Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Boston in a Heartbeat

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Boston is one tough marathon course. Reading about the route and even driving the course doesn't really prepare you for what it is like to race at Boston. Everybody who struggles with the Boston Beast can take some solace in the fact that even four-time winner Bill Rodgers dropped out of his first Boston race at twenty miles. One of the things I often caution people with in training for the marathon is the saying, "You have to respect the race, you have to respect the distance." This goes double for Boston. Having just completed my first, I have a whole new reverence and respect for the Boston Marathon.

I have to say that two of the highlights on this Boston journey for me have had to do with Bill Rodgers. I met Bill in person at the Las Vegas Marathon last December. I started out curious and ended up being an admirer and a huge fan. Bill Rodgers is a class act. He autographed my race bib and a copy of his book (my second). He was gracious and sincere and utterly down to earth and he was just a delight to speak with.

When I told him that I had just qualified for Boston, his enthused response took me a little aback. "Wow, that's great! That's tough you know, to qualify for Boston. I raced at Boston a few times and Boy!, that race... Congratulations! You can't just do Boston once. You need to race it a few times. Boy, that race." And Bill just shook his head and grinned. It took me a second to realize that Bill was being perfectly genuine. All this from a four-time winner at Boston. In this moment we were just a pair of runners with a shared passion. I had no sense that we were seperated by talent, or speed or achievement. My book read, "Vince, Run Forever! Have fun in your 1st Boston Marathon! '06-'07 Bill Rodgers". There it was in ink, an invitation, a command no less, from one of Mount Olympus' marathon Gods to run Boston more than once...

We chatted for a few minutes about running as you get older and how he was coming back from an injury and was running half marathons in favour of marathons and I couldn't help but think of his incredible string of marathon victories and his equally incredible volume of races and training. And at the end of his string, Bill Rodgers still thinks of and hungers to race.

Once we arrived in Boston and had secured our rental car at Logan Airport, Hugh, Luisa and I checked into our hotel and immediately made a bee-line to the Bill Rodger's Running Center. If Boston is Mecca, then Bill's store is Holy ground. The place is filled with memorabilia from his racing career. I had been checking out the marathon gear from Adidas online and knew exactly what I wanted. I shopped for five minutes and admired the decor for an hour. I also picked up some t-shirts for the guys back home, and some for myself. The t-shirts would prove eerily prophetic, "the marathon can humble you." and "If you want to win a race you have to go a little berserk", Bill Rodgers. The first goes without saying, and the second applies just as well to finishing the last 10K strong. If you want a time at Boston, you have to be willing to go a little berserk...

There is no way to sugar-coat it. I got slapped around in Boston - but good. The sheer numbers of people running and the ever changing grade make it nearly impossible to find a "groove" and stick it for any length of time. You always have to be vigilant about your pace. The downhills lure you on and the uphills catch you unawares. "Pace" is almost impossible to achieve.

I went out "easy", but still reeled off a 24 minute 5K and a 48 minute 10K. If you look at my heart rate chart you will see that I actually did start out relatively easy. I did not get my heart rate up for at least the first thirty minutes. I was thrown for a bit of a loop, when in the first two hundred metres I was jostled by someone and one of my Gel bottles squirted from my Fuel Belt and was lost in a nano second in the crowd. There was not even a suggestion that I could stop and recover it. In a flash I had lost half my fuel supply for the race. I was going to have to use my initiative and ingenuity in the field to make up for the loss. Needless, to say,
that was going to be a stretch...

Hugh was not happy with the pace at 10K and passed me, saying as he breezed by me, "This pace is not going to cut it." I didn't have a reply for that and I tried to stick with him, but I finally had to let him go. My heart rate was rapidly leaving the zone I had picked for my race strategy. At several points, he had to be at least a few hundred metres in front of me and I completely lost sight of him. I panicked a little because I have so much respect for Hugh and his experience and ability. But I also knew I had to run my own race.

The next 10K sped by, water station by water station, mile by mile, and outstretched hand by outstretched hand. I felt good at the Half, and I had reeled Hugh back in - we crossed the timing pads together - but I knew that my 1:41 would take a beating in Newton. I had driven the course, seen the Hills and read all the books. Frankly, I was dreading this part of the race. I thought that the key for me in Boston was to survive to the top of Heartbreak Hill and not blow my brains out. I usually run a negative split and I am a strong finisher. I knew I had put enough miles in the training bank to - at least in theory - be able to draw down on them at the end of the marathon.

The hills are insidious and often preceded by a sneaky little downhill. People would gather speed and momentum and try and maintain their speed up the hill. The crowd made it worse by urging everyone on. It was a recipe for disaster in my reckoning. It took a huge amount of discipline on my part to keep my ego and my heart rate in check. (see Polar Heart Rate Chart).

I heard and watched all kinds of people going anaerobic as they crested the hills. I knew it was going to take a toll as we approached 32K. I had dropped at least five minutes by the top of Heartbreak Hill. And once again, it took everything I had to keep my heart rate in a zone I could maintain. This time it was not a case of me slowing down, but a case of willing myself to keep going.

At mile twenty-three my muscles cramped so badly I had to walk them out. And this was a whole new kind of pain I had never experienced before. I think that even when you are speeding downhill, there must be a momentary quad contraction to maintain your balance. My quads were screaming at this point. Up until Boston, I had only ever encountered cramping and muscle spasms in my calves and hamstrings. I went to the training mileage bank to make a withdrawal, but the bank was closed!

I had abandoned any idea of a 3:20 at about 10 miles, and had my heart set on a Personal Best at Boston (3:29:39) for the next ten miles. From 32K on my only goal, and a desperate attempt to salvage something for the day was to re-qualify for Boston IN Boston. I almost didn't make it. I have
never suffered muscle cramps before like I did yesterday. You name the muscle group, and it probably seized up on me yesterday, guads, calves, hamstrings. Twice I thought seriously about just walking it in.

Truthfully, knowing that Scooter was out there like the Great White Shark in Jaws and that my running buddies were all glued to a computer screen somewhere, kept me going. In the end, I had to go a little berserk.

You wanna talk about respect? Boston is DA MAN! I bow down!

What a race. I would run the Boston Marathon again in a heart beat.

I consider myself incredibly lucky and fortunate to have come away with a 3:30:38 in Boston.

A highlight - or lowlight - of the trip was at the Expo when I picked up my bib and chip. I was going to get my Boston Marathon shirt and as I walked past the Smalls, I angled towards the Mediums and Larges. A trim elderly man, all five-foot-five and a half of him and a hundred and thirty pounds of him soaking wet, took one look at me and chirped, "The shirts for the football players are at the end," and he pointed to the Extra Larges. For the record, a Large fits me like a glove, thank you very much. But I must confess that on the day before the marathon, I tipped the medical scale in the hotel Fitness Room at 185-186 pounds. I was fully carb-loaded to say the least.

Small comfort. I started the race in Corral Ten, proudly wearing Bib Number 10,486. This meant in part that I was in the very last starting pen in the First Wave, and that in theory at least, there were ten thousand four hundred and eighty-five runners who had qualified to run in Boston with a quicker qualifying time than your humble correspondent (which to date was my Personal Best of 3:29:39) ie; they were faster than moi. I finished 6,315 Overall, which I take it to mean that I passed or finished ahead of 4,171 other runners who qualify as stiff competition. For once, I punched above my weight!

Glimmer of hope. I was proud of my ability to reassess my goals in mid-race and realize that I could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by requalifying in Boston. By the same token, I finished within 59 seconds of my PB on what most would consider a significantly tougher course. I am very happy with my time.

Remiss. In thanking people in my last Blog before the race I left out Jeff Galloway. I am a staunch proponent of Jeff's training methods and philosophy. He's the closest thing I have to a running guru. I have probably gifted several dozen people with his excellent book, "Marathon" and I am a tremendous disciple of his long run pace theories. Jeff has answered a number of my e-mails personally. and been an ongoing source of both inspiration and knowledge. Check it out at

And finally, you simply can't say enough about Boston's race organization, the race volunteers, and the people of Boston. The atmosphere and ambience in Boston is amazing. The Expo is incredible and the Marathon itself is a spectacle. It's like going to the circus or a side-show carnival for three straight days. Runners are feted and treated like Kings and Queens. Boston, you Rock!

If you're a runner who loves the marathon, you owe it to yourself to find a way to get to Boston. Nothing I read nor imagined prepared me in the slightest for running in Boston. You simply have to experience it.

I would run the Boston Marathon again in a heart beat.


Anonymous JK said...

Good work, Vince.

Boston is at least ten minutes longer, so you're likely running at a 3:15 to 3:20 pace.

2:47:00 PM  
Anonymous N said...


I am truly amazed at what you've accomplished.

Your journey has been such an interesting and inspiring one...

and your finish time at the Boston is awesome! Way to go my friend!

2:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been following your blog from Nagoya, Japan and really enjoying it.

I think your story is quite inspirational itself and I also think you're a great writer.

2:50:00 PM  
Anonymous PJ said...

Congrats, oh, Great White Buffalo of years gone by.

The headhunters would surely grant you another tadpole swirl anywhere you want it.

2:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Tutuuq said...

Congrats on finishing the Beantown marathon!

3:30:38 ain't too bad - well, at least in my book it isn't!

Great job and hope you are feeling well.

2:52:00 PM  
Anonymous WW said...

I watched the elapsed times pass with nervous energy, anticipation and even a few vibes of hope.

Congratulations on your amazing time and completion of a lengthy and successful road.

As I recall my one and only run, the path to the goal was 97% of the enjoyment but I’m sure you will revel in the moment. Fantastic!!

2:54:00 PM  
Blogger Joe said...


Now that you've conquered Heartbreak Hill, what are you going to do for an encore?

4:06:00 PM  
Blogger Vince Hemingson said...

The Boston encore.

First, I would hesitate to say I've "conquored" Heartbreak Hill.

Maybe battled it to a draw is a better description of my race at Boston.

I'd like to go to Boston at least ten pounds lighter that I did, and I would modify my training plan slightly to deal with the surprisingly punishing downhills. The course really beats you up. I was just trying to stay on my feet in the last few rounds.

I think more speed work is also probably in order for Boston.

If you can hold your form until the last 10K, the last part of the course can be run at speed. My running buudy Jerry actually pulled off a 3:08 this year with a negative split! Getting to that point in one piece is something else entirely different!

Boston has the most punishing third quarter - 20K-30K - that I have yet encountered.

With time to digest the race for a few days, I'm really happy with my time and the knowledge that I came within 59 seconds of my Personal Best.

I'd like to do Boston proud, at least once more...

And I think there is probably an Ironman in my future.

A shot at a sub - 3:00 hour marathon?


And maybe a mountain peak or two that still needs to be climbed.

The best part of life is the journey - and all the possibilities that lay before us.

4:37:00 PM  
Blogger E-Speed said...

So cool to read your race report! We ran a very similar race! Congrats on your first Boston!

12:32:00 PM  

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