In May of 2010, not long after I’d limped over the finish line of my first ever marathon in a time of 4:18, a friend looked up what time I’d need to run to achieve a BQ (Boston Qualifying) time and told me “well, that’s never going to happen.” Winding the clock forward seven years, I’m pleased (actually bloody ecstatic!) to say that in fact, last Sunday at The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Marathon, it just did.
Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a holy grail for many runners. History, tradition, the fact that qualifying times are actually (for most of us mere mortals), hard to achieve, plus added poignancy following the bombing at the finish line in 2013, Boston is a destination most serious marathoners hold in high esteem and have some measure of aspiration towards.
And so it has been for me. I’ve had great pleasure in seeing a number of my friends achieve the standard and make it out to the start in Hopkinton, and every time I’ve seen someone sporting some official Boston merchandise, a little voice in my head has said, “come on, isn’t it about time you earned one of those nice Boston race jackets?”
I got very close once before, running a 3:30 in Victoria BC in 2011 (and don’t ask me how I did that back then because I have no worldly idea), but although I’ve been on a general improvement curve, I still had a gap to bridge with my times. I was close enough to make qualification a realistic goal, but I still had some serious work to do.
So why this race? What did I do differently that enabled me to up my game and make my goal?
Years in the making
First of all, it’s important to note that the journey to my qualifying time didn’t begin at the start line last Sunday. If anything, I’d say it started a couple of years ago when I was advised by a friend to check out the Hansons Marathon Method. This training plan, while not everyone’s cup of tea, is a pretty intense and comprehensive plan that provides a super detailed and structured approach to training for a marathon. It’s a six day a week endurance feat of its own, and although I personally would have found this plan intimidating as a brand new runner, I highly recommend it for runners with some prior experience who are looking to take their training to the next level.
It was this plan that taught me how to start training for speed, and also reinforced the critical importance of running most of my miles at an easier pace (i.e., not trying to run fast all the time). Funnily enough, the migration to this type of training was not at all smooth, and like a golfer trying a new club or altering their swing, it took me a while to settle down with it. My first go-around with it in spring 2015 was a disaster (my fault for cherry-picking only certain parts of the plan), leading to a highly disappointing 4:15 finish time at the Seattle Rock n Roll, a sorry experience I wrote about here.
After that, I figured things out a little better, and really set out to improve my times with a 3:42 at the 2015 MCM, which was one of the first times I finished a race feeling like I had left something on the field.
Progress continued in 2016 with a 3:35 in St George, UT, and although five weeks later I ran a 4:07 in NYC (moral of the story, five weeks is not really enough recovery time, especially running a difficult and crowded course), I finished last year thinking that with a fair wind and an injury-free training cycle, all things were possible.
Let’s hear it for goals and structure
I was pretty clear with myself that while this year might be the year for a BQ, I had other milestones that I would need to achieve in order to get there. To that end, I set out to at a minimum achieve an age-group PR (meaning running sub 3:35), and then as a stretch goal, running an all-time PR (running a sub 3:30). I knew if I beat my stretch goal I had a shot at Boston, but I was also prepared for the fact 2017 might be another year of smaller incremental improvements leading to a more definitive step up in 2018.
On a more micro level (and again, let me big-up the Hansons plan here), I had a goal time for each type of run throughout my training cycle. As you can see from the photo, I built my training pace times around the 3:30 stretch goal, and figured that would really push me (it did). I knew going into each easy, long, tempo or speed workout exactly what my split times needed to be, there was no guess work, and I was able to easily track progress and assess my all-up strength. It was this attention to detail in my training that gave me a measure of confidence about my potential to deliver a decent run on race day.
If you want to run fast, it helps to pick a fast course
I’d had the Tunnel Marathon series recommended to me by my friends Tuyet and Ana, and looking at the course profile and description online, it definitely felt like a course built for speed. Net elevation decrease of over 2,000 ft, soft gravel underfoot and a small field of runners all contributed to the result, and the context for my fast run should be acknowledged. I don’t think I’d be running six minutes under my prior PR in NYC for example, and I am so full of respect for those runners who can get incredibly fast times on really difficult courses. This is not to decry my achievement, but the course helped, no doubt about it.
Maybe I’m finally learning my lessons about race nutrition and hydration
It’s only taken fourteen marathons, but I think I’m finally beginning to crack the code of how I need to fuel and hydrate during a race. In his excellent ‘New Rules’ book, which I’ve mentioned before and I’ll mention again no doubt, Matt Fitzgerald talks about the need to consume a minimum of 30g of carbs per hour during a race, but ideally between 60-90g per hour during runs over 90 mins in length. I’ve experimented with everything from taking nothing, to varying degrees of ‘something’ in the course of my running career, and it’s becoming patently obvious to me that I do much better when I fuel than when I don’t.
For this race, I took one full gel (22g of carbs) a few mins before the race, and then a half gel every two miles (meaning I was consuming roughly 44g of carbs per hour). Still on the low end according to the experts, but it represents progress not only in my thinking, but more importantly in my execution, and I simply cannot deny it has made a difference. I’d go as far to say that I felt better at the end of this marathon than I have done in any previous race.
I’m going to plug my favorite gel manufacturer Science in Sport here because I genuinely believe their gels are the best thing in town. Many of my runner friends shy away from gels because let’s face it, they can taste pretty disgusting and for many folks can create what I refer to as ‘gastro-intestinal uncertainty’, which is never a good thing. What I like about SIS gels are that a) they don’t mess up my tummy, and b) they are a super liquid consistency that you can consume without the need to wash them down with water, especially helpful when you’ve got a really dry mouth in the latter stages of a race. The only real downside is that they are bulkier to carry than your average gel, so you need ample pockets and or a race belt, but it’s worth it for the performance boost. Check them out.
On the hydration front, I hand carried a regular 24oz bottle of mineral water with a sports cap and sipped every mile, or whenever I started to feel thirsty. I had some left at the end, which I think was a product of the cooler weather in the first 3/4 of the race, and no doubt on a warmer day I would have likely needed to supplement this at the later aid stations.
Going forward I’m going to experiment with adding some sports supplement to my drink, so I can try and get my carb intake even higher, but I’ll feel my way with that as I remain concerned about my stomach’s ability to handle it.
The mind matters
As the name of the race suggests, there is some tunnel action involved in this particular marathon, a consequence of which (and one I did not allow for) was that it mucked up my GPS, especially running through the tunnel in the first couple of miles or so of the race. Long story short, I was out of sequence with the mile markers on the course and had to mentally recalibrate my pace along the way. I realized pretty early on that I was behind my goal in the early miles (largely because the only crowded part of the course was actually the tunnel itself), but (and this is where my experience kicked in) I didn’t panic and sprint to make up all the shortfall in one or two miles, I just set myself an interim goal of getting back on pace by the half-way point (I did), and then kicked on from there.
Quite incredibly I ran a 5 min negative split in this race, and that I’ll put down to two main factors: 1). I was very in tune with how I was feeling. I dialled things back when I thought I was going too fast, and pushed myself to go a little faster when I absent-mindedly started to drift off the pace. 2). I ran thirteen individual one-mile races in the second half, running from beep to beep on the watch, reeling in the target time as I went.
The mental aspect is something I’ve trained for. I’ve long since ditched listening to music during speed and long training runs because I want to educate my mind as well as my body to deal with everything from pacing to even just staying focused and mentally on point during the longer distances. I find that music gets in the way of that process and these days I keep the tunes for the easy paced short to medium runs.
The scores on the doors
So there you have it. I did it. Although entries for Boston 2018 don’t open until Sept, I’m pretty confident based on past precedent that a 6+ minute cushion under the qualifying standard for the old geezer age group will see me gain my coveted Boston bib, and a chance to get one of those awesome Boston race jackets I’ve coveted for so long.
As ever, thanks to my family for tolerating the absences, the sweaty running gear on the bathroom floor and the inordinate amount of running shoes piled up outside the front door. Thanks also to all the runners out there who inspire me. The people I know, the total strangers, newbies and experienced road warriors, speedsters and slugs alike. I for one am grateful for the motivation you give me every day.
I wish all of you happy running, and encourage you, as always, to keep on moving.
Fantastic race report, Rob! It sounds like you really did have quite a few environmental factors aiding you on the day but no doubt you earned that time with all of your training and race prep. Love your finisher photo too — you look great! Can’t wait to cheer you on from Washington when you race Boston 2018!