(Editor’s note: This write up was previously published in December 2016 in my KeyOfGF.com blog)
I love to run, and I love classic rock. Therefore, I love to run while listening to classic rock.
Long-time readers of my blogs already know I spend way too much time tailoring music playlists for my races. My playlist for the 2016 Kiawah Island Marathon was no different – 44 songs, 21 of which were by the band Boston. A list carefully orchestrated to last for 203 minutes, which is three hours twenty-three minutes.
As they so often do, my main audio training partners Freddie Mercury and Brad Delp were coming along for the ride. However, after creating the playlist, which would accompany me around the beautiful landscapes of Kiawah and through the pain called the wall, I realized it did not include any Sammy Hagar or Van Hagar. Odd, I know, since Sammy has accompanied me on a lot of miles and helped me through over some tough teenage walls. I did feel a bit bad about this, but decided to keep my playlist as designed.
Then, last Saturday, December 10th, as I set about to warm up for the marathon, I put in my earbuds and pressed shuffle, since it wasn’t playlist time yet. I couldn’t believe my ears. The first song randomly chosen by my iPhone from the hundreds of tunes stored there was Sammy Hagar performing a solo acoustic version of Van Hagar’s “Finish What You Started”. I about lost it. Emotions have been volatile this crazy year called 2016. Message received, though.
See, I wasn’t just at Kiawah to complete another marathon. I was there to complete a mission I’d begun several years ago and double downed on earlier this year: to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Here are some numbers and facts you need to know to follow along:
- The Boston Marathon is a big deal in the running community. Arguably, the world’s most prestigious marathon, runners must qualify by meeting certain time standards for their age groups (unless you sign up with some limited charity organizations and raise some serious cash).
- I am 48 years old. 48.75 is more accurate. 49 looms (March).
- My current age group in most run competitions is 45-49. The Boston qualifying time for this group is 3:25:00 (three hours, twenty-five minutes).
- Here’s where it gets interesting. Entries for the 2017 Boston Marathon are closed (sign up is in September each year). Current qualifying is for the 2018 race. This is important; follow along.
- In March of 2018, I will turn 50, and the Boston Marathon is in April. This means that as of now, I am considered in the 50-54 age group per their rules, so my qualifying time is actually 3:30:00, rather than 3:25:00. Five minutes just for getting older. No training required!
- Meeting the qualifying time standard, though, is just the first part of getting to Boston. They only take so many people per age group, and fastest times get in first. So, if they take say 1000 in your group, and you’re the 1001 fastest registering, you don’t get in. The average time to get in is actually about two and a half minutes faster than the qualifying standard in each age group.
Therefore, my goal for the 2016 Kiawah Island Marathon was 3:27:00, to be safe. As a greedy goal, I wanted to beat 3:22:30 to also beat the 45-49 real cutoff.
- I took up running eight years ago at age 40. In 2009, I ran my first marathon at Kiawah Island a year after becoming a runner. I finished in 3:58:00.
- Kiawah Island 2016 was my 9th road marathon and the 4th where I actually thought I had a chance to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’ve been seriously wrong so far.
- Frustrated with my lack of progress, on March 1, 2016, I began a new training regimen with a new coach – my son Miles. I’ve been put through the ringer this year. There have been very few off days since March 1st.
With all that, let’s begin.
I had three main goals for 2016:
1 – Find a job. I enjoyed unemployment for a while, but that monkey gets heavy really quick.
2 – Self-publish my first fiction novel (this long write-up is not it).
3 – Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Unemployment is great for working on the last two goals. Unfortunately, it’s not great for paying the bills. So, in August, when I landed a job, I was relieved but wondered what affect a new job would have on training. I’d made vast improvements since March and was about to start focused marathon specific workouts.
I figured a a new job would have to come first priority. Fortunately, the new job had a fitness center on-site and flexible enough time policies which allowed me to do the majority of my workouts at lunch and take a shower, which my coworkers probably appreciated. Working out at lunch also forced me to take my lunches which was probably slightly better nutritionally than eating out.
So, marathon specific training went well from August through early December and on Thursday evening, December 8th, my wife and I headed to a house we’d rented on Kiawah Island. I wanted to have Friday to rest, having learned the hard way in years past that traveling to marathons can have unexpected problems. We arrived without incident and all automobile transmissions intact.
Ain’t it Great When Things Are Going Your Way
On Friday, we made our way over to the race expo and packet race bib pickup. My first sign that this might be my time was at the bib pickup table. I gave the volunteer my name and identification. He handed my bib to me, and said ‘You’re in the fast group.’ I kinda laughed and thought the old guy was messing with me.
Turns out, the marathon had created a separate starting corral for the faster runners, based on their projected finishing times submitted on the registration. Those bibs had an A on them. And what do you know, mine did – A 4084.
Boil the Frog
I titled my race plan for the day “Boil the Frog”. Even though it’s been proven false, the urban legend goes like this: if you drop a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump our immediately. However, if you drop it into room temp water and slowly bring the water to a boil, he’ll stay there until cooked.
So, how did that relate to a running strategy? Well, if I went out too fast (boiling water) I’d crash and burn quickly. However, if I went out slow and gradually turned up the heat (pace) I’d last a lot longer, fooling my body long enough to finish strong. Sure, I may be cooked at the end, but that’s OK.
Maybe it’s not the best analogy, but that was the plan. I was also basing this strategy on the almost perfectly executed half marathon (for me) I ran just a month before. In that race, I slowed it down at first and cranked it up over the course, resulting in a 4 minute personal best for that distance.
Race day started with an easy 15 minute shake out run at 5:15 a.m. Kiawah may be beautiful in the daylight, but it is darn creepy in the pitch black dark and quiet at this time of the morning.
I think they have a no streetlights policy, and I wore my headlamp. On the first 100 yards, my light reflected on a pair eyes watching me. Just a deer. Whew. That will get the blood pumping. I startled four more along the way. After this run, I went back in to load up on pancakes.
A little after 7 a.m., my support crew foreman, Craig, and I walked the mile or so over to the start area. After my aforementioned warm up, I shed my warm clothes, handed them to Craig, and headed to the A Corral.
It was a balmy 37 degrees and pretty much exactly the way I wanted it for a marathon. My arrival timing was pretty good, and I didn’t have to stand around long before a man sang the national anthem. Then, we were off. Keep in mind my goal was to beat 3:27:00, which is just under 7:54/mile.
I won’t lie. I didn’t feel great. I hadn’t slept well and my stomach didn’t feel normal. I figured it was nerves. Time to put my plan into action.
Boil the Frog Phase I: Start SLOW!
My goal was to run a 7:49/mile pace the first three miles. A pace that once upon a time was fast for me, but now feels slow. Heck, just keeping 7:49/mile would meet my goal number, but that would be too conservative. I wanted to push it just a wee bit. Unfortunately, this pace is very tough to do being with the A-listers and adrenaline flowing. First three miles: 7:46, 7:44, 7:45. Not bad, I thought, and I was fairly pleased with that start.
Boil the Frog Phase II: Turn up the pace slightly and try to hit 7:45/mile for miles 4 – 13.1 (the mid-point).
By now, I was feeling better, which was good and bad. Good, because the stomach anomaly had disappeared and the running now felt super easy. Bad, because it now became difficult to keep it slow. We were also running through some beautiful areas, and I was really enjoying myself, taking in the sights under a crystal clear blue sky.
I took my first planned energy gel at mile 6. Then during mile 10, I looked down at my watch and saw my current mile pace was around 7:15. Whoa, settle down, Beavis. What is going on? I put the brakes on that, but still ended up running a 7:26 for mile 10. I consciously slowed the next few miles turning in a 7:40, 7:41 and 7:44. Despite the slowdown, I had managed to run the first half in 1:40:35, a pace of 7:41 per mile.
A little faster than the target of 7:45/mile for the first half, and I hoped it wouldn’t hurt me. After all, this was significantly slower than the pace I ran my half marathon test run a month before.
Boil the Frog Phase III: The plan was to average 7:40/mile for miles 14-20.
Each mile hovered around this mark, and I hit the 7:40 pace on the nose for those miles. My mile 20, though, I was starting to feel some of the usual later marathon pain. I wasn’t having any hip issues, which I had experienced on my last long run a few weeks before, but my quads were starting to ache.
Songs for mile 20 on the playlist included and old R.E.M. tune called “I Believe” and the live version of “Queen’s Under Pressure”. With 10K to go it was time to see what I was made of. I was looking forward to seeing my support crew around the mile 22 mark.
Boil the Frog Phase IV: This was the last phase in my plan.
The Final 10K – miles 21-26.2. The Great Unknown. These miles are the reason behind Sunday mile repeats my coach had me do after long Saturday runs when my legs were super tired.
The goal here was to have a strong finish. If I could increase the pace, great, but just don’t blow it out early and collapse the final 10K. I decided hitting 7:40 on in would be awesome, and miles 21 and 22 went great, 7:37 and 7:38.
But I was really hurting now. Mile 23 showed the first chink in the armor – a 7:53. I could feel the wall going up, each step added another brick. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” did not have the desired effect. The great slog was on. Checking my watch every few seconds only to see I had gone a tenth of a mile didn’t help.
I tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. The miles slowly passed and mile 24 was my first over the eight minute mark – 8:01. Mile 25 was no better at 8:04. On the bright side, it felt like a ten minute mile.
At this point, I had some trouble focusing. We were on a winding bike path though the woods, and I was having to dodge walkers from the half marathon, making it even harder to stay on straight. Just keep moving, I thought. It’s just Sunday mile repeats, I told myself.
As I approached the 26 mile mark, my finale song came on – “Don’t Stop Believin'”. A moment later my watch signified my 26 mile split – 8:10. I felt relief. What seemed, again, like a ten minute mile was still OK. I knew if I could just make it without passing out, I had it.
I finally exited the bike path and onto the road near the finish. I removed my ear buds to take in the finishing noise. Just one turn to go.
My support crew had moved from their earlier vantage point and into the finish line are. Jenny stood at the corner of that last turn and, as instructed, held out something for me – a hat I had purchased two years ago in anticipation of this moment. It was a Boston Red Sox hat, solid blue with the red B, the closest thing I could think of to signify accomplishing my goal.
If I wasn’t going to make it, I wouldn’t take it. I approached Jenny and took the hat. I made the turn for the final hundred yards or so and raised it high above my head. I felt a final surge of adrenaline down the finish chute.
I’m not sure if anyone in the large crowd around the finish had a clue what the hat meant, but my support crew and I did. I crossed the finish in 3:23:28 and someone slipped a finisher’s medal around my neck. I had finally done it. I had my Boston qualifying time. Sure, I made some mistakes, like maybe not having some Van Hagar 5150 on the final 10K, but my coach and I will work on those and take the show out of state in 2018.
I like to look, to long run
I like to take each step, one by one
Right on time, you will arrive
By keepin’ the dream alive
-“Finish What You Started”, Van Halen/Van Hagar
I’ve joked with a few people that my finishing song should have been Prince’s “Delirious” instead of “Don’t Stop Believin”. Apparently, I was in worse shape than I thought. Once I stopped to get my finisher’s medal, I realized being upright was a problem.
In an attempt to stay vertical, I kept moving toward the finish area exit, looking for my wife, Angie. I felt like Rocky looking around for Adrian after taking on Apollo Creed in Rocky I. Maybe I should have yelled out of the side of my mouth, “Angie!”. A few seconds later, I did have a familiar voice in my ear. It wasn’t Angie, but instead was my friend and fellow runner, Trip.
I vaguely recall our conversation, and I guess he could tell I wasn’t doing well. Trip guided me out of the finish area and over to a spot in the sun where I could sit down.
He rushed off to find Angie, while I lay down with the world spinning. I few moments later Trip had retrieved Adrian, I mean Angie, and she bent down to hug and congratulate me.
Support team foreman Craig was soon on the scene and helped support me into the medical tent, but not before I insisted on taking a picture in front of the finisher’s sign.
In the med tent I took a cot and was glad to be somewhere warm. They immediately took my blood pressure and pulse, and thankfully, those were normal. The nurse (I guess) couldn’t believe how cold my hands were, despite wearing gloves the entire race.
Forty-five minutes later, thanks to water, a quart of decadent Promised Land chocolate milk (1000 delicious calories!), bananas, and a brownie, the world had stopped spinning, and I left the tent on my own power.
So there you have it. Eight years in the making. Hundreds of workouts and countless miles.
Well, maybe not countless. I could tell you, but then you guys really would think I was crazy.
Don’t Stop Believin’.
PS. So, that completed my second goal for 2016. Was it Meat Loaf who said two out of three ain’t bad? Maybe so, but wouldn’t three out of three be better? Stay tuned…