Thursday, May 25, 2006

Boston, Take Five (April 17, 2006)

It was not her best time, it was not her worst time……no, that’s been done.

All happy marathons are alike….no, that’s been done.

What can you say about a 49-year old woman who………, that’s been done, too.

Hmmm. I can’t seem to find my own words, my own voice, to tell you about the Boston Marathon 2006.

Maybe it’s because my mother always told me “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all”.

And I’m having a hard time finding the good things to say about this run.

So, breaking Mom’s rule, I’ll just out with it. It shoulda been a great race. My fifth Boston Marathon: that grand old race – the thing I thought I’d never qualify for – where I feel a bit of an imposter every year, just to be there with all the really fast runners. Just to be granted a number to run this race is a huge honor. Just to be allowed admittance to this club – and for five years in a row! – should have been more than enough to keep me happy for the rest of my life. Just to run it should be the reward.

But, no. I have to ask for the moon. I have to reach for the stars. After running four Bostons, I have to make it my priority in life to run a sub-4 hour race here.

Why does it matter so much? Who knows. All I know is that it does matter to me.

So on April 17, 2006, I make my way to Hopkinton – a little berg in Massachusetts, just 26 or so miles west of Boston – with the sole intent on running this thing in something under 4 hours. In truth, I’m not all that picky. 3:59:59 will fill the bill just perfectly, thank you, and then we can all go home and get on with our lives.

It’s not an unreasonable goal, not an out-of-reach quest. Or so I believe. I’ve run many sub-4 marathons – including a string of them in the last year: every marathon I’ve run since Boston 2005, in fact, has been a sub-4, and there were 5 of them. They weren’t all walks in the park – none of those deliciously fast courses like St. George or Steamtown. I ran sub-4 at the Marathon to Marathon in Iowa, and at Omaha, and at Seattle, and at Austin. I ran a major sub-4 at Marine Corps – my best ever, 3:50:29 – on a crowded course that is not reputed to be fast. I ran sub-4 in the humidity and hills of Omaha, and in the rain and wind in Iowa, and in the very cold and icy conditions in Austin.

So it is not with a small measure of hubris that I approach this Boston with a belief that sub-4 is just there for the taking, given a day with good marathon conditions.

Of course, this allows me to steep myself in my strongly held beliefs about my underperformance in earlier Bostons. My first Boston – my best time at the grand old lady – was when I had my best time ever here, and that was a 4:00:55. Why not a perfect marathon day? Well, it was a perfect day, and I would have easily broken 4 hours (so I’ve told myself, and the legend has grown in my mind) had I not broken a rib skiing that year, disrupting my ability to train for the race. The next three Bostons have been hot-hot-hot. The fact that my best showing in these three years was last year’s 4:04:00 had nothing to do with my running ability, only those hot conditions. Surely, if I had a day with perfect marathon weather – and no broken bones – then I could easily run well under 4 hours.

That’s the theory, anyway.

But sometimes the running gods have other plans.

This year, Boston is split into two waves, and I find myself dead center in the middle of the second wave, which is set to start racing at 12:30 p.m. The fast folks took off at noon, straight up. I don’t mind being in the second wave since it’s just such an honor to be here – at least I don’t mind until the race gets underway.

Yet, somehow, reality keeps interfering with the story that I tell myself. As I enter my corral before the race, I’m struck by how dissociated I am with the whole thing. I look around for a couple of friends who should be in the same corral, but I can’t find them – among the thousand or so runners who share this space of roadway with me – and I think that maybe I should have planned something more positive, just to ensure that I’d see them.

But nothing about this race is coming together, least of all plans to meet other runners.

I’ve not found any friends when the crowd starts to move forward. It’s one of those odd realities of racing in large marathons that you rarely hear the starter’s gun, and it’s true of Boston each year. The only sign that the race is underway is the gentle motion of the crowd starting to move forward, like a train pulling out of the station. I’m still looking for Monique or Lori – with no luck – as we head forward. I look for Mick on the side of the road – he left me at the corral gate just a short time ago – but there are too many people, and this crowd is moving too fast, so soon to be running, when last year’s race took me nearly 20 minutes to reach the start line.

And what happens next is the story of my day. The crowd is thicker across the starting mats (for the chip timing) than I’ve ever experienced at Boston, and I’m caught in the pack. I normally head to the side of the road to high five the kids who line up there as we leave Hopkinton, but this year the crowd has me pinned in so that I can’t get there. It’s impossible to take advantage of the nice downhill at the start of the race, just too many people.

The crowded conditions continue for a long time, and then the darters and weavers keep up their elbowing act for miles and miles and miles. I wonder about cause and effect. Do I notice these annoyances because I’m not having a great day, or do I have a not-great day because of the annoyances? It really doesn’t matter much, because the bottom line is that I spend the first several miles trying – in vain – to get into my usual marathon rhythm, and today, for whatever reasons, it just doesn’t happen.

At mile 5, I look at my split and think, “what the hell?” I’ve been checking my heart rate monitor (HRM) regularly to make sure that I’m not running too hard this early in the race, but my time is so slow here that I have a sinking feeling. I double check the HRM, just to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently slacked off, but my ticker is beating along, fast as it can. It’s just my legs that refuse to move quickly.

As the race wears on, I try to maintain hope; I try to keep my spirits up; I try to keep pushing and pushing – hoping that my legs will magically find a gear that they seem to have forgotten today. I desperately want to love this day, this race, this run. This is the Boston Marathon, after all!

But I already know this course, and its newness has worn off and today it seems like an old friend who betrays you, and you just can’t seem to accept that the friend would do this to you. I run through the familiar checkpoints – past the guy in the first mile who always blasts out the theme from Rocky, and the place where the road splits in Ashland, and the “check your style” sign at the huge plate glass windows around mile 8, and the women of Wellesley, screaming their heads off. And then, at each mile marker, I hit the split button on my watch and glance down, hoping against all hope that somehow that last mile was faster.

Hope is a funny thing – it propels you along, even when there is little reason to believe in it anymore. Besides hope, the thing I have going for me is that this is Boston. Boston!!! And I know this crowd, and never before have I used it so much to get me through a tough day. Once I recognize – early in the day – that my splits are not in line to get me that sub-4 that I so badly want, I turn to the crowd for inspiration. Somewhere in Framingham, I head over to the side of the road and start slapping hands with the kids who stand with their hands outstretched. It only takes a short amount of this to have me smiling and thinking, “yeah, this is what it’s all about”.

So it is that the people along the course are – as always, year after year – the impetus that moves me along this 26.2 mile journey……..and they are by far the best thing about this particular Boston. There are the kids I high five in Framingham. There is the guy who runs out on the course with me somewhere in Natick, yelling, “you got it, Baby!” There are kids and more kids in Newton. There’s the group of guys in Newton (or is it Brookline) who are high-fiving, so I reach out my hand, and one of the guys slaps my hand and then runs a few steps after me, yelling “I love you I love you I love you!!!” There are the folks with oranges and popsicles and more oranges and water and more oranges and bananas and pretzels and twizzlers and jelly beans and yet more oranges along the course. I take water from several impromptu water stations along the way, and I’m reminded that it is this – this particular spirit of Boston, in which the race is really owned by the people along the course who are as much – or more – a part of the tradition than those of us who are allowed access to the hallowed route – that makes the race such a great event.

My salvation is always in Newton – the site of the hills – and this year it's one bright spot. No matter that I’m not having the day I had hoped, I somehow always seem to do better than most of the rest of the crowd through this stretch. Today does not disappoint. Maybe it’s the karma I draw from Mick, who always waits for me just past the mile marker for mile 16, just as the course turns uphill. Today, I’ve been counting down the miles until I will see him since early in the race, and now, just running past him, blowing him a kiss and yelling “je t’aime” gives me the juice to tackle the coming hills.

But it’s not enough. At some point I accept that this will not be my sub-four day, and I try to draw something else out of it. A second best day at Boston, maybe? But after some point, I don’t even try to figure my anticipated finish time. I’m just running – running as absolutely fast as I can, relying on the logic of “the faster I go, the sooner I’ll be done running today”.

In the last week leading up to Boston, the number four kept appearing in my life. My last short run was in a time of 44:44. At my pre-race acupuncture appointment, my acupuncturist noted that the time on my running watch – set to military time, and still on my wrist after a mid-day run – read “14:14” just as she finished setting all the needles. I won $4 in the Powerball drawing. And on and on. I wrote on my running blog that I would be happier with these “signs” if they were more indicative of sub-four – say, for instance, 3s and 5s and 9s. But no, all the signs were fours.

So it is not a great surprise that, when I cross the finish line of my fifth Boston Marathon, on a beautiful and perfect Monday in April 2006, I find that my official time for the race is a perfect 4:04:00. This is, as unlikely as it might be, the exact time – down to the second – of my finish at Boston in 2005.

After the race, Mick and my coach Benji and others try to find the reasons I cannot find for how this day went. “Maybe you’re coming down with something”, says Benji, who knows that I’ve been suffering badly with allergies for the last week or two. “It was more crowded than ever”, says Mick, who has lived through my previous hot weather Bostons with me, and who knew, again today, when I reached him just past mile 16, that I was not running the race I had hoped to run. Somebody else suggests that the headwind was a factor. It’s a comfort to me that other people make excuses for me, since I can’t really find a rational reason for this – this not-horrible-but-not-great-race that I really wanted to be a really-good-race. In my heart, I know that none of the excuses proffered on my behalf can explain this day.

As for me, I think I’ll just blame it on the moon. What else can I reasonably do? I have a theory (only slightly supported by facts) that the marathons that I run closest to the new moon are my fastest, and those – like this year’s Boston – that are closer to a full moon are slower. It’s as good a reason as I can muster for my race today. Simply out of my hands. Blame it on the moon.

Bette Davis, at the end of “Now, Voyager”, says, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” And after Boston 2006, for some moments, I think that maybe Bette Davis got it right. I’ve had the stars – all these chances to run the world’s greatest marathon, all my good races in myriad places around the country: maybe I should just accept that Boston will never be fast for me. But I am not a quitter, and this race has gotten under my skin. As the days after Boston roll on by, I try to figure out what to do next. Run Boston again, give up my sub-four goal entirely, or maybe take a year or two off before returning again?

I’m leaning towards the option of taking a year or two off from Boston, just to recharge, but then Amie, Benji’s “glass half full” wife, points out to me that with my age group change (later this year), my Boston time is good enough to gain me entry to next year’s race. She and Benji are considering running it, which is another incentive to return to Beantown. Another friend mentions that she will be back in Boston in April 2007. Our B&B host – with whom we’ve stayed for three years in a row now – says, as we leave for the airport on Tuesday morning, “see you next year”. So, while I’m really thinking about taking a year or two off, I just peek at the moon charts for 2007. The third Monday in April coincides precisely with the new moon.

And then I wonder: is it really so bad to reach for the moon?