Unprepared for Boston, and Ready to Go

      Another spring, another Boston Marathon, my fifth in six years. The same obsessive anxieties over the minutia of training for 26.2 miles (pace, schedule, long runs and muscle pain), the same debilitating insecurities about my racing ability. Everything else is different this year.
      A year ago in Boston I was in a hotel room, basking in the glory of my best performance on the distance earlier in the day, when two bombs exploded at the finish line about 200 yards (200 meters) away. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. Lives were interrupted or altered forever on a beautiful day that was supposed to be all about having fun while supporting thousands of runners crazy enough to endure hours of physical suffering voluntarily (and for a fee). I was safe in my room, both close to the horror and protected from it. I was spared while others got maimed, and at the end of that long April 15 day, after walking for hours in the streets of Boston, I came back to my hotel inside the 15-block crime scene and committed to return in 2014.
      My words at the time were that I would go back “even if I have to crawl the distance.” I didn’t really mean it. I had just run the best race of my life in 2h54m17 and was the fittest I may ever get. Fast forward March 2014 and the crawling doesn’t sound as far-fetched as it did then.
     My running problems started in September when a stomach ailment and a sprained ankle kept me off the roads for two weeks. When I started again, it was for casual runs without a watch. I indulged in my latest passion, hot yoga (vinyasa), twice a week.
     When I run a spring marathon, I try to keep the previous summer and fall seasons low key. It’s my slacking-off time: I force myself to restrict running to no more than four times a week and I try to avoid pushing myself too hard. Slacking off can involve going for a fun run of a couple of hours on the trails, but just for the heck of it, not for a particular purpose. Come December I start thinking about my training, but I deliberately don’t kick off my official plan until January to avoid peaking too soon — physically and mentally.
      Given my lack of mileage in October and November, I decided to build back some endurance during December. The ramping up would culminate with a top-secret plan for the 27th: On my 40th birthday, at home in the French Alps, I would run the 13-kilometer (8.1 mile) local climb up Col du Granier. The mountain is like a childhood friend. I woke up to its sight every day from age 3 to 17. I’ve hiked to the top many times with my family, and I ride my bicycle up its pass when I spend summer vacation there. I had just never run it.

       The Philadelphia winter ruined my grand scheme: On Dec. 10, following the second of more than a dozen of snowstorms, I stepped outside of the house, fell on ice and crushed my right wrist. I flew to France a few days after surgery, sore and sorry for myself, for a vacation that wouldn’t involve much physical activity after all (unless you count re-learning to tie a ponytail or wash one’s hair). I did force my poor father to dust off a decades-old stationary bike that was rusting in a cold pantry downstairs. I rode there daily while doing homemade physical therapy on my wrist. It involved a lot of waving my hand like a royalty and worked well to regain flexibility and strength — but wasn’t as helpful for my marathon training.

(First run in a month, with stump.)
       When I returned to running in mid-January after a full month off, I made the ultimate rookie mistake: I ran 12 miles, way too long for a first run. I knew this, of course, and still couldn’t help myself. I paid the usual price — sore muscles that prevented from running for four days.
       Now I had to contend with a new feeling: the fear of falling. The weather didn’t cooperate. The third-snowiest winter on record brought a total that’s almost as tall as I am (about 60 inches, or 1m52). That has led to countless treadmill sessions and challenging long runs on the few roads that were mostly cleared of snow and ice. On my first 19-miler Feb. 17, a pickup driver yelled at me, calling me crazy and telling me to “go run elsewhere.” If only I could (have), I would (have).
        I’m obsessively returning to my training log in early 2013, checking how fast, how long and how hard I ran a year ago and comparing it unfavorably with 2013. I was running faster and longer. But this year, I’m probably running harder, coming off a much lower base. Needless to say, my training has lacked races and weekday group runs (which would have involved running at night on ice), the two best ways to improve speed.
      A week ago I did participate in a local 5-mile race, running 7 miles to and from the race to make it a long run. There were about 50 of us, and the start got delayed by a very angry looking fire chief who asked us to “run on the sidewalks” (amid piles of snow and black ice). After he finally let us run on the street, I started hard — it had been such a long time since I’d raced that I didn’t know whether to push or hold back. I had one female ahead of me — a 14-year-old kid — and one female breathing down my neck — a 38-year-old who eventually won. The course was hilly, I was slow, and my legs were weak and painful. My watch failed to start, and the course wasn’t marked, so I was in the dark about my pace. With what I estimate was less than a mile to go on a very hilly course, I saw the kid starting to fade. As I caught up, I encouraged her: “Great job! You’re young, I’m old! I’m sure you can run faster than me!” She stayed with me for a little while but lost steam at the very end.
       My pace is just a reminder of how slow I have become: I ran 5 miles at a 6:50 pace (about 14km/h), 12 seconds slower than in Boston 2013. And last week I ran another race, a 5k, or 3.1 miles, barely faster than my 2013 marathon pace. It was fast enough to win the race (due to lack of female competition) . It restored a bit of confidence, but as I crossed the finish line, I thought,  “in Boston, I’ll have 23.1 miles to go”…
      Here I am 1 1/2 months away from the race, toiling away during training. I’m under-prepared and prepared to underperform, but not before giving it the best I can. It’s the least I can do for the bombings’ victims. I’m Boston ready.
(5k trophy — St. Patrick theme — restored a bit of confidence.)

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