side, it was clear there would be lots of room at the end of the race to cool down and for parking as well.

After my pasta meal, and a final soak, it was time to settle in for sleep. I set a couple alarms just in case, because I was unsure how the time change would affect my blackberry or iPod . In the end, it was a good thing I set 2 alarms, as the one I expected to wake me up didn’t go off at the right time! Whew. I had a quick bowl of oatmeal at 5:30am, and then made my way to the finish line to grab a bus to the start line with other racers. We were the first bus to arrive, and got to congregate in a high school gymnasium as the darkness slowly melted into light, and the temperature starting rising a bit higher than zero! Eventually, the gym was packed with half- and full- marathoners waiting to get their races underway. As a special guest, Simon Whitfield (Olympic Gold medalist in Triathlon) was on hand to give us some words of wisdom. However, it humourously backfired, as when he was asked repeatedly for advice, he kept saying he probably wasn’t the best person to get advice from in this event, as he’d never run a half, or full marathon in his racing career 🙂 He just said to do what you normally do. Sounds about right to me.

Time for the starting line! This wasn’t a tiny marathon, but it also wasn’t anywhere near the same scale as the Ottawa marathon. At the starting line, there was supposed to be about 1000 marathoners starting the course. I seeded myself a little ways back, but in conversation with others in the area, it looked as though I should have just started pretty much at the front. When I said I was shooting for 3:10, most others around me were 3:20 or 3:30. There were no pace bunnies at my pace, so I really wasn’t sure what to do. I opted to follow some sage racing advice I’d heard around Ottawa. “Plan your race, and race your plan”. Basically, stick to your pace, and don’t worry about what is happening around you.

When the race started, I basically fell into what I was sure was a comfortable pace. I soon realized I was starting a touch too hard, as my pace was that of a sub-3 hour marathon. Oops. Typical problem at the start of the race. You feel so good, and are so rested, and with all the people around you, it just happens. I called out for other 3:10 hopefuls, but again, a lot of the people claimed they were shooting for 3:20 or more. Boy, were they going too fast or what? I did a mental check of my choices for clothes and nutrition, and decided that I’d made all the right choices. It was all going to be up to me at this point to pull it off. Time for the hard work to begin.

After ticking off the first 5 or so kilometers, I felt like I’d definitely found my race legs and had the right pace. I was tracking to about a 3:08 marathon, which meant I should be able to bank at least a minute or two by the time I got to the wall at the 32+km mark, which is when things always seem to go wonky for runners. I made a few friends around me, and we just turned over km after km in relative comfort. I knew all to well that things would change later in the race, but for now, all was good. I had chosen not to wear headphones or carry music, so I was really just listening to everything around me. Every 3km or so, we’d have mini cheering groups, as that is where the water / eload stations were. I made sure to grab at least a half cup of electrolyte replacement at every one of these, as that is how I’m used to training.

At about 21.5km, we finally turned off the secondary country roads, and found ourselves running on a major highway. Really. They had a 7km stretch of the highway closed for us. It was really smooth, wide pavement, and this is where the gradient went very much downhill. Now, you might think this would be the chance to turn on the jets and speed up, but I opted to just maintain my pace. Some people clearly tried this strategy, and a few cocky people went flying by. Believe me though, 6km of intense downhill is a sure-fire way to burn your quads. Sure enough, one of those lads ended up walking on the side of the road, and I cheerfully ran by at my steady pace. Check another good idea by me in this race. The end of the highway was at about the 29km mark.

At this point, the race truly felt like it had changed. My running partners were nowhere around me anymore. We had all been spread apart. Also, I was now really starting to feel the pain and the enormity of the task ahead of me. I still had 12km to go, and I had to start digging deep already. I really buckled down and tried to regain my focus, but things were definitely getting tougher. You might be tempted to think that I ‘hit the wall’, but I’d that wasn’t quite the case. You see, in order to meet my goal, I couldn’t afford to think about that or get sucked in by ‘the wall’. Instead, I’d like to say that I ‘ran through the wall’. More poetic, isn’t it? We were now running closer to the water, but there still weren’t many fans on the course. It was a very lonely feeling. Suffering badly, with nothing to push me on except for my own stubbornness.

At the 35km mark, we made a sharp turn, and I knew that the final 7km was basically the finishing leg. We were running on a paved path along Lake Ontario, and i just had to drop the hammer the rest of the way. I focused on a few faster runners ahead, and kept telling myself not to let them drop me. The problem was that others around me were dropping off now. Suddenly, my pacers were slowing, and I absolutely knew that I couldn’t give in with them, as I was too close to my goal. I didn’t work this hard and come this far to lose out on my goal. Granted, anything under a 3:15 would mean I could run Boston in 2011, I really wanted to do it in 2010, and be able to say I ran a 3:10. Push push push, Meyer! I kept chanting things over and over in my head. I had complete tunnel vision, and found another reserve to draw on. At the 36km mark, I grabbed a final chug from my gel flash, then decided to just throw it away, along with the gloves I’d been wearing. Every gram seemed to matter now. My hands were now free, and I could feel the nice cool air as I worked harder than ever before.

Okay people, here we are, the dramatic concluding kilometers. I’m within 3.5km of my destination, and it was clearly going to be a tight finish. My legs were definitely feeling like lead, and I wasn’t sure how I could pull this off. Every fiber of my being was screaming, ‘just take a little break, and walk for a minute’. The problem is that if I did that, I would have to kiss 3:10 goodbye. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, give in to it. 39km mark. Looking at my watch, I have over 15 minutes left. Okay, so even at 5 minutes per km, I’d make it. No problem right? After all, my race pace was 4:29 per kilometer. Remember the pain though? Yeah, that pace was a big much for me now. 40km mark. Ok , 2 more to go. Time check. 10 minutes to go! Shoot, I now had to run sub-5 min/km to finish on time, and my last km was slow. Push hard Meyer!

Kilometer 41. Is it a mirage? Only a kilometer to go now!!? Time check. I barely have 5 minutes to do it. And guess what? A marathon is not 42km. It’s 42.2km. Exactly. What does that mean? Well, how about an extra 1/5th of a kilometer. Or put another way, a minute! The clock was already at 3:05. At my current pace, it would take 6 minutes, or put another way, just a touch over 3:11!!! Shit! Now, you might think that when you’re that close, adrenalin would kick in and you could easily do it. Well, not quite. Basically, adrenalin ran out a LONG time ago. I don’t know exactly what chemical process was going on in my mind and body, but it was something different. I seriously turned on the jets one last time. I was passing people again now, and each person I passed, I let them know that they would have to pick up the pace to get a 3:10 time. Amazingly though, no one seemed able to respond. In a way, I felt sorry for them, since I knew they’d be disappointed at the end to see how close they were.

I made the final turn, and came into the final 100m finishing chute. I could only partially see the official race clock, and the numbers I saw were 3:10:xx. The seconds were obscured, but it meant I was dangerously close to missing the goal. When I finally crossed the line. Time for me stopped at 3:10:41. In terms of the Boston qualifying rules, that meant I had qualified with a mere 18 seconds to spare. You see, you are given the :59 seconds of the minute. I suspect it’s because of those final cursed 200m that get you every time 🙂 At any rate, I had done it! I had conquered the course, and came out victorious. I was overcome with emotion at the finish, but had no one to share it with right away. I made my way to my bag check, and grabbed my Blackberry to Twitter the result as soon as I could, and let the world know that I’d done it!

And so ends the race story for all my dear readers. Yup, it was a long tale, but one I wanted to make sure I captured so that I could look back on this day years from now and fondly remember what I went through on that day in Hamilton. The rest of the day is somewhat boring. Basically, I had a quick snack, then got behind the wheel to undertake the next event, my 5.5+hour drive back home so that I could be at work the next morning 🙁 No rest for the wicked. I stopped only once on the way back for food and gas. Once home, I chilled out a bit, and had a nice shower. 24 hours after that, I was online, registering myself for the 114th Boston Marathon, which I will run in April. And now, one week later, I feel fully recovered, and ready to get back into training. I was really surprised how quickly I recovered. By Wednesday, I was going a bit of jogging already with the dog, and up and down stairs at work. Sweet, that’ll come in handy when I race my next race in a month! Yup, that’s right, no real rest for ActiveSteve , although I will take much of November off. Till then, take care folks, and never give up on your dreams and goals, whatever they may be.

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