Archives for posts with tag: Boston Marathon

“The cold can be dealt with my friend, but the wind…the wind is personal.”

I can’t remember where I first read that line, but I think of it often.  Any cyclist will tell you that a steep hill is preferable to a stiff wind and the same I feel is true of running.  The night before the Two Oceans Marathon it sounded like the wind was ripping the roof off the apartment where we were staying.  I laid awake in bed–my pre-race jitters getting ever jittery.

This year was the 44th running of this Cape Town classic and 11,000 runners from 74 countries took part in the 35 mile ultra marathon, while an additional 16,000 did the half marathon.  The race is always held on Easter weekend and serves as the traditional warm up for the 56 mile Comrades Marathon in June.  Only in sports-crazy South Africa would a 35 mile race be considered a warm up.

Comrades is the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world and is on many South African’s bucket list.  It has a similar history and prestige as our Boston Marathon.  I would love to run Comrades someday, but the timing did not work out for this trip.  Oh well, I guess the 35 mile “warm up” it would have to be.

One of my biggest worries for the race (other than the gale force winds) was trying to figure out how to get to the starting line.  There was a 6:30 am suburban start with no public transportation available at that hour.  I left our place at 4:30 hoping to track down a taxi and not get ripped off in the process.  Luckily just as I was leaving the apartment building a car full of local runners pulled up and asked me if I wanted a ride.  It was a nice way to start the day.

Most South African runners belong to a running club and wear their club uniforms at races.  At the starting line it was fun checking out all the different club names:  the impalas, the lions, the elephants, the cheetahs.  I made a point not to try and keep up with the cheetahs.

At 6 am the national anthem was sung.  South Africa is called the rainbow nation and looking around I could see why:  black, white, Indian, Arab, Chinese and every possible combination thereof.  It felt like a meeting of the United Nations and was pretty cool to see.  The half marathoners then took off first, followed by us ultra runners.  As usual it was a relief to finally be going, movement itself bringing an end to the anticipation.

The first half of the race was flat, going south from the city along the coast.  The sun had just started to rise as I passed through Muizenburg, a little surf town where we had spent the previous week.  My goal was to not go out too fast, just keep it at a manageable 8 minute per mile pace and save some energy for the difficult second half.

I hit the halfway point at 2:16, felt great and started to attack the hills.  This section was the most scenic, going up and over Chapman’s Peak.  The wind had not been much of a factor up until this point, just a bit of head wind that could mostly be avoided if you stayed in a pack.  But now that we were on the Atlantic side (the second ocean) the wind picked up and was at our backs.  I felt like it was pushing me up the hill.  The views down to Hout Bay were incredible.  I could now see why they call this the world’s most beautiful marathon.

The winds shifted as we topped out on Chapman’s Peak and the gusts were strong enough to nearly knock you off your feet.  I put my head down and my hat in hand, but still had a big smile on my face.

Instead of cups the aid stations handed out little bags of water and sports drink.  I grabbed a bag at every station and carried it with me until I needed some nourishment.  It was fun to sink your teeth into it and suck it dry like a vampire.

I got the feeling that for many runners the Two Oceans was their first attempt at an ultra distance race.  After 25 miles many people looked absolutely spent and started to walk.  This is where a second steeper set of hills kicked in.  My goal was to just keep running, no matter how slow.  I passed dozens of the walkers and this provided motivation to push even harder.  I heard a few of shouts of, “Looking good, Shawn!”‘ and wondered how they knew my name.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that everyone had their name printed in their race number.

The last four miles were all downhill and were a fun, cruisy way to finish the race.  I tried to pass as many runners I could, hoping to break into the top 1000.  The final quarter mile was on grass with rows of stands filled with spectators cheering us on.

I finished in 4:36 and placed 651st overall.  The weather turned out to be perfect, the wind hardly a factor, and the support exceptional.  I grabbed a burger and a beer and sat down to cheer on the remaining runners.  My race was barely finished and already I was dreaming of returning to South Africa to run Comrades.

2012clipart

This is the time of year when many runners dial back the mileage, partake in a few too many holiday indulgences and look back on the year that was.  Even though I had my share of struggles, 2012 was my best year as a competitive runner.  Here are some of the highs and lows:

Injuries:  I came across a posting on letsrun.com recently asking readers to share their goals for the coming year.  By far the number one response was, “to be injury-free.”  In no other sport are injuries as common as they are in running.  I bet even pro football players are injured less than runners.  I started out the year with a stress fracture in my lower right leg.  In June, I broke my wrist in a cycling accident.  I also had a strained tibialis anterior in my shin, a pulled muscle in my abdomen, and a couple of twisted ankles.

Am I doing something wrong?  Is running more than 50 miles a week bad for our bodies?  And the big question, why do we keep running if we’re just hurting ourselves?  Sometimes I feel like an unwilling participant in an abusive relationship and too much in love to ever consider leaving.

Want to know my number one goal for 2013?  To be injury-free.

Friends and Family:   My favorite races this year were not necessarily my best races, but ones where I ran with and had the support of good friends and family members.  In January, my brother Colin and I ran a half marathon in Florida.  He’s new to running (one of those Born To Run converts) and to see him set a new personal best was pretty awesome.  Also in January I ran a race in Forest Grove with Chuck, an old climbing buddy.  On the way home we stopped off for a well-deserved pint and a couple of our usual bacon blue cheese burgers.

Another friend, Greg was with me when I ran my first ultra in 2011.  This year I was lucky to have him as my support team at the Siskiyou Out Back (SOB) 50K and at the McKenzie River 50 miler.  In April, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to run in the Boston Marathon.  It was extra special having Yoshimi there to share a pre-race lobster dinner and a post-race Red Sox game at Fenway.  Running long distances is solitary pursuit.  Races should be used as an excuse to socialize with those we most enjoy spending time with.

Second goal for 2013: More races with familiar faces.

Adventures:  For me races serve several purposes.  They’re a competitive outlet, a motivator for everyday training and a setting to see how far and how fast I can run.  This year, however, I realized that you don’t necessarily need an organized race to have those same goals met.  You could just pick one of the hundreds of beautiful trails here in the Pacific Northwest and set off on a self-supported run of your own.

This past summer I did 30+ mile solo runs on the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park, the Eagle Creek/Wahtum Lake loop in the Columbia Gorge and around Mt. Hood on the Timberline Trail with my ultra running mentor, Jon.  On these self-supported runs there’s no pressure or expectations, just a full on wilderness adventure buzz.

Another goal for 2013: Less races, more adventure runs.

The Big One:  Last year on New Years Day it was cool and crisp with a rare winter appearance of that great fiery ball in the sky.  As I circled my way up Mt. Tabor I decided that my big goal for the year, the Mack Daddy, would be to run a 100 mile race.  From that point on, all the training I did over the course of the year was in support of that single goal.  My race schedule was structured systematically (10k, half marathon, 25k, 30k, marathon, trail marathon, 50k, 50 miler, in exactly that order) to slowly build towards the Javelina 100.  That may seem a bit anal, but I knew that running that far should not be taken lightly.  Everything went according to plan, expect for one aspect, the post-race recovery.  Afterwards I was both physically and psychologically spent.

To work towards one goal for so long and to accomplish it is truly a wonderful thing, but it also leaves you with a certain emptiness after the fact.  For most of November I completely lost the desire to run.  I didn’t want to think about running, talk about running or write about running.  I realize now that my body and mind needed a break.  The exact same thing happened last year around this time.  The mind has a curious way of turning up or down our desires to suit the needs of our bodies.  But not to worry, my friends, the brain has started pumping up the volume once again and my passion for running has now returned.

Reminder to 2013 self: Set big goals and then take big breaks.

Miles and Miles:  Three weeks ago I realized I was just 150 miles away from hitting 2000 miles for the year.  It hadn’t really been a goal of mine to run 2000 miles this year, but it’d be a shame to finish just short of that oh-so-sexy 2000 mile breakpoint.  So I decided to run everyday until the end of the year.  Some days were brutal: cold, wet and windy.  Others were pure joy.  The good being so much better after a bit of the bad.

Today is the last day of the year and I’m just a couple miles short of 2000.  It feels great to be so close and to have run so far.  Maybe I’ll wait until 11:30 and then do a few victory laps around the neighborhood.  Yoshimi can join be for the last 100 yards.  We’ll run with beers in hand and finish just as the clock strikes midnight.

Final goal for next year:  2013 miles in 2013, a 0.65% increase!

Happy New Year.

The average temperature for Boston in the middle of April is a cool comfortable 47 degrees–just about perfect for slogging through a marathon.  This year, unfortunately, things turned out to be a bit warmer.

In the days leading up to the marathon I checked the weather report every few hours, finding it hard to believe that temperatures would actually be in the high 80’s.  The event organizers were freaking out.  There was talk that the race might even be cancelled.  From a liability standpoint they must have been worried about having 25,000 goal-obsessed fitness freaks running themselves to death.

The day before the race an email was sent out guaranteeing entry to anyone who wanted to defer until next year.  A few hundred runners took them up on the offer, but most of us had trained hard all winter for this race and flown long distances just to be here.  We weren’t going to miss out on this opportunity.

The flight from Portland to Boston was weird.  Walking down the aisle I saw passenger after passenger with that hollowed cheek look that all competitive runners seem to have.  It felt like a chartered flight to an anorexia rehab center.  Everyone drank water and got up frequently to stretch and use the bathroom.  I recognized a few runners from local races, including Morgan, the manager of the Foot Traffic running store.  The airline probably should have given us a kickback with all the gas they saved flying these super skinny runners cross country.

Yoshimi and I stayed in private room at the Berkeley Hostel, a bargain at $80/night.  We didn’t realize it when we booked the room, but this hostel is just a few hundred yards from the finish line.  This would definitely come in handy later.  The place was filled with groups of runners from all over the world:  Spain, China, Brazil, Japan, Italy.  I had breakfast the first morning with a guy from Denmark who told me he trained for Boston’s notorious hills by running up and down Denmark’s highest mountain…all 561 feet of it.

The whole city of Boston felt like a big running convention.  Every year Adidas, one of the sponsors of the marathon, designs commemorative clothing they sell at the Expo.  This year’s gear was bright orange and black.  You couldn’t go anywhere in town without seeing runners proudly showing off their Boston Marathon schwag.  At the Expo, I saw Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man.  This is a guy who used to do all-night training runs and have pizzas delivered to him mid-workout.  Like many famous people (Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, the Mona Lisa), Dean was much smaller in person than you would imagine him to be.

The night before the marathon we went out for a typical Boston seafood extravaganza.  We started out with bowls clam chowder, followed by yummy lobster-stuffed ravioli, and then a whole 2 lb. lobster for the main course.  The waiter even gave us bibs so wouldn’t make a mess of ourselves.  We washed it all down with a couple a pints of Sam Adams (the beer, not the mayor of Portland).  Just as we were finishing up, a giant 7 lb. lobster was wheeled out to the table next ours.  It made our 2 pounder look like a little crawfish.

The logistics of organizing something like the Boston Marathon is enough to boggle the mind.  There are thousands of runners, volunteers, spectators, sponsors, media, security, medical personal, transportation, hydration, nutrition.  Just think of all the porta potties you need–it’s crazy.

School buses took us from Boston to the start of the race in Hopkinton.  The runners arrived in waves and some of us had to wait more than 3 hours for the 10am start time.  At Hopkinton High School they set up what is called the Athlete’s Village, where there was coffee, bagels, bananas, Gatorade and pre-race massages.  Shade, however, was in short supply and even at 7am the sun was already beating down on us.  The experienced Boston runners brought camping mats and caught a couple extra hours of sleep.  All in all, it felt like a giant runner’s Woodstock.

The Boston Marathon is a point-to-point course that travels east through the towns of Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline before arriving in Boston.  Because the roads through these historic towns are so narrow, the marathon must organize it’s 25,000 participants into three waves, each starting 20 minutes apart.  I was in the first wave, not too far from those Kenyan and Ethiopian speedsters.  While waiting for the start, I met a guy from New Orleans–a fellow alumni of my alma mater, Tulane University.  He said the heat reminded him of a steamy summer morning in Louisiana.

The first five miles of the course are mostly downhill, which normally wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that it’s easy to go out too fast and trash the quads.  I managed to keep my pace under control, helped no doubt by the oppressive sun.  The heat was a bummer, but there wasn’t anything you could do about it, so I resigned myself to running slow and smart.  In a way it was kind of a relief not to have any time pressure and to be able to just savor the whole experience.

And what an experience it was.  Every inch of the course was lined with cheering spectators.  To help us combat the heat, they broke out the garden hoses and the super soaker squirt guns.  Little kids handed out those push up freezer pops.  It had probably been 30 years since I had a popsicle and I totally forgot how that icy-cold sugary-sweetness really hits the spot on a hot day.  My favorites were the blueberry flavored ones.  Remember how they turned your tongue that freaky blue color?

I ran a few miles with a guy from Portland, a member of our local Red Lizards running club.  We tried to keep the conversation going to help the miles pass by, but it was just too hot to concentrate.  Later I passed Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick.  Even though Rick is confined to a wheelchair, together they have completed hundreds of races, including the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.  These guys are local legends and this year was their 30th Boston Marathon.

At the halfway point we passed Wellesley College.  The girls were out in full force, cheering us on and offering kisses for support.  I had to stop when I saw a sign that said, “Kiss me I’m from Oregon!”  It’s not every day you get a chance to kiss a college girl at my age.

After Wellesley I really started to struggle.  At every water stop I would grab two cups, one to drink and the other to pour over my head.  But still I couldn’t keep cool.  Even when a little breeze would kick up, it would be hot, like a wave of heat escaping from an open oven.  Every few miles I’d pass a couple of soldiers walking the course in full Desert Storm gear.  It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself after seeing these guys trudging along.

At around mile 20 in Newton is the start of the famous Heartbreak Hill.  It’s not a huge hill by Oregon standards, but it’s long and steady and comes at a point when you’re just starting to hit the wall.  I was surprised to see so many competitive runners reduced to walking.  Upon reaching the top I caught a second wind.  I put my head down, started pumping my arms and passing other runners.  Only five miles left to go.

The rest of the race was a bit of a blur.  I remember passing Boston College, seeing the giant Citgo sign and then the John Hancock Tower.  In the last mile I passed a guy dressed up like Minnie Mouse.  It doesn’t matter how bad I feel, I’m not going to let myself get beat by a cartoon character.  I crossed the finish line in 3:32:55 in 3,446th place.  It was the slowest, the hardest and the most enjoyable marathon I’ve run.

The temperatures maxed out at 89 degrees that day and over 2000 runners needed medical attention.  It’s a miracle no one died.  The winning time of 2:12:40 was almost ten minutes slower than last year (that’s a distance of more than two miles for those guys).  Geoffrey Mutai, who ran the fastest marathon ever last year, dropped out of this year’s race at mile 18.  So, basically I beat the world’s fastest marathon runner.  Don’t let it get you down, Geoffrey.  Keep training hard and maybe you can beat me next time.

The following day Boston looked like the zombie apocalypse with thousands of battered and abused runners limping around town.  Yoshimi and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  This year is Fenway’s 100th anniversary and even though the Sox got crushed 18-3, it was awesome to see the Green Monster up close and personal.

The Boston Marathon is on almost every serious runner’s life list.  I went into this race with some pretty high expectations, yet still the overall experience blew me away.  The history, the crowd support, the organization, the prestige all combine to make each and every runner feel like a superstar.  Even though my legs are still a bit sore, I’ve already started dreaming about my next Boston Marathon.

2001 was a tough year.  Yoshimi and I had just returned from an extended backpacking trip through Asia.  Our bank account was completely tapped out and the real world pressures were starting to sink in.  We were unable to afford a lawyer, so I ineptly tried to navigate my way through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of U.S. Immigration in order to secure a Green Card for Yoshimi.

They make it look so easy in the movies.  An American falls in love with a cute foreigner, whose tourist visa is ready expire.  Uncertainty ensues, until one of them says, “What the heck, lets get married!”  It’s my own fault for thinking it would be so easy.

Yoshimi was forced to leave the country while her Green Card was getting approved.  I stayed in Portland and juggled three part time jobs to try and make ends meet.  All things considered it was probably the worst time ever to start training for a marathon.  But, you know, sometimes you don’t choose these things.  They choose you.  In hindsight, maybe I craved a regimented running program to help me deal with all the uncertainties of that time.  Running has always served as a pressure valve in my life and in 2001 I needed it’s stress-relieving qualities more than ever.

I set a goal to run the Portland Marathon in a time of 3:10 and qualify for the Boston Marathon.  First held in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest and most famous marathon.  Its history and prestige make Boston is a mecca for marathon runners and because of this fact it is the only marathon other than the Olympic Trials that requires a qualifying time.  Some runners spend their whole lives trying (and failing) to make the cut.  The qualifying times are set at a level so that only the top few percent of all marathon runners get in.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that I would or could run a Boston qualifying time.  But for six months I put every extra bit of energy I had into training.  Yoshimi’s Green Card got approved right before 9/11 and around the same time I was offered a full time job at Powell’s Books.  Things were starting to look up.

With a mix of nervousness, confidence and excitement I rode my bike through the early morning darkness to the start of the 2001 Portland Marathon.  There was a pace group set up for runners hoping to run a 3:10, led by a guy named Dan from Runner’s World Magazine.  I wouldn’t even have to think.  All I had to do was stick with Dan and a coveted Boston qualifier would be mine.

The first ten miles felt easy and everyone in the pace group remained together.  We joked about all getting together for a lobster dinner and a Red Sox game in Boston.  The next ten miles were more of a challenge.  I was able to maintain the pace, but a few of the runners in the group couldn’t keep up.  At mile 22, I remember thinking, “All I have to do is hold on for 4 more miles, just 30 more minutes, that’s it.”  But just as that thought entered my head, Dan and the pace group started to pull away.  They weren’t going any faster…I was slowing down.

In the six months of training I had run close to a thousand miles in preparation for this one day.  And even though I was just 30 minutes of suffering away from achieving my lofty goal, I simply could not go any faster.  I had reached my physical limit.  Dan, the pace group and my dream of Boston literally ran away from me.  All I wanted to do was lay down in the street and cry.  Yoshimi was waiting for me at the finish, so I slogged my way to the end, missing the qualifying time by 5 minutes.

It was the first time in my life that I had fully committed to a goal…and failed.  At first I was devastated, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great experience it was.  Goals are meant to be challenging.  If you hit all the goals you set for yourself, you’re probably not setting them high enough.  Qualifying for Boston is a worthy goal, one that usually takes more than a six month commitment to achieve.  I wasn’t ready at that point to try again, but I knew eventually I would take another crack at it.  And the next time, I knew I would succeed.

For almost ten years that race remained lodged in the back of my head.  I would think about it often when I ran through Laurelhurst Park or along the Willamette River.  Finally in the summer of 2010 I had the desire and stability to commit to another attempt.  It would take me a full year of intense focused training until I felt like I was truly ready.

Last summer at the Pacific Crest Marathon I ran a 2:58, finished in third place overall and qualified for Boston.  Afterwards I broke down, thinking about the 2001 Portland race and all the hard work I had put in since then.  It has been a lifelong dream of mine to run Boston.  Recently my mother found a short story I wrote in elementary school called The Runner.  In the story I run the Boston Marathon and win the race in a sprint finish, just barely beating out Boston icon, Bill Rodgers.  The first line of the story is, “My name is Shawn, but all my friends and fans call me Adidas.”

The 2012 Boston Marathon is on Monday April 16th.  I don’t think “Adidas” will be pulling off an upset victory over the Kenyans and Ethiopians this year.  My goal was simply to qualify and now I’m just going to savoy the whole experience: high-fiving little kids, collecting kisses from the cheering co-eds at Wellesley College, and soaking in all the energy from the million spectators at this historic sporting event.  I’ve been dreaming about this day for a long time and on April 16th I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.