Saturday, April 22, 2017

Boston Marathon 2017: wow!

Wow, as I start writing this race report, I imagine it to be a long one. Such a legendary race and event, so many memories coming back, and so many new memories formed which I want to capture in writing. Oh, and so many pictures too with Agnès and friends attending as well. And videos for a change... I have so much in my mind even several days later, I could have created 3 posts so, again, be prepared for a long one. Hey, you don't have to go through all of it anyway, there is no test afterwards! ;-)

I. Leading to Boston

First, I was asked what motivated me to come back so I had to recall what went through my mind back in September 2015, when we put our application in. Several things as I recall. First, the yearly appeal of being part of this unique race, the oldest marathon with 121 editions so far. Second, the fact that I had gotten a good qualifying time during the 50K Nationals when I passed the marathon mark in 2:45 on my way to my 50K PR of 3:18. Third, the opportunity to visit a few friends we have in New England, a trip which got Agnès particularly excited. Fourth, that was going to mark a return to Boston after 10 years. Last, but not least, after the stroke of March 2016, there is a sentiment of 'do it while you can', the same motivation which got me into UTMB this year.

10 years have passed since my last Boston, wow, time flies! 10 years during which I ran 140 ultra races, a passion for ultra running which relegated the marathon distance to a long sprint... I've ran 61 50K races but only 22 marathons, time to give that mythical another try.

For those who follow-me, what led to Boston has been a strange preparation to that distance and format. In January, I prepared for a 24-hour track race I had at the end of February but, in the meantime ran a solid 50K road race the first weekend of February (3:19:59), then won the Masters division at the 50K trail Nationals 2 weeks later, only to falter on GI issues with a very disappointing 111 miles at the Riverbank 24-hour race a week later. I didn't race in March, with my main goal being to break our American age group record at the 100K Nationals the week before Boston and that led to a fiasco with some exercise-induced asthma and having to walk 50K to finish, and win the Masters division again short of a competitive field. With that asthma incident, I had no expectation whatsoever, or rather, a broad range of them, from running a strong race if my lungs could hold on, or just finishing, again.

Per my previous post, I went for 11 miles in Bloomington, IL, at 7:20 min/mile and felt ok but not over-confident with either my lungs or legs. But, in any case, it felt good to have my name on the 2017 roster!!


II. Pre-race

There is a lot going on with running Boston and such a huge international event. A 3-day expo to accommodate more than 30,000 runners coming from all over the world, this is big. Traveling and staying in Boston over that Patriots' Day weekend is quite a logistical nightmare in itself. The oversize of these events is one thing which makes me love the ultra races and sense of community even more.

Sneaking in before the weekend crowds...

To immerse myself even more into this incredible crowd and vibe, I offered to help one of my sponsors, GU Energy, for a 4-hour shift at the expo, and what an experience this has been! I was in charge of the GU Gel, GU Chew and GU2O/Roctane tasting bar and I've helped out quite a few runners hungry for extra calories and nutrition tips! I've been fueled with so much success and consistency by GU and GU2O for the past 10 years, I couldn't help sharing my passion for these products made in Berkeley, California!



It was also fun to visit the booth of my main sponsor, Brooks, who, despite ending up way at the end of the hall at this expo dominated by the main sponsor, Addidas, still managed to set the bar pretty high; so high that you had to look to the ceiling to catch these slow-motion animated running bots:


And the usual Brooks humor...

If there is something really serious Brooks folks are after is to make running fun, hence the Run Happy tag line and mantra! ;-)

I ran into Michael Wardian, a world marathon and ultra marathon celebrity I had the privilege to pace at the San Francisco North Face 50-mile event in December 2008:
Then, Bay Area and RRCA official, George Herbert Rehmet:
On Saturday, we went with the friends we were staying at to Concord to visit the National Historic Minute Man Park, a good way to learn about the American revolution which led to the foundation of our country, especially that heroic battle of April 19, 1775. Great American history lesson for me, I know, 101 level. Anyway, I ran back to their house, running 5 rolling miles close to marathon pace which was a great confidence builder, yet, at 6:30 min/mile, raising questions if I could sustain an even faster pace for 5 times that distance.



On Sunday we went to the beach and, while the water was frigid cold, the air temperature reached 84F which felt really hot especially to the locals who had snow a week earlier!

In the evening, the weather changed, with some rain hitting us as we were still enjoying dinner outside. Definitely a different weather pattern than California... We even got a hot running conditions warning from the race organizers in our mailboxes on Sunday, asking that we planned on taking it easier, hydrating a lot and running slower than our initial targets. I've always said that, despite the overall elevation loss, Boston isn't the place to aim at a PR (and this is confirmed by analytics of course, like in this Runner's World article).

III. The race

With the attack of 2013, and the overwhelming security measures since then, the race has significantly changed from the times I ran it (2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007), starting with the logistic to get to the start or along the course. We left our friends' house before 8 am, so Agnès could drop me at the Hopkinton shuttle terminal before 8:30. And it was already a warm morning per local standards...



One of my Quicksilver teammates, Amy, grew up in Hopkinton, and invited the other team members to stop by her uncle's house near the start which looked like so much better than wait inside the Runners' Village. Picture of the first wave leaving the village, with 55 minutes to cover a mile...
Unfortunately, the time to get to the remote parking lot, get on a bus and wait until it filled up, drive all around Hopkinton then getting stuck into the village until they released the first wave at 9:05, I was only able to meet the rest of the team for 5 minutes before running to the start myself. But we got a cool picture of our five representatives.

Despite the crowd, I ran into two other Bay Area ultra runners, Nike team member, Alex Varner, and Excelsior's Karl Schnaitter. Surprisingly for such an elite runner as Alex, he got a 740 bib, just 5 numbers apart from me. He must have qualified on a hilly marathon.
 While 200 were separating Karl's and my bib:

By the way, would you guess what runners do before running 26.2 miles, and by a warm day? Yes, see below, run more miles to... warm up. As for me, I was just happy watching these guys running in circles and starting sweating before the gun.

I didn't want to wait for too long in the corral so I entered in just 5 minutes before 10 am and got at the back of the first corral, with maybe 700 or 800 runners in front of me. As a matter of fact, I ended up waiting next to a runner who was wearing a M50 bib on his back. He told me that, with a qualifying time of 2:43, he was the 8th seeded runner in my age group so, not being given such an age group, I deducted that I was an underdog. Hey, maybe the others didn't get their qualifying times while running a 50K... At least, I had some insights that it was going to be a tough battle for a M50-54 podium! Here is Scott Lebo, from Colorado Springs, CO:


I decided to race with my iPhone this time, and used the convenient Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek's Essentials belt for that, I was also carrying 2 Ultimate Direction bottles, one with water, one with GU2O, plus 4 GUs, 1 pouch of GU2O (I typically drink one bottle every 15-18 miles), plus 8 S!Caps, more than needed (I take between 1 and 2 every hour, depending on the temperature), but I was expecting a hot and potentially long day if I had to walk part of the course would the asthma kick in again. With all that, I definitely looked bizarre, especially among the front runners who were probably wondering if I had entered the wrong race. But I feel so more comfortable drinking when I want and knowing what I did drink, something impossible to do when you randomly grab a cup when flying through the aid stations at every mile. Besides, I saved a few seconds here and there by not slowing down at these marks.

Since I had my phone with me at the start, here are 2 random shots of corral 1 and 2 respectively.


It took me 20 seconds after the gun to cross the start line and, with almost a thousand runners ahead, I felt like starting at the very back of the pack; amazing how competitive this race is! With the bibs ordered by qualifying time, you see that there are about 100 runners within the same minute as your time, that's a lot of people to run along. For those not familiar with the course, we start running downhill for most of the first mile which makes everybody go way too fast right off the bat. While we lose more than 400 feet of elevation between Hopkinton and Boston, most of the course is rolling so you always have to rebuild momentum in the uphill sections after accelerating in the downhills, for a very tricky pacing exercise. To help, the course is precisely marked with both miles and kilometers, at least the first kilometers, then every 5 kilometers, something the international runners must appreciate.

I had lost track of Scott while navigating the crowd in the second mile but caught up with him in the third mile. After a reasonable 6:13 first mile, we were now going way too fast in my opinion, clocking 6:05, 6:04 and even 5:58 for mile 4, wow! It felt so good and exciting but I knew this wasn't so sustainable, especially on a hot day. Mile 5 was back to reason at 6:14 and even with that, we passed a runner from Japan wearing another of the M50 bibs, I was definitely in the right race! ;-) And Scott wasn't slowing down at all so I ran the the next miles, 6 to 10, respectively in 6:02, 6:04, 6:04, 6:08 and 6:09, wow! With that speed, we caught up with another M50 bib, a tall runner with an orange top, around mile 5 if I recall, and, as he and Scott seemed to gauge each other, I passed them both. I know, that was bold, too early and way too fast, but I just couldn't hold the excitement. And I was thinking of the friends who might have been following me on the web site and think "what the heck is he thinking and doing?!!"

The cell coverage was very bad at the start and I had just seen Agnès's text message that she was at the 10K mark, in Framingham, but I didn't know if she was on the left or right. I assumed the left and tried to make eye contact but she got these picture from the other side. In the years where security wasn't as tight, she managed to spot me 6 times on the course, including the start and finish, but it was only one this year. Spectating or crewing at Boston has become really hard nowadays. Yet, the locals make up for that and pretty much cover both sides of the 26 miles, really a unique experience, and more on this later in my post. Here are a few videos and shots Agnès got at the 10K mark.

Lead women video (they start 30 minutes before us so they can't be paced by the lead men. And the white truck carries their portable watch)

Lead men video (yes, that's 30 minutes for 10K!)
Bay Area ultra elite Jorge Marvilla, bib #43 (27th in Men, 2:24:27!):
 Alex Varner in bright yellow top (82th in Men, 2:34:22):


And 3 shots with me, albeit on the wrong side of the road...




I passed the half-marathon mark just above 1:20 which was really fast in these conditions. To put things into perspective, my PR at Boston was 2:43:00 and I was 12 years younger (41)... Fortunately, I do well in the heat and that served me this time. I was astonished how, just after a few miles of running, many runners' top and shorts were drenching and could predict that quite a few would have hard time in the second half. Around mile 10, I took 2 S!Caps to be safe, and enjoyed going through the scream tunnel of Wellesley College, just before the half mark, but remained quite composed and focused on my breathing in particular, staying in the middle of the road while other runners were getting or giving high fives to the hysteric college girls. Holding your breathing rhythm is in itself a challenge as you can't hear yourself breathing with so much noise! I have to admit though that the level of encouragement gave me a chill, as well as the noise level while going through the half way point.

Mile 15 was my slowest at 6:15, followed by my fastest mile at 5:55. Again, so long for the pacing exercise on this rolling course. As a matter of fact, the 6:15 included a 10 to 15" pit stop to refill my GU2O bottle, I don't think I ever did it that quickly in an ultra, wow! With this short stop, Chris Calzetta, an ex Quicksilver teammate from Monterey, whom I had passed a mile earlier, passed me again but I caught up with him with the subsequent sub-6 mile, flying down through Newton. Now, Newton is known to Boston runners for its hills and I have to admit that I was starting fearing the infamous Heart Break Hill and slow down to 6:18 and 6:21 for miles 17 and 18, so much that the M50 runner with the orange top passed be just before the 18-mile mark. I tried to remain close behind, clocking 6:07 for mile 19 but faltered in the subsequent hill with 6:25 and 6:47 for miles 20 and 21. Of course, this is barely a hill per mountain ultra running standards, but it is a pace killer that late in the race. I had taken only 2 GU gels so far and I should have taken at least another one if not two but I was too focused on speed. I was happy to regain some speed in the next 3 miles (6:17, 6:12, 6:23) but the last 2 miles were hard and I was expecting Scott to catch me anytime now as I ran miles 25 and 26 in 6:38 and 6:59. Here I am, now lonely, in the 25th mile (photo credit to our Cupertino friend, Nancy Boyle):
With the finish line now in sight, and no sign of Scott, I rushed to the finish with my 2nd best time at Boston: 2:44:50, wow!

I was already happy with my finish time, and also the fact that I didn't cramp at all. I reached to my phone, first to take a picture of and with Chris (thanks to his wife, Colleen).

While my phone was out, I checked my result on the Boston Marathon app: I had accomplished the feat of placing 2nd in our M50-54 age group, I couldn't be more pleased and happier about this outcome, wow, I even wowed myself with that one! ;-)

A runner who finished just behind me was also catching his breath and I recognized him from passing him and his M55 back bib in the first half so I congratulated him, and we checked his result: he, too, had taken 2nd in his age group so we were two happy campers! With Guy Dorval from Québec:
Another runner stopped by in the finish area, recognizing me from last year's Caumsett 50K Nationals, the race which triggered my stroke. Patrick Bell, 47, from Richmond, VA, who was wearing an impressive low number bib (387) but had a tougher day this weekend, finishing in 2:45:27.


As for Scott Lebo, he finished in 2:58:16, 32nd in our age group, and I can imagine how disappointed he must have been for missing his goal. I'm particularly thankful to him for having shared an outlook of the M50 competition at the start, and imposed a killer pace in the first miles to get me on the right track.

Our age group winner was Tim Meigs with an impressive time of 2:41:48. With a 350 bib, he deserved to win. Here is the top 10 in our age group, quite an international panel! (And note the 2 big surges from corrals 2 and 3.)

To conclude this section, a word about my nutrition plan. I ate a GU StroopWafel 30 minutes before the start. Something I had never done before but a keeper. That was on top of a Vespa pouch 45 minutes before the start, and one just before the gun. 2 GU Chew blocks before the start as well. 1 GU gel around mile 11 and another one at mile 18. I just regret not taking at least one more, if not the two I was carrying with me. Overall, quite on the low calorie side compared to these GU cheat sheets we were distributing at the expo but Vespa did its wonder again, allowing me to take energy from fat. I also drank 2 bottles of GU2O and 1 of plain water. Plus 4 S!Caps.



IV. Post race

I was so happy I cried when falling in Agnès' arms after I collected my finisher medal and all the nutritious goodies.

I had secret hopes for such a podium in my boldest dreams a few weeks ago but, after the trouble of the 100K Nationals a week earlier, I had taken the pressure off by not expecting it and just running hard to see what could happen. My sister, a competitive diver who also provides me with the best medical advice had sent me an email just before the race: "stay cool, just run for the fun of it, get to the start relaxed and remain relaxed through the race..." And it worked out so well! Last week was actually not the fist time that I can link asthma to stress so it must be rather stress-induced asthma than exercise-induced.
I literally rushed to the massage area, passing runners going down the stairs backward as they were cramping so bad. My calves were tingling and that sort of troubled my masseuse but I asked her to press my calves really hard and deep in the muscles which she did eventually, although still not matching the intensity of my favorite Monsters of Massage. With Stephanie:

The massage really helped and I had no issue climbing the stairs back up to find Agnès waiting in the sun, and just as Scott Dunlap was getting in (3:07 finish).


In 2005, we had driven all the way up to our friends' in Andover before I realized that I had made the Top 10 Masters and we barely made it back in time for me to get on the stage at the awards ceremony. So we knew better this time and, besides, the race organization's bot had texted and emailed me an invitation to the award ceremony. This time we were staying at a hotel near Logan airport so we had plenty of time to drive there, take a shower, and be back on time for the award ceremony at the fancy Fairmont Copley hotel.

Since I wasn't blogging yet back in 2005 and we didn't see much of the ceremony back then as we got in as my name was called, I was really looking forward to the experience this year and you are in for an extensive coverage in this post. As I wrote earlier, I could have done a separate post for this post-race section and you can skip, but, if interested, that will give you a sense of what this part of the event looks like. I must confess that I was excited like a child by this opportunity to approach la crème de la crème of marathon running this Monday evening!

First, it was really cool to have a few teammates join us for some extra cheering, Pierre-Yves and his family, as well as Harris (Amy had to catch a bus back to her natal or childhood Hopkinton).
While we were waiting for the ballroom to open, Meb Keflezighi was so kind to accept photo ops and I got one myself, plus a short chat with this legendary champion who won Boston in 2014, made it to the Olympics a record 4 times and had run his last competitive Boston this weekend, finishing 13th overall and 2nd in the Masters division.

A few words from this amazing champion in this video:
There was a lot of hardware (glass vase trophies) ready to be distributed that evening.

A quick look at the gotta of marathon running:

The ceremony started with the recognition of the race directors of the 6 major marathons which constitute the Abbott X Series: Boston, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Berlin and London, and the respective overall winners. Here are the 6 race directors:
Short video of the intro video...

After came the long litany of 5-year age group awards, starting with the 80+ who had not changed yet. Must have been really long for those who had covered the 26 miles in close to 2 hours and had finished 6 hours earlier... That being said, very impressive performances for 6 men and 1 woman in this 80+ categories, starting with a 4:14 for the first M80 (Tony Cerminaro, on the right).

As for me, it was super cool to get back on the stage, 12 years later.


There was a mixup of vases with the previous age group, fortunately quickly settled as you can see on this video:

Here is a shot of my top 10 Masters award in 2015.

I realize how lucky I have been again back then when I see that, this year, they only recognized the top 3 Masters and the third one ran 2:18:32, wow!

Many awardees overall, let me just pick and highlight a few others by order of appearance.

Winners of the Abbott Series X wheelchair competition, Tatyana McFaden (USA) and Marcel Hug (Switzerland):

Boston 2017 wheelchair top 2-4 women
Boston 2017 wheelchair top 2-4 men, the multi Boston champ, Ernst Van Dyk, Ernst from South Africa, who finished in the same second as the overall winner, Hiroyuki Yamamoto from Japan and Kurt Fearnley from Australia.
Boston 2017 wheelchair champs, both from Switzerland: Manuela Schar (1:28:17) and Marcel Hug (1:18:04!!):
 Masters #2 (Meb) and 3 (Rachi Kisri):
 Boston 2017 female division team winners, Team Brooks-Hansons!
 And with the 2017 male team winners, from the local BAA (Boston Athletic Association)
 The Boston 2017 top 2-10 women
Boston 2017 top 2-10 men. Galen Rupp (left) was the first American, out of a record 6 out of top 10 this year and 3rd was Suguru Osako, one of his Nike's Oregon Project teammates who ran 2:10:28 in tough conditions for his marathon debut!! (So far, Suguru, from Japan, was a 5,000-meter world elite.)
And, finally, the overall Boston 2017 champions, both from Kenya this year, Edna Kiplagat (2:21:52) and Geoffrey Kirui (2:09:37)
A couple of post-ceremony pictures with Brooks idols. Fist with Desirée Linden, who took 4th overall this year (and 7th place at Rio 2016):
And the Hansons brothers, founders of the Hansons-Brooks distance project (see also Luke Humprey's book, the Hansons Marathon Method).

Agnès and I continued the celebration with some sea food and lobster at the nearby Luke's Lobster Back Bay eatery and I was stunned that there wasn't more people around. As a matter of fact, when we left the restaurant around 7:30, most of the remaining activity in the area was about dismantling and cleaning, yet there were still a few runners getting to the finish line. Wow, what a long day!

V. Conclusion

Adding a conclusion to an already way too long report, really? Well, just to add one last wow, that Boston is still the most amazing marathon, from the exceptional tenure, the tough standards to get in which draws a very competitive field from around the world, this unique opportunity to visit Boston and New England, the super professional organization and the incredible crowd lining the 26 miles and cheering so loudly. As a matter of fact, when I was struggling in the last 2 miles, it dawned on me that the noise from the crowd was also hurting my ears and mind... Yet, such a level of support also gave me a chill at a handful of spots on the course. Indeed, a unique experience and hope to be back, but I'm going to enjoy a few very quiet miles in my next ultras in the meantime... ;-)