Race Report: Pocono Marathon

PH-515009996On May 15th I ran my first solo marathon since Boston 2015. My goal was simple: lock in a BQ. While I felt pretty confident I’d complete a 3:15-3:30 marathon, a whole lot can happen in the course of 26.2 miles. Plus, this marathon was a short two weeks since my “A” race for 2016, the Broad Street Run.

I’d never run the Pocono Marathon before, but I signed up for it for a few reasons: the time of year sounded pretty optimal for my qualifier – still cool mornings and with plenty of time for me to recover before tackling training for Berlin Marathon. The course is over 1000 feet net downhill, which also sounded pretty darn appealing. Add the location, less than two hours from NYC, and it was the best fit. It sounded so good that my training partner and fellow Mile High Run Club Coach, Vinnie Miliano decided to join in the fun.

Here are a few things I loved about race weekend:

  • Having the school open and runners hang out there pre-race was awesome. It was unseasonably cold (felt like 30 degrees at the start!), and so having a warm building with tons of public rest rooms was amazing. A huge perk. Can you imagine the difference this would have made in the rain? Game changer.
  • The volunteers were awesome, and there was hydration/restrooms every 2 miles. This is a VERY rural race, and so the little support (no real spectators) made a huge difference. You always knew water and a smiling face was a few miles away.
  • Post-race support. For a race that caps the marathon at 1600 runners, there were bagged sandwiches, muffins, orange slices, chocolate milk, bananas and water.
  • The course. Though the back 10K is TOUGH (like REALLY fucking tough!!!!), I enjoyed the quiet, beautiful course until the back 10K. The 1000 feet downhill gave you some “free” miles, and the ups were often a nice change. I don’t know if I’d call the marathon course “fast,” but the half marathon course has PR written all over it.

Here are a few things I didn’t love about the weekend:

  • On a point-to-point course, there is always transportation (shuttles) to the starting line from the finish line. Apparently this race was the exception to the rule. This meant runners hustled to book cabs from hotels to the starting line. There aren’t a ton of cab companies up in the Poconos, but I got lucky and booked one that we split with a few other runners. I booked a hotel walking distance from the finish line specifically for the reason of ending at the finish. There’s absolutely no way I was going to take a shuttle to the starting line and then drive my car BACK to my hotel after running a very hilly marathon. That was the current arrangement for this race, apparently. No good.
  • Plastic cups on the race course. NOOOOO. The first cup I grabbed slipped out of my hand and spilled cold water all over me. I mentioned it was 30 degrees, right? The second cup didn’t slip, but it’s pretty impossible to fold a plastic cup and drink. Waxed paper cups are the only cups that belong on a race course – easy to grab, easy to fold, and easy to toss – in my humble opinion. This race made hydration a struggle.
  • The course. Again, I LOVED the first 20 miles. And I don’t hate hills. But the inclines were pretty insane for the final 10K, and the road was open to traffic, which made it that much more of a struggle to focus when you weren’t sure where the next car would come from. I’d highly recommend one lane be totally closed and coned off for the runners.

At the end of the day, I ran my second-fastest marathon to date! I finished 5th overall woman, 1st in my AG, in the official time of 3:11:07. I clenched my Boston Qualifier by over 20 minutes. I’m pretty pleased with how my body held up, considering those final hills two weeks after my goal race. I am very hopeful for my goals in Berlin, and going into those goals with some confidence. Now it’s time for me to take my own advice and focus on some rest and recovery.

Would I run Pocono Marathon again? Probably not. But I’d definitely consider the half marathon for a PR course!

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.

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.