“This’ll be great!” I thought to myself as we set off, “finally training begins and going with Overton for the first run will keep me honest.” About ten minutes later, the pavement was hurtling towards my face as my left knee and foot began to voice their first objections to being slammed into a bike stand. After writhing around on the ground for a bit making a proper meal of it, off we went again. Nine miles, including the last four at LT pace, were done and dusted. That was that. Wasn’t it?
The next day was an 11-miler. Or should have been; instead it turned into three hours at Ealing Hospital’s Urgent Care Unit for x-rays after I’d spent the day trying my best to pretend it didn’t hurt to put a pair of shoes on, never mind do anything else. Fortunately, there was no break. The doctor reviewing the x-rays said something like, “it’s a soft tissue injury. It should clear up with a few days to a week of rest.” At least, that’s what I think he said. I was too busy hearing “there’s no break. That means you can go and run as much as you like immediately.” A double session the following day to make up the missed 11-miler and everything was back on track.
To cut a long story short (I’m not really cutting it short at all, am I? “What’s any of this rambling got to do with Boston?” You’re probably thinking. “Give us the gist of race day, tell us what was in the goody bag and let us get back to the real business of the internet; it’s been hours since I’ve seen a video of a cat doing something amusing or taken a test to discover my goblin name.” I have to dwell on the injury bit, though; always get your excuses in first), I didn’t miss a session in December and January. Things were flying along and a time of 2:50 was starting to seem achievable. However, the knee and foot pain were a constant presence in the background and shin splints kicking in at the end of January was the beginning of the end. Long runs were cut short in pain, sessions started to be missed and my beard was shaved off, which proved the final nail in my coffin.
February and March were immensely frustrating. It’s hard, very hard, to admit to yourself that the time you wanted, and believed you were capable of, is no longer on the table. To delay that inevitable reckoning, I ran when I should have rested and ran too hard and too fast into the bargain. Desperate stuff, in hindsight, but seemingly necessary at the time. Lessons to be learnt, there. The build up to race day became, rather than the approach to peak fitness and sky-high confidence, a minefield of possible disasters. Time targets went out of the window and the focus shifted to making the start line capable of going for a run. It was a relief to get the last long run out of the way without incident, a 17-miler in the snowy sub-zero weather of rural Maine two weeks before race day. Decision made: I’d go out at 2:55ish pace, aided by the largely downhill first 14-15 miles, and that would give me something to hang on to. While a PB seemed unlikely, I wouldn’t drift too far off that pace. Even if disaster struck, 3:05ish would be the worst case scenario.
Moving to Boston a couple of days before the race was special. The city embraces its marathon like no other race I’ve experienced; after so much history (this year’s race was the 120th) you wouldn’t expect anything less. The bombings at the finish line in 2013 had seemed, as these tragedies often do, to bring the city and the race even closer together. Boston Strong. Walking down Boylston Street on the Saturday and Sunday, the security was deliberately conspicuous: plenty of crash barriers, heavy police presence, a general sense of watchfulness that stemmed from more than mere anticipation of a major marathon. There were commemorations to the bombings at the site but they were understated and dignified, revealing a city not terrorised by an act of terror but instead, while angered and outraged, secure; confident they can take whatever is thrown at them and continue undaunted for another 120.
So, to the expo. Less flashy than London’s but probably a little more to see; not so many eye-catching but pointless exhibits (free runners? bowling?) but more gear for sale and a few nice bargains to be had. A densely-packed sea of runners with unreasonably white teeth which, not for the only time on this trip, made me puff on my cigars a little more furtively than usual. Number pick-up was straightforward and quick, the goody bag well-stocked. I always like a long-sleeved tech T-shirt and the Boston Marathon/Samuel Adams bottle opener was a welcome surprise. All that remained was to head home for final preparations. You don’t go all the way to the United States for a major race you’ve been training for for months and ignore sensible nutrition the day before, so cheeseburger, chips, onion rings, a beer and a few cigars it was. Dinner of champions.
Race day started early. Alarm set for 5, heading out at about half past, get on the bus to Hopkinton at about 6. On the metro into central Boston, there was the usual gaggle of lycra-clad, fit-looking people wearing nervous expressions and exchanging knowing smiles. Only when we got to the bus loading area did the whole experience start to feel unique: row upon row of yellow school buses waiting to ferry us all 26 miles out of town for this point to point race. The Boston Marathon it may be but only the last couple of miles are actually run in the city. Legroom on the bus was suitable for a toddler or maybe a particularly small dwarf. Plenty of space for Santry to stretch out, then. We got out at a middle school in the small town of Hopkinton, a place you would never suspect would be home to anything of note, never mind a world-famous sporting event. Indeed, when we drove back there the day after (more on that later), you’d never know anything had happened there at all.
The race village was in a field behind the school. Rather like the expo, there was nothing particularly fancy (coffee bar, couple of big marquees to shelter under, info stand and the usual portaloos everywhere) but it got the job done. An MC overlooking the scene from the top of a huge gantry provided a running commentary of events (and plenty of dodgy gags which were very much to my liking) to give us something to listen to. Eventually, after a couple of coffees and a cigar or two (“Thanks for sharing!” beamed one stroppy American sarcastically when he noticed what I was up to. Perhaps he thought sitting within ten feet of a puff of smoke was going to deprive him of the world record) it was time to start filing out for the 1k-plus walk to the start line. I solemnly folded my treasured green pre-race trousers and entrusted them to Santry before he went to the bag drop. The bag drop which was back in Boston and we should have used three hours earlier. Cue frantic negotiations (begging) to marshals and anyone who looked vaguely official. Santry sent me off to the start while he carried on trying to figure out what to do with his phone, credit cards, clothes and, above all, the best trousers in Ealing. I was still grieving their loss (assuming he’d have to abandon all our stuff) when I arrived at the starting pen just in time for a slightly odd rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. There was still no sign of the Ivory Coast’s finest by the time a pair of Black Hawk helicopters roared overhead on their way to Boston.
Finally (for us and indeed for anyone still reading this gibberish) the race was underway. Sharp elbows needed; less room for manoeuvre than London or any other big race I’ve run but it was an incredible feeling to be on the way to Boston. It wasn’t long, however, before things started to go awry. It was a hot morning, particularly in the first hour (it actually cooled as we made our way towards Boston and the coast as the day went on) and I found the pace of 6:35-6:40 min/miles I’d settled on a hell of a lot more effort than it should have been. After five miles or so, my knee first started to act up. By 10k my foot had joined in and the proper pain had started. 20 more miles…? You never want to give up too early but even at that stage, I couldn’t help readjusting my target to simply finishing the race, never mind the time. I maintained for a while but my pace started to drift after 8 miles. Mile ten was my last under 7 minutes. I went through the halfway stage in 1:29 but by that stage, sub-3 was out of the question; I wasn’t even completely sure of sub-4. It was just one mile at a time with an eye on mile 17 where the first appearance of the cheer squad was supposed to be.
Seeing them and stopping for a little chat and a drink of water was a huge boost, as it always is, but there was a tinge of embarrassment too; you want to do well in these races, not just for yourself but for everyone watching and following. Staggering along at the pace I was doing by that stage was hard. Over nine miles still to go, including the famous Heartbreak Hill. Gulp. In fact, the hill itself wasn’t so bad; anyone considering Boston in future should pay it respect but not fear it. It’s a long drag rather than a short, sharp shock. If you’re well trained, you’ll fly up there without losing much time at all. That done (and slightly proud of myself, under the circumstances, for not walking – plenty of people were up that hill and even before the ten-mile marker) there were only five miles of pain to go, with another cheer squad appearance scheduled before the finish. Pain increasing, pace slowing, we made our way into the city, by this time I was struggling hard to stay under 9-minute miles. Ellen, Sandra and Skye were in place a little before I’d expected them and on the other side of the road but luckily their screaming caught my ear in time to get one last boost to wrap things up. Right on Hereford, left on Boylston and the finish was finally in sight. Staggering over the line in a time of 3:21 (a proper Keenleyside positive split there) and it was time to head to the park and meet the others. There was plenty of food and drink for runners at the end but the security was still pretty tight; to get where I needed to go, a barrier had to be sneakily vaulted. I say ‘vaulted’. Try to imagine a drunk at closing time trying to get onto a bus through one of the windows, without opening it first.
It wasn’t too long before the real end was in sight. The little park where we were going to reassemble was there on the right and at long last, it was time for a sit down. Sandra, Ellen and Skye appeared first, with little bottles of fizz for us. Santry appeared in short order to join the party. He’d managed to knock on the door of a local resident near the start line and drop our stuff off, to be picked up later. The green trousers live to fight another day! We drove back to the start the next day, a slightly odd experience since all trace of the race had been swept away and all that remained was one kind bag-keeping lady who’d even gone to the trouble of tracking Santry on Strava, presumably to ensure she hadn’t just been visited by some ghoulish leprechaun who’d be back during the night to raid her house for Jaffa Cakes. In the park, sipping bubbly and puffing away on a cigar, the crushing disappointment of the injuries. dreadful training and finishing time beyond my worst nightmares was already starting to give way to the realisation of what an extraordinary event it is and how lucky I was to have been able to take part. There’ll always be another marathon coming along to put things right (Berlin, you’re in my sights) and in any case, at our level, whilst PBs mean a lot and doing well is immensely rewarding, this is supposed to be a fun hobby, not life and death. As I’ve said to a few people since, what would the point of the marathon be if it was always easy? You need days like that to teach you to respect the distance and enjoy the fast ones. As far as Boston goes, I hope Kelvin and Sandra will forgive me for saying it is comfortably the best race I’ve taken part in. If you ever have a chance to go, do it. Simple as that.
If anyone is still reading (your stamina, or boredom threshold, is vast) I can’t wrap things up without a word about my wife. From December to April, Ellen was a rock. Allowing my training to dominate our plans for 18 weeks, watching as I ignored her good advice to rest and allow my injuries to heal and then picking up the pieces when things inevitably went wrong, listening patiently to my near-constant complaining about everything, taking care of me when I was in bits after tough or injury-plagued sessions and not to mention going to work every day in a tough job so we can afford to go on these adventures in the first place. She’s way out of my league but she’s legally tied to me now so there’s nothing she can do about it. Oh, and she’s given me permission to do it all again for Berlin but that’s another story, to begin on Tuesday 24th May, hopefully without any bike stands.