Friday, April 22, 2011

What a makes a great Marathon Day??

There are lots of people that might define a great marathon day as one where they sleep late, have a big breakfast, grab a cup of coffee (or maybe a beer), head down to the course, open up a lounge chair and watch the crazy runners go by. There were certainly a lot of those “non-runners” out there Monday and I have to say it was great to have them there. Boston spectators are not only the most marathon knowledgeable but they are also the most enthusiastic in supporting the runners. For me it was a great day but it certainly wasn’t because of a stellar running time. On the contrary, this was the slowest time in the last 4 years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The day started at about 4:30 in the morning with a cup a tea, piece of raisin bread, a check to make sure I had my race number and race goodies and a quick dash to the car. Actually the hour didn’t matter much as most runners don’t sleep well the night before the race. It’s not that they are worried about winning (26,999 of us won’t), it’s really that so much has gone into getting to this point and so many things could go wrong on the day of the race that your mind is racing. Now if only my legs would do the same.

One of the first pleasures of the day was driving into Boston with Cyndi and Bill, a couple of marathon friends from our Lazarus House fund raising days. Some runners like to zone out and not be bothered. But Cyndi and Bill are the gregarious type and it helps to take the edge off your nerves to have someone who will commiserate about training in the winter weather, will pretend to listen when I complain about injuries, discuss strategy for the day and exchange stories about past efforts. Bill has done so many Boston’s they are thinking of naming one of the miles after him. Most runners take school buses out of Boston for the hour ride out to Hopkinton where they are dumped unceremoniously at the high school sports field. We on the other hand got to ride in style. Susan Hurley, who is not only a great marathoner but manages a number of teams of charity runners for the race, was able to get a comfortable bus that not only takes us to Hopkinton but stays at the school with us until we have to head down to the start. Her charity teams combined raised over $600K. That just blows me away.

As I’ve mentioned in previous years, the staging area at the school looks a bit like Woodstock. Thousands of runners scattered among practice fields, along walls

of the school and of course standing in line for the hundreds of porta potties. All trying to stay warm in the 40 degree weather as they wait hours for their turn to start. It part of the pre-race regiment that runners try to drink as much water as they can so they are fully saturated before the start of the race. As nature has proven, there is a direct correlation between what goes in and what comes out of a body so a big part of the pre-race waiting is also the porta potty visits (yes plural). Picture rows of porta potties lining the entire perimeter of a football field with dozens of runners standing in line at each. It’s never clear if the little dancing they are doing in line is nervous energy, keeping warm or a pressing need but watching thousands of runners doing the porta potty polka is quite a sight.

This year there were 3 separate starts 20 minutes apart and each consisting of 9000 runners. For each wave there were 9 corrals of 1000 runners each and your number determined your corral based on your qualifying time. Corral is the right term given we are all packed in like cattle. When it’s 20 minutes before your wave’s start time you take the half mile walk down to the starting corrals and wait for the gun. I was towards the back of my wave so I was about a quarter mile from the start and it took me exactly 10 minutes to get to the starting line. Each runner’s bib number has built into it an electronic key that matches their number. When they pass over the mats at the start, finish and every 5K in between the system records their number and their time. This way every runner gets their actual start to finish time. That extra quarter mile doesn’t mean much at the start but I would sure like to have it back at the finish. I wore a GPS watch this year because I wanted to see what my actual mileage was from the start to finish. The actual distance covered, including the weaving to get around slower runners or to detour to water stops was 26.5 miles.

My run started out pretty good. Cyndi and I ran the first couple of miles together before we became separated and the pace was perfect. Going into the race I had been having knee problems for a couple of months and hadn’t run anything more the 5 consecutive miles without walking. And with only one of my walk/run training runs over 13 miles I wasn’t sure how far my legs would go. What was clear from training was the faster I went, the sooner my knees went. If I went really slow the knees lasted longer but ultimately I would be out on the course a lot longer. I chose a hybrid of a measured pace with the assumption that if I got half way and was still running I could walk it in from there if necessary.

Water stops are one of the more entertaining parts of the race as runners scramble to get either water or Gatorade from volunteers lining both sides of the road. Picture a clover leaf on a highway where the on and off ramps cut across each other and where at any time one of the drivers might slam on their breaks in the middle of traffic to have a drink. There’s nothing more frustrating than to be cruising into a water stop ready to grab a water on the run and the person in front of you grabs a water and then just stops dead to drink it. Rookies. And of course once you have had your couple of sips the polite thing to do is find a clear spot around you and toss the mostly empty cup towards the side of the road. It’s a bummer when some less than considerate runner tosses a half filled cup of Gatorade directly into your face as you are passing by. If you haven’t had the pleasure, trust me it is not an enjoyable experience. Gatorade dries to a sticky substance that turns you into human fly paper.

At 7 miles my wife Pam, daughters Heather and Tiff, son-on-laws Marshal and Matt and twin grandsons were all out cheering me on. Pam spotting me in the crowd is a minor miracle but it was great to see them. Just before 10 miles Cyndi caught up to me and we ran a mile or so together. It was nice boost. At thirteen miles I got another boost…I was still running AND I got to enjoy the running the gauntlet of the Wellesley Girls. Picture 300+ yards of screaming college girls all reaching out for you yelling for kisses and holding signs saying Kiss Me I’m …(fill in the blank …Single, A Lacrosse player, Gay, From Iowa, a Senior). It reminds me of the Sirens in Ulysses. If ever there is a time to quit and throw yourself on the mercy of the crowd, this is the place.

Next goal for me was to make it to 16 miles and the beginning of the hills. This is where the family was waiting along with my sister Terry, her husband Dave, my 3 lacrosse loving nephews, my sister-in-law Toby and husband Bob. It was right about that time the knees started to go but the boost I got from a couple of kisses and the family cheering section really helped. It’s surprising how a little thing like friendly support can help with the mental battle.The weather and the spectators were a big help the last 8 miles. It was warm but not so warm that it was overwhelming and the trailing wind helped at times. There was one spot on the course where discarded plastic water cups were actually blowing down the road faster than we were running. Nothing like running so slow you are being passed by a water cup.

By the time I was half way through the hills the knees were pretty much toast. Mostly it was the left knee going uphill and the right one going down. Favoring one and then the other got over Heartbreak and down the other side although I suspect I looked a bit like a running stick figure moving without bending my knees. From there it was just taking one mile at a time knowing if I couldn’t run any more I could walk it in. I swear that last 1/3 of mile stretch down Boylston Street to the finish line seems to get longer every year.

And so ended the effort for 2011. I felt great from the waist up and like someone had been beating both legs with a baseball bat from the waist down. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have gone much farther and it will definitely be a while before I can walk up or down stairs without handrails but I finished and without walking. I unfortunately didn’t beat the qualifying time for my age group so I will have to do another marathon before the middle of Sept. in order to qualify for Boston next year. Bummer.

So what makes a great Marathon Day? Good friends, a warm bus to relax on till the start (with an on board porta potty), great weather, terrific crowds, family cheering section, and I made it to the finish line for the 5th year in a row and could walk afterward (well kinda). But what meant the most to me was the kindness and support for the Help in the Nick of Time Foundation. The race is over for another year but the great work the Foundation can do is just beginning.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Only 23,000 strides to go!!!

Give or take a few thousand depending on how long the knee and ankle hold up. I’m actually pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Unlike most of the runners who will toe the starting line tomorrow morning I won’t be worried about running fast enough to qualify for next year, or beat my best personal time or even if I will finish. The first two are not happening and unless something dramatic happens I know I will get to the finish, just not how long or how painful it will be.

It’s hard to describe all the excitement that takes place in Boston in the days leading up to the marathon. I was in Boston yesterday to pick up my number (13534…right in the middle of the 27,000 runners) and the streets were filled with runners and their families from all over the world…93 countries to be exact. Add to that the film crews, reporters, officials and volunteers and you get a sense of the level of excitement. They even have an expo where you can get the latest shoes, running toys, watches, health food, healthy drinks, crazy shoe laces (scientifically engineered to avoid coming untied), and clothes. It says something about the sport that almost half the exhibits at the expo are selling you something to avoid pain, heal your pain or cope with pain. Makes you wonder what that says about the human race….or at least runners. Go figure.

I also had the pleasure yesterday of joining Marshall and Heather at a pre-race event in Boston where the author of the New York Times bestseller Born to Run, Christopher McDougall, brought together professors, characters from the book and of course Marshall (who has written the screen play for the upcoming movie) to talk about the growing enthusiasm around barefoot running (there were hundreds of people at the presentation and a hundred more that had to be turned away). To be clear, this is not just running without shoes but includes those that have switched to Vibrams (rubberized slippers with toes) and those of us who have switched to minimalist shoes (like running in the old track flats). The scientific data associated with avoiding traditional thick padded running shoes with fat heals is impressive.

Marshall and Christopher were kind enough to invite me on stage to talk about giving back through running and to promote Help in the Nick of Time (new web site ). Also on stage was Scott Jurek who is the American record holder for the number of miles run in 24 hours (165.7). Scott answered the question he is often asked “What do you think about when you are running 165 miles in one mile loops?”. His answer…nothing. He tries not to think about the distance because thinking causes self doubt. I can relate. The biggest challenge in any long distance race is thinking too much about how far you have left to go. Like a lot of big challenges, the task (distance) can appear to be overwhelming but if you break it down into smaller pieces and take them one piece at a time, ultimately you get there. So it is with Help in the Nick of Time. We have a long term goal of bringing together a broad group of volunteers from around the community to help families in need but the first step was to raise the initial funding and get the program off the ground. We are almost there but I could use a bit of help to get us over the top.

So tomorrow’s run is a thank you effort to everyone who has helped along the way. Aside from the challenges with injuries this year, I have a lot to be thankful for. After a number of years running for various charities I have finally set up the foundation in Nick’s name. I owe a great deal of thanks to all of you who have supported me over the years to help me get to this point. I also have most of my family with me as well. Heather and Marshall are in from California, and Tiff and Matt are here with my new twin grandchildren. The twins are truly miracle babies. Born 2 months early, they spent a month in intensive care but they both are doing well and their first foray into the world is to come see grandpa run the marathon. I will miss the pre and post race calls with my dad who passed away a few months back but I know he will be out there with Nick and I on the course.

If you have time tomorrow and want to follow my snail pace progress you can register at the BAA site for updates every 10K or so. My number, in case you didn’t catch it earlier, is 13534.

Stay tuned and I will touch base on the other side.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Dream the impossible dream…

Getting ready for the Boston Marathon is like a season of Survivor. There are so many things that can go wrong between the time you register for the race and the day you stand at the starting line (asking yourself “Why did I agree to do this?”), that it is a wonder that 27,000 people will actually show up. But I get a head of myself.

The real challenge starts with just getting into the race. Boston is one of the few major races (it may be the only one) where every runner (with the exception of several thousand charity runners) have to run a qualifying time just to register to get in. It makes the Boston Marathon the most elite open marathon in the world. Qualifying times are set by age group and by sex. For example, for my age group (55-59) and sex (male – in case there was any question) I have to run a certified marathon in the year before the race in less than 3:45. That’s 8 min 30 seconds/mile for those that were trying to do the math in their heads. If you run under a qualifying time at the Boston Marathon then you automatically qualify again for the next year. Over the years the qualifying times have loosened up to allow more runners to participate and under the guidance of Race Director Dave McGillivray they have added a few thousand numbers for charities to give to runners to raise funds. Over the last 15 years or so the field has grown from around 10,000 runners to around 26,000 runners.

But qualifying doesn’t get you in; it is just the first hurdle in the obstacle course. Because of the narrow roadways and small area of the start (Hopkinton Common), there is a limit to the number of runners that can be safely supported. On race day the population of runners entering Hopkinton triples the population of the town (not to mention the thousands of spectators and volunteers). Step two in the process is to go online when registration for the marathon opens in the fall and register, pay your $130 and report your qualifying time. In the past runners could wait to as late as January to decide if they wanted to make the commitment. It gave them time to get closer to the race to see what kind of shape they were in or if they might be nursing an injury before committing their money. It is an interesting dynamic that it is easier to say yes to an April marathon during the beautiful running days of the fall than it is when you are in the middle of Jan. facing the reality of cold winter training. Marathoners aren’t stupid (for the most part) but I believe there is research that shows that all that pounding destroys the portion of the brain that handles long term memory for pain. I believe the same was true with my wife when it came to having children. Regardless, what sounds good in September is a lot less inviting in Jan.

As it turns out, over the last few years the registration has closed out before the end of the year and registration for 2010 closed out by Thanksgiving. But imagine the surprise for runners who have been doing this for decades when the registration this year closed out in 8 hours. That’s right…over 22,000 QUALIFIED runners in just 8 hours. Elite runners and people who had streaks of running Boston for 15, 20, even 30 years in a row found themselves without a number. It raised the bar so it is not just good enough to be fast on the roads, you have to be fast online as well. As an aside, you have to wonder, where did all these crazy people come from? I understand there are millions of people who now run, or have run marathons. It’s one of those bucket list things that many people want to say they have done like skydiving, bungee jumping or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But qualifying for Boston isn’t a walk in the park (so to speak), it requires a pretty serious commitment (as in “you ought to be committed…present company excluded”). Anyway…scary trend that is way beyond my understanding.

So to fix things, the BAA is culling the herd by tightening up the qualifications for getting in. Starting next year runners beating their qualifying time by 20 minutes or more (that’s about 45 sec/mile less than the qualifying pace) get to register first, followed by people 10 minutes below their qualifying time and then open to the rest to be prioritized by time. Qualified runners with a streak of at least 10 consecutive marathons also get to register early. Kind of a Darwinian approach of “survival of the fastest”.

All this is just to get a ticket to beat the crap out of your body in sub freezing weather for months on end while worrying all the time if your running too much, too little, too fast, or too slow. It’s a good thing that running keeps the blood pressure down or we might see more heart attacks from worrying if the long runs are long enough, am I running enough hills, am I stretching enough, should I be doing cross training, do my shoes need to be replaced.

The running itself is just one of the survival test. Runners have to travel the gauntlet of nipping dogs (the little ones are the worst), attacking birds (has happened to me more than once), and rabid raccoons (true story). Dodge flying beer cans from passing rednecks, climb snow banks to avoid attention deficit drivers, and avoid breaking a leg in potholes the size of tank traps. .

And then there are the obstacles Mother Nature contributes. Taking a butt ride on black ice, frost heaves that seem to reach up and grab your shoes, and of course the cold rainy days that turn a healthy runner into a flu ridden bed jockey.

And if you survive getting bitten, pecked, frozen, hit, tripped or stoned, you face the mother of all threats…the injury. It could be because you ran too many hills, or too many miles, too much speed work, or your shoes are worn out, or you switched to new shoes, or you stretched one yoga position too far. When you are training at the higher levels necessary to qualify for Boston, it doesn’t take much to throw a spoiler into the mix. Oh…and you can add age to the mix as well. The parts definitely don’t move like they use to. The other night I was in a hotel room and I woke up screaming with a cramp in my calf. I jumped out of bed and was bouncing around the room like a kangaroo trying to get it out. It was Las Vegas so I’m sure the guy in the next room figured I was either having a heck of a good time or murdering someone.

I’ve know a number of people, myself included, who managed to beat the odds right up to the week or so before the start, only to succumb to a last minute injury or illness. They are not fun people to be around when that happens. We have a little over a week to go before this year’s Boston Marathon and I am so NOT ready. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a rookie move of changing shoes took me from the best shape in years to a hobbling, walking, poor excuse for a runner. I started running in minimalist shoes having read the New York Times best seller and bible of bare-footing; Born to Run by Christopher McDougall . It was the switch from minimalist shoes back to regular running shoes that trashed my legs. Full disclosure, my son-in-law, film director Marshall Lewy, has written the screen play for the upcoming movie on the book. He and Christopher will be in Boston for a “Naked Run” (that’s barefoot running…get your mind out of the gutter) on this Saturday if you would like to meet them both.

As for race day; I’m a guy that likes a challenge and these days it’s figuring out how to limp with both legs. I’ve almost got it mastered and figure with a bit of luck, and if the weather holds, I will make it in before the 5 hour cutoff. If nothing else, it will be entertaining….at least for the spectators.

Stay tuned…I’ll have one more update before the race.