Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Numb Lips? Boston Marathon Weekend Report

This entry is a bit different from my normal topics, but I've received a sufficient number of inquiries about how Boston went that I've decided to answer them this way. For all those who are interested, here's a recap of the entire weekend.

Boston Marathon Weekend Race Report

Lisa, Kelsey and I flew into Boston on Friday. I’d recommend this for anyone doing the marathon. It’s such a special weekend, you really need the extra day to soak it all in. And you don’t want to fly in Saturday and then spend all day Sunday—the day before the race—on your feet. Budget if you have to, but figure out a way to squeeze in that extra night at the hotel.

We checked into the Hotel Commonwealth, a wonderful hotel on Commonwealth Avenue, directly across the street from the famous Citgo sign, which marks the one-mile-to-go point on the marathon course. We could see the sign out our window. The Hotel Commonwealth has excellent rooms and outstanding service. It’s not part of any chain, and is located right next to a “T” (subway) line. It’s also just a block away from Fenway Park. It’s a bit isolated from the Back Bay area where all the marathon stuff takes place, but we’ve stayed there two years in a row and have greatly enjoyed it.

Saturday morning we visited the expo, but it was so crowded I didn’t stay very long. Last year I went to the expo on Friday evening, which I highly recommend. It’s just too packed on Saturday. But this year, we arrived in Boston too late to do that.

We got a treat Saturday night when a friend I met while speaking in Boston, Doug McRae, said he had some tickets to Fenway Park. Turns out the season tickets are actually part of Curt Schilling’s last contract (Doug is in business with Curt on a common venture). We didn’t stay till the end. Kelsey had her race the next day, and as it turned out, the game went past midnight.

On Sunday morning, Kelsey smoked the Boston 5k, finishing it in 20:02, and coming in 4th out of her age group. She easily would have gone under 20 minutes, but there was a slow crowd in front of her ignoring the 6:00 per mile pace sign, and it took her a good ½ mile to break free. It was funny watching her at mile 2. There was a significant gap in front of her, and about 8 middle aged men pacing off of her. Kelsey’s not tall—about 5’ 2’’—and the fact that these guys were riding her heels was amusing.

We had a late lunch at the Paramount in the Beacon Hill area. The restaurant is famous enough and popular enough to have an attitude. They won’t let you sit down until you order and pay for your meal, even though the wait was over 30 minutes long. But the food was worth the wait. Lisa and Kelsey were angels, standing in line while I sat down outside the restaurant, to preserve my legs.

We got back to the hotel where I visited with David Droste and his wife. I met the Drostes when I spoke at a church just outside Detroit, though he is now a pastor in Arizona. David ran 30 marathons before he qualified for Boston, and on that attempt made it by just 2 seconds. It’s a great story of perseverance.

We had dinner with Doug and Julie McRae, along with Bob and Doreen Marvel (Bob’s a pastor in Bellingham, WA), at Sportello, an Italian restaurant that has a cafĂ© feel to it. The food was excellent, and the company even better. It was the perfect evening before a marathon.

I rarely sleep much before a marathon, and this one was no exception. It was frustrating, as there was no pressure on me at all and no reason to be uptight. I’ve already re-qualified for 2011, so there was nothing on the line. But I was very grateful when I finally fell asleep around 1:00 a.m. and then woke up at 3:30. At least I got over two hours. After waking up, I thought about something that could carry me through the race: pondering what would complete consecration to Christ actually look like, if every moment of every day, and every relationship, and every circumstance, was lived in intentional consecration to Christ?

The weather on race day was perfect. Doug McRae’s continued kindness made for an even more pleasant morning, as he offered to drive me and Bob Marvel to Hopkington. I was a bit worried about doing this, as the organizers warn you not to, but it saved us 90 minutes in the morning (leaving our hotel at 7:30, as opposed to leaving around 6:00 for the buses), and spared us a 40 minute school bus ride out of Boston. Unfortunately, the shuttle ride from the drop off point to the Athlete’s Village took longer than the drive from Boston. I’m still glad we did it, though, and learned a valuable lesson: most worry isn’t worth the bother.

It’s a weird feeling, driving to the start of a point-to-point marathon. For much of the way, Doug was driving 60 to 65 miles per hour, yet it still took us almost 40 minutes. It gets you thinking, “And I’m going to run back in 3 ½ hours?”

I wasn’t at the Athlete’s Village for long, though. Non runners should stop reading this paragraph, as you’ll be grossed out by what I share, but for male runners, this is as valuable a tip as you’ll ever get. I read in a blog post about an ingenious “personal porta potty” and decided to try it. The porta potty lines at most races are so ridiculously long, another runner came up with a suggestion that proved to be brilliant. You cover yourself with a lawn and garden variety black plastic bag (lots of people wear these at the start to stay warm and keep out the wind, so this is pretty inconspicuous). You have an empty, wide mouth bottle of Gatorade with you (don’t try this with the small bottles). Slip the bottle up the plastic bag while you stand nonchalantly in an out of the way place, and nobody will know the difference. This saved me in the Athlete’s Village. Lest you nonrunners think this is gross and absurd, as soon as I finished I turned around and a male runner three feet away was openly urinating on the ground. You can’t run Boston without seeing hundreds of people (including many females) relieving themselves in the woods next to the course or around the Athlete’s Village. This Gatorade bottle method is about as discreet as it gets and saved me 15 minutes of time.

I now had no excuse—I knew my body was trained, I had gotten a little sleep, there were none of my common sinus issues, and though I felt a bit queasy, it seemed like a day for me to go hard. But I would eventually make a costly mental error.

Back in corral 10, it took me almost 9 minutes to reach the starting line. The crowd noise is off the charts here, and the start is downhill, so you have to be very careful. My early pacing was sensible and strong—no complaints there. Having run this course before, I knew it should feel slow and easy, and it did. I soaked in the unique Boston enthusiasm, and enjoyed the course experience. I finally had to make a pit stop around mile 9, and that’s when I made the costly mental error.

The stop cost me over a minute, so I vowed that would be the last, and began severely restricting my water intake. That was really dumb. It was much too warm to cut back as much as I did, and I’d pay a price for it later. To make things worse, my upset stomach couldn’t handle the gels very well, so, while I got 2 down, I couldn’t handle the 3rd and ended up tossing it, nearly full, aside. That’s not enough carbohydrates, especially when you’re restricting your Gatorade since you don’t want to make a pit stop. It was a mistake that someone who has only run a couple of marathons might innocently make, but since this was my 9th, it was just flat out stupid.

There are many famous points on the Boston course, perhaps the most famous of which is Wellesley College, just before mile 13. These coeds line the fence with signs saying, “Kiss me, I’m graduating.” “Kiss me, I want fast babies.” “Kiss me, I’m Jewish.” “Kiss me, I’m from Oregon.” “Kiss me, I won’t tell your wife.” Why college coeds would want to kiss sweaty middle-age runners who have already completed 13 miles is beyond me. And when you have daughters that age, you look at the invitation very differently.

I felt strong rhrough mile 16, knowing that’s where the hills—and Boston—really start. This is where I passed Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son team whose inspirational video I’ve used in many talks. They’re still going at it.

I trained hard for the hills and the work paid off. I knew I was on a good pace and mentally decided to let myself slow down a little over the hills, intending to fly down the final 4 mile downhill stretch.

Once I crested the last hill, though, and started down, I could sense my body shutting down. The dreaded “wall” was upon me. Bonking at mile 22 was predictable, given how dehydrated I was. I started stopping at the aid stations, but it was too little, too late. While I didn’t completely fall apart, and never walked, my pace slowed to the point that I was now running over 8 minutes a mile. I stopped thinking about "consecration" and began thinking only about survival. I felt better than the guy who collapsed just a couple minutes in front of me, though. When I passed him, he was lying on the ground surrounded by medical personnel performing CPR. Through the news, I learned later that his heart had completely stopped, but they got it going again and he recovered. If you're going to have a heart attack, the Boston Marathon is actually one of the safest places to do it.

It’s excruciating, knowing you’re on a downhill stretch, but not being able to take advantage of it. And the crowds here are legendary. They’re screaming for the last three miles, packed onto the sidewalk. But my tank was empty.

I passed my hotel with one mile to go, part of me desperately wanting to jump off the course, take the elevator, and collapse on my bed. The final 200 yards on Boylston street felt unusually long, but I staggered in at 3:31:28, which put me at a 7,300 finish—not too bad, since my number was 10626.

My friend Bob Marvel, who finished 90 seconds ahead of me, was wonderful at the finish area. I was wiped out.and resembled Lot’s wife—nothing but a cake of salt. My black hat was covered with white patches, as was my shirt—signs of severe dehydration. I immediately drank three bottles of water and was still thirsty. Bob helped me get to Lisa and Kelsey for the long trip back to the hotel (the one disadvantage of staying at the Commonwealth). After 9 marathons, I thought I had experienced it all, but during the walk back, my lips went numb. That’s something new.

Lisa and Kelsey continued their angelic ways, taking me back to the hotel, getting me a chai and then some chicken noodle soup. I laid down for a bit while they went out, and met up with them for a walk around the North End in the evening. We ate at a funky pizza place called Ernestos, and then had dessert at Moderns pastries. We were told “Tourists go to Mike’s, but the locals go to Modern’s.” Lisa and Kelsey had eaten at Mike’s the day before, and said they liked Mike’s better.

My final thoughts? I thought I could beat the course this year with more thoughtful training, but the topography still shredded my legs. Next year, I think I’d like to run it just for fun, making myself hold to a 3:45 finishing pace, just to soak it all in. To excel at Boston, you just may need to be stronger than I am. Or maybe I’d have to up my mileage considerably, but that would be hard to do, given my primary responsibilities.

But if you’re a runner and wondering if Boston lives up to its hype, let me say, yes, it does. It’s worth the sacrifice. The Boston marathon is a tremendous experience and deserves the reputation it has. The course is unique and historic. The crowd support is off the charts. The expo is amazing. And the sense of satisfaction when you get to wear the finisher’s shirt and coat makes the experience last and last. My quads may be screaming at me as I write this, but I still can’t wait to go back and do it all again.


  1. Loved reading your accounts of the adventure, Gary :D My SIL is desperately trying to qualify for Boston. I tip my hat to anyone who can run that distance and live to talk about it! Think I'll stick to Billy Blank Tae Bo and the Nordic Track LOL! Amazing how one can continue to learn things through all situations in life. Please say hi to Lisa for me. Blessings.

  2. Hi Gary! We're proud of you and are inspired that you run again and again. After I read your post I thought, "Why not do what we can until we can't? Whether it be running a marathon, going for a dream, or doing something we know we won't even do half as well as we'd like." Thanks too for sharing the challenges you faced personally in the race. Take care and congrats!!!!! - Kathryn and Dave

  3. Thanks Kathryn and Dave--that's a great thought. And Marisa, I should have known that someone who can write a 5000 word Christmas letter might take the time to read a long blog. Bless you all!

  4. As a first time Boston marathoner, the experience was amazing! I must have high-fived several hundred people (especially the adorable children) that line the course. While I didn't kiss any of the girls;), I did hug a man who had just hugged the girl (probably his daughter) in front of me. I took some video of the finish that captures a small glimpse of the excitement and encouragement from the crowd. When I finished the race, I fell on my wife's shoulder and just cried! While it took me 30 tries to get qualify, it was worth every failed attempt when I finally arrived:) Thanks for the time you spent with Sharon and I before the race...the Italian restaurant was wonderful!