Boston Marathon - Piers Keenleyside

I love running, and enjoy trying to get half-decent times but have been hampered by injury for the last 6 months which has been very frustrating. Last April I ran my 4th sub 3:30 marathon of the year at the London Marathon with a time of 3:23 which meant as a 60 year old I would easily have a BQ (Boston Qualifier) time.

When I ran Marrakech in just over 4 hours at the end of January and then 3:55 at Seville a month later I began to think my groin strain was on the mend but two ultras in March (Eco Trail de Paris and Two Oceans, Cape Town) did not seem to have helped the healing process! I knew that even a time of 4 hours would be difficult to achieve in Boston given the undulating nature of the course.

We left London on Friday morning and arrived mid-afternoon after a pleasant flight with BA thanks to an upgrade to business class (37 years working at BA still gets me some benefits if spare seats are available!). The weather was quite cold but sunny. Went to the expo to register and collect my number, and also sat in on a talk by previous ‘winners’. One of the speakers was Bobbi Gibb who was actually the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966 – a year before Kathrine Switzer did so in 1967. Bobbi also ran in 1967 and beat Kathrine’s time by more than an hour – she was also the fastest lady in 1968. Kathrine’s run is more well known because she had officially entered (but as an assumed male) so was running with a bib number, and I think because of the famous picture of a race marshal trying to grab the bib number and get her off the course.

The next morning we got up early and set off on the ‘T’ (Boston’s ‘Underground’) to Stony Brook where we had a short walk to Jamaica Pond to join the third running of Boston’s first parkrun venue. A very nice course which was two laps around the perimeter of the pond made even nicer by a lovely spring morning with blue skies and a touch of warmth when in the sun – the calm before the storm! We even had coffee and doughnuts given to us the end of the run - provided by a local politician trying to get re-elected in September!

Sunday was grey and bitterly cold – with a bit of sleet in the air.  The forecast for Monday , race day, was worse – cold, wind and lots of rain with even the possibility of snow!. I also discovered that the bag drop was at the finish in Boston from where we would board the buses to the start. This meant I would need more warm throw away clothing to wear for the 2 hours or so we would have before the start of the race. After a shopping trip to Primark I was equipped with a pullover for bought $3 and jogging bottoms for $6.50. 

As promised, the rain and wind arrived early on Monday morning and woke us up at 3am as it crashed against the window of our apartment! I got up at about 6am and after a breakfast of porridge and cereal bars made my way to Boston Common via the ‘T’ to board a yellow school bus which would take us to the start at Hopkinton 26 miles to the west of Boston.
After an hour on the bus we arrived at the Athletes’ Village where 30,000 pairs of feet had made the place look like scenes from Woodstock with shoe sucking mud and piles of discarded clothing and blankets. There were also small piles of snow ringing each of the marquees where it had slid off the tops. Although they looked to offer some shelter from the wind and rain, getting over to them would have meant having my running shoes filled with water, icy slush and mud!

Luckily I spotted another option – some small red tents being used to distribute free Clif bars and gels to runners had also been given over to be used as shelters. I squeezed inside and found it surprisingly warm – they were equipped with small portable gas fires! When the first wave of runners were called to the start, quite a few people left the tent and I was able to bag a seat right in front of one of them!

I was in wave 2 but delayed leaving my cosy spot until I heard the first call for wave 3. The starting area was about 500m away and as I arrived, my corral of runners was already on the move and I tagged along at the back crossing the line about 5 minutes after the official start time for the wave.

Just prior to the start I had thrown off my jogging bottoms, (heavy fleece bought in a UK charity shop) and replaced my heavier ‘Paris Marathon’ poncho with a thin single use type plastic poncho. As it was so cold I decided to keep the Primark pullover on until I had warmed up a bit!

At the start the temperature was only 3 or 4 degrees but a 30mph headwind and the constant rain meant that it felt a lot colder. The rain never stopped – sometimes it would ease off and I’d think it was going to stop – but no! Within minutes it would be back heavier than before and with hail and snow mixed in for good measure! In places the water rushed down and across the road like a small river.

There were an amazing amount of spectators in spite of the weather and they made as much noise as any other major city race I have ever been in. Because of the driving rain I kept my head down and due to peak of my cap saw only my feet and the road for much of the race! On occasions when I did look up I could see that the small towns we passed through had wooded suburbs and roads lined with fine New England clapperboard detached houses.

The first 2 or 3 miles were quite easy being mainly downhill. It then changed to a more undulating type of course with many ups and downs. Just before the halfway point I reached the famous Wellesley College “Scream Tunnel” which could be heard well before I got there! Apart from the final few metres this was the only time I actually enjoyed running that day! It is not often a man of my age gets 100’s of girls screaming to be kissed by you with some holding risque signs such as ‘Kiss Me I’m Wet!”

I was very wet! Feet soaked from the many puddles and water running down the road. The sleeves of my long sleeved Ealing Eagles top, not covered by the poncho, were also dripping wet and every few minutes I would clench my fists in an attempt to ‘dry’ my sodden gloves!
At about mile 16 my groin strain really started to become quite painful and my pace dropped to 12 and 13 minute miles – I knew I would not even get a sub 4:30 finish. There was quite a steep hill around mile 19 and I thought I was at the famous Heartbreak Hill – but no, it was about a mile further on and a bit longer than the previous one. The race was mostly downhill from there but with a few more small climbs to negotiate. The final two miles were very flat coming into central Boston via Kenmore Square and along Commonwealth Avenue before turning right on Hereford Street and the left to the finishing straight on Boylston Street. When I made the right, there were hundreds of raincoats and garbage bags on the road, discarded by runners (I assume for “photo finish” reasons). Finally the finish line, and I was thinking when I got the medal, “this is one that I really earned!”. My official time was 4:57:08 – my slowest road marathon time ever. I hope to do better on Sunday in London where the weather is forecast to be a little bit warmer!

I exited the finish chute and collected my bag of dry warm clothes, left there earlier that morning, but could find nowhere dry to change. The Arlington ‘T’ station was very close so I wobbled down the steps and made my way back to our apartment. Kathryn had just got back from spectating and was soaked to the skin through 4 layers of clothing and a thick ‘waterproof’ coat! She had been on the course just after the turn into Boylston but we missed seeing each other. 

The Boston Globe had a story the morning after that said 2,500 runners received medical treatment for hypothermia. Among the elite men, 10 of the top 13 seeds all DNFd. I think I would have also been a DNF if I hadn’t kept the plastic poncho on for the whole race. I have now finished 148 marathons/ultras, and of them, the 2018 Boston Marathon was the hardest road marathon race I have ever done.

And well done to fellow Ealing Eagles, Gosia and James, who were also running Boston and  both did brilliant times in spite of the horrendous conditions!