Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Great Boston Marathon Qualifier

I thought that a simple, 3:29:39 entered into my "Boston or Bust" Blog was an elegant and ample synopsis of the results of my efforts in the Okanagan Marathon in Kelowna this past Sunday.

Yes, I actually ran fast enough in the Okanagan Marathon to qualify for the Boston Marathon. And afterwards, I was tired. Really tired. And for once, at a loss for words.

People, brevity is the soul of wit.

Or so they say, but given the deluge of complaints about the paucity of my statement I have bowed to public pressure and relented.

As per your request I have written a Blog that is filled with whining, kvetching, snivelling, self-absorption, self-aggrandisement, delusions and more than my usual degree of narcissism.

So for those of you who apparently must have the Director's Cut version of how I ran a 3:29:39 in the Okanagan Marathon I offer the following.

I will giving one of the many fine bottles of red wine that I won to the person who writes the best "Comment" to the Blog. Not because I think that any of you have any talent, but mostly because I am sick of doing all the work.

As for all those losers out there, you can start sending me my bottles of vino.

The Great Boston Marathon Qualifier

I have put off writing this for the past 36 hours simply because I have no idea what I want to say. Or even how to say what I don’t know what to say.

I qualified for the Boston Marathon in Kelowna by running the Okanagan Marathon in 3:29:39. In other words, I crossed the Finish Line with a minute and twenty seconds to spare. Which was my plan. Actually I was hoping to have a cushion of three or four minutes, but it was not to be, as I ran the race as conservatively as I was capable of running it, while going out as hard as I was able. And I got as much race out of me as I was capable of getting. I didn't leave anything behind on Sunday. I left it all out on the race course. I never knew I had that kind of prolonged discipline in me. It is actually kind of shocking to me when I think about it!

The day itself was nearly perfect. You could not ask for better conditions in which to run a marathon. The morning was cool, about four degrees Celsius and overcast, with the cloud cover lasting for the first few hours before the sun came out. I don’t think it ever got over ten or twelve degrees during the actual marathon itself. Post race, Kelowna was picture postcard perfect. A perfectly glorious autumn day.

I am a little confused because I thought that qualifying for Boston would be so much more exciting, rewarding, fulfilling, obviously as I grope here for words to express myself, I thought it would be a little more, I don’t know what… Something! But certainly more.

Part of the problem may be the way I ran the race. The Okanagan Marathon was my tenth marathon. And I was attempting to shave twenty-four minutes off of my previous best time. When I first set out to qualify for Boston I was always cognizant of the fact that I had given myself an enormous task to achieve. I always tell new marathoners that you have to respect the marathon distance and respect the race. They almost never do. Because until you try to climb the mountain, nothing ever really prepares you for it until you are actually trying to scale the pinnacle. Twenty-six point two miles is a distance to race like no other. I endlessly quote Bill Rogers, “The marathon can humble you.” The marathon is not just about being fast and being fit, it is also about being smart and about the careful management of scarce physical resources.

Faced with a challenge of this size and scope I knew I was not going to be able to pull this one out of my ass at the last moment in any haphazard flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants escapade as is the usual Vince Hemingson manner of tackling life’s little adventures. Qualifying for Boston was not going to be any Viking or Highland Scots early dawn raid on a slumbering little village and making off with the gold and the comely wenches. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon was for me like preparing for a heavyweight bout against a very worthy opponent, one fully capable of knocking me on my ass. It took a full ten months for me to BQ and every ounce of my concentration and focus and energy along the way. In the end it was like a long drawn out military campaign and the last five months were spent in the trenches. And in all honesty, there were many moments where I did not know if I had the troops or the equipment to succeed.

The single biggest strategic objective that I was able to pull off, and the one that I give the greatest credit to in achieving my goal, was losing twenty-four pounds in the last five months leading up to Kelowna. I lost at least ten or twelve percent body fat and every pound was worth at least a minute in the Okanagan Marathon. As the weight came off, it became easier for me to train and much, much easier for me to recover from my workouts. During the last marathon clinic I pushed the Vince training envelope as far as I could and only stopped when I could hear paper ripping and the glue giving way. I ran as hard and as slow and as smart as I am capable of running. I came within a cat’s whisker of over-training on several occasions, and when I was exhausted to the point of collapse, I was smart enough to back off, give myself a day off and then go out and do it again. Frankly, I could never have done this without a heart rate monitor. The Polar S625X was like having the smart Vince (yes, there is a smart Vince on occasion) coaching the stupid, reckless, damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead, Vince (the usual Vince).

And during the last clinic and over the course of the summer, my strategy of measuring my progress and performance by a few well-chosen and well-timed 10K races was crucial for my confidence. By charting my 8K tempo runs and my races, I felt that I received enough positive feedback during my training to sustain me over the periods where I was plagued with self-doubt. And I really had no idea if I was going to be able to qualify for Boston until very late in August and in early September. Doing Yasso 800’s was also a key component of my success. In fact, during the last 5K of the marathon, my memory of the Yasso’s I had run was instrumental in me maintaining my confidence.

The race itself was almost anti-climatic. I laid out a plan of how I was going to run the race in early September and consulted heavily with Hugh (who ran with me every step of the race). I broke the marathon down into the first half, which I wanted to run at 156-158, the 10K up to the 32K mark which I planned to run at 158-160, the next 7K, which I wanted to run at 162-166, and the final 3K and sprint to the finish where I thought I could hang on to my speed with a 168-172 and then kick at 178-180. And that is what I did. Almost to the heartbeat. In fact the race went so much according to my plan that it was positively eerie. I executed the plan, I never deviated from the plan, and the whole race unfolded exactly as I had planned. Trust me when I tell you this folks – I am NOT that fucking good or smart. But I was on the morning of October 9th. And lucky. If you can’t be good or smart, be lucky. And I am lucky. And I guess that is all that matters. I guess I am a little dumbfounded about how the day turned out.

The morning was uneventful. I was a little quieter than usual maybe, running the race in my head. I had my usual pre-marathon breakfast. I put on my running gear and smiled when Justin remarked that I looked like Mr. Incredible in my lycra-spandex top. Hugh thought that I looked like a Marine about to hit the beaches. I was not nervous, not excited. I just wanted to engage the marathon and get it over with. We took some pictures and then it was time.

Prior to the race, I thought I might be able to build a slight cushion of three of four minutes by the 40K point of the marathon. But the start was crowded and that may have contributed to my ultimate success by giving me a great thirty-minute warm-up, but I was also down a minute by the 6K mark (and in the end I did the first 10K in 49 minutes). Also, the biggest hills were right at the beginning, so I definitely erred on the side of caution in tackling them, although an examination of my heart rate data does not really show any drop off in speed. During the entire course of the race I was never more than 30 seconds behind my pace and never more than a minute and a half ahead of schedule. I have always been able to have a strong finish if I am well trained, so that was never really a concern for me. I always knew, that at the end, when push came to shove, I would be able to drop the hammer.

At 20K I DID try to open up a bit of a gap. My heart rate was 158 and had been for miles and miles. It was like I was on cruise control. My breathing was completely comfortable and stress free. My groin tendon had not made a peep so I thought I would kick it up a notch. As soon as I did, something didn’t feel quite right, and I couldn’t even really put my finger on it, so I simply stayed at 158 because I was running right on pace and was happy to take what I could get. At 28K I again tried to build a cushion and this time when I tried to speed up I felt a flicker of muscle spasms in my calves and hamstrings. I quickly backed off. I never said anything to Hugh at the time, as I didn’t want to give voice to any excuse for not being successful, but in our race breakdown afterwards he was able to pinpoint exactly the moment in the race where he knew that something was not quite right with me. But Hugh said my running form never changed, despite knowing that something had happened.

In the meat of the marathon the miles unraveled at what seemed to me to be an amazing pace. The race organizers had done an absolutely brilliant job of preparing the course in terms of kilometer markers and water stations every mile. It was an exceptionally easy marathon in which to chart ones pace. Hugh and I walked through every one of the water stations, taking a mouthful of water and giving our selves fifteen to twenty seconds to walk. I ran without a water bottle and only carried gels. I diluted the gels 60-40 with water. I never felt the effects of low blood sugar. I may actually have had slightly TOO much water to drink, as I had to make FOUR pit stops, something I have never done in any previous marathons.

Every time another water station appeared I was slightly shocked. The race was flying by. And we were really in fine form. At 29K Hugh and I passed a very fit woman after running with her for about half a kilometer. As we went by she looked at us and exclaimed, “What is this, your 29K warm-up?” At this point in the race I was very comfortable and very relaxed. But a few kilometers later the 3:30 Pace Bunny, whom we had passed at 7K, had joined us again. Keith was slightly ahead of schedule so I was happy to fall in with him. At first I was a worried that something was wrong with my pace because the 3:30 Pace Bunny Group had rejoined me, but with a few hundred metres it became clear to me that everyone in the group was right on the edge because with 10K to go their breathing made me think that they were really pressing the pace. I fell in behind a few people to assess where I was at and to draft a little after being out front for three quarters of the race.

With 7K to go the strangest thing happened, I was nearly overwhelmed by a flood of emotions that rose up out of nowhere and nearly engulfed me. I came within a whisker of breaking into tears and a lump rose in my throat that I almost couldn’t suppress. I had experienced this before in marathons, but only when seeing families cheer on a Mom or Dad near the end of a marathon, crying out as they do, “We love you Mommy or Daddy. You can do it, Honey. I love you!” or when seeing someone struggling to finish the race with a picture of a deceased loved one on their jersey as they run a marathon in memory of someone they cherished, or when someone gallantly staggers to the finish and their friends and family rush to embrace them. I was in the middle of nowhere, not thinking of anything, and with 7K to go it was still entirely unclear whether I was going to succeed or fail. Shaking it off, I quickly sucked back some gel and tried to pull myself out of the trance I seemed to have fallen into.

With about 5K to go Keith scheduled a one-minute walk break at a water station and Hugh and I kept going after about fifteen seconds. By now I was hurting and my heart rate was a solid 165-166. My groin was fine but every few steps a muscle spasm would flicker though my calves and hamstrings and stop just short of becoming a full-blown cramp. Keith yelled out for us to go for it. And all I wanted was for the marathon to be over. It was time to make my move. We were about forty seconds ahead of schedule. Where once the road had seemed to fly by under my feet, now it was crawling. I felt every bit of asphalt with every single footfall. And my respiration rate was now at a 10K race level. With 3K to go my heart rate was a solid 170 and every breath was coming hard and fast. The last 3K were as painful as any marathon or ultra marathon I have ever run. And I was in serious jeopardy of having the muscle spasms in my legs mushroom into full-blown cramps. By now I was gritting my teeth and growling. My face was pulled back into a grimace. Every foot strike hurt and I could feel every tendon and ligament along every inch of foot, calf and thigh. I hurt into my bones. But I still felt strong. And I still felt like I had another gear in reserve that I could summon forth for the finish. One last battalion for the final assault.

Hugh was right with me, just off my left shoulder as he has been for about a thousand miles this past year, offering encouragement and urging me on. With about half a kilometer to go I threw caution to the wind and from the tunnel on I broke into a full out sprint. As I rounded the final corner I could make out the clock as it ticked by 3:29. I crossed the Finish Line seeing 3:29:59 over my head and I knew that with my chip time and the delay in getting over the Start Line that I had qualified. I staggered within steps of being over the Finish Line and probably would have fallen if two volunteers hadn’t sprung forward to support me under the elbows. A woman asked me if I wanted medical attention and I said no. She then asked me if I felt all right and I snapped, “No, of course I don’t!” not wanting to add the obvious, Lady I just ran a fucking marathon!

I had a hard time standing for the next few moments and Hugh was once again right at my side, guiding me by the elbow, telling me to keep walking and after getting my finisher’s medal and having my timing chip removed, moving me in the direction of the tent. I ate a bagel and a few bananas and that was it. It was all over.

Patrick had finished in front of me and came up to congratulate me, as did other friends.
A few minutes later I went back to the Finish Line and waited for the rest of the crew to finish. I was happy, but it was more quiet satisfaction and not over the top elation. Most of the people I talked with just after the race were a little surprised and even somewhat taken aback. They, like me, had expected a much more exuberant Vince. Maybe it still hasn’t sunk in. And to some extent, over the past month I have not even dared to allow myself to consider any other outcome other than success. I never entertained thoughts of failure. I knew it was a possibility of course, but I simply refused to believe that I would NOT qualify for Boston. At some level, I really believed that if I allowed myself to have doubts about my ability to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I was setting myself up for failure, and a very public failure at that.

In the end of course, a minute and twenty seconds is not a huge margin of victory. And truthfully, I cannot look back over any part of the race and say where I might have gained any more time. But having done what I set out to do, such an exercise is kind of a fruitless rehashing. I did it. I qualified for the Boston Marathon.

And at this point I would be remiss if I didn’t single out a few people to thank.

I want to thank the following for all their help and support. I simply could have not accomplished what I did in Kelowna without them.

They should all get medals of valour for bearing with me and putting up with me in my less than auspicious and gracious moments ... I had more than my fair share.

Very special thanks to Hugh and Seymour (my big brothers), and Patrick, Justin and Michael (I'd say little except they're so big, so I'll call them my younger brothers) without whom, over the last ten months and hundreds and hundreds of miles, I would not have made it to Boston.

You guys are the best. Simply the best.

Note: I will be leaving tomorrow for two weeks of research for The Vanishing Tattoo www.vanishingtattoo.com in Thailand and Japan, so there will be no posts while I am away. Upon my return, I will be continuing to post on this Blog as I prepare to make my journey to Boston and the Mecca of Marathoning this coming Spring.

I look forward to your Comments!


Anonymous Hugh said...

Vince thank you for your kind words

Congratulations on a brilliant race.

Appreciate all the support you have given me.

Have a great trip.

Look forward to celebrating with you on your return.

12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Justin said...

Vince, being a small part of your quest over the last 10 months has been fantastic.

I know you're a writer, but you couldn't have written a better
story. The highs and lows, the moments of doubt, and the ultimate victory.

We all wanted it for you as badly as you wanted it for yourself. And I couldn't have been happier or more proud to see you nail it.

You talked the talk and you walked the walk. And you humbled the marathon! :-)



4:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Holy crap, congrats and wow all in one!!!!

Way to go Vince. You set your goal, you busted your butt trying to reach it and you did!


4:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Fantastic, Vince!!!

Congrats! I knew you would succeed this time, if only because you showed an incredible commitment to lose the weight you did. I always felt that was your Achilles Heel.

After the weight was gone, I'd figure you'd have no excuses left, so you had to do it!

Tina and I were at Harrison for the long weekend so didn't have a chance to check the results.

I'm slowing building my base for Vancouver. Training on my own is different but it's kinda cool

You probably will be just coming back from Boston so not sure if you're doing Vancouver again, but I think I have that same fire to do well as you.

See around the RR and congrats again! I'm signed up for the Cunningham and Fall Classic
and will be signing up for the First Half.


7:52:00 PM  
Blogger Vince Hemingson said...

Hi Henry,

I plan to run an easy Vancouver Marathon next Spring after running Boston. I have some first-timers that I have promised to run with. Something in the 4:30 to 5:00 range.

See you around the RR.

Best, Vince

8:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Mom said...

Hi Vin,

Enjoyed reading your write up on the Marathon. It sounds as if you are almost in shock still - you've worked so hard to get where you wanted to be that it's almost an anticlimax because you did what you planned to do.

It takes incredible discipline to lose that much weight and put in the training that you've done. It's a great accomplishment. Hope your two weeks away will be just as successful.

Lots of Love, Mom

8:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

You are great! You are awesome!!

You are an inspiration!!!

Have a great trip and I hope to CU soon.

8:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

It's been a pleasure and an inspiration to run with you over the last 10 months. All of the moments where you seemed hell-bent on sabotaging your BQ attempt (Stormy, Bowen, Tacoma, etc etc) have disappeared in an instant and left only the end result - a flawless race run with the kind of diligence and common sense that we only wish could be taught in the RR clinics. I can't wait to hear the rest of the story as it unfolds over the next 6 months on your way to Boston.



11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Scooter said...

I also found the achievement of the BQ to be a bit anti-climactic. I think it was a question, in both our cases, not of "Can I make it?", but rather a "Will I not shoot myself in the foot?" We are now in the postion of travelling to Beantown to run "The Marathon Where The Crowd Never Thins." That's really where the payoff is. You are also in the postion to double there, as I believe you qualified for the next two due to timing. For me, the great curiousity is the scream tunnel at Wellesley College. Is it as special an experience as I have heard? Will I feel like a rock star? Is it better than First Ave at NY?

7:46:00 AM  
Blogger uphill said...


I ran a 3:29:53 for my qualifying time. The last 6 miles were brutal just to hang on.

But, the good news, I recieved my confirmation or acceptance of my entry for Boston.

Good luck, keep posting, I'll be training and preparing starting in December.

7:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Galloway said...

Jeff Galloway wrote:


Congratulations! Only one-tenth of one percent of the population finishes a marathon each year. Only about 5 percent of all marathoners quality for Boston!

I recommend that you back off the pace in Boston and enjoy the experience. You have much to look forward to. I hope you can join us at a one day run school or retreat: highly motivating with individualized information

9:08:00 PM  
Blogger Scooter said...

Are you home yet? Post a "check-in" even if you have nothing real to say. Did you see who the previous comment was from?

7:58:00 AM  

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