April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon

For those of us who ran it, the 2013 Boston Marathon will be our most memorable marathon, for a sad reason, unfortunately. Luckily for me, and for Pete Lyons, who was there to cheer me, we were not near the finish line when the bombs went off, having left the area in a taxi about 15 minutes before.
   I had a terrible race, which has cured me of running marathons for the foreseeable future.
   My previous marathon, 13 months earlier, had been 3:08:22, when I went out too fast and slowed the last 7k due to painful quads (as in all my previous marathons). So this time, also because Boston is downhill the first 8k, I planned to run easily at 3:10 pace (7:15 miles/4:30kms) the first 16-18 miles (26-29k), then run strongly up the Boston hills and as fast as possible to the finish, targeting about 3:07. Not to be!
   The weather the day of the race (Monday the 15th) was good. About 8C/46F in the morning, so it was chilly sitting around for 2 hours, but not too bad. The race started at 10:00 (1st wave of 3) and it seemed like ideal temperature, with the sun warming things up a bit.
   I was with Brent Millican, and we started conservatively, running 7:35 for the first mile. We then sped up to 7:06, and after 7:19 and 7:06, I ran the next 4 exactly on pace. Stayed quite close to pace through 14 miles, reaching the half in just about 1:35.
   I enjoyed seeing and hearing (!) the Wellesley girls at mile 14, but in miles 15 and 16 I slowed slightly to 7:40 and 7:37, and then it went bad. Mile 17 (27.3k), with the first of the four Newton hills, was 8:25 (over 5:00/km) and then I got progressively slower — much slower. The main problem was pain in the quads, bad pain that got worse and worse. Also I felt like I had no energy. I resorted to short walks to get up the next two hills, but was determined to make it up Heartbreak Hill (mile 20/33k) without stopping, which I did. Thereafter I was just jogging, with occasional walks, due to quad pain and general weakness. Lots of people streaming by, which was depressing and embarrassing.
     The crowd support was incredible, however, far above any race I've ever run. The noise and enthusiasm was awesome. I remember one intersection 5m/8k from the finish where the noise was enormous. I was expecting that near the finish, but this was 8k away! And it stayed very loud all the way. The race is worth running just for the crowd support. If you're feeling good, I'm sure it would be a big help.
   So I shuffled/walked the last 2 miles, managing to not walk the last 400m on Boylston St., and then managed to stay upright. About 6 volunteers asked, repeatedly, if I was ok, so I must have looked bad. And in fact, I did feel faint for a while. I was also freezing. There had been a wind against us the last 10k, and it was very chilly and windy after the finish. It was a long, agonizing walk to the bag buses, but I finally got some clothes on and felt a bit better. Met Pete at the meeting area, we walked two blocks, luckily found a taxi (which I had difficulty entering, could not raise my legs), and were out of there — about 15 minutes before the bombs went off. We had not been near the finish line, however, so there would have been no danger.
   It must have been terrible for anyone near the blasts, and also for the 8 or 9,000 who couldn't finish. But I also sympathized with those who had finished but couldn't get their bags or find their family and friends. If that had happened to me, I would have collapsed with hypothermia and Pete would have had to search the hospitals for me. And imagine the foreigners who didn't speak much English — a nightmare.
   Oh, and as further proof as to how weak I was, I fainted on the subway on the way to dinner. Suddenly I was on the floor, looking up at Pete. We got off the train to meet Anna, Brett and Stan at Harvard, where a Pepsi and cold air revived me.
   So, 3:40 and no desire to run any more marathons. You have to do lots of long, slow training, which isn't much fun, you lose your speed, and the race is always painful the last 10k. I'll get my speed back and stick to halfs, 10Ks and 5Ks.
   But I suppose some analysis is in order. What was the problem? A number of things, I think. But not injuries. My long time issues with the left hamstring and right knee did not bother me during the race. I also got a strong pain in the left inner thigh while running 6 days before, but that was sorted out by rest and a massage therapist recommended by Anna Novick, who was great. So no running the five days before, but that just meant I was well rested.
1) Lack of sleep. Jet lag limited me to about 4 hours of sleep a night for the 5 nights before the race, which is not enough before a marathon. But maybe not so much of a factor — I felt fine at the start.
2) Lack of food before the race. I ate a decent breakfast and lunch the day before, but no dinner and then no breakfast, because I prefer to have an empty stomach when racing. Before a marathon, however, this is almost certainly not a good idea.
3) The low carb, high fat diet, which I followed quite strictly for 4 months prior to the race, was not helpful, I think. You are supposed be able to access lots of energy from your body's fat stores, but I had zero energy the last half of the race. I think this diet may be good for longer, slower events like triathlons and ultra marathons, but not for running "fast" for only 3 hours.
4) Lack of training — not enough kms in the legs. I ran 368 in Jan, 296 in Feb and 383 in Mar, about 80km/50mi per week. Almost no "easy" runs, but even so, 80k is not enough. Most important, I didn't do long marathon pace runs. I did quite a lot of 5k and 10k MP runs and only 3 15k runs. I think it's necessary to do 20k, 25k even 30k MP runs. These are really hard for me, though. In fact, I have only ever done one 25k MP run, several years ago. Maybe this means my goal pace is too fast! It would also require two days rest before and after, but I should have done that. This is probably more important for masters runners, who have less muscle mass and are thus more prone to quad pain. Well, I'm not going to put that lesson to use, except for half marathon training. From now on, I eat pasta, I do lots of intervals, and I win some age group 10ks and half marathons! I run fast and I have fun!
Good running to you all,


  1. nightmare. re the lack of sleep and the diet, they could be significant in both performance and fainting. i wouldn't rule out dehydration either, but the main thing is that you came home safe. recover well bob and get yourself checked-out, just to be on safe side.

  2. Glad to hear that you missed the worst of the drama with the bombings Bob.

    I think you know better than anyone what the problem/s with your marathon were and yes it would seem that you would have to go back to scratch and build a big base with a lot of long slow running before tasting more success at the marathon.

    I agree that doesn't sound like much fun but I wonder if you can stop yourself from running another few marathons? I think Ewen's friend Norma "Lucky Legs" said she was not going to run any more marathons, several times, but she is past 80 now and still doing them!

  3. tough race Bob, but nice report, and glad you learned from the experience. Run fast and have fun. I like that!

  4. Thanks for the report, Bob. Very clear description of what happened during the race. I ran Boston in 2006. On a flat course I would have done a 2:54 or a little faster on that day. I came in 3:10, totally worn out. The Wellesley girls were great seven years ago too :-) but shorthly after things felt apart. My take away was: the course is difficult and the down hills killed my legs, not the uphills. Even a proper Carb taper (which you might not have done this time) is only one step stone to prepare Boston correctly. The training has to contain a lot of down hill running and I think to get close to 3hrs I would need well >100km/week (did only 80km/week at this time). My main take away from that race: I was prepared for a flat course but not for Boston. Boston needs a lot of different training that any other standard Marathon. I think you did well in Boston since you finished the race and gave everything. Rest well and please rethink your decision when the time is right ...

  5. First and foremost Bob glad to hear that you and your friends escaped the bombings and ensuing chaos.

    Sounds like a very tough and demotivating experience. Certainly I have heard that Boston is a marathon of two havles, with a relatively fast and comfortable first half which sets you up nicely for an uncomfortably slow second half. Perhaps if both halves were reversed it would be a great course. The low carb diet, which I am currently on, may have had an impact - so I will learn from your experience. Although I would have anticipated a "train low, race high" philosophy.

    All the best with your recovery and I can fully understand your desire to concentrate on speed and the "shorter" races, which certainly are more "fun" and don't require a huge investment in training time.

  6. I would guess 3. and 4. were the main causes. Hard to target 3:07 on 80k a week, even with your natural talent. And carbo loading doesn't just give you glycogen, it provides liquid that helps hydration. That and what Joachim says.
    Are you sure about no more marathons? Haven't we all said that?

  7. I'm going with 4. and 2. in that order of importance. In fact, with daylight between them. Nothing slows you down more than excruciating leg pain, and nothing leads to excruciating leg pain more than inadequate training mileage. The only thing that might slow you down as much as leg pain is not enough stored energy, and it sounds like you attempted to race (as opposed to train) on the low carb diet. Grellan hit the nail on the head: train low, race high. Fat releases energy more slowly than glycogen. So accessing energy from fat does not and is never meant to replace glycogen as the principle energy source on race day; better fat burning ability helps preserve the stored glycogen. But you still need a good big tank of glycogen, and it sounds like yours was only a little one and it ran out. Well, whether you run another M or not, at least you've learned something, and it was a still a gutsy and commendable effort to push on and finish, giving the event the respect it deserves despite knowing it had gone all pear-shaped and was a "failure" by the high standards you set for yourself. That is why so many of us respect, admire and take inspiration from you! おめでとう!

  8. Bob - great report on your race; lots of lessons in there, and most importantly you were safe from the carnage. I stripped 22 minutes of my PB in Nagano last Sunday; I ran 3:47. I was very happy! I am hoping to get this time trimmed down further, as I prepare for other marathons. Regards - Nick

  9. Bob, glad you and your friends are OK. Reading your report has cured any (weak) desire I might have had to race another marathon ;-) Must say that Scott is wrong - Luckylegs has 'retired' from marathons at 84 and now her longest event is the half.

    I think your training for that one is the reason for the failure. All your days were 'hard' so you were training your body to burn sugar as fuel (in spite of the high fat diet). I reckon you need to do a lot of running in the 'fat burning' zone as recommended by Maffetone in his Big Book of Endurance Training - http://www.amazon.com/Big-Book-Endurance-Training-Racing/dp/1616080655
    - so, yes, a lot of 'slow' running, which for you wouldn't be much fun. Training that way though, I don't think hurts speed. Mike Pigg was worried about that as he'd done no interval training or high intensity sessions before an 'Olympic Distance' tri in which he finally beat Mark Allen at his own game.

    You're running in the 18:30s range for 5k - plenty fast enough for a 3:07 marathon. In fact, my friend Rachel's fastest 5k is about 18:20 and she ran 2:49 in Boston. She did 'a lot' of aerobic running though; very little in the way of intervals and nothing specific for Boston's downhills; some occassional MP runs in the final weeks. So basically I think the training you enjoy which works well up to the half isn't suitable for marathon racing.

  10. Bob, looking forward to see you winning age-groups again! Saw you doing that twenty years ago, and missed it a lot since you switched to full marathons! Way to go!

  11. Please be proud of yourself, you did well and remind the fist time finished marathon very long years ago. Please keep going and challenge yourself.
    No more joy comes from Stopping or just quit in any matters. I am waiting to run next marathon with you.
    We always have good day and bad day that why life is fun.

  12. Honest stuff, glad you are ok Bob and be proud, you've run plenty of good races , lessons learned for sure.

    Best wishes Keith.