Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Boston 2009: My Comedy of Errors

It started innocently and logically enough; I would do a double Boston on marathon day. This would serve as the defining long run for my upcoming 100-miler in Virginia (Massanutten Mountain Trails) and save me the time I would otherwise spend on the bus ride out to Hopkinton. Also, as a family guy, I am always looking for ways to reduce the time lost with the family. This was an ideal plan and met that criteria. Little did I know of the trouble and heartache this simple plan would cause me.

On Easter Sunday I came down with cold. I was jubilant. This was perfect timing, as it gave me a full week to get rid of the virus and render myself theoretically bullet proof to another virus before the big show on May 16th in VA. Theory does not always pan out. Five days later on the Friday before the race I was actually feeling worse. And to add insult to injury, my wife, Kelly, now had my cold. This consisted of a sore throat (persistent and nasty), headaches, stuffiness, and aches and chills. Our plan was to head down to Boston Saturday, spend a couple days tripping around Boston, and enjoy the pool at the hotel. Well, to add another insult to the injury, my daughter, Riley, seemed to have other ideas Friday night as she started vomitting when I was headed to bed. As of Saturday morning, it looked like the trip was over.

As noon time rolled around and everyone was up and about, we decided to give it a go. As we are a family that shares everything, Kelly and I were sure one of us would get the stomach bug. As luck would have it, we avoided this (at least we have to this point). But better to try and maybe succeed than to doom ourselves to immediate failure by staying home. Once in Boston we hit the expo, did our part to support the profit/loss statement of Adidas, had dinner and were back in the hotel by sunset. As we were all dragging to this point, we hit the sack early.

On Sunday, we took the kids to the Boston Children's Museum (two and a half thumbs up) and did the usual of walking way too much on the day before a race. (In theory, if one was to add up the miles we walked in Boston the weekend before the race, this effort combined with the marathon would probably qualify me for an honorary double Boston.) By Sunday night I was a mess. The cold seemed to have intensified, I was exhausted, and totally stressed out about the run I had committed myself to the next day. It is one thing to run a casual trail run over 50 miles. There are usually no timelines, no directions to worry over, and no roads. In this case I was supposed to run 2.5 miles to the start from my hotel, run 26.2 miles of asphalt, and make sure I did not get off course while ensuring I made it to the start on time for the wave 1 start at 10 AM. I admit in retrospect none of this seems like that difficult of a task, but having carried a cold for the week while thinking through all this had worked me into quite a state.

Kelly had been trying to talk me down from the ledge for a few days before the stunt. I had brushed her suggestions off because I have never bagged a run or race (except Ironman Wisconsin which was held the same week as my son was born and I wasn't allowed to leave home). If I said I was going to do something I did it. Until Monday morning I was still holding out hope that the symptoms would abate and the cold would flee. No such luck.

I awoke Monday morning, race day, at 4 AM and got dressed for a long run. Shortly after waking I received a text from a running buddy, James, who was supposed to meet me on Boylston and join me until Natick. James had been running since midnight with John O'Connor, who was running a quadruple Boston (that's right, four Bostons, or 104.8 miles). The plan was to meet James and Jamie at the start line for company on my way out to Hopkinton. The text read that James had gotten cold waiting and had started the return trip slowly, with the intent of me to catch him. This was the first straw to killing the run. I still headed out to run but had started doubting my ability to complete a return trip given the way I felt. It was then that I received a call from Jamie. He had bailed due to a flare up of plantar fasciitis. This was the second straw. The instructions were written in the heavens: go back to bed, rest, and get healthy. This fool's quest is done. So I obeyed.

I hit the sack at quarter to five for a couple more hours of rest. At that point my teeth and jaw started aching, so much that I couldn't sleep. Not even a bunch of Motrin hid the pain. This was the first sing of the sinus infection settling into place, but I did not know it at this point. Instead, I ignored it. I am lucky enough to have a very supportive wive who loves running as much as I do and who knows how special Hopkinton is on Patriot's Day each year. She and the kids drove me out to the start and hung around until the gun went off at 10 AM.

As with all Boston starts, the first few miles are crazy fast. The course is famously downhill (severely at this point) and the energy that has built up in the corrals needs somewhere to go. My splits for the first 10 miles were roughly 7:10 on average. I felt great. Maybe I was operating on muscle memory and a lot of adrenaline. This is my usual marathon pace and in the beginning I thought "since I am out here, I might as well see what I can do". And then the wheels came off.

A bright point in the race came around mile 10 in Natick when I saw Jamie, James, Ian, and Carter, all fellow Trail Monsters who had come out to help John achieve his quadruple Boston. It was after this that things went south. The first sign that something wasn't quite right was that I kept having to clear my throat. This was due to the post-nasal drip and other "junk" in my upper respiratory. The second issue was the aching in my jaws and teeth had returned. The pace from miles 10-20 slipped a bit to around 7:35. I did go through the half at 1:36, and while not near my best, this is a competent half split for a marathon, for me at least. This pace put me on a qualifying time (3:15 for my age) with time to spare at the end for a beer outside Fenway. By the time I got to Fenway I felt awful and the only beer I got was the one that the crazy dude next to me spilled on me as he smashed a beer can on his forehead.

The walking reprieves began on top of Heartbreak Hill in Newton. I got a nasty stitch in my stomach that was digging in deep up the hill, so I had to slow to try and get rid of it. I walked for about 30 seconds while kneading my side and this helped a ton. I started running again, all the while searching out the statue of Johnny Kelly. I have now run Boston three times and not one time have I seen this damn statue. That streak continues. Despite feeling terrible, I was more pissed of being robbed of a view of this thing again. Maybe next time. The pace at mile 21 was the slowest of the day at 10:04, aided by the hills and walking break. The final five miles were split between walking and running and netted an average pace of roughly 8:45s. To the credit of Boston sports fans, they were very supportive and helpful. Not once was a barb thrown my way for walking, only words of encouragement. I fell in love with Boston again at that point.

The final stretch of the race is down Boylston, and while I have not participated in many grand moments in sporting history, I would have to say that this finish has to be near the top of the most dramatic conclusions available to the average marathoner. The roar of the crowd is deafening and there is so much energy as to make it feel alive and available for all the runners to harness for an almost out-of-body finish. No matter how tired you are as you turn the corner from Hereford Street onto Boylston, the finish feels like that first sprint down the Hopkinton hills. My finish time of 3:29 (average pace of 7:56) qualified this race as my worse ever Boston and worse ever marathon (excluding those that I have done to pace others or with a group). But that did not make it any less meaningful. Boston is special, no matter how fast or slow you run it.

The funny thing with bagging this race is that it seemed that my intent to run a double Boston had captured the imagination of a ton of people. My email and voicemail contained comments from friends and families about how they couldn't believe I had done two Bostons, and run the return trip to Boston so quickly given the fact that I had already run the course once. I received a call from the Portland Press Herald's running columnist, John Rolfe, asking to talk to me about the "crazy thing" I did in Boston. At work an email was sent around to myriad people before I returned announcing my feat and congratulating me. I was now left with the very unenviable position of deflating all these peoples' thrill with what I had (not) done. Even today I had to correct a bunch of people and notify them that I bailed on my double. The interesting thing is that no one has ever been that excited about the 100-milers that I have done. No one gets running 100 miles through the mountains or woods. They don't get the perspective of it. What they do understand is how "big" of a race the Boston Marathon is and to do it twice is "incredible". I can assure them that running the equivalent of four of them in the mountains while covering 20,000 feet of elevation gain/loss is a much tougher.

So on the drive home from Boston I still had not put two and two together that I had a nasty sinus infection. All I knew was that my jaw and teeth ached. I was hurting so much that I was unable to eat dinner on the ride home. I literally called my dentist and scheduled an emergency appointment for him to check my teeth. It wasn't until we were nearly home that Kelly suggested my problem might be my sinuses. As a guy who has been fortunate enough to avoid serious colds and illnesses for a very long time (yeah, except cancer), I haven't dealt with an infection or cold like this for a very long time so I had no idea what the symptoms are. As a test, I doped myself up on sinus medicine and loads of Motrin and felt relief a bit later. The rest is history and antibiotics. While I am still dealing with some pressure, I am starting to feel better. Two and a half weeks to Massanutten so I am hopeful I will be 100% by then.

On a final note, I want to salute and applaud John O'Connor for his courageous accomplishment and for his selfless effort on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project. Four Bostons is amazing and awe worthy. If you would like to donate to John's chosen cause, it isn't too late. Use the links above.


Jamie said...

Great report Stephen. I really enjoyed the read. Time to get some revenge at Massanutten! Dog will hunt!!!

mindy said...

You kick ass no matter what, Stephen. Way to power through. I've never seen that statue either, I don't think it exists....

Mike said...

Hey Stephen - loved the report and LOVED the Atayne shirt you were sporting :) Best of luck at Massanutten - ouch. Any chance you'll be heading to Pineland this year? If not, I'll see you at Vermont - it's going to be my first 100 miler...god willing.