Running a marathon is 90 percent about preparation. We train our bodies for months. We set strategies and goals. We rehearse the course over maps. We go through pre-race rituals. Short of installing a treadmill in a sauna, nothing could have prepared us for a heat wave in mid-April in Boston, where temperatures reached a record 89 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) on marathon day.
“It was my hardest marathon by far,” said my friend Tomas, who’s run every New York marathon since 1998 and had a personal best in Maryland in 2010 at 2h59. He finished the 2012 Boston Marathon about 45 minutes slower than he anticipated.
(With Tomas, aka Speedy Czech, before the start, looking fresh and Eurotrash cool.)
I must confess: I enjoy running in warm weather more than the average runner. While waiting for the start in Hopkinton, I was basking in the sun, reminiscing about the 2008 Boston Marathon, when I shivered with cold for two hours before the race. With temperatures in the low 70s (about 21-22 degrees Celsius) in the morning of this year’s race, I decided to stay with my strategy of a fast first half to gain time before the heat really hit.
The strategy worked…for about 4 miles, or 15 percent of the marathon. My splits in minutes a mile were: 6:22; 6:41; 6:33 and 6:37. I felt warm, but the pace wasn’t grueling in the rolling hills. Starting in the fourth corral of Wave 1 in Boston means being among mostly male runners who finish in 3 hours or less. During the first miles, the ambience was still testosterone-heavy around me. Sample:
“Oh yeah, Boston is like a sprint for me!” said a runner after informing the man next to him he’d participated in the Leadville Trail 100 (as in 100 miles) in Colorado. I rolled my eyes: we were barely in mile 2.
After about 30 minutes, my pace started to drop as the temperature rose. The first sign of trouble came when Paul, the fastest runner from my local club, the Delco RRC, pulled over next to me:
“You’re fast,” he said. Paul is normally untouchable on any distance. The most I’d seen from him in any race was his back, at the start. The fact that he was coming from behind was an indicator that this race would be like no other.
As my pace slowed to more than 7 minutes a mile, I had a belated wake-up call on a fact I knew from the start: “Get real, you’re not running under 3 hours today.” Abruptly, my focus shifted from trying to run a fast race to wondering whether I would reach the finish line. When I saw a sign saying “Free beer in 17.2 miles!,” I sighed: It meant I had run only 9 miles. Being depressed at the thought of beer: that’s how low I was.
A strong-looking female runner with a pink sports bra and legs as tall as the whole me passed me. A few minutes later, I heard “medics, medics! Pink top!” She was on the ground on the sidewalk, a fellow runner at her side and medical assistance on its way. I shivered. She would be the first of several runners I saw collapsing or on stretchers, all of them fit-looking. The heat broke the best: Geoffrey Mutai, last year’s winner in a record 2h03, dropped after 18 miles because of cramping. The 2011 female runner walked across the finish line.
(The main task of the day: avoid cramping)
If our bodies weren’t prepared for the heat after months of winter training, the city of Boston was: 2,181 runners sought medical treatment, according to the Boston Globe, but no one was in life-threatening condition. The crowd was also of key support — spraying water with garden hoses, and offering cups of water, ice cubes, wet sponges and damp towelettes.
Mile 11 marked a turning point: my quads tightened and would stay borderline cramping for the rest of the race. Translation for non-runners: two hours of pain, every step. The priority was now hydration. I honed a routine at the water stations: grabbing two cups, emptying one over my head, sipping water from the other.
I passed the first half in 1h31m52, a disappointing time under other circumstances. My quads felt crippled down the hills and I was looking forward the hills starting mile 16 — another sign Boston was different this year.
My husband, a former coach of young hockey players, has a knack for planting in my head mottos that resurface at moments I need them the most. “Remember that you like running in warm weather,’’ he told me the night before. “I think you can enjoy this race.”
I tried hard to find joy. Runners were swaying from one side of the road to the other like a drunken caterpillar at the sight of a bit of shade or a hose. The best was when we passed underneath two yellow tunnels of showers set up by fire stations. I chuckled at their sight and the cold water underneath knocked the wind out of me, bringing childhood memories of the mandatory shower before getting into the pool. I started to stick out my tongue every time I could catch a drop of water. (An official picture caught me in the act.) I also hallucinated –- seeing mirages of water sprays.
(A few meters/yards before the finish line: the ordeal is almost over. Can you spot me? Clues: I do wear a top and I don’t wear compression socks.)
When I reached mile 20, near the end of the series of hills, my quads were on fire. But seeing my dear friend D. — who couldn’t participate this year because of a back injury — gave me a morale boost. I would need it to survive the last 6 miles: the temperature was now approaching 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and I still had about 45 minutes to go — an eternity. Data from my Garmin watch shows that I went a bit over 8 minutes a mile three times during the race: Mile 21, 24 and 25. The last two were partially due to a massive slowdown at the last two water stations that forced me to almost stop. The end was near: the disorganized pack of dehydrated runners was desperate for a last sip of water.
Trying to describe what I felt during those last miles takes two words: painful quads. Some people had a final kick, including a few women who passed me in the last mile (I didn’t count because my brain was malfunctioning at that stage). When I tried to accelerate, it felt like trying to move a car with the parking brake on. The last two women who passed me landed in the medical tent after the finish. Maybe it was for my own good that my quads resisted any attempt to speed. Hours later, as I was resting in my hotel room near the finish line, I could see runners coming in after five, six or seven hours in the dead of the heat, to the incessant sound of ambulance sirens. Boston is always special. This year was exceptional. I hope.
My Boston by the numbers:
Net Time: 3:15:10
Ranking among females: 94/8,966
Statistics that will keep my head cool:
A 40-year-old French woman finished 9th in 2:40:50.
In 2010, I was 91st among 9,552 women: My ranking dropped.
The 2012 Boston marathon was my slowest since Boston 2008 (3:18)
(Posing in the hotel room, before the race, in front of a GIGANTIC French flag.)