Thursday, April 13, 2017

What's the Big Deal?

I have a tendency to forget that not everyone in my life is a runner.


It's easy to do when you spend what adds up to weeks, months, and years with other runners, talking endlessly about the ins and outs of our obsession, using our special language or acronyms and silly words (as a runner, I am obligated to now mention the words "fartlek" and "Yasso" as well as the acronyms PR and DOMS).

It's not just runners either. We humans have a tendency to hang out with people who are like us and share our interests and when we interact with people who are outside of that bubble, our lengthy soliloquies about [insert obsession here] are annoying gibberish. We take for granted that everyone knows what we're talking about because well duh... why wouldn't they?

I take for granted that everyone understands why the Boston Marathon is a Big Deal® but the reality is that most of the people in my life have no idea why it means so much. I mean, there are races like every weekend, and anybody can run one, so who cares, right? And I've run a couple marathons before, so woohoo, another one. Big whoop.

So I'm going to tell you why Boston is considered the holy grail of marathons, not just for me, but for thousands of runners from all over the world.

Prestige and History - The Boston Marathon is the oldest marathon in the US, dating all the way back to 1897. This year is the 121st running of the race. Of course things are a heck of a lot different now than they were in 1897, or even in 1967 or 1987. Participation in distance running has skyrocketed over the past twenty years and as that has happened, I think that Boston has become even more iconic to the average runner.

Boston is also one of the six World Marathon Major races. These six are the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. The others are Tokyo, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York. Running all six is a big goal for some people (don't worry... it's not one of mine). For runners, participating in one of the World Majors is kind of like the NCAA Basketball Tournament or NFL Post-Season.

For these two reasons, Boston attracts some of the world's most elite marathon runners. I, along with around 30,000 other people, will line up with Meb Keflezighi, Galen Rupp, Buzuesh Deba, and Desi Linden to participate in the same event. That's like getting to play on a football team with Tom Brady, or playing doubles with Serena Williams, or fielding for the Red Sox. Obviously I won't be racing side by side with these world class athletes (shoot, I would barely be able to keep up with them if I was on a bike!), but I will be running the same race, following in their footsteps.

Boston is also important to a lot of women this year because it is the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer historic 1967 feat, when she became the first woman to register for and complete the Boston Marathon. Kathrine's accomplishment started to break down the long-held notion that women couldn't participate in distance running and she went on to be a major influence in finally getting the BAA to allow women to officially register for Boston Marathon and later, for the women's marathon to become an Olympic sport. Because of Kathrine, women make up more than half of marathon finishers in the US today.

To mark the occasion, Kathrine will be running the race on Monday. No one has ever run a marathon 50 years after their first, but I have every confidence that Kathrine will be smashing that barrier too.

I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to interview and meet her in November 2015. That year I ran with her signature on my bib at the Richmond Marathon and it is so overwhelming to think that I'll be running in Boston with her - the woman who is in no small way responsible for me even being allowed to participate in this race.

From Kathrine to the Wellesley girls to the Citgo Sign to Meb's win in 2014, to Alberto Salazar and David Beardsley's famous "Dual in the Sun" in 1982 to the terrible bombing in 2013 that only made the running community rally stronger... there is so much history and tradition, so many stories and legends surrounding this particular race that it has reached mythic status. As a runner, to feel that I get to participate in and add my own chapter to the Boston Marathon's story is overwhelming.

Not just anyone can run Boston - Let me give you a quick statistic. Annually, only half a percent of Americans completes a marathon. Of that half percent, around 12% qualify for Boston. Of that 12% of half a percent, only 4-5% actually go on to register for and run Boston.

Now, I'm really bad at math so I won't even try to calculate what teeny tiny fraction of a fraction of a percent of the American population that is.

In other words, not many people get to have this experience.

Typically, any old Joe Schmoe can go sign up for a marathon and theoretically, finish one. Most don't require any kind of proof that Joe Schmoe can complete a marathon or has done so successfully. You could go out tomorrow and register for one if you wanted to.

For the bigger and more popular races, there are often race lotteries where you put your name in the pool and hope you are one of the lucky ones who gets chosen (New York, Chicago, and Marine Corps all employ this). You could also guarantee your entry into these races by qualifying. That means you run a marathon in X time and you are automatically in. New York City's qualifying standards, for example, and more difficult than Boston's. Chicago also uses qualifying times (and countless others, I'm sure).

So why is Boston still the be-all-end-all for many amateur runners?

Because Boston has no lottery. If you don't qualify for NYC, you put your name in that hat and you can still get the chance to run it. Not so in Boston. There are only two ways to get the chance to run. You either qualify, or you raise thousands of dollars for a charity as a charity runner. 80% of the field in Boston is for qualifiers only. As a result, it is the fastest marathon in the country and also very difficult to get in to.

Simply put, to run Boston,  for most of us, you have to work hard and you have to really earn it. Earning a Boston Qualifying time alone is a badge of honor. Nowadays, getting in has become so competitive that even just earning that BQ time doesn't mean you're going to get in. My first two BQs were not fast enough and I did not make the cut for the 2016 race. The bar for participation is set higher and higher every year.

People go to crazy lengths to lie, cheat, and steal their way into the race. The problem has gotten so much attention that there is a person who has made it his personal mission to identify and catch cheaters; that my entrant information contains pages of policies and disclaimers about bib transfers or selling and the consequences, along with warnings to not post photos of my bib on social media lest someone use Photoshop to print a fake bib and run with it; that people do try to sell Boston entries for up to $5,000 on message boards and Craigslist.

For honest amateur runners, getting a BQ is a goal that they strive towards for years and years. Anyone can run a marathon... not just anyone can run in Boston. Some are able to achieve it, and some never do. I never thought I would be able to qualify. After the bombing, I even wrote these words:

Ironically, I had never really been much interested in the Boston Marathon before this year. But this year, the bug got me.  Even though I have never run a marathon and am not anywhere fast enough to qualify, the pipe dream of someday, somehow, running Boston entered my head.

I wrote that on April 16, 2013.

Obviously I never imagined that four years later, almost to the day, I would be running the Boston Marathon not as a charity runner but having qualified three times. My mind set changed when my good friend Lauren qualified for Boston at Steamtown in 2014. Lauren and I had trained for our first marathon together and ran much of it side by side. When she achieved that BQ it made me think that maybe someday it could be in my realm of possibility too. My quest for Boston began in earnest in February 2015.

A two year roller coaster of training, injuries, surgery, tears, pain, joy, and of course hundreds of thousands of miles running have brought me here.

For all of us so-called "recreational" runners (a term I kind of hate), Boston is our Super Bowl. It seems like a crazy dream but it is also an achievable dream. We watch friends do it and we think, "Hm, maybe I can too." It's a goal to strive for; something to push for; something to keep us going.

To earn the right to wear that finisher jacket is a big achievement. It's our moment in the sun - our moment of glory. For us average people and average runners, our lives and races are mostly carried out in anonymity.

In Boston, though, we are superstars for a day. We are all elite.

So there you have it. That's why Boston is such a Big Deal®, at least to me. Obviously there are as many reasons to want to run a race as there are runners. A lot of runners will give reasons that are a lot more noble. Some will say it is a bucket list item; that they're raising money for charity; that they're using the race as the summit of getting through some difficult or challenging period in their life; in memory of someone; etc.

Most won't ever admit that one of the reasons they want to run Boston is to join that elite group of qualifiers/finishers. Being competitive is out of style. I don't really care that it is. Yup, I'm competitive. Against myself and against the other runners. Yup, I want to beat you. Yup, I'm proud that I trained hard, ran fast, and am running Boston because I qualified for it. No, I'm not sorry.

I want to run Boston because I want to join that group of runners, add my name to that that long and prestigious list. I want to run it because I earned it. Because I have clawed my way back from injury and worked my butt off to get to this start line. I want to make my husband proud. I want to run it for those who can't. I want to hear the walls of sound coming from 500,000 spectators, see that iconic finish line ahead of me, and cross it. I want to follow in Meb's and Kathrine's footsteps. I want to escape my average life and for a day, I want to feel elite.

4 days.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

LR2B - T-minus 11 days

That my last entry was about my no good very bad long run is a great example of how no good and very bad I have become with documenting things.

Since that entry, written at the tail end of February, much has transpired and here I am cruising through Taper Town with my most intense month of training behind me. After that bad run, I was very anxious about how March was going to go and thankfully, 75% of it turned out to be fine. The other 25% was the week after the no good long run, during which I felt exhausted, sore, and completely sluggish. BFF Steve and I chalked it up to a bout with over training syndrome; after all, I had just run my highest volume mileage week in more than a year.

[Never mind that my highest mileage week in a year was a measly 32 miles...]

Taking it easy for a few days and trading roads for trails for my long run the next week seemed to do the trick for my body, but I had still had to work to convince my mind that I really could pull off the rest of the training. Mother nature helped out a little when she got the memo that it was in fact still winter/early spring and NOT early summer. Cooler temps helped immensely as I ticked my way through March, building a bit of confidence with each successful run.

Before I knew it, I was facing down the biggest week of training: a Yasso Test on March 20th; 10 miles on March 22nd, and my one and only 20 miler on March 25. Back when I made my plan, I remember filling in this week and feeling like it was going to be impossible to execute. At the time (waaaaay back in January), I was doing 20 mile weeks and that was hard enough.

[That waaaaaay back thing was sarcasm, by the way]

I tried really hard to weasel my way out of the Yasso test. I was afraid to do it because I had just had a great long run that had done much to restore my confidence in my ability to successfully complete a marathon and the last thing that I wanted to happen was to follow it with a big fat fail of a Yasso test. As every runner knows, the physical aspect of the sport (while difficult) is the easier thing to build up and the real test is whether you can train your brain into believing you can achieve what you need to.

Kit, however, would not allow me to weasel out of the Yasso. I begrudgingly met him at the track on Monday morning.

[If you don't care about the technicalities of running, skip this next part you'll be really bored. It's safe again after the picture.]

If you're not familiar with the Yasso Test, here's a really basic primer. It is named after the Official Mayor of Running, Bart Yasso, whom I've had the pleasure of running and post-run breakfasting with multiple times. He had a habit of running 800s and discovered a pattern that his 800 lap time and his marathon finish time correlated almost exactly; the Yasso Test thus became a marathon finish time predictor.

Here is how it works. Let's say you have a goal of running a 3 hour, 45 minute marathon (3:45). To test whether you are physically prepared, your goal with the Yasso is to complete a track work out that consists of 10 - 800 meter intervals complete in 3 minutes, 45 seconds each, with a rest period of similar duration between each.  So:

Mile warm up
800m in 3:45
Recovery jog for 3:45
800m in 3:45
Recovery jog for 3:45
[repeat until you've done it ten times]

It sounds complicated, but it isn't really.

It doesn't sound very difficult to execute either. For the first few laps, it feels pretty reasonable indeed. The pace is usually slower than speed work and thus you are fooled into thinking that the Yasso Test is easy as pie. But by the time you get to the 8th, 9th, 10th 800, you realize it is no joke.

Though I haven't said it "on the record" before, my goal for Boston is to run a 3 hour, 45 minute marathon. Initially I just wanted to come in under four hours, but based on the paces I have been able to keep during long runs, the 3:45 felt like it fell pretty easily within the realm of possibility. Therefore, I needed to run each of my 800s in 3 minutes, 45 seconds. It felt daunting and impossible but as it turns out, I'm in much better shape than I thought...

Instead of being the confidence basher that I feared, the Yasso turned out to be a huge boost, showing that I'm apparently capable of maybe even a 3 hour, 35 minute marathon. I could hardly believe it.

The Yasso was followed by a really glorious, and more conservatively paced, 10 miler on Wednesday - which also happened to be my birthday. Kit and I did a point to point route that covered pretty much all of our favorite places: Nickel Bridge, Riverside Drive, Belle Isle, Canal Walk, Flood Wall, and new favorite place, the Tyler Potterfield "T-Pot" Memorial Bridge.


I wish I could say that my 20 mile long run was awesome and that I felt fantastic but I didn't. It wasn't as bad as the no good horrible run, but it wasn't great. The last four miles were a real slog; my left adductors were really just done with me starting at mile 16, which made my left knee start to hurt as my gait suffered through loss of control of those left thigh muscles. The left side continued to bother me and on the following Monday, for the first time during this training cycle, I opted to not do my run. With the real work behind me and a slightly wonky knee going on, it wasn't worth the risk to insist on completing those 8 miles. So I didn't. I'm slightly perturbed about it, as I had been perfectly on track until that point, but better safe than sorry. I've worked far too hard to risk it all by being stubborn now.

Just 11 days away now, it still seems completely surreal that I am going to be running the Boston Marathon. Not only because it is Boston, but because 6 months ago, I could hardly complete 30 minutes of run/walk. 9 months ago, I was on crutches and crying multiple times a week out of frustration, pain, and fear that I would never run again.

That I've come so far in so little time is mind-blowing to me. When this started, my only goal was to get to the finish line on my own two feet, and to hopefully not have to walk any part of the marathon. I never imagined that I would feel confident enough to say that I think I can run a 3:45 in Boston. Truly, I believe I could run a 3:35 an re-qualify, but I also think that would be very painful and not fun. I would rather enjoy this experience so I am not aiming for that goal.

I am now allowing myself to get excited about this. I have been holding back because the specter of injury haunted me throughout the training cycle. It felt like this could all be taken away at any second, without rhyme or reason, just like in May.

It could still be... I am become that crazy, 2 weeks out from a marathon, paranoid runner who hand washes constantly to avoid illness, who won't go on the trails for fear of turning an ankle, who won't go for a bike ride for fear of cars/falling off, who won't walk around shoeless in the dark for fear of stubbing and breaking a toe.

[And I might be already obsessively checking the weather forecast, multiple times a day, through  multiple weather services. Right now the weather looks spectacular, by the way. Sunday night low of 40, partly cloudy and high of 54 on race day.]

So while being excessively careful, I am also plotting how we will spend the time in Boston, made pre-race dinner reservations, and lined up entertainment/touristing. I ordered my race day top (Boston Blue of course), and even a new pair of run sunglasses because I decided I did not want my current pair to be documented for all time in my Boston debut photographs. I've read through my passport and race day guide and started my race-day gear pile.

Nope, I wasn't AT ALL excited on the day my passport and guide finally arrived.

I'm trying to suppress talk of the race in every day conversation. I don't speak of it unless someone else brings it up (except in the case of Husband and Kit. Sorry guys...). Obviously this is a big deal for me but not so much for everyone else in my life.

That being said, I probably will post a few more thoughts that I want to get out before I go; in particular, how this training cycle was different than all the others and the full story on the TENEX surgery that I had and what the recovery was truly like from the standpoint of an active person/athlete. Unfortunately, injury - and in particular plantar fasciitis- is such a common experience for runners that I want to share my experience in hopes of helping others who are suffering from it and trying to make decisions about treatment and understand what recovery can look like.