Catching the unicorn: Boston Marathon 2019

Last week, I achieved a goal that was about two years in the making when I finished the 2019 Boston Marathon. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I am so happy and grateful that I had my husband, parents and one of my sisters there with me to see me accomplish my dream!

I finished in 3:47:46, slightly off my goal time (I was shooting for sub-3:45) but whatever! I ran Boston! I will be proud of that finish time forever!

Because I qualified in December 2017, I’ve had to wait a LONG time to actually run the race. As Marathon Monday approached, my neuroses kicked in and I started to get more and more nervous. What if I got suddenly injured and couldn’t run? What if the race got canceled because of some crazy weather event? (More on the weather in a minute.) What if I got a retinal detachment and had to have surgery? (Not as crazy as it sounds. I am extremely nearsighted and this probably will happen at some point in my life.) What if, what if, what if ….

But I made it to Boston with a big smile on my face, despite the doom-and-gloom weather forecasts that threatened to quite literally put a damper on the whole thing.

The 2018 Boston Marathon will always be known for its horrific weather conditions, with cold rain and 30 mph wind gusts. Last year, I remember watching coverage of the race and thinking, “That would never happen two years in a row.” Yet sure enough, a week out from the race, meteorologists were calling for very similar weather for Boston 2019. What were the chances?

Turns out, not very high, because that wasn’t even close to the weather I actually ran in! Luckily, I brought about five different running outfits so I could be prepared for any situation.

When I woke up on race morning at 4 am — wayyyyyy before my alarm, but I just could not wait to get going — it was raining, but it didn’t look too terrible outside. The temperature was in the 50s, which is actually quite nice for running, in my opinion. I decided to wear an ancient pair of running shorts (oldies but goodies!) and my Rip It Events singlet, with a sweatshirt I could toss at the start line and a poncho provided by Marathon Tours and Travel that I also planned to ditch before starting the race. I also put on an old pair of Target rain boots that I purchased back in 2011 during Hurricane Irene news coverage. I’d heard that Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton, where the marathon starts, was a mud pit last year, so I packed the boots at the last minute. My plan was to carry my running shoes and put them on just before the race. Since all of the discarded clothing is donated to charity, I was more than OK with leaving the boots behind, as well.

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Stylish!

I met up with two other runners that I connected with through a Boston Marathon Facebook group who were also staying in my hotel, and we decided to share a Lyft to go to Boston Commons and board the buses to Hopkinton. Right before we got in our Lyft, it started raining really heavily and there was thunder and lightning, and I started to wonder if they would in fact delay the marathon. I found out later that runners in the earlier waves were made to shelter in Hopkinton High School and Middle School, while other runners had to stay on their buses. Craziness. But by the time we boarded, around 8:30, the rain had slowed to a mild drizzle, and by the time we got to Athlete’s Village, it wasn’t raining at all! But it was muddy enough that I was glad I brought those boots with me. I hope they found a good home! I tossed my sweatshirt as I walked toward the start line and didn’t even feel chilly, so I knew the race was going to be much warmer than anyone had anticipated and was so happy I opted for shorts instead of running tights.

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At the start!

26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston   

As I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on about the Boston Marathon, I knew that the race starts out on a pretty steep downhill and it’s really easy to go out too fast, something you never want to do in a marathon. So when my wave went off at 10:50, I did my best to pace myself and start out slow. I tried to take in all the sights and sounds around me, including the spectators (I’d always heard that people cheer you on the entire way from Hopkinton to Boston, and it’s so true!) I ran the first few miles in the 8:20s, which felt very comfortable and not too fast, but looking back, probably was a bit too speedy in light of the infamous Newton Hills that come in the back half of the race. Almost immediately, I was glad I was in a singlet and shorts and I heard a few runners around me commenting on/complaining about the humidity, but it was still overcast so it didn’t feel too awful to me yet.

After Hopkinton, we ran through the towns of Ashland and Framingham, and my trusty SpiBelt– which I’ve carried in numerous races including marathons for the last three years– started to annoy the crap out of me! I had stuffed it with four energy gels, which I take faithfully during marathons at miles 5, 10, 15 and 20. For whatever reason, it started bouncing all around my waist and flipping up and down and generally just making me uncomfortable. So I took one of the gels out and figured I would hold it in my hand until mile 5 when I would take it. That solved the problem of the SpiBelt sliding around, until I dropped the damn gel in the middle of the road. One of the spectators was blasting the Boston anthem Sweet Caroline, and when I raised my arms in the air to chant, “So good, so good, so good!” the gel went flying. For a few seconds I tried to run back to retrieve it, but didn’t want to be trampled by dozens of runners. I knew volunteers would be giving out energy gels on the course, so I hoped whatever they were giving out (I’ve always used Gu brand) wouldn’t jack up my stomach.

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Natick-Wellesley: Miles 6-13

The rolling hills (mostly downhills) continued through Framingham and Natick, and my pace remained in the 8:20s-low 8:30s. The crowds were thick through downtown Natick, and again I tried to concentrate on taking it all in, waving at people, high-fiving little kids, and reading all the funny signs. (My personal favorite of the day was one that read “Did Aunt Becky get you your Boston qualifying time?”) I knew the spectators were going to get even more exuberant with the Wellesley Scream Tunnel coming up near the halfway point, and they certainly lived up to my expectations!

The Scream Tunnel is seriously one of the best parts of the Boston Marathon. Students from Wellseley College line the the street, screaming their hearts out (you can hear them from at least a half mile away) and holding signs encouraging you to kiss them. “Kiss me, I’ve been in school with all girls for four years!” “Kiss me, I’m an Aussie!” “Kiss me if you’re dead, too!” (That one was held by a girl wearing a T-Rex costume.) I actually saw one dude stop running and grab one of the girls and start full on making out with her. OK then! I didn’t kiss anyone, but I did give out a bunch of high fives! It was so much fun.

Miles 13-16: Getting hot

Around the time I hit the halfway point of the race, I started feeling the unexpected heat. At this point, there wasn’t much shade and it was the middle of the day, so we were getting cooked. I was chugging water and Gatorade — I like to alternate between the two during marathons — at every aid station. At one point, someone turned on a huge sprinkler and I ran through it and it felt incredible. The race felt like it was going by so fast at that point — I remember looking down at my watch and thinking “I’ve really been running for two hours already?” I also was able to grab an energy gel (Clif brand, vanilla flavored) from one of the stations and took it at mile 15 and my stomach cooperated. I was feeling good at that point and ready to tackle the Newton Hills ahead.

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Miles 16-21: The Newton Hills

Numerous people who have run Boston before have said the race really begins at mile 16, and it’s true. There are four hills through the town of Newton, with the most famous being Heartbreak Hill. I did a lot of hill training for this marathon, so I feel like I was as prepared as I could have been — however, it’s tough to prepare for running several miles of uphill after many miles of downhill. (At least I live in a somewhat hilly area. I feel bad for runners from very flat parts of the country!)  

I didn’t actually think any of the hills were all that bad — what makes them challenging is where they fall in the race. For example, Heartbreak Hill is steep, but no worse than the Naval Academy Bridge where I do my hill training. It’s also not that long — but since it’s at mile 20.5 in a marathon, it’s a real kick in the ass. The spectators were on point, though, yelling words of encouragement and holding signs that said things like “Don’t let this hill break your heart.” I’m not exactly sure what my pace was through this part of the race — I know I was slowing down a bit, but I didn’t stop to walk at all. There were a lot of other runners walking by that point and I was passing quite a few of them, so I can thank training on the bridge for that. But I was very excited to get to the top of the hill and see the sign at Boston College that told runners “The Heartbreak Is Over.”

Miles 21-26: Oh my Quad

After you get over Heartbreak, the race is almost entirely downhill to flat until the end. But at that point, my quads were so destroyed from all the downhill and uphill that it hardly felt easy (of course, you’re at mile 21 of a marathon; nothing feels easy then.)

I realized I was distracted by Heartbreak Hill and had completely forgotten to take my fourth gel, so I took that when I passed the mile 21 marker. Then I focused on the fact that I only had a few more miles until I could see my family. They were spectating the race at mile 24 in Brookline, though I had no idea what side of the road they would be standing on.

My quads were screaming at me, and I was hot and thirsty (I continued to stop at every water stop.) Around mile 23, my trusty Garmin Forerunner 10 died on me, which was annoying. Usually it lasts through an entire marathon, and I am hoping I don’t have to replace it — I’ve run thousands of miles with it at this point and I have a sentimental attachment to it. I knew I was slowing down anyway, so at least I didn’t have to look at my mile splits and get depressed.

I saw my mom first, and I started yelling and waving to her and finally she and Micah saw me and started cheering. My sister Catherine started waving a sign she had made for me that said “Allison’s Cheer Squad” and yelled extremely loudly, prompting some other spectators to start chanting my name as well. So that was fun. I never saw my dad, so I assume he was still at the bar drinking his Guinness (kidding! But they did hang out at a Brookline bar while they were waiting for me to run by.)

It wasn’t long afterwards that I looked up and saw the famous Citgo sign, which signals you are at mile 25 and the journey is almost over. The crowds were deafening and probably at least six people deep along this stretch, and it’s like that until you cross the finish line. It’s awesome.

Right on Hereford, left on Boylston

Everyone always talks about making that right turn on Hereford Street and then the left turn on Boylston Street, where the finish line is. I started to get really emotional when I looked up and saw the sign for Hereford Street — like, I started crying and gasping and had to tell myself, “GET IT TOGETHER, you need to keep breathing to be able to finish!” When I turned onto Boylston, I could see the finish but it looked really far away (it’s about four blocks from that intersection.) By then, everything felt surreal and I kind of felt like I was floating toward the finish line. I ran as hard as I could, past the Convention Center where I picked up my race packet, past the random Trader Joe’s on Boylston (such a weird place for a TJ’s), past the New Balance store with Run Like a Bos written in huge letters on the side.

And then I ran across the finish line and just like that, it was all over. Then the skies opened up and we got the cold rain that meteorologists had been calling for all along. Boston weather is so bizarre.

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Can you see me in the middle? I wish I had a better finish line photo! 

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Final thoughts

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t *slightly* bummed about my time, at least initially. I think I could have run in the high 3:30s/low 3:40s if it had been a flat course, but the Boston Marathon course is what it is. It’s tough AF. This article sums it up better than anything else I’ve read, down to the sunburn I got only on the right side of my body!

I’m proud of my training and proud of the fact that I only ran the back half of the course five minutes slower than the front half, even though I felt like I slowed down a lot. I’m also really happy about the fact that I’ve broken four hours in all seven of my marathons, and beat 3:50 in five of them. I know that’s “slow” to a lot of Boston runners, but it’s all relative. And isn’t finishing strong and with a smile on your face the most important part of marathoning?

I’m also so grateful for all the support I got from friends and family! I had literally dozens of people who downloaded the Boston Marathon app and/or signed up for race day alerts so they could track me during the race — high school friends, college friends, former co-workers, current co-workers, my kickboxing crew, my cousins. It was a bit scary, because you never know when a race is going to go off the rails, but I was honored that everyone was so excited for me! Thank you all!

Oh yeah, and of course I had to get new ink to commemorate my Boston experience:

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Finish line coordinates! Thanks Ariana for the pic! 😉  

What’s next for me?

Everyone has been asking me this. My dad wanted to know if this was my last marathon. No way! I plan to do many more marathons, and I plan to run Boston again, too. But I need to qualify again, obviously. I’ll be aging up for Boston 2021, and would like to shoot for a qualifying time for that race. (Of course, with the new tougher standards, I’ll have to hit the same time I did for Boston 2019!)  Initially, I was planning to run a marathon this fall and go for it then, but I think I need a bit of a break from marathon training. I want to focus on running a fast half marathon this fall — sub-1:40, I am coming for you– and run my next marathon next spring. I’m thinking about the Coastal Delaware Running Festival next April, which is in Rehoboth. Since I’ve already had good luck BQing there, why not try again?

But my most immediate goal is training for and competing in the Columbia Association Triathlon in June. I’m signed up for the super sprint — a 200 yard swim, 5-mile bike ride and 1.75-mile run.

So my personal project for May is learning how to be more comfortable in the pool– something that will undoubtedly be as challenging to me as training for a marathon!

4 thoughts on “Catching the unicorn: Boston Marathon 2019

  1. Really enjoyed reading about your experience. I really admire you and your strength to be able to do marathons. Even though I will probably not make it to that level at least I’m out there and not on the couch!!! Stay forever young and keep running!❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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