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.

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