The Road to Boston: Chasing the Unicorn with a Team by my Side

This will be my third time running the Boston marathon and my eighth marathon total. Many people wonder why – why one would choose to put his or herself through running 26.2 miles voluntarily – and then do it multiple times. For those that have done a marathon – whether you chose to be a one and done runner or are toeing the line of your 20th, a big part of it is getting to that finish line. And the finish line at Boston is like no other experience you will have. As a runner – and I can proudly say that – crossing that finish line in 2008 and again in 2012 were truly moments in time that I will cherish. But running with a group – like the one I’m heading to Boston with in just over a week – has shown me that running can be more than just about that ultimate prize.

2008: You Never Forget Your First Time
My road to Boston started in 2008. I was in graduate school at Tufts and had never run a marathon before. It was on my bucket list – and when the president of the school announced a charity program that would guarantee entry into the coveted race, I jumped at the chance – figuring it’d be my one and only chance to run it – and that I’d never be fast enough to time qualify.

2008 Boston Marathon
At the finish of the 2008 Boston Marathon – completely exhausted.

Looking back on that race, it’s amazing I did as well as I did for my first marathon as I barely made it through my one and only 20 mile training run and did not log nearly as many miles during the week as I do now – and I did absolutely no speed work—things that have become second nature to me going into my 8th marathon and 2nd year running with the Fleet Feet Chicago Racing Team.

Starting in the third wave – with a bib number in the upper 20,000s, it was quite the experience. I trained and ran the race solo and saw my friends and mom at different points throughout the race. I wore a brand new Timex watch that I didn’t even know how to use and had no idea what a split was, didn’t monitor my pace, and did my nutrition all wrong. But rounding that last corner onto Mass Ave made all the pain, blisters, and stomach aches suddenly disappear. The crowd consumed me and it was all I could do not to break into tears at the sight of the finish line. I finished around the 3:52 mark – meeting my goal of finishing in less than 4 hours and I was utterly exhausted but oddly fascinated by the realization that I wanted to do it again – and I wanted to go faster.

2012: The Hardest, Hottest Run of my Life
Fast forward to 2012. At this point, I had completed 2 more marathons (my second being Marine Corp Marathon where I time-qualified for Boston by just about 5 minutes). Having moved to Austin, Texas – I had enjoyed a great training season as I did not have to deal with weather conditions like I did when I lived in the northeast. I was feeling pretty confident going into the race. I had moved up to wave two and my bib number again improved by almost 10,000 numbers.

2012 Boston Marathon
Forcing a smile at the end of the 2012 Boston Marathon.

Rather than recap the whole race, I’ll sum it up by saying this experience was truly the hardest, hottest, most difficult run of my life. When forecasters started reporting that it’d be in the 80s the day of the marathon – I thought I’d have a leg up – but I learned the hard way – to respect the conditions and readjust expectations. I finished – but not where I wanted to. Going into the race, assuming all went well, I had not planned to make another appearance in Boston again– but because I want my last time running Boston to end on a high note, I decided I’d have to do it again.

When the bombings happened in 2013, I was sitting at my desk, now living and working in Chicago. My heart broke. It was gut wrenching to watch a town I used to call home and my community – the community of runners – get beat up like that. But it was also so encouraging to see everyone come together and really support one another. I decided in that moment – no matter what – I would cross that finish line at least one more time.

2015: Chasing the Unicorn with a Team by my Side
In the fall of 2013 I toed the line of the Chicago marathon for the first time. I had trained hard and for the first time ever, with others through the Chicago Endurance Sports (CES) marathon training program and the Fleet Feet Racing Team workouts. I felt ready – more ready than I have ever felt in my life. I not only PR’d but shaved off 20 minutes finishing in just over 3 hours and 15 minutes. I was beyond ecstatic. I would run Boston again in 2015.

Since then, I have run two more marathons – Lake Placid and Chicago again in 2014. My last experience was another huge improvement – finishing in just over 3 hours and 3 minutes. I can honestly say if it had not been for the support, encouragement and constant challenges I receive from my running family at Fleet Feet and CES (because I truly see them as an extension of my family) there is no way I would be where I am today.

With some of my teammates at the finish of the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Can't wait to run the streets with them in Boston!
With some of my teammates at the finish of the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Can’t wait to run the streets with them in Boston!

So this will be my third time running Boston. I have moved from the back of wave 3 to the middle of wave 1 – averaging about a 10,000 bib increase each time. I have trained through a terrible Chicago winter – and yes, mostly outdoors in occasional white out conditions and through bone-freezing negative wind chills. I did speed workouts on treadmills when the ice made it unsafe to attempt to do them outside, woke before dawn for double digit training runs during the week. Ran a 20 miler by myself because I had to skip the planned one due to a slight injury and travel plans. I even broke down in tears due to a tight hamstring 2 miles into a speed workout on the lake front path only to be met by fellow teammates who stopped and run/walked me back to the store – foregoing their planned workout for the night to help me. I ran through a lingering illness for over two weeks and started a new job in the middle of some of my highest mileage weeks. And when I wanted to quit – which was multiple times– I did not because of the support and encouragement of my teammates and our coaches.

So what have I learned throughout this training season? That while we may not always run together – and we sometimes even compete against each other – we are one community – a community of runners. And I am so grateful for the friendships, bonds and miles we’ve put in this together.

And in my dreams – there’s that finish line – the ultimate prize. Here’s to chasing that unicorn in less than a week! Good luck to everyone who has trained hard. May this race be all you hope it to be!

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The Hardest, Hottest Run of My Life

As you may have read in previous posts, I have run a couple of marathons and aim to now run at least one or two a year. The past few months, I’ve been training for the Boston Marathon, which took place Monday, April 16th. Many would say just to qualify is an accomplishment, and I would agree. I qualified with a time of 3:35 in 2010 at the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C.

My training for Boston went so smoothly, that I set a lofty goal of beating my Marine Corp time, about 2 weeks before the race. I was averaging 7:30min/mile on my long runs, so I really felt like this goal could be achievable. The week of the race, forecasters were warning that the temperature on marathon Monday would reach into the 80s. I thought – I’ll be fine – I’ve been training in the Texas heat. Little did I know that even the TX heat (which has really only been low 80s at the peak of my training) could not even compare to what I would encounter on April 16th.

Dean and I at the Runners World booth at the Boston Marathon Expo

I arrived in Boston on the Saturday before the race minus one bag (thankfully I packed my race day gear in my carry-on). My bag arrived later Saturday evening and I enjoyed seeing some of the sights and sounds of my old home (I lived, studied, ran and ate in Boston between 2006-2008). Sunday, my faithful super-fan (my mom) and I made our way to the over-crowded expo to pick up my bib and roam the expo hall. We met Dean Karnazes, a running idol of mine, and bought a couple souvenirs. The rest of the day was full or R and R as well as a lot of carbs and fluids.

Throughout this time, all registered runners were receiving warnings and updates from race officials about the heat. They even offered participants the opportunity to defer their entry until next year. I felt as though I would be OK – but seriously started doubting myself when I learned a fellow Texan would likely defer. Would I really be OK? Would the heat allow me to finish? Should I go through with it? Ultimately, through the encouragement of a few others as well as my super-fan, I decided to run – but to take it easy – and still aim to finish under 4 hours (another mistake I’d soon learn).

The morning of the race was a warm one – upper 60s at 7am. By the time of the wave 2 start (10:20 am) the temp was easily in the upper 70s. I was sweating at the starting line and all I could think about was whether or not I could handle this. Before I had time to think too long we were off.

Miles 1-13.1

I carried a bottle of water with me for the first 2-3 miles – a recommendation from one of my fellow runners, so as to avoid the full-contact water stations at miles 2 and 3 as the running crowd started to spread out. I felt good and was really starting to feel like maybe my TX training would come in handy. The first half went by relatively fast, but the heat was definitely there, lurking. Every chance I had I ran through sprinklers and sprayers and poured water over my head. My feet and clothes were soaked by mile 5. I alternated between water and Gatorade as I normally do and took spectator offerings of oranges and additional water. I finished the first half with a pace of 8:19/mile. Perhaps I could do this under 4 hours after all.

Miles 13.1-21

At the Athlete's Village awaiting the start of the Boston Marathon

We passed a group of women outside Wellesley College – I believe somewhere between miles 14 and 15 and the crowd was amazing. The girls all had signs requesting runners kiss them. Personally I felt as though there should be a few men out there too – to which one guy offered to kiss me. I laughed and continued my pace into the streets of Wellesley. Then, reality set in.

I got a cramp in my lower stomach. I tried running through it. I tried putting my hands over my head. I tried massaging it out. I tried everything I could think of but it kept getting worse. Finally at around 15 1/2 I entered a medical tent. My body did not like me – I was hot, tired and now very emotional and I could barely stand up straight. I was mad. Why didn’t I just defer? Four months of the best, most dedicated training I’ve ever given towards a marathon – all to be ruined by 90 degree weather. It wasn’t fair. I started crying. The medic took my blood pressure, which was normal, and offered me some ice cold diluted gatorade. He gave me his cell phone to call my mom – something I hesitated to do as I didn’t want her to worry. I called her regardless, let her know I was thinking about quitting. She said she was proud either way. I told her I knew that but that I wasn’t – that I had to finish this race. We hung up and another runner who had entered the tent for some vasoline and to take some salt pills approached me. He looked familiar and we started talking about the race’s brutality in this heat and he told me he had set out to run it in around 3 hours. He wasn’t happy with the conditions either – but he encouraged me to continue and even offered me a hug – to which I gladly accepted. Then I found out – of all places – he was from Austin – and helps out with a local running group there that I have been thinking about joining. What are the chances of out of the over 24,000 runners that choose to start the race, he’d enter the tent and talk to me? I suddenly felt like I could at least jog/walk the next few miles. I thanked him for his encouragement and told him I hoped to see him back in Austin.

So I set out on the next 5-6 miles. The worst 5-6 miles of my life. I essentially ran 1/2 a mile and walked 1/2 a mile the entire time. I walked all of Heart Break hill. I was hot and at one point felt as though I might be sick. At the top of Heart Break Hill the second amazing thing happened that would motivate me beyond what I thought was possible. I happened to see a sign with my favorite Dean Karnazes quote ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ Having just completed his first book about 2 months ago, which has significantly impacted my outlook on life and running, the quote was so significant in this moment.

Miles 21-26.2

Big Smile after Crossing the Finish Line!

I suddenly felt a surge of energy. I started running. I didn’t stop. I embraced the crowd – I even smiled a bit. I really started to enjoy this race and realize it’s importance. It’s significance. I ran with joy, passion and love of the experience. I slapped the hands of spectators, enjoyed the most amazing Popsicle of my life at mile 23 and allowed myself to really just take it all in. This was Boston, on the hottest day in over 30 years and possibly on record – and I was going to do this – I was going to finish.

When I turned the corner onto Boylston and saw the finish line I became emotional again. I reached deep to compose myself so that I could finish. Tears streemed down my face and at one point and I could not believe that the finish was actually in sight. While I may not have finished with a time I’m proud of. I finished. Many did not – including the 2011 men’s champion. I could wear my medal with pride.

I found my super fan and it was all I could do to keep myself from collapsing in her arms. I could see the tears streaming from her face. Every marathon comes with emotions – but this one – this one was different. With so many people just happy to finish – I too joined them in a celebration of success.

A couple hours later, as I sat in the car, I turned to my super fan and asked “you think I could run another one in May?” She responded that I might consider taking a little more time off. “You are probably right,” I said. “Fall sounds more realistic.”

Thanks, Mom, for your support, encouragement and guidance. This run is dedicated to you.