A Magical Halloween: I Qualified for Boston at the Chasing the Unicorn Marathon

I really did it. 

I ran a real live marathon in 2020 — and I qualified for the Boston Marathon! 

I’m honestly still in shock that it happened. Not that I ran a BQ — I was confident in my training and felt pretty certain that I could qualify. I just can’t believe the race itself actually happened. 

To recap, I registered for the Chasing the Unicorn Marathon in Washington Crossing, PA earlier this summer, when I thought that the Chicago and Philadelphia marathons would be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (I was right about that.) The marathon was originally scheduled for Sept. 13, with a ton of COVID mitigation protocols in place. It seemed very likely that it would occur as planned. I never missed a beat with my training, putting in 40- and 50+ mile weeks in the most disgustingly humid summer in recent memory. And then, three days out, the race was called off and rescheduled for Halloween. Still no idea why that happened. I almost said the hell with it, but my husband encouraged me to keep going with my training. I do love Halloween, and I thought running a Halloween marathon sounded like a blast. So I rejiggered my training plan with an Oct. 31 race date in mind, and ordered a pair of running shorts and matching arm warmers with a fun candy corn design on them. 

Then, three days before the race, Pat, the race director, sent out an email saying that he still didn’t have the permits for the event, but didn’t anticipate any issues. Didn’t inspire a ton of confidence, but OK.

THEN, the day before the race, I woke up and checked Facebook and saw he had posted a link to an article about a rally for Trump happening near Washington Crossing Historic Park. “Tell me this is why we still don’t have a permit,” he wrote. 

WTF? At that point, I’d already taken the day off of work and it was too late to cancel my hotel room for free. But whatever happened was completely out of my control. I figured we would travel to Washington Crossing and if I had to, I would run an unofficial marathon on the towpath along the Delaware River Canal where the race was supposed to take place. I wasn’t super excited about that, but I figured there would be other disappointed runners who would be doing the same thing. It’s 2020—of course that would happen.

BUT! Around 11 am, Pat posted on Facebook that he had the permit. “I still can’t believe it,” he said. Neither could I! However, Micah and I piled into my car and headed north to Bucks County, PA. I checked my email obsessively all day long, wondering if I was going to get an email telling me that the race was a no go.

Once we got to Newtown, near Washington Crossing, we checked into our hotel room and I headed to the towpath so I could do my shakeout run on the race course. The area was so gorgeous! I did notice that there were a lot of fallen leaves on the towpath, and I knew I would have to be careful not to slip and fall while running. But the scenery was so pretty. I also ran into Pat, who was setting up for the race. “Is this really happening?” I asked him. He assured me that it was, and even gave me my race packet so I didn’t have to pick it up on race morning.

Everything seemed good to go! I ran 5K on the trail because I had registered for Rip It Events’ virtual Day of the Dead 5K, back when I thought the marathon was happening on Sept. 13. I certainly wasn’t going to race a 5K either the day before or the day after a marathon, so I ran the 5K in 26:23 — an 8:30 pace. Everything felt great. 

Race Day! 

The marathon was scheduled to begin at 10 am — really late for a race, but I’m not a natural early bird, so I was fine with that! I set my alarm for 6:45 am and pretty much leapt out of bed when it went off. I felt so ready. I got dressed, drank my coffee and ate my usual bagel with peanut butter and half a banana and went to the bathroom about a million times. I was a little concerned about the temperature, which was only in the mid-30s. I had packed my candy corn shorts and arm warmers, plus my Rip It Events singlet and knee-high compression socks. I hadn’t thought to bring a throwaway sweatshirt. I knew I would be fine while running, but worried about freezing my ass off at the start. I decided to just take an extra blanket from the hotel room to wrap myself up in, and hoped that I would be able to retrieve it at the end of the race. (And I was! I promise I didn’t steal from the hotel!) Since no spectators were allowed at the race due to COVID protocols, Micah dropped me off about a half hour before the start and I wrapped the blanket around me while I waited. Per COVID restrictions, everyone had to wear masks in the starting corral and we were all asked to space out six feet apart from each other to adhere to social distancing guidelines. With only about 220 runners total in the full and half marathon, that was pretty easy to do. Runners crossed the start line individually three seconds apart, putting well more than six feet in between each of us. I thought that was handled very well. We were allowed to take off our masks while running, and I did, though I noticed some runners opted to keep them on through the whole event. 

As expected, I warmed up pretty quickly, and never felt too cold or too hot (though I am glad I made the last-minute decision to pack my running gloves! My hands tend to get colder than any other part of me.) My goal for this race was to run a 3:30, which for my age group, 40-44, is a Boston Marathon qualifying time by 10 minutes. Based on my training times, I thought this was totally feasible. I started off running around an 8-minute pace and was able to hold that consistently through the first half and then some of the race. There were two other women who were running around the same pace, so I decided to stick with them (while keeping proper social distance!) One of them commented that I looked really strong. “You’re going to crush a 3:30 if you keep it up,” she told me. “That’s what I’m trying to do!” I replied. I was trying to focus on keeping a steady pace and also just enjoying my surroundings, which again were so pretty! 

The marathon was an out-and-back course — it went from the Washington Crossing Historic Park up to New Hope, PA, then back. Marathoners repeated the course twice. Between miles 5 and 6, I think, runners encountered an unpleasant surprise — the canal was actually flowing up over the trail. So we had the privilege of running through several inches of cold ass water. “Great,” I thought. “So I get to run over this four times?!” My socks and shoes luckily dried quickly, but it really sucked. I’m glad it wasn’t any colder outside. An Instagram follower of mine commented that she injured her foot by stepping in a hole in the concrete under the water. Ugh! I was lucky that didn’t happen to me. 

I finished the first half in just under 1:45, and was feeling strong. Of course, if you’ve run a marathon before, you know that first 13.1 doesn’t really mean a whole lot. I was hoping I could eek out another 1:45 for the second half, and it was looking really good up until about mile 20. Isn’t that always the way it goes? When I started running marathons, I heard that when you get to mile 20, you are halfway there. It’s so true. And it was REALLY true for me during this marathon. 

There weren’t traditional water stops with volunteers handing out water during this marathon because of COVID– rather, there were self-filling water stations where you could step on a pedal on the ground and refill your own bottle of water. I had been carrying an 18-oz. handheld bottle with Nuun Kona Cola in it, but I’m not sure I was taking in enough water. Usually, I grab either water or Gatorade at every single stop on a marathon course. I was trying to remember to drink from my bottle at least every two miles, but not sure how well I did. At one point I accidentally spilled most of what I had, so I did have to stop and refill with water. Also, I was carrying the bottle in my left hand and my left arm started to get really sore around mile 16. This never happened to me during training, so maybe I was gripping it too hard. 

Anyway, I don’t think I was drinking as much as I normally would  in a marathon, and when it was time to take my 4th energy gel at mile 20 — I like to take one at miles 5, 10, 15 and 20 — I wanted to puke. But I forced it down anyway. 

My stomach was pretty unsettled for the last 10K of the marathon. I kept trying to tell myself that a 10K was nothing, and I had well under an hour left of the race! The fourth time running through that cold water was brutal. I knew I was slowing down at that point, but that a finish time of 3:30 or very close to it was within reach. I hit mile 22 at around 2:58, and I knew I could run the last 4.2 miles in 32 minutes if I kept pushing. But I was fading and it was getting much, much harder!

Somewhere between mile 22 and 24, I came upon a huge tree that had fallen right in the middle of the towpath. Seriously! It definitely wasn’t there when I had run through the area earlier …. But there it was blocking the whole path. I had to climb over it, which is NOT IDEAL that late in a marathon. Yikes. I hope no one got hurt by it. It wasn’t even windy, so I have no idea why it suddenly fell then. 

The final two miles were brutal. BRUTAL. I felt every stone and twig on the towpath beneath my feet. I looked at my watch and knew my 3:30 goal time was slipping away, but it looked likely that I could be sub 3:35 (which would be a PR.) I knew at that point I was definitely going to run a BQ unless I completely gave up and decided to walk it in. Which of course I was not going to do!

When I made the final left turn of the course, I saw my car parked in the grass and knew Micah was nearby, even though we weren’t supposed to have spectators. Sure enough, I saw him standing alone in the field just before the finish line. I waved to him and as I got closer, I heard him yell, “Empty the tank!” which is what he said to me just before I crossed the finish line and BQ’d in Rehoboth in December 2017. “It’s already empty!” I yelled back. I pushed as hard as I could and crossed the finish line in 3:36:34. It’s a minute and 34 seconds slower than my PR, and about six minutes off my goal time, but it’s a solid BQ and I am proud of it.   

Approaching the finish!
Boston qualifier at the Chasing the Unicorn Marathon
I’m a Boston Qualifier again!

I finished third in my age group, and I think I will be getting a prize in the mail. Don’t get too excited — there were only five women in my age group. It was a competitive race! I was 9th overall out of 67 women.

I qualified for Boston! But which Boston?

Great question! I have no idea. 

Because of the pandemic, the Boston Athletic Association has said there will be no Boston Marathon in April 2021. They said they may try to hold the marathon in the fall of 2021, but there is no guarantee of that. In “normal times,” this race would have fallen into the 2022 qualifying window anyway. So I’m going to assume that I qualified for Boston 2022. 

But again, there are so many unknowns. Maybe we will still be dealing with COVID in spring 2022. (I sure hope not, but I didn’t think we’d be dealing with it this fall, either.) Everyone who had 2020 qualifying times also is waiting to run the race. Sure, they got to run the “virtual” Boston experience, but we all know that is not the same and everyone who qualified wants the experience of running from Hopkinton to Boston! So, when it is safe to hold the Boston Marathon in person again, the 2020 qualifiers would likely get first dibs, as well they should! Then, of course, there are the 2021 qualifiers. What about all of those runners who ran 2021 BQ times from September 2019 through March 2020? They should get their shot, too. But if there’s no Boston Marathon in 2021, that means that group of runners will be pushed back a year, I’m guessing. 

I’ll say this, I definitely don’t envy the BAA for having to sort all of this out, and I feel very lucky that I got to run Boston 2019. I’ll get back there eventually. 

Of course, there’s also the issue of the cutoff — I ran 3 minutes and 26 seconds under my qualifying standard, which means I will have to wait until the second week of registration (whenever that occurs) to try to squeak in. It will probably be enough to get into the race, but you never know.

At the end of the day, I’m just so excited that I actually got to run a live marathon this year and put all of my training to good use. It did pay off, even if I didn’t hit my goal time. I qualified for Boston again! I will look back on this race as one of the bright spots in 2020.

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