With 3.2 miles (5.1 km) to go before the finish of the 114th Boston Marathon on April 19, I checked my watch and did the math. To finish the race under 3 hours, I would have to run the distance in less than 22 minutes, at a pace that I had done many times in training. After running fast for 23 miles on a grueling course, I knew there was very little chance I could pull it off and that I would more likely come just a few minutes, maybe seconds, short. I pushed through the pain as hard as I could, not to reach the arbitrary goal of “sub-3,” as we say in runners’ jargon, but to give everything I had without falling apart. On my mind was a mantra from my husband, an extract of a Taoist reading: “Accepting, not wanting.”
I didn’t aim for sub-3 in the first place for my fifth marathon. My goal was 3h10, which I deemed ambitious as it put me in the “local champion” category, whatever that means, based on my age and gender. My prior personal record was 3h17m36 in New York City in November 2007. New York was itself a leapfrog compared with my previous record of 3h33m44 in Austin in February 2007. Since I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2008 in 3h18m45, I assumed I didn’t have that much room for progress left. In marathon goal-setting, the target needs to be ambitious, but not unrealistic. I went for the mathematical route. Theoretically, you should multiply your half-marathon time by two and add 10 minutes. Based on my two most recent half-marathons this year, which were my two best by far, that was 3h06 to 3h08. So even if 3h10 was a lot faster than I ever ran, it seemed about right. Except, nothing in a marathon happens as “in theory.”
I lined up at the start of the race with a comment on my mind: “If you don’t feel like you’re going too slow, you’re going too fast” in the several first miles, Jack Fultz, the 1976 Boston Marathon winner, said in an interview in the Boston Globe.
The first half of the course is technically downhill, but in reality it’s a succession of rolling hills. In the Boston Marathon two years ago, I was crushed at the end of the first mile when I saw a hill. From then on, my legs hurt. This year, I didn’t let that happen. The start was crowded and I spent the first miles getting around people and trying to stay calm while runners got in my way near water stations posted every mile on each side of the road. I thought it was too many stations when more than 25,000 people are trying to run through the narrow roads of Hopkinton and Ashland. When I checked my time, even with the water-station slowdown, I was surprised to see that I was running at a pace of less than 7 minutes a mile — that’s almost 14 km/h and gives you a marathon in 3h03. Before 2010, I’d never reached that pace in races, not even in 10Ks. But I felt good — dare I say “slow”? — so I wondered if my watch was broken or my calculation skills had deteriorated. I followed another advice from my husband, who played and coached hockey: let your body run the race. My body was telling me to keep going at that pace.
(Boston Marathon’s elevation profile. Source: Boston Marathon’s Web site.)
My strategy for Boston was simple: the race starts at mile 16. That’s just before a series of hills that run through mile 21, and that’s where I would make my effort. For mental fortitude, I would recall last spring, when I got so sick and weak from a bacteria in my colon that I could barely walk for more than 30 minutes, let alone run. For fueling, I planned to eat a GU energy gel at miles 8, 16 and 22, and drink water every 2 miles, starting mile 4.
I stayed concentrated but also had some fun, touching the hands of little kids alongside the road. I get a kick out people screaming my name, but the strips of white tape on which it was written progressively peeled off, starting on the right side with the letter “e” and then the left side with the letter “c.” After the initial “Go, Cecile,” I started hearing “Go, Cecil,” and then confused “Go… Cecilia?” “Go… Celine?” “Eli?” and even a group chanting: “Go Ici, go Ici.” To my husband’s dismay, I didn’t kiss any of the screaming girls holding a “Kiss me” sign at Wellesley College, at mile 13, at midpoint of the race. I left them for the guys, although I didn’t see any of them taking the opportunity.
“Did you kiss a girl?” I heard one of them saying behind me. “No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to lose my momentum,” the other one replied. Runners are so fun-loving.
I ran the first half in 1h30m09. Even though it was my third-best time ever on the distance, I felt relatively fresh. Soon would come the hills, and I knew that running the second half of the race in 1h40 was now feasible. I started to feel pain in my left inner thigh but concluded that it would be manageable.
I attacked the hills heads on, checking on my fellow runners and thinking: “This will separate the men from the boys.”
Depending on how you count and from where you count, there are four or five of them until the last one: Heartbreak Hill. I had trained hard on hills during the winter and was almost eager to see how that would pay off. People slowed down, walked or even stopped around me, so I chose to stay in the middle of the road, looking straight ahead. I have small legs and uphill is where I can get a revenge against runners who have a longer stride; it’s an equalizer. I don’t recall checking my pace. I knew I was going faster than ever before in a marathon, but I wasn’t looking for a specific pace: I wanted to get to the top of the final big hill.
Once there, at mile 21, I realized I was on pace to finish a lot faster than 3h10. I passed 35 km in 2h30 and recalled that three years ago, at the Austin Marathon, I was approaching the 30 km sign at about the same time. I also recalled that Lance Armstrong’s split at 35 km was around 2h30 when he completed his first marathon in New York in 2006 in 2h59m36. The prospect of a sub-3 crossed my mind but soon I was distracted by a sudden, excruciating pain on my left foot: a blister had popped and a nail might be lost. Something really nasty was going on in my shoe. I still had 5 miles (8 km) to go with that toe, in addition to tired legs, inner-thigh pain on both sides by now, a right calf that threatened to cramp and an upset stomach. This, to me, was the real race: the one I had decided long ago to dedicate to two people who had passed away within a week of each other in January: my aunt, who gave me my middle name, and a dear friend of my husband’s. I was running for them. I kept the pace no matter what.
Every little thing counts in a marathon, especially near the end. At mile 22, I felt nauseated, but I knew my legs would appreciate some fuel for the final kick, so I forced myself to have a final energy gel, which must be taken with water, as planned. It was my third of the race and by now my technique was well-honed. I would gulp the gel while passing the water station’s tables of the right side and take a cup of water on the left side shortly after. Except that at mile 22, there was water only on the right side and I was forced to run a mile with my mouth glued with the sweet, syrupy concoction, licking my lips like a lizard to wipe some of it off and cursing myself. It felt like the longest mile of the race, even though it’s downhill.
After rinsing my mouth at mile 23 and mentally thanking the organization for having water every mile after all, I braced myself for the final push. The memory of those miles is a blur of pain and surprising lucidity. I focused on my breathing, which by now came with a grunt a la Monica Seles, except — I think and hope for my fellow runners — not as loud as the tennis champion. I started grunting when attempting to sprint near the finish of my races in January: it helps me go beyond my limits. About 100 meters from the finish, I looked for my husband, who’d been waiting there for almost 5 hours to see me just a few seconds. I spotted him at the last minute.
“Run, baby! Run!” he screamed. And so I did to the finish line in 3h01m43 and nearly passed out.
(“Run, baby, run!” Signs of distress near the finish line.)
My time was less than two minutes more than my cycling hero Lance Armstrong in his debut marathon in 2006. My splits in the first half and the second half were almost even, meaning I kept about the same pace throughout. I let my body run and I now realize it did so like a cyclist, changing gears to keep an even pace through the ups and downs of the road. I placed 91st of all women, out of 9,468 female finishers. I’m still in shock about that performance, which surpassed all my expectations. What could have wanted more? Nothing.