Race Report: Saints and Sinners Half Marathon

Flying down the final 5K or so. You can see how low the finish line was!

It’s been a hot second since I’ve released a new blog. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, but most of my writing lately has been for other platforms – Daily Burn, Under Armour, Runner’s World, Shape, and a few others. I’ve also been very busy preparing my private roster for their Spring race goals, and working my butt off training for my own race goals too!

Before I share my recent race experiences, I want to brag about my runners. So much hard work, and some incredible PRs outdoors in Winter conditions, at races around the country, and indoors and on the track. I am blown away month after month by the passion for running, the focus and the big goals my runners set and work towards with so much dedication. My runners inspire me to be better and try harder for my own running goals.

I do my best to lead by example as a coach, and have been working hard towards my ambitious Spring goals. While the Boston Marathon (April 17th), is my focus for Spring, I had set a half marathon race on the calendar to assess fitness, practice racing, and to set a new Half PR. I decided to look for a fast race – good weather and mostly downhill. With Boston as the goal marathon, I have been preparing for months for cruising up and down hills, and so a net downhill course sounded like a sure thing for a PR and a great opportunity to test out my legs. After some digging around a research, I settled on the Saints and Sinners Half Marathon, in Las Vegas. The course seemed beautiful and incredibly fast – with a point-to-point, 1200+ foot decent. The course is also a combination of paved bike path and incredibly soft and manicured gravel trails, taking you through the desert, numerous tunnels, and finishing at the base of Lake Mead. I was confident that between my training and the downhills, I had a 2-3 minute PR in me. I haven’t had awesome conditions for the last couple of half marathons I have attempted to race (including my previous PR), so I knew that the odds were really good I could drop my time a bit. And honestly, I knew going into it that I was perhaps at my fittest, fastest and healthiest for this kind of goal than ever.

Despite a few hiccups in Las Vegas, including a broken ankle on our shake out run on the Strip and 3+ hours in urgent care with Chris, and chilly and rainy conditions in the forecast for the entire weekend, I tried to stay calm. In years past, this would have thrown my confidence and quite possibly my race. But I now have become pretty decent at focusing on the task at hand with running, and knew once I got to the starting line I’d be okay. Even when Google maps made an update and sent all the runners to the wrong point for the starting line, I tried to not lose my cool. We parked literally 30 minutes before the gun went off, which in the past would have made me a wreck. While I didn’t love feeling rushed in the rain, I didn’t let it ruin my morning.

At the starting line I took a breath, relaxed and let go of everything around me but the race. The first 3 miles were incredibly fast. I was hitting 6:00 minute miles, which is typically around my 5K race pace. However, it was simply the drop in elevation and the course was doing the work, and so I tried not to freak out by the hot pace. About 10 runners were ahead of me for the first 5 miles, including one female for the first 3 miles. I then passed her and never saw her again. Between miles 4-7 there are some gradual declines and flat portions, so I was able to settle into a pace that seemed more acceptable: 6:15-6:25s. I ran miles 4-8 with a runner from Arizona, and we chatted here and there. He mentioned he had just recovered from brain cancer, and was looking to finish in under 1:30. I told him that his goal seemed incredibly attainable, as we were on our way to the half way mark way ahead of that pace. (Turns out he crushed his goal and finished in 1:22!!!!)

It was raining pretty hard around mile 5. Sharing miles with Josh, from AZ.

Coming through the 10K mark and an aid station, he and I were #8th and #9th. At mile 7 there was our only climb worth mentioning, and I said that now, on this climb and during the second half is where the work happens. I felt strong on the uphill, and the views of the lake, even in the rain, were beautiful. We passed a few men on the course, and began going through the tunnels. Around 8-9 miles in, I slowly pulled away from Josh and began gaining on a few other men. Each one was incredibly nice, and I tossed positive tips and comments their way.

The aid stations and volunteers at the turnaround (a small part of the course was an out-and-back) were the highlight of the race for me. It was at the end of a big tunnel, and the kids at the aid station were so excited to see the first female come through. I couldn’t help but feel like a role model for the young girls watching and volunteering. On the “back” portion, Josh and the few men I recently passed gave thumbs up, words of encouragements and cheers. Glancing at my watch around mile 9-10, I knew a big PR was in my hands if I didn’t do something stupid like roll and ankle, and continued to feel as smooth and strong – it was a little surprising and I kept waiting for the blazing early miles to catch up and compromise my pace or effort – but that never happened. I now knew the win was mine, as the next female was a good 5-8 minutes behind me at this point.

I had to stop at the mile 10 mark to tie my shoe. I couldn’t believe that with a double-knot and tucking the laces under themselves that my right shoe was untying! At first I thought maybe it just felt heavy and loose because of the rain and puddles, but a quick glance down and I could see loose laces! So I stopped, took a deep breath, focused on having my somewhat chilled fingers work, and then get back to running. The final 5K was incredibly fast (thanks, elevation drop!), and I was able to drop pace to 6:05-6:15 minute miles. With 2 miles to go, I was doing the math in my head and it all felt unreal. The thrilling part was that I felt awesome. Really awesome. Form felt smooth, breath felt controlled, and I simply worked with the race course.

Coming through the finish line in 1:21:13 was surreal. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever see that number for a Half Marathon. It’s funny how we all tend to define ourselves and our potentials. It isn’t until we prove our limitations wrong that we see ourselves in a new light. Unlike Berlin Marathon, where I struggled so much for that PR and to keep my body and brain on board, this race felt easy and in control from start to finish. The only bummer: no finish line tape. I find it sad that women don’t get their moment of glory the way men do. I finished 5th overall, and 1st women by 10 minutes. And while there was no real prize other than a water bottle, the PR and strong race experience was all the winnings I wanted.

Now, here’s the thing: there’s absolutely no way I could run a 1:21 Half Marathon on a course with less hills. No two courses are created equal. This course handed me that time. I’m not saying I didn’t work for it, but that time would not translate the same to say NYC Half Marathon. My guess is that same performance would give me more of a 1:24-1:25. But that’s why it’s important to choose your races wisely. What’s your objective? What is your ace? Your weakness? I don’t need crowds and tons of people on the course to run well. Others do. I know how to run hills perhaps better than flat courses. Others don’t. You are different from the next runner. Learn what works for you.

And so this past week as I focused on easy miles (my legs were pretty trashed from the course!), I tried to let my big breakthrough of a 6+ minute PR settle in. I’d like to go back and race this course and/or the Poconos Half in 2018 and aim for 1:19. Both are incredibly fast. And I think I can do better. I am also transitioning all focus towards Boston. I know what I have to do to get the job done. And while aiming to break 3 hours won’t be easy, I am more confident now than ever that there’s the potential for it that this April.

Boston Marathon 2015

273565_191803974_XLargeThe Boston Marathon has been part of my marathon journey since my first marathon. Working towards a BQ (Boston Qualifier) gave my training a specific goal. Achieving that goal, and anticipating Boston was a magical experience. Three Boston Marathons later, and my journey seems somehow complete for that chapter. Before I get to that, let’s talk about the Boston Marathon for a minute.

In my opinion, the Boston Marathon is the most famous, historical, and prestigious marathon in the world. I’m sure there are prettier marathon courses out there, harder ones, easier ones – but Boston is special. Unless you opt to run for a charity, every single runner on the course earns their way to the starting line by achieving a qualifying time. I like that. I’m someone who likes to work hard, and would never run Boston without earning my spot. Just my opinion. This is because that starting line and 26.2 mile journey cannot be nearly as sweet for someone who fundraised as someone who may have put blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice into achieving that qualifier. For many of us, its as close to an Olympic Qualifier, or Olympic Trials experience. I wouldn’t want to buy my way into that either.

Besides being earned, the course is amazing. There are a few quiet miles through Boston farm towns and suburbs, but they are short-lived and broken up by the most passionate fans and towns I have ever witnessed. In Monday’s rain, the crowds only screamed louder. You can hear the Wellesley girls (famous for giving out kisses to runners) a mile or so away. The energy is electric. The locals set up tents, fire pits, and parties in their front yards – often handing out orange slices, candy, tissues, water, and all the enthusiasm they have. By the time you get to the Newton Hills, you are charged and ready for the hills that await  you. Turning the corner in Newton at the fire station, and seeing one of the first big climbs, you cannot help but feel confident and strong as Bostonians scream for you. From Brookline to the finish line on Boylston Street, the energy simply carries you.

If you have never run Boston, and have it on your list of goals, I highly recommend you do what you can to qualify. The reward for partaking in Patriot’s Day is one that cannot be accurately described. It’s an honor to share the journey with so many talented runners from around the world.

273565_191450725_XLargeThe 2015 race took place in less than ideal weather. Off and on rain (sometimes a heavy pouring rain!) and 20 MPH winds at times meant respecting the weather and not fighting it. The rain held off for me until I got to Natick, so I was a good 6-8 miles into the race before the weather got nasty. Overall, I have to say the weather wasn’t bad. Had I been trying to race, I’m sure I would have felt it. Based on the slow elite times, it obviously was a factor. The worst part was losing feeling in my hands and arms, making opening my final GU a real challenge. But in the big picture, a pretty minor inconvenience.

I have had a hard time processing this past Monday. I almost bailed on the race all together. I didn’t know if I was truly ready to come back and face the course and the city for the first time since 2013. I won’t rehash the details, but you can read my blogs about that here, here and here. Ironically, though qualifying for Boston has never been full of misses and heartbreak (I’m lucky in that department!), my experiences in Boston had never been good. In 2012, the year it was over 80 degrees at the start, I was battling a stomach bug that forced me to DNF at my 11. It was a truly terrible day, and I was so heartbroken and sad. I had never pulled out of a race before, and Boston seemed like the worst of all races to do so. In 2013, I was coming back from an injury and wasn’t sure I’d be clear to go and run – I had abandoned the original goal of really racing and trying to PR. On what was a beautiful day, and an incredible journey with my friend Cipriana, that was all erased at the finish line. So this year, the third attempt at Boston, I was more or less waiting for something to go wrong. Maybe third year was the charm? Anyway, when the weather looked sour, I figured if that was the worst of it, I’d take it. I can run in wind and rain. I wasn’t aiming to PR or really race, and I train through any and all conditions.

Race weekend was tough. Anxiety made me snappy, tense, and probably hard to deal with. We avoided crowds, Boylston Street and pretty much everything. Aside from the race expo, which we got in and out as quickly as possible, we laid low. I turned off my phone by 7pm on Sunday night, and was in bed. I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but I was resting. This may be one of the first marathons where I was calm and not at all stressed about the course, race morning, goals – I am usually a bit of a basket case. Having no race goals and knowing the course meant I let it all go. It was really strange. The most I have ever slept before a marathon, for sure. Race morning, as soon as I left the hotel and started the walk towards Boston Commons for the bus, Boston PD were out with bomb sniffing dogs at 6am. I almost threw up, but somehow told myself not to panic. Thankfully, a lovely couple (Christina and Quint) came up beside me and started chatting as we walked. Having their company from that moment until we hopped into our corrals hours later was a mind-saver. Truly.273565_192126062_XLarge

At the starting line, I was briefly overcome by emotion. Not because of PTSD or bad memories, but the reality that here I was, on the iconic starting line in Hopkinton. My plan for the day was to run a comfortable pace, and to settle and not burn out on the hills. Being a coach has made me a smarter athlete. I never lost my head or abandoned my plan. The quiet, the crowds, the rain, the wind, and calm – I took it all in. I looked forward to each town in front of me, and enjoyed the town I was in. I gave high-fives, pumped my fist when someone shouted “Go #5893!!!!,” took my GU like clockwork every 5 miles, and enjoyed the journey. While many runners around me dreaded the iconic hills between miles 16-21, I was excited to see them and climb them. I’m not going to say I was never tired out there, because 20 miles into a marathon nobody feels fresh – regardless of the pace. I recall my glutes and hips felt a little tight and tired, and I told myself “smooth and easy,” over and over each mile. Reminding myself to check my form meant I never took heavy steps – always silent or very quiet.

Getting to the top of HeartBreak is always fun – all of the Boston College kids and the fast downhill give you a surge. Plus it’s only 5 miles to the finish. This is where I started passing runners by the dozens. I found my even splits meant I passed many runners on the hills who had gone out too fast, but then the final 5 miles all I did was fish in runners who struggled. It’s a GREAT feeling to pass everyone towards the end of a race. Though I only looked at my watch periodically to make sure I wasn’t going too fast, I ran 1:38:57 for the first half, and a slightly positive split for a finish time of 3:20:23.

Chris was standing at the overpass he was at in 2013, wearing a poncho and trying to snap photos in the rain. Once I saw him, it was a block until the right turn on Hereford Street, and the quick left onto Boylston Street. On Hereford, I gathered myself for what was ahead. I remember briefly closing my eyes and closing out the world. I told myself this was it, the epic stretch was before me, and this time it was mine to celebrate without anything bad. I had made it to Boston, all I had left was Boyslton Street. Running down Boylston Street is something I cannot put into words. The energy is unfathomable. It’s all around you. I laughed, I cried, I opened up my stride to finish strong. I remember giving a second of reflection as I passed the National Flags, having witnessed them destroyed two years ago.

Once at the finish, I turned around and forced myself to look back. No bombs. No fear. Just cheering and runners coming in behind me. The rain and wind, though noticeable, was such a minor thing in the big picture. My frozen hands and arms had a hard time holding the water bottle handed to me, and a volunteer put my medal around my neck and helped me with my mylar poncho. My legs were so cold I couldn’t tell where my shorts stopped and my legs began. As I exited Boystlon Street and walked back to my hotel, I’m sure I looked like a mess. A drenched, crying, laughing, poncho-wearing runner looking at her splits and eagerly walking the mile or so back to a hot shower.

Some interesting facts/choices made that day:

  • Pre-race, I consumed 1 banana at the hotel, and then 1 banana and 1 bagel, and 1 bottle of water in Athlete’s Village.
  • No blisters, chafing or discomfort commonly associated with long distance running occurred during this marathon – which is pretty surprising considering the wet conditions.
  • I used old running socks as mittens for my hands, and kept them on for the first 5 miles. They worked great.
  • Wearing a hat with a cap is hugely helpful when racing in rainy or sunny conditions. The rain was rarely in my face and vision was never compromised.
  • Usually one to race in sunglasses, I opted to leave them at the hotel. This worked out well, considering the humidity level and rain. Though my face did feel a little naked without them.
  • After much debate, I opted to dress minimally for a chilly race – sports bra, shorts, knee high compression socks, and arm sleeves – which I discarded around 10 miles in. The minimal clothes meant minimal fabric weighed down by cold rain. The only downside: my arms/hands lost all feeling by the end of the race, thanks to the wind and rain.
  • I used 4 GUs, taking them religiously every 5 miles. I stored them in my sports bra, my arm sleeves, and later held the final two in my hand after discarding the arm sleeves and looking to avoid chafing.
  • I brought my iPod with me (incase nerves became a big issue), but never used it and had the headphones tucked into my sports bra the entire 26.2 miles.
  • I never took any Gatorade, only water from hydration stations.
  • Breaking up the course by town is a nice way to look at 26.2 miles. Boston is the perfect course for this strategy, as it’s pretty much a straight shot to Boston. No hairpin turns or out-and-backs.
  • Once crossing the finish line, I kept moving. I paused for my medal and mylar sheet, but otherwise walked an additional 20 minutes or so. Resisting the temptation to stop and sit post-race can be hugely beneficial for recovery.
  • I consumed a bottle of water, a burrito, chips and guacamole, and a chocolate shake within 60-90 minutes after walking back to the hotel. Fueling post-race is important, and I waited a little longer than the ideally recommended 30-minutes post-race. I was too cold and frozen to manage eating en route to the hotel. And it was pouring.273565_191542107_XLarge

Three Patriot’s Days running Boston, and the third was certainly the best. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’m okay with that. I have a qualifier now for 2016, but I don’t want to rush anything. Plus I don’t know what my goals are right now with the marathon. I’d love to come back and really race some day. I’d also love to crack 3 hours. Though I don’t know if Boston will be the place for that. For now, I am just relieved to have made it to today, with a positive story about the Boston Marathon. I will never forget 2013, as hard as I may try. And that’s okay, it’s unfortunately part of my history. But now I also have a newer history in Boston, that is so much sweeter.

Bad Bandits

2014bostonAt the 2014 Boston Marathon, history was made. If you haven’t heard, American Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon. He is the first American male to win the iconic marathon since 1983. I should probably mention that is was also a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday. The female race ended with the first three women beating the current course record – with Rita Jeptoo smashing the course record by almost 2 minutes. It was a great day for America and for the sport of marathoning. I know I was a ball of emotions as I watched live coverage of the race on my laptop, screaming for Meb to run faster over the last few miles as his pursuers closed the gap, coffee mug in hand.

In the wake of a beautiful race day, news hit the running community of many accounts of people duplicating race bibs and running the Boston Marathon by cheating. Bandits (runners who unofficially run a marathon, often by hopping in without a race bib), have been part of road race culture for a very long time. The Boston Marathon is famous for its bandits. However, with this being the first Boston Marathon after the 2013 bombings, security was planned to be heightened and bandits were strongly discouraged. Registered runners were not allowed to check bags for post-race, and the entire course to Boston was protected like never before. When stories broke of folks stealing bibs by printing them off of photos runners posted on social media of their official race bibs, the reaction was hardly positive. In an attempt to not get into the self entitlement and selfishness of folks who decide the rules do not apply to them, let me put on my coaching hat for a second….

Do NOT run bandit. If a race has rules, follow them. Simple. If you cannot play by the rules, don’t play.Yes, its totally unfortunate and sucks that if you purchase a race bib and months later cannot run the race that your bib must go to waste and your entrance fee goes up in smoke. Sure, your buddy could use your bib if you can’t, right? But what does it matter who is running if you aren’t going to win? Look, I get it. I’ve been that runner who couldn’t use her race bib because of an injury. I’ve also been offered friend’s race bibs when injury gets in the way of their race. Its tempting to accept it, but so far I have never taken another runner’s bib. It may sound silly that a bib that may cost $70-$250 will go to waste, but once again – rules are rules.

Here are reasons to NOT bandit/steal bibs:

  • Safety. Every bib has an identity attached to it and emergency contact and medical info. If you run bandit and something happens to you, no one will know who to call, or if you are diabetic or are on blood pressure medication. If you steal someone else’s bib and something happens to you, that person’s emergency contact will be contacted. You may say “I’m healthy so who cares?” Okay, fine. Do you know how many “healthy people” DNF because of dehydration, cramping, injury, fainting, cardiac arrest, etc? Don’t assume you won’t be part of that list at some point. I know I have. And if something crazy like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings happens again, none of us can assume we are going to be the lucky ones.
  • Consideration. Rules are rules. If you want to run a race, enter it officially like everybody else. It’s unfair to everyone lined up beside you who PAID good money to run that race. That money goes towards permits to shut down roads, race-day equipment, refreshments on the course, race medals, medical support, and more. You are stealing from everyone around you if you run bandit. If you are simply too poor to run a race (I get it, some of them are VERY expensive!), sign up for a charity and raise money. If you raise the amount of money required by your charity, you won’t need to put a single dollar of your own towards race fees.
  • Fueling. Race organizers plan to support the amount of registered runners. Period. Sure, there is some wiggle room, as they often try to overshoot the numbers to make sure they are over prepared. But if you steal a bib and run bandit, you are a person the race director wasn’t counting. If you think its okay, do you think you are alone? Nope. There are far more self-entitled bandits out there than anyone has taken the time to track down and count. Have you ever run a race where they run out of water or Gatorade? Or race medals or mylar sheets? Guess what, it sucks. If you bandit, your actions may mean a runner behind you won’t have the supplies they paid for and are expecting at the water station. When you are dehydrated and tired, the WORST thing is getting to a station that has run out of supplies. You want to cry. What gives YOU the right to take that from the runner behind you? That runner has probably trained hard for this race, paid their entrance fees, and played by the rules.
  • Ethics. Look, we all have different moral codes. We’re human. But I would like to think that we as a running community can all agree that PEDS, cheating, and running bandit are all wrong. If we don’t hold ourselves to those simple standards, how can we be happy with ourselves? How can we feel that we truly accomplished something great? I don’t think anyone with a moral code who stole bibs, finished the Boston Marathon, and claimed their medal can ever really feel good about that race, can they? Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think the race would have the same meaning to me as qualifying or running for a meaningful charity, and doing it the way the race rules state.

It is my hope that more and more races will allow official bib transfers, which are starting to happen in some popular races. Race directors realize that runners cannot always use their bibs, and official transfers means the original runner can get their money back and the new runner will have their information (including emergency info) on record. However, this isn’t common practice for all races, so read the fine print if you are debating signing up for a race months down the road.

Perhaps because the Boston Marathon is a very special race, requiring its participants to qualify or run for charity, that bandits left an even more sour than normal taste in everyone’s mouth. it’s a race that avid runners spend years trying to qualify for. Its the closest thing many of us will ever see to the magic of the Olympics or the Olympic Trials. It is a race that so many runners put blood, sweat and tears into getting to, that printing out a bib someone else posted online seems so incredibly wrong. Of course its really not more wrong than cheating your way into any other marathon, or is it? I suppose that’s up for debate. Regardless of reason, the bandits in this year’s Boston struck a chord.

*** Now, there are always grey areas and exceptions to rules. Here’s how to handle those areas in a way that protects your safety and doesn’t take (much) away from everyone else out there:

  • If you buy/transfer a bib from someone unofficially, (NOT stealing a photo of a bib off the internet!!!), wear a Road ID in case you need medical or safety help. Remember, the bib will have the official runner’s emergency info attached to it. Also, write on the back of the bib your own info. List any important info and write clearly.
  • If you are unofficially using a bib from a friend/transfer, for God’s sake make sure you are NOT going to win an award (top finish, age group or otherwise), and that you are NOT qualifying the original registered runner for Boston or Olympic Trials.
  • If you are hopping into a race to pace a friend for a few miles, DO NOT take any of the refreshments on the course. It’s common practice for a buddy or a coach to hop in during those tough miles, but taking away from paid participants is wrong. Be sure to hop OUT before getting to the finish line. (Due to security post-Boston 2013, it may be difficult to do this in the major big-city races.)

To me, running and races is about becoming a better person and a better athlete. Putting challenges in front of myself and working hard to rise to said challenge. Cheating is a sour, ugly, awful toxin that poisons this sport. If you couldn’t get a spot in a race for whatever reason, there will always be next year. be a grownup, and play by the rules. I guess if you wondered what my thoughts are on bandit runners, now you know.

One Year Since Boston

A race I will never forget.

A race I will never forget.

It has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombings. A year since the shocking and unthinkable became reality in front of my eyes. I realize of course, that I am far luckier than many people who were at the finish line that day. My scars are purely mental and emotional, and my life has arguably been far better than it could have been. I am very lucky.

For many, many days and nights my mind was plagued by flashbacks. Sleepless nights, and shooting out of bed when a siren broke the silence became routine. I lost my love for running, and in general for most people. I lost my sense of self, my outlook on life, and my ability to control my emotions. Over time, PTSD is no longer part of my daily life. It slips in here and there, and I do my best to handle it.

I suppose on some level, my struggles to cope post-Boston are similar to the grueling mental demands of the marathon itself. When your legs hit mile 17-22, and your legs are screaming to stop, it is your mental strength that forces you to forge on towards the finish line and to never give up. Many people use the saying “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Let me tell you, my last year has been a marathon. The good miles where you cannot help but smile and run with such joy and focus, and the miles where you do all you can to hang on.

This year I have many friends and team mates who will toe the line in Hopkinton and take their journey on the best marathon course in the world, crossing the iconic finish line on Boylston Street. Part of me wishes so badly I were ready to go back. I want to be there to cheer. But I also know I am not ready. The scars are too deep, and I know going back would most likely lead to a mental spiral into PTSD. I want so badly to be stronger than that and to share the “Boston Strong” chorus every runner has decided to sing. But I can’t. Not yet. Unlike most of those runners, it was personal. Really personal. While so many runners wanted to make it about themselves and our “running community” as they watched the news from the safety of their own homes, I would have given anything to have been anywhere else. But we don’t get to make those decisions.

Socially, my life has changed a lot in the last year. Many friends who I used to consider close, or part of my social circle have dropped off and stopped including me. I get it. I have turned inward at times and perhaps repelled acts of concern. But honestly, most haven’t stepped up or cared enough to realize that this year was the year I needed friendship the most. Sure, it hurts. But I keep my big girl pants on and remind myself that sometimes events like this show you who your real friends are. That being said, other people in my life have stepped up and been incredibly supportive, when I know it took extra effort on their part to break me down. I am eternally grateful to those people. On my own, I probably would have gone crazy. Even the smallest gesture of a caring text message goes a very long way. To those who have made the effort, know that it means the world to me.

729950-1045-0028sI recently looked at photos from my race last year, and reread the three-part blog for the first time in over six months. Just rereading my own words made me feel ill. It also made me feel excitement and gratitude as I read about the great moments that day, the moments before the blasts. I am hopeful that I will be strong enough to take my spot in the 2015 race. I know that there’s a good chance I’ll emotionally fall apart on the course, or have to fight off panic attacks, since that has been my race norm this year. But I am going to do my best to overcome those mental hurdles. I know if I can train and race marathons that test every fiber of my mental and physical being, I can run Boston again. Logically I know that. Putting it into practice is the hard part. Thankfully, I have another whole year to work on healing.

In an attempt to not have this blog be a total downer, I hope that those of you training for a race do it with joy. Running is perhaps the simplest, most organic full-body expression of happiness. It doesn’t matter if you run fast or slow. If you do with with joy in your heart and a smile on your face, you are doing something right. Be grateful you have a body physically capable of running and celebrate that. While we all run and train for different reasons, at the core there has to be a love for the act or running, or why do it? Your relationship with running may eb and flow like the tide, and that’s perfectly okay. If you love it, the tide will change in time and you’ll never lose your love for the sport. On days where running wears me down, I remember that. I got into this sport because I loved it, and I will continue to be part of this sport as long as I love it – and hopefully share my love and inspire other runners along the way. Just put one foot in front the the other. Simple.

Bursting at the Seams

IMG_2412Recently, rumors have flooded news feeds that the Boston Marathon is considering expanding the field by 9000 runners for the April 2014 race. Some people view this news as great, while others don’t want to see the race expand. I have considered in past weeks to blog about the constantly growing fields in marathons. On the heels of this recent Boston Marathon news, it seems like a good time to discuss this topic.

Anyone who knows much about marathoning knows that the Boston Marathon is the only annual marathon that requires time qualifying performances in a previous marathon. It’s also the most famous marathon in the world. Achieving a BQ (Boston Qualifier) is always an honor, sometimes a dream come true, and not possible for many middle-of-the-pack runners. The quest and hard work to achieve a spot in this famous race is something special. Besides qualifying, the only other way into the Boston Marathon is to run and raise money for a charity.

As someone who has run Boston, I can tell you that the experience on race day, having earned a spot that I worked extremely hard for, filled me with extreme pride and emotion. After all, earning something always feels rewarding. If anyone understands that concept, it’s the marathoner. Charity runners work hard – they train AND raise money – no easy task. For the record, IF there are 9000 additional spots, it has not been revealed if those spots will be open to more qualifiers, charity runners, or a combination for the two.

In recent years, many of the big five marathons have been giving more and more spots to charities. In order to accommodate these growing charity spots, race organizers have either reduced the amount of spots for non-charity runners, or added additional spots – causing race numbers to grow at a rapid pace. Charity spots often require a financial commitment of $2500-$5000 per marathon, with a percent going to the charity of choice and a percent (larger than most runners are aware!) going to the race organization. Yes, charities are incredibly profitable for race organizations. Don’t get me wrong, race organizations need to make a profit, and charities can be a great cause – but in future years will there be any spots left for non-charity, non-elite marathoners? The London Marathon is virtually impossible to get a spot in unless you run for a charity. It won’t be long before other organizations follow suit. I wonder if in the future runners will be able to acquire marathon spots without an elite status or a charity?

For many runners, signing up with a charity is a way fulfill a dream of running a marathon they may otherwise never be able to run. For example, the New York City Marathon, despite its massive race field (over 40,000 runners!) is next to impossible to get into through the lottery. Running for a charity may mean the ability to run the NYCM, or the Boston Marathon while never running close to a BQ.

My question: how much bigger can these big city marathons possibly get? Many are already bursting at the seams, barely able to accommodate the number of runners, and stressing the resources of the host cities. When is it enough? In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon, security will be a huge concern at all of the big city marathons in future years.

It’s a wonderful thing that more people than ever are lacing up and training for marathons. What isn’t wonderful is the sense of entitlement that plagues the running community. After all, we runners take over cities for an entire weekend without much of a thought regarding how we affect the town or city we take over for the race. Perhaps it’s okay for there to be some marathons that aren’t for the “average Joe.” Frankly, I’m an “average Joe,” and shouldn’t be able to qualify for every race. Personally, if I could be qualified to run 90 out of 100 of annual marathons, and that meant we could all have a better experience, and reduce the stress on host cities, the medical and security resources – I’d be totally okay with that. And if I wanted to qualify for those remaining 10 – I’d train my butt off and set that as a goal.

I suppose what I am trying to address in this blog is the growth of the marathon, the stress on the host cities, and where is the future of marathon going? Obviously every race is as different as the course the runners travel from start to finish. Each city and race organization is different. My hope is that marathons stop becoming over-crowded (for safety reasons and for the sheer enjoyment of the runners!), and that the financial incentives for race organizations doesn’t trump the race experience and safety issues.

I hope that unless they come up with some genius plan, the BAA won’t change the number of participants for 2014. The race from Hopkinton to Boston is on a road that realistically isn’t big enough to handle an additional 9000 runners – unless they add a fourth wave, perhaps? Part of the charm of the race is the journey through the Boston suburbs, as locals cheer, hand out water and offer high-fives. This past year, there were still spots open for qualifiers after the registration dates past – meaning that EVERY runner who had planned a qualifying time by the registration date got their spot – and registration stayed open for an additional week! Therefore, is it necessary or smart to change the iconic Boston Marathon in order to accommodate an additional 9000 runners?

I understand how financially enticing an additional 9000 runners could be – especially if those go to charity spots. And I also understand how runners all across the world, speedsters and average-Joe’s alike felt this past year’s tragedy pull at their heartstrings. I get it. But I also hold the Boston Marathon in my heart as a very special race, a race that is somewhat exclusive, and a privilege that is earned. After all, it’s the Boston Marathon.

Coping Post-Boston

A race I will never forget.

A race I will never forget.

One of the many reasons I love running is that I often clear my head, sort out problems, and work through emotions all while out there clocking my miles. While quality workouts take focus, those easy days of junk miles are my time to check in with myself.

Since the Boston Marathon, I have struggled with my relationship with running. Some days I refuse to run. Other days I break down and cry while running and cut the workout short. Sometimes I feel great and smile from ear to ear out in the park. It’s a mixed bag. I suppose these varying emotions are considered normal, but I don’t like them.

Just like I don’t like the sounds of sirens, or fireworks being shot off right outside my window at all hours of the day or night, or loud noises, or people running towards me, or large crowds of people – I have to deal with them. In New York City, life is always loud and crowded.

Besides all of the flashbacks, panic attacks, insomnia, and other symptoms of PTSD, what upsets me the most is my lack of enthusiasm for the activity I love most. I hate that running is sometimes something I emotionally cannot handle. The day of the Boston Marathon, while many of us lost our sense of selves, safety, and faith in humanity and all that is good, I also lost that lovely, innocent relationship I had with running. I want that back so badly.

In the weeks since Boston, I have pulled away from lots of people – especially in the running community. The person I was before Marathon Monday only missed team practice if there was an unavoidable work conflict. Now, I find any excuse to not attend. Track work used to be a challenge I rose to face. Now, I get defeated the minute I set foot on the lovely, soft rubber. I dodge the topic of Boston when asked by friends, family and strangers alike.

The Runner’s World Magazine issue dedicated to the Boston Marathon attacks – I cannot even open it. I don’t know if I ever will. The people who dedicate a race goal to the Boston bombings, or the organizations who used Boston as a platform for their own benefit – I want to punch them in the face. The horror and pain experienced by those who were there, right at the bombings, that doesn’t vanish the way the news stories on tv do.

So today on my run I evaluated all of this, and reminded myself that sometimes all we need is time. And help. I wish I had the answers to bounce right back to the person I was that morning in Hopkinton, before my life changed.

How do I get my unrequited love for running back? How do I turn myself back into the fighter I was before Boston? How does one set sights on a goal marathon PR, and attack training and race day without fear or hesitation? I guess I am going to find out.

Nothing can be worse than my reaction at the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and so I can only go up from here. (Note I never wrote a blog about my Brooklyn Half experience. I figured a blog that was chalking up a race full of panic attacks, vomiting on the course, and despising every step wasn’t worthy of a blog entry).

As a coach, I suppose I can use my struggles to help others – which is the only silver lining from all of this. We runners are strong, stubborn individuals. Whether you run for fitness, fun, or speed, we all love it on some level. If we didn’t we wouldn’t put in the work. The love for the sport is the thread we all have in common. I want that love back.

Boston Marathon 2013: Part 3

730052-1094-0025sIMG_2410Crossing the Boston Marathon finish line next to Cipriana was a wonderful, emotional experience. What happened next has changed me forever. Within five minutes of crossing the finish line at 4:05:56, the first bomb went off at 4:09:43. it sounded like a cannon. I felt it in my chest. We watched in horror as smoke engulfed the spectators on our right. My first thought was that something accidently went off – fireworks, a gas tank, some kind of accident. With barely a few seconds for Cip and I to react, the second bomb went off. At that point we knew that the explosions were no accident, and our lives could be in danger.

We hadn’t even made it to receive our medals, mylar sheets, or water bottles when the explosions occurred. We were maybe 50 yards away from the first explosion. Silence and confusion fell, and fear consumed us all. If two bombs had gone off within seconds of each other on Boylston Street, how many more bombs were there? We didn’t know, but we knew we had to get off of Boylston Street, and fast. As we tried to run around tired runners, some of whom seemed too wiped out from the marathon to even realize what had happened behind them, we ran as fast as we could away from the finish line.

A woman near us began to break down. Clearly she had spent every ounce of energy on the marathon, and she started wailing that her husband was standing where the first bomb went off. She kept screaming that she had just seen him there. She half crumbled to the ground, her legs buckling under her, and she was going to try  to get to where she thought her husband was. I told her to stay calm, to come with us, away from the explosions, that she didn’t know anything for sure about her husband, and that we needed to be concerned about our own safety, and not be in the way of first-responders. I don’t know what happened to this woman, since she was hardly responsive.

IMG_20130417_091416_251I will admit, as Cip and I ran away from the terror, for a moment I thought of turning around. Not that I could have helped much, but with being certified in CPR and first aid, I thought maybe I could do something. However, I quickly reminded myself that if people had lost limbs, I didn’t have the medical ability to do anything for them, and I didn’t think it was safe for me to head back.

Luckily, the bus with Cip’s baggage was directly down Boylston Street, so we went there and grabbed her bag. Unlike my bag, hers had a phone in it with battery power. We then retraced our steps by a block to try to exit the blocked of streets. We grabbed my bag, and had turned the corner off of Boylston Street. Around this time, I heard the first sirens. Still not feeling safe, but a bit safer than we had on Boylston Street, we slowed to a walk and tried to come up with the best course of action. Just then, we heard people yelling, and volunteers and staff cameramen came running at us, telling us to run. My thought: what do they know that we don’t know? I kept expecting an explosion to happen any second. Perhaps out of a building, a trash can, or under my feet. I kept telling myself that I might not still be safe. I might be blown to bits.

IMG_2412With Cip’s phone we were able to make a few phone calls. We decided to walk toward her hotel, right near Boston Common, and away from the finish line area. More sirens and helicopters. More people crying and screaming. We got to Cip’s hotel room, where I was able to charge my phone and we could turn on the news.

A few hours later, Chris and I walked back from Cip’s hotel (he walked to find me) back to The Eliot. We walked as far away from Boylston Street as possible, considering our hotel was a short two blacks away from the location of the second explosion. I was in a state of shock, still unable to totally process what had happened. Survival mode had kept me from becoming emotional. Between being emotionally and physically drained, and the request from the Boston PD and FBI for everyone to stay where they are, we stayed in the hotel for the rest of the night.

Monday night I barely slept. my mind was haunted with images, emotions, fears – things I could not shake from my conscious or unconscious. I kept waiting for our hotel room to explode. For something else to happen.

904376_902782584544_2034901455_oTuesday morning was a strange time. The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful spring day in Boston. We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, headed back to Back Bay Station and our Amtrak ride home. Exiting the hotel, there were police and swat teams on every corner, including outside our hotel. Our block was part of a crime scene, and we had to detour around Boylston Street.

Being outside made everything worse. It was all too real. The roped off blocks, the medical tents and finish area abandoned, standing just as it had Monday afternoon. News teams swarmed like vultures, all looking for marathoners to interview. They were set up with their vans, cameras, and lighting equipment by the dozens on every block.

As we walked, I lost it. I could not stop crying. I could not handle being there, and fought off panic attacks a few times. We walked past a young woman, and she handed me a white rose and thanked me for running the Boston Marathon. If I had any control over how I was conducting myself before, this gesture made me lose it entirely. I carried that white rose back with me to NYC, and it is currently in a vase in my kitchen.

I was asked for two interviews by news teams, both of which I declined. I didn’t want to keep reliving what I had experienced. I was already incredibly tired and frustrated from all of the questions everyone was already asking me. I know it was coming from a place of caring or curiosity, but every time I was asked what happened or how I was feeling, I had to revisit that pain. I wanted to yell at everyone to shut up and leave me alone.

155738_10101268085877673_955661079_nI am sure, like the city of Boston, that I will at some point get past what I experienced on Monday. I have overcome PTSD before, though this is my first time personally experiencing a terrorist attack. Everyone has questions, which is natural. Just please, before jumping to any conclusions, consider your resources. The day of the explosions, all kinds of false claims were being made, and many people were buying into them. Right now, the most important thing on everyone’s mind should be the recovery, healing, and grieving regarding the people injured, traumatized or killed.

I keep telling myself that I am incredibly lucky. I am also incredibly thankful that none of my friends, team mates or loved ones were injured. Many people were not so lucky. This is a time for healing and coming together, not for self-promotion or jumping on conspiracy band wagons.

While I won’t be running Boston in 2014 (I’m not running a qualifying race), I will probably be there to cheer on my friends. Come 2015, I hope to be there as a runner, looking to run a hard race. Until then, I am going to go out and run. I am going to run to celebrate life. I am going to run to clear my head. I am going to run because I can, some others are no longer lucky enough to have that gift.

Boston Marathon 2013: Part 2

Athlete's Village with Ben in Hopkinton - where it all begins.

Athlete’s Village with Ben in Hopkinton – where it all begins.

 

Athlete's Village, early and before it became crowded.

Athlete’s Village, early and before it became crowded.

Marathon morning arrived as it usually does, before the sun and most people are up. I was extremely stressed and on edge that morning, as my phone apparently didn’t charge during the night, leaving me with less than 5% power. This wouldn’t have been a big deal if I wasn’t relying on my phone to meet up with Cipriana at Athlete’s Village. With 27,000 runners, trying to find someone at the start of the race is difficult to say the least – even when both people have phones.

Luckily, I found Cip at her corral. At a last chance attempt to find her, I waited at the only entrance to Wave 2, Corral 7, where I knew she would be. Relief swept over me when I saw her. I had began to think of back-up plans, but I didn’t like any of the potential senerios. Were we both going to end up running solo? My stress and wasted energy vanished, and we laughed, hugged, and smiled as we synched our watches and walked towards to start.

The sun was shining, there was barely a breeze, and the energy from the other runners and spectators was electric. I told myself to remember this experience. To soak it in. To enjoy it. So much success and heart-break over the last few years had led up to this moment, and I wanted to smile the entire 26.2 miles.

Feeling good and over Heartbreak Hill.

Feeling good and over Heartbreak Hill.

Letting Cip set the pace, we both felt pretty good until mile 15-16. We danced to Gangnam Style, sang along to other songs, and took in the race in the special way you can when you are not actually running for a time. One of the highlights up to this point was the Wellesley girls. The amount of college girls, with clever amusing hand-made signs, giving out kisses and screaming, was something you cannot imagine accurately. Once you experience it, you understand some of the reason why Boston is a unique marathon.

Right before we hit the Newton Hills, Cip suddenly announced that she was thinking about dropping out. I told her that unless she was injured, or have chest pain, she was not dropping out. I told her she did not come to Boston to run 16 miles. I told her it didn’t matter how long it took us, we were doing this together. While I’m pretty sure Cip hated me at this point, I knew she would regret, sometime in the future, her decision to drop out. Cip powered through, and we made it up over the famed Heartbreak Hill, as the Boston College students created a wall of noise for about a full mile.Once we hit the 21 mile mark, the end of the marathon seemed near. Cramping in the quads tested Cip’s ability to push through, but she is an incredibly strong woman and athlete, and she dug deep. We saw a couple of her friends along the course, and she was overwhelmed. My cousins were cheering in Brookline, which energized me and made me feel so supported and loved.

800 meters to go!

800 meters to go!

As we began a walk/run negotiation, I pushed Cip to keep running. Walking wasn’t helping her cramping quad much, and the sooner we got to the finish, the sooner she could rest, stretch, and seek any medical attention.

I began calling out landmarks that we could look for and check off as mini goals: Fenway, the famous CITGO sign, Chris waiting for us at the underpass (right in front of The Eliot hotel, and 800 meters from the finish), the turn onto Hereford Street, Mount Hereford, the turn onto Boylston Street.

Running down Boylston Street, overwhelmed by emotion as we see the famous finish line in front of us.

Running down Boylston Street, overwhelmed by emotion as we see the famous finish line in front of us.

I recall Cip saying somewhere within the last mile that this may be her last marathon, that all she wanted was to stop running. Once we made that turn onto Boylston Street, all of the fatigue, doubt, and pain seemed to melt away. We both burst into tears as soon as we turned onto Boylston Street, the famous finish line in sight, and thousands of happy, yelling spectators carried us those last 600 meters. I remember laughing as I cried. I remember telling myself to enjoy this moment. We had both earned this moment, by working to qualify for this race. I remember patting Cip on the back and telling her that she deserved this, and that I was proud of her. I remember, the minute we crossed the finish line, crying and hugging and being overwhelmed by emotions.

The time on the clock didn’t matter. The journey, taken together, over 26.2 miles seemed something like a dream. I had been haunted for the past year by my Boston 2012 experience, and here I was finally finishing and closing that chapter. I remember thinking “No doubt, I want to race this course to the best of my ability in 2015.” Within those 4 hours and 21 minutes, I had fallen in love with the Boston Marathon all over again.For a few brief minutes, I was able to experience pure joy over my finish of the Boston 2013 Marathon.

Boston Marathon 2013: Part 1

IMG_2414It is with heavy heart, mixed emotions, and some signs of PTSD that I sit down and try to put into words my experience at the Boston Marathon. I am going to write my experiences in three blog entries. After all, many things happened before the bombs went off, and many things have affected me since.

I arrived in Boston on Saturday afternoon via Amtrak, with Chris and Ben. It was a cool spring day, and a bit more cloudy than I had expected. On our way from Back Bay Station to our hotel, we walked past the famed finish line. The entire 600 meters of Boylston Street’s race course was filled with runners, tourists, and Bostonians, taking pictures and taking in the most famous finish line of all marathons. We stopped and took a few photos ourselves.

Church on Boylston Street on Saturday.

Church on Boylston Street on Saturday.

After checking in to The Eliot Hotel (on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues, about 800 meters from the finish line), we went to the race expo, grabbed lunch, and settled in to our beautiful hotel. I took to the streets of Boston that night for an easy 5 mile run, passing the famous CITGO sign and the Boston University Campus.

On Sunday we took the T out to Brookline, to meet my cousin, Kristen, for brunch at Zaftig’s Delicatessen. Carb-loading on pancakes and catching up with my cousin was great. After brunch, I met up with Cipriana, my friend and team-mate with whom I would be running the marathon. Cip and I were both coming back form injury, and so just being medically cleared to complete the marathon felt like a huge blessing. While this wasn’t going to be the Boston I had been planning on since last April (I set the goal of a 3:00 marathon), I was thankful to be able to go and run – regardless of the pace.

Finish Line, photo taken on Saturday.

Finish Line, photo taken on Saturday.

Sunday night, Chris and I stuck to my one race tradition: Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. It doesn’t matter if I am racing a 5K or a 50K, I always have my ice cream. It’s probably silly, but it’s my one race tradition. After ice cream, my friend and fellow running coach, Gary Berard, met us for a few beers. For the record, I only had one beer, and figured that since I wasn’t racing, and was sufficiently hydrated, one beer wasn’t a bad thing.

Around 11pm I hopped into bed. My alarm was set for 5am. I was ready to finally run the race course I had dreamed of for so long. Last year I had come to Boston to run, only a nasty stomach flu and the heat (a terrible combination), caused me to DNF at mile 10.5. That experience had left me broken-hearted, and very much looking forward to Boston 2013.

Ode to Boston

892897_10101263724393123_1303757231_oToday is the 117th Boston Marathon, one of the most famous marathons in the entire world. As this blog is published, your coach is somewhere en route from Hopkinton to Boston, running this famous race course.

The Boston Marathon is a special race for many reasons. Besides it’s history, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a goal for many runners. Besides the Olympic Trials, Boston is the only marathon with a strict qualifying requirement (minus charity entries).

If you have ever run Boston, or spectated, you know that Boston celebrates the race for the entire day, the elite field is the best in the world, and the entire city’s energy is incredible.

Is qualifying for Boston one of your goals? If you want it bad enough, you never know what’s possible.

My bib for the big day!

My bib for the big day!