Note – I started writing this post with the intention of it being one entry; but the course review ended up being…verbose…and I realized it’d be better to split this up to two. Part 1 will give you a course preview of learnings I’ve gathered from my 3 Boston experiences, while Part 2 will give you an overview of dos and don’ts to keep in mind during the weekend of the Boston Marathon. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. It pains me more than you will ever know to not run the race this year, but I’m thankful to share some of my thoughts and advice on the marathon that never fails to steal my heart year after year.
The Boston Marathon is less than 2 weeks away. Usually, this post would be about how training has been going…how excited I am to race…which workouts were my strongest over the training cycle. But that’s not what I’m writing about. Instead, I’m sharing advice.
I’ll be honest: I’ve been in a funk the past couple of weeks, and I haven’t quite been able to put a finger on why…until I got off the phone with a dear friend a few days ago. She reminded me that this is the first spring in 4 years that I’m not running a marathon, and the first spring in 3 years that I’m not running Boston. It’s certainly not a coincidence that I’m feeling…off.
So, instead of letting the negative energy manifest, I’ve decided to write it out, and give you an inside scoop of things that I’ve learned from the past 3 years of running the Boston Marathon. I’m also extremely thankful (AND EXCITED!!) to be coaching 6 athletes in this year’s Boston Marathon…so I’m looking forward to creating a new Boston experience this year as a coach.
First, let me give you a little bit of background of my relationship with Boston:
2014 – 3:08:35 (3:34 negative split) – My first Boston and probably the best running day of my life. I had the race you dream about, starting out very conservatively and feeling better and better as the race went on. I loved the weather and I felt like I was running on clouds. The whole training cycle, I realized that gunning for sub-3:10 would be risky. But I knew deep down inside I could do it. My race was a 14 minute PR.
2015 – 3:08:47 (1:43 positive split) – I wasn’t entirely sure of my fitness going into the race, so I started a little too aggressively, which can be deadly in any marathon, let alone Boston. It was my first positive split marathon ever (FML) and it was a death march to the finish…causing a femoral stress fracture in the process. I think the injury was brewing prior to the race, but I had no idea how severe it was until after the marathon. I was flabbergasted my time was almost equal to the year prior’s.
2016 – 3:06:16 (4:06 positive split) – I was in the best shape of my life, ready to break the 3-hour barrier. My training was lights-out and all workouts pointed to a marathon time that would be well under 3 hours. Unfortunately, the unexpected heat got the best of me. I realized at mile 14 that I would not be running a time that started with a 2…and if I didn’t adjust my race plan, I’d be in deep shit and not even PR. Mid-race, I decided to tailor my goal, change my racing strategy, and finish to the best of my ability. I finished feeling happy for the PR, but craving more. My race was a 2+ minute PR.
So Boston and I…we’ve got a thing. I get the tingles when I think about the marathon, and I’m sad as hell not to be running it this year. So take my advice for what it’s worth, but here’s to hoping this will help, and you, too, can have the Boston race of your dreams.
Tip #1: Be strategic about your pacing strategy
You cannot cross the starting line of the Boston Marathon without a pacing strategy. And if that strategy involves anything about “banking time on the downhills,” you’ve got the wrong idea.
Let me share the splits of my first Boston, a 3:34 negative split:
Now. You don’t need to be gunning for a sub-3:10 marathon to translate some learnings from this breakdown. But you’ll notice the extreme difference between my first mile (a 7:25 down a 130-ft decline) vs. my last mile (6:50). That’s a :35/mile difference between the first and last miles; also :18 slower than what ended up being my average overall split.
The takeaway? SLOW THE FUCK DOWN IN THE BEGINNING OF THE RACE. This is a marathon, not a 5k. It is wise to go out around 10-15 seconds per mile slower than your goal average split. –And, yes: shoot for your dreams, but also be honest about that goal average split. Trying to be a hero and hanging onto a goal pace that…isn’t there…is only going to cause a shitload of pain once you get to mile 21.
When I run marathons, I like to think of my body as a car shifting gears. For the first 5 miles of the Boston marathon (a generous net downhill), I like to think of myself being in neutral. The focus is gliding down the hills, mid-foot strike, hips open and loose, brakes not turned on. (I’ll talk more about keeping the brakes off in Part 2.)
Don’t shift from neutral into first gear until the first section of rolling hills, between 4 and 6, but remember: there is more decline than climb in this section. Know that once you’re past mile 6, you’re pretty much costing on flat terrain for another 6 miles.
Also: nutrition nutrition nutrition. I’ll talk more about that in Part 2 too.
By the time you get to mile 10, YOU SHOULD STILL FEEL FRESH. If you don’t? Have some self-control and dial it in. Honestly, I don’t advise feeling less than fresh until the second half. No, you’re not in trouble if you’re tired by mile 10. But you MUST be smart about how you proceed with the next 16 miles.
Once you’ve hit halfway, the remainder of the race depends on how well you’ve set yourself up at this point. In the splits above, you’ll notice that I made a conscious push once I got to 14. You may or may not have the energy to do that as you’re running, so do a body check and see what you can manage pace-wise between halfway and the hills.
When you coast (yes, another huge downhill) from mile 16 to 17…IT’S ON.
In my opinion, the first Newton incline (passing over I-95/Route 128) is worse than heartbreak…and it’s a 1/2-mile long, so don’t be surprised when it feels like it never ends. Also, mentally, I think it’s difficult to get over the first hill and think to yourself, “oh shit…I have 3 more of those to tackle.”
The good news is that the 3 more hills of Newton really aren’t as horrible as that first fucker…but you still have to be smart. Know that as you look at your watch, your pace will be slower on the inclines and faster on the declines. This is really where you need to trust your training and remember that YOU ARE FIT. You are ready. Your training will recover you on the downhills, just like it powered you on the uphills. At this point in the race, I’m generally talking to myself out loud like a crazy person. Normal.
Do your best to run the hills with gusto. Honestly, I think my favorite part about the hills is that you’re FINALLY there. I feel like so much of the anticipation of Boston is waitingwaitingwaiting for the hilly section. So by the time you get to the hills, it’s like FINALLY, I’VE ARRIVED!!!!!
You’ll also want to keep a technical focus in mind: the hills are where you must focus on solid running form again, just like you did in the first 5 miles:
- Keep a neutral pelvis
- Drive your knees
- Shorten your strides
- Pump your arms. Know that even if your legs feel like shit, pumping your arms in a strong rhythm will allow your legs to follow suit
- Run tall
Then you’ve got Heartbreak Hill. Soak in the crowds on Heartbreak. They know you want to (maybe) kill yourself at this point…so let the supporters help you work the hill to the top.
When you crest Heartbreak…MOVE. This is where I look at my overall time (on my watch…remember, the course clocks are different) and I do some mental math to figure out what pace per mile I need to run in order to achieve x.
After my savvy mental math maneuver, I tend to pretty much black out the rest of the marathon, just running with every ounce I have left. I would suggest you do the same: hang on and go. Remember: you still have 5 miles to run…but this is really the grand finale.
Around miles 21 and 22, be prepared for your quads to feel like shit…because the downhills HURT at this point. Last year, I discovered the true meaning of cramping. Think butter knives going into your quads. It’s not nice.
But, again: let the crowds lift you up. Run past BC and resist the urge to take the students’ beer (your beer will be coming soon) and realize that the Citgo sign at 25 isn’t a mirage; you’re actually almost done. Remember: NO WALKING, just keep moving and KEEP FUELING. Be careful of traffic and of people who might be stumbling or stopping in front of you. Seriously. Putting on the breaks at this point could be detrimental.
Once you travel under Mass Ave and up another little baby hill (which may feel like a mountain at this point) you can practically see Hereford in the distance. Let yourself cry a little bit as you turn right on Hereford (I’m tearing up writing this), but also know that if you cry, it’ll inhibit your ability to breathe. Breathing is important at this point of the game.
Take your final left turn onto Boylston and book it. Yes, this stretch seems to take forever and most people say to not sprint it all-out…but if you’ve got it…GO.
What’s most important about crossing that Boston finish line–PR or not–is remembering to take a second and realize what you’ve just done. Not only have you completed a marathon…but you just ran THE BOSTON MARATHON. The marathon of marathons (yep, now I’m crying). The marathon that is so iconic to the sport that we love so much. Every year after finishing the Boston marathon, I walk over to a guardrail and just take a minute to soak it in. The entire marathon experience is exhilarating, and it’s so important to realize what you’ve just achieved.
As you get your finisher’s medal, make sure to look the person giving it to you directly in the eye and thank them. Sobbing is acceptable, as is smiling at everyone you pass. As you stumble to your post-race food bag, walk as slowly as possible–not only because you’re tired as hell–but also because you don’t want this moment to end.
Get some calories in you, then waddle your way to meet your family and friends at the Commons. Drink some water. Think about the burger you’re about to scarf down. Hug your husband/wife/mom/dad/best friend/coach. Pee your pants a little (if you haven’t already). You’ve done it. You are a Boston Marathoner.