BOSTON MARATHON. Official time: 3.15.42.
When I found out that I met the qualifying time to secure a spot at Boston Marathon last year, I knew I had to do it. Besides the fact that the race is the oldest annually held marathon, it is known by many to be the toughest course of the World Marathon Majors. I wanted to be part of the Boston club; I wanted that official Boston jacket.
But nothing could have prepared me for the emotional rollercoasters I went through. In the weeks preceding the Boston Marathon, I had this irrational paranoia that I would get ill or injured just before the race and I would not be able to make it to the start line. My fears grew to a fever pitch during my final taper week, when I discovered that Clinton got pharyngitis and one of my work colleagues caught a cold. I was convinced I was going to catch something one way or another. As it turned out though, I was fine. No cold. No injury. Fit as a fiddle.
But before I could relax, I began to hear rumours that the marathon would be as wet and as horrible as last year. Last year, the weather was so bad that half of the pro field dropped out of the race. If we get a repeat of last year, then my PB hopes would go right out of the window. Naturally I ignored these rumours as “crazy runners obsession talk”. My line of thinking: Surely you wouldn’t get crappy weather two years in a row?
Then, two days before the race, my worst fears were confirmed. The race organisers warned that there will be heavy rain and thunderstorm. I didn’t want to believe it, but when I woke up to pouring rain, lightning and thunder on race morning, my heart sank. How could I possibly PB in these conditions? My expectations quickly went down the hill, and my goal of smashing a PB quickly became “let’s just run this in a respectable time”.
Boston is a point to point race from the small town of Hopkinton to downtown Boston, and they provide school buses to take all the runners from Boston Common to the start point at Hopkinton.
After dropping off my bag at 7am, I made my way over to the bus loading area. It was only a 5-minute walk but the rain was pelting down hard and there was nothing to shelter us. I felt the rain seep into my shoes and socks and I cursed myself for not having the foresight to bring an extra pair of shoes/socks for the bus journey or wrap a plastic bag over the shoes. Everyone else seemed way more prepared than me. Some every made plastic bag shoes for their trainers. Me? I had nothing. Except soggy socks and shoes.
The bus ride to Hopkinton took nearly an hour. The guy next to me on the bus, Oscar, was a veteran of over 50 marathons. He told me about triathlons he had done (his half Ironman time being something crazy like 4h30) and how he’d met up with Chrissie Wellington in San Francisco. It made me so excited about racing again this season. And more importantly, it reminded me that I had a time to beat on the day.
Finally I got off the bus at Hopkinton. The weather did a full 180-degree turn and the heavy rain had stopped. I almost jumped with excitement. Could the worst be over? I chewed the thought in my head as I walked over to the Athletes Village. They had everything! Bananas, bagels, gels, mini Cliff bars and even coffee! I helped myself to a bagel. I’d been worried I hadn’t eaten enough (all I had for breakfast was three snack bars) so the bagel felt like a god-send!
After chatting with a couple of runners, I went to queue for portaloos. The queues were RIDICULOUSLY long. I thought 40 minutes would leave me plenty of time but the queue itself must have taken 45 minutes.
I ended up going to my start corral five minutes late. In a different race, starting late would have left me all flustered and stressed but for Boston my plan was to go out easy on the downhill so I wasn’t fussed about starting slow. As it turned out, it was a great move. Starting 10 minutes late meant that there was a gap between us and the previous wave so I didn’t have to waste energy overtaking and I got more and more confident as I gradually moved up the field.
It was at the start line that it finally hit me: I was about to run THE Boston Marathon! Up until this point the idea felt kind of surreal to me. Yes, I was telling everyone I’m doing it but it didn’t really dawn on me until I was there, waiting at the corrals. I felt proud of my accomplishment but also humbled and inspired by the runners that surrounded me. It was one of those moments where I felt in tune with everything around me and the heaven had opened up for me. I had fully expected heavy rain and winds but instead what I got was a nice overcast day, perfect for running. Could life get any better? I realised you can’t take anything for granted in life and it made me so grateful and appreciative to be at the start line, healthy and uninjured.
At 10:45, the gun went, and we were off. The first mile was all downhill so I just took it easy and ran with another girl as I soaked up all the atmosphere. The crowd, right from the start, was phenomenal and got right behind me. My club name, Belgrave, was emblazoned across the front of my top in big bright yellow letters so it could be seen from a distance. And I kept hearing people going “BELGRAVE!!! BELGRAVE!” I can see why people love running the Boston Marathon. I was sopping up every ounce of emotion with a smile as big as the sun. I thought I’ve experienced crowds in London but in Boston the crowds were a different beast. They were so loud and they were screaming like they really want you to succeed and they’re really rooting for you. And the great thing is you get that for the whole 42km. I don’t think there was a single stretch that did not have spectators on it. If I wanted, I probably could have high-fived spectators all the way to Boylston. It was incredible.
The first 10km went by quickly and I got to Framingham at around 44 minutes. The main thing I can remember was the massive party atmosphere. The party atmosphere, as it had done for a lot of the early part of the race, had got me really pumped up (especially with the crowd yelling out my club name) and caused me to run a fair bit faster than I probably should have at that point.
It was also around the 10km mark that I realised that heat was going to be an issue. The temperature had been rising and by now the sun was in full view and it felt like it was at least 20C. So I kept taking water at every single water station, even if it was just to wet my mouth. It was a good job there were water/Gatorade stations every mile on both sides of the road! My only complaint is that all the drinks were served in paper cups (not bottles) so it was difficult to drink and run at the same time. I switched between Gatorade and water depending on how skilful I felt about drinking on the run. It was much easier to drink water because all I had to do was fold the cup into a spout, tilt my head and let the water pour in, and it was ok if some of it went down my top, but I couldn’t do the same for Gatorade (the idea of “sticky Jess” for 42km… no thanks).
The course mostly flattened out by this point. And I honestly can’t remember much about this part of the course, except the fact that there were a few amputees with prosthetic legs running on the course. There were also a lot of visually impaired runners with sighted guides. I wondered how much training they must have put in for the marathon… and it made me appreciate how lucky I am to be healthy and fit.
Then came Wellesley and the ‘Scream Tunnel’. This is where hundreds of girls from Wellesley College line the course and create a level of noise that can be heard from miles away. It was definitely the part of the course I loved the most. This was at 20km, just before the halfway point. The girls at the Wellesley College were insanely loud and they all had signs saying “kiss me!”
Apparently this tradition dates back to the earliest days of the Boston Marathon, remembering that back then, women weren’t allowed to compete. I didn’t go for a kiss (that would have taken too much time) but I did wave a few times, and some of the Asians there shouted “GO GO GO!” (Jia You) in Mandarin… I felt the Asian connection for sure!
21.1km (half way)
As I went through 21.1km mark I checked my time again. 1h35. Still on track. No surprise there. I knew I would fly through the first half of the race. The real race for me began at halfway point. That’s where all the big hills are, and where I would be weakest physically and mentally.
At the halfway point, I saw Clinton and Alex waving from the sidelines. It gave me such a boost to see them and it made me focus on my running form as I ran past. I was feeling good at this point but mentally it was challenging. The real race was only beginning and I was already feeling the heat and the fatigue in my legs. I was also beginning to feel the humidity and the heat. It was hot under the full sun, probably hotter than I think anyone anticipated. But I couldn’t complain. I would swap stormy rainy weather for humid hot weather any day.
After passing 24km, I reached another key point of the race – being another incredibly fast downhill kilometre from 25-26km. It was at this point I realised how those early downhill kilometres had trashed my quads and I really felt them as I ran down the hill. I knew that the downhill would eventually end and when I got to the bottom it would be the start of the infamous Newton Hills.
25km – Newton Hills
At around 26km, the hills became frequent and I found myself constantly climbing/descending. There was a spectator giving out ice cubes. I went to get one. Anything to cool down my core temp. My heart was beating fast at this point and I knew I was working a lot harder than I was earlier in the race. My pace was still the same but I was definitely having to put more effort in as I negotiated the rolling hills.
I tried to match the run course to the elevation profile in my head but I couldn’t quite work it out (!) I just remembered the course has 2 hills between 25km-30km and 2 hills between 30km-35km. But when I was running on the course it was really not that obvious. Sometimes there was a gradual up, sometimes a gradual down, but there was no way for me to know whether that was one of the hills on the elevation map! So I gave up counting after a while and just tried to tackle each the hills separately. All the while I was thinking about what Alex had said before the race: “where there is an up, there is also a down”. Pretty deep right? It’s like one of those sayings: “where there is a will there is a way!”
I heard music… and it was Queen. The song was ‘Don’t stop me now!’ I had just watched Bohemian Rhapsody on my flight to Boston so I definitely felt like the song was intended for ME!
At 31-32km, I began to climb up a steep slope and I knew without a doubt that this was Heartbreak Hill. The hill itself was not particularly gruelling (I would compare it to Parliament Hill or Maze Hill back at home), but the hill came just after 32km which was around the length of my longest training run. The Heartbreak Hill segment itself (around 1km) I completed in just over 5min/km and the elevation was around 30m. If you put that elevation over 100km you’re looking at 3000m elevation. So yeah, it was steep but it was also short.
As I went up the hill, I tried to spot Clinton and Alex who apparently were somewhere between 30-35km, and that definitely kept me trying to stay on pace. It was so nice to have people to look for in the crowds, especially as things were getting hillier (and slower). I picked off runners one by one, while keeping an eye out for the guys. Where are they? Did they get lost? This kept me nicely distracted as I went up the hill.
Moments later, I came to the traffic lights at the top of the hill and emerged onto level ground, and knew I’d conquered Heartbreak Hill. The worst was over. I did a fist pump in the air and began to descend fast, knowing that was the time to “go for it”.
By this point my legs felt like lead and even though I tried to run fast my legs were slow and heavy. I always thought I’m a “downhill runner”, because I tend to overtake people going down, but the downhills on this course tore my quads to shreds. To me, they were far worse than the climbs, which were long and steady.
I heard someone shout “JESSSSSS!!” and turned to see Clinton and Alex going past on the bike. That was when I realised they were actually having trouble catching up with me (the course was lined with spectators so they obviously had difficulty cycling past them after meeting me halfway). The thought made me giddy and gave me a boost and I ran hard knowing that I would give them a good chase. (How awesome would it be if I beat them to the finish?!) I laughed at how absurd that idea was and sprinted down the hill. At this point it was all downhill to the finish so it was all or nothing. Just 7km to go. How hard can it be?!
The answer: It was hard. The last part shouldn’t be that tough but the preceding 35km had taken a lot out of me, and by this point my quads were pretty trashed.
I thought after Heartbreak Hill it would all be downhill, but that wasn’t true. There were two smallish hills – an overpass and an underpass to contend with before reaching the finish. I kept to the centre of the roads and just tried to keep pressing ahead.
But I was also really excited because I knew that I would get a PB. The question is how big a PB would it be? 5 min PB? Or 10 min PB? I knew 3h15 was still firmly in sight so I kept the pace going. I saw someone holding a sign: “Pain is temporary, internet race results are forever.” How apt! Another mantra to add to my “mantra bag”. My pace jumped as I felt a surge of energy. I embraced the physical pain while I ran, and simply let my heart and legs guide me towards the finish, one step at a time.
I went past 40km at 3h05. I did the maths quickly and knew it would take me another 10 min to run 2.2km. I was cutting it really fine to the 3h15 target. If I want to make sub-3h15 I’d need to run faster, and the emotional impact of that statement, as I heard myself say it in my head, was instant.
On the last 2km I gave it everything I had. Physically. Mentally. All. I’ve never felt more spent in my life, or more accomplished. “This is BOSTON, Jess. And this is YOUR day. You have done harder sets on the track. LET’S GO.” Over and over in my head I shouted. And my legs just ran with me.
The finish – 42.2km
Finally, I turned the corner at Hereford Street onto Boylston.
And there it was: the finish line!
I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotions as I went through this wall of deafening noise. I took the final sprint down Boylston, and all kinds of emotions swelled up in my heart.
I JUST FINISHED THE BOSTON MARATHON!
I finished in 3:15:42.
That’s 10 MINUTES quicker than my PB in London last year!
I ran the race exactly to plan and did exactly what I set out to do. The hills were gruelling, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I loved every minute of it. The euphoria I experienced was incredible. It would have been lovely to run a sub-3:15 (that would have qualified me for the “Championship” entry for London Marathon next year), but given everything, I’m ok with being 42 secs over.
- Net Time: 3:15:42
- Overall: 5517/26632 (Top 20%)
- In Gender: 730/11970 (Female) (Top 6%)
- In Division: 616/5655 (F18-39) (Top 11%)
As we started the long walk out of the finish area I got chatting to someone called Grace who I actually met early on in the race! She told me about her plans to run a sub-3 at the California International Marathon this summer… which is incredible.
One of the coolest things about the Boston Marathon was the number of people I got talking to during the walk to the bus, at the athlete tents, at the start corrals, during the race itself, and after that finish line. We struck up conversation so easily it was like we had known each other for years. I guess we all knew what it took to get into Boston Marathon!
It hasn’t been a smooth journey. It had been challenging to run four times a week, over and above other things like swim and bike training (oh, and full time work!) For a couple of weeks in February I felt so tired and exhausted and I didn’t feel like I was making any progress. My legs ached between runs, my feet hurt and I couldn’t keep up with washing all the sweaty kit! Then when it came to “tapering” I felt all weak and tired. I didn’t feel as fresh/strong as I’d hoped and I had a lot of doubt as to how I’d do in the marathon. I kept hearing grim predictions of the weather and mentally it was quite hard to get my head in the zone. I just had to trust in the process and hope that the training will pay off.
There is a fine line between “visualising the course” and “fretting about race day” and I spent a lot of time trying to avoid the latter and to “positively” think about the what ifs. What if the weather is bad? I will do the best I can. What if I blow up at mile 20? At least I will know where my limit is at and I will learn for next time. Jo Pavey has once said: “You can’t control the conditions, but you can control how you react to them” and I think it’s so powerful and applies to so many things. You can’t control the weather, but you can make sure you have the right gear. You can’t control how your body reacts to the stress of running, but you can control how you respond to the pain and push through. To have a goal and to accomplish it is such a powerful feeling. In many ways a marathon represents the physical/emotional ups and downs that accompany all of life’s pursuits. Even in our weakest moments, we always find enough strength to reach our goals. It may be hard and painful, but with the support of loved ones and others sharing our path, we always move forward. I’m so thankful to have so many amazing people supporting me on this run and I realise I’m lucky to have so many amazing friends to train with everyday.
Good luck to everyone doing the London Marathon next week! We’ll be supporting!