Monday, May 1, 2017

Boston Marathon 2017: The Recap!

My 4th marathon and 1st Boston Marathon. And another BQ with a 3:29! Here are alllll the details. ;)
Boston to Hopkinton:

I woke up on race day at 6:15 -- to a phone call from my mom saying she was on the front porch! She and my brother booked flights that Friday night to come to Boston just for the day, just to cheer me on. So that was basically the best wake-up call ever.

I got dressed and ate my typical pre-Ironman breakfast -- which is 1,000+ calories, because I'm all about making sure I have as much fuel in the tank as possible on race day. How do I get so many calories in without feeling overloaded? Easy! I chug two bottles of Ensure Plus. 700 liquid calories consumed in about a minute. And no worries about my body having to process them, if you know what I mean. Score. Of course, I like to have some real food, too, and do the half-or-full bagel + peanut butter + banana thing. I used to just do that without the Ensure, which just seems like so little to me now. Then I always have Gatorade and a Clif Bar around to munch on before race start. I eat them in training both right before long workouts and during, so I don't have to worry about how my body will handle those either.

Kindal's friend Tess was awesome and drove us to the buses! There was no traffic coming from the South, so it was an easy ride into the city. I facetimed Matt and my littles for a some pre-race good luck on the way, and the Tess was able to drop us off literally right next to bag check. The whole process was so smooth! Kindal and I wore our sweats out of habit (plus I was thinking/hoping it might be cooler in Hopkinton?) but were hot before even loading the bus. The volunteers were so fun and the bus was such an easy process, too. Boston has this stuff down. There was a 60-year-old rockstar across the aisle from me on the bus, wearing a tank for the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. (A place near and dear to my heart -- my best friend was cared for there before he passed away when I was in college, and now we go caroling there every Christmas Eve.) So of course I started talking to her and we had a great ride up to Hopkinton! The ride takes about an hour and I feel like it's always a little daunting to realize *just* how far away you are getting yourself, so making friends is always a nice distraction.

We made it to the Athlete's Village and there were people everywhere! I scored a major win when I, for the first time in my entire life, picked the *shortest* porta potty line (like, by a lot. Message me if you want to know the secret -- can't have this gold getting out too much haha). We made our way through the line quickly and then hopped right back in for maintenance purposes. But then the fast line was too fast, so we just sat at the front and let everyone go ahead of us until we heard an announcement that white bibs should have already left for the start? It was only 10 o'clock and the Wave 2 start was at 10:25.


So we moved our bums and then started casually walking over to the corrals (we had plenty of time before the start, right?). We stopped for pictures and paused for hip swings and such. Yeah, well... somewhere we had missed the part where it is a solid mile+ walk to the start! We had no idea. By the time we made it over there, we were near the back of Wave 2. I figured we started somewhere in corral 7ish, which in my brain shouldn't have been too bad because it should be 3:26ish marathoners and that wasn't too far off my 3:21-3:23 corral assignment. This actually turned out to be a HUGE mistake on my part, as was having an 18-month-old qualifying time. I now know that if you want to run well in a crowded race, it is *crucial* to be properly seeded!

Hopkinton to Boston:

We crossed the start line about 6 minutes after the clock and casually picked up the pace. All smiles all around! And then, almost immediately, there it was: the Wall of Humans. Have you ever been to Disneyland on a crowded day? And tried to walk down Main Street after fireworks? It looks like this:
Now picture trying to run a marathon through that. Through, not with, because everyone is going at 60-90+ seconds slower than you. Yep. Horrifying. Here's the deal with downhill marathons: No, don't be an idiot and fly down at your 5K pace to "bank time" and then blow up later. But PLEASE don't be an idiot and brake down the hills and blow up your quads for later!!! I kid you not, the Disneyland-closing mob was running 8:30-9:00 minutes per mile. On a steep downhill. In the opening of a marathon, in which according to qualifying times, they should be averaging between 7:40-8:00 pace overall. It was mind boggling and so confusing. In retrospect, I think this "problem" was magnified this year because it was the 2nd hot year in a row, so people were purposefully slowing the pace WAY down from the get-go. Which is fine to an extent, obviously. But man, as the random dude casually running a 9:00-minute mile observed as we were stuck behind him, "This would really suck if you were trying to run for time."

More than the clock element, though, was the problem of simple physics: if you brake downhill, you literally tear up your quads. I'm 5'9" and it's all leg, so I naturally have a long stride. I'd run three downhill marathons prior to this and just floated down the hill with a conservative effort. But here? My stride was cut in half. There was no getting into a rhythm. Instead, I'd try to find a hole, then come to a stop, then try to move to the outside, then use the curb space to pass a few people, then wait for Kindal to shoot the same gap, then be stuck behind the next layer of the wall at 9:00 min/mile... over and over and over again. "This is a nightmare," I said to Kindal.

Of course, that was intermixed with getting high fives from kids on the side, saying "thank you" to the police officers, waving to the spectators standing out on their lawns, having the cheesiest grin on my face, and commenting, "Oh my gosh, how crazy is this? We're finally running the Boston Marathon!" So strange to have such polarizing thought processes co-exist.

(PS- I checked the results of bib numbers around me in a couple dozen of my photos just to make sure I wasn't crazy. And sure enough, all throughout the race, I was passing people averaging 8:30-9:30 pace. Only one person in all of my photos had a faster finish time than me, so at least that constant feeling of "Oh my gosh, how am I going to get past these walls of people?" was valid haha.)

Interestingly enough, we still hit 7:15-7:20 in those miles, which is technically on the conservative end for the steep downhill portions of a marathon in which you'd want to average those very paces. But it's the way it was done -- with the surging and stopping and parkour-style movements on the outside edges, and with the shortened strides and ALL THE BRAKING -- that was so awful. (And yet it was better than falling in line with the constant 9 min/mile brake-shuffling.) "This is a nightmare," I repeated, fully aware of what all of this would mean on a muscular level.

Meanwhile, remember the bronchitis? My cough started up at mile 2. Shoot. And the heat? Well, we were hot when it started and the sun was beating down directly overhead -- and where were the early aid stations??? One of the most important things is to make sure you get those early aid stations. Instead, I didn't see one until mile 4. And speaking of mile 4... that's when I realized that my legs had already been torn apart. At MILE FOUR. They felt like they had at mile 24 of a previous downhill marathon. Alarm bells started going off in my head.

Right about that time, Kindal started falling off the back, so I'd wait or go back (it's quite hard to stay together in these crowds). She told me to go on ahead and leave her. I kept nudging her along, telling her we weren't supposed to have a talk like this until mile 20, or at least the half mark. We could do this. She could do this. After about a half mile of this, though, she stopped dead in her tracks and pointed: "GO." And she meant it. At that point, the clock is ticking and I know my legs are already too shot for a super-fast day, but there's still a chance at a PR and I'd promised myself I'd give my best effort no matter what. So I ran back, gave her a hug, and said I'd see her at the finish line. And then went off on my own, which was an emotional hit.

Then at mile 6, I noticed that my fingers were swelling around my rings. It was hot, and it was clearly affecting me. Luckily, I've had good practice managing the heat in Ironman so no worries -- time to take care of business. I grabbed the first water cup I could from a spectator and poured it over each shoulder. I was still ticking off sub-7:20s just fine but knew that heat management would change that quickly. And frankly, things were spiraling so quickly so early that in hindsight, it's laughable. Let's recap:

Mile 0: Met the wall of humans
Mile 2: Coughing starts, will continue for remainder of race
Mile 4: Legs are shot from the forced stride-shortening and braking
Mile 5: BFF is lost 15-21 miles prematurely
Mile 6: Fingers are swelling in the heat

I mean, honestly. Hahahaha. And there were 20 miles LEFT to go. How is that even real life?

Nevermind the fact that my watch was beeping every mile much too far ahead of the actual mile markers, thanks to all the weaving. Just basically every little thing that can go wrong in a marathon, all happening simultaneously. Happily, a little pick-me-up was right up ahead! I got my first Huma Gel out and then spotted my crew -- my mom, brother Christian, and Kindal's friend Tess. They had talked about being around mile 4 and then at the finish, so I was bummed that I missed them -- and then thrilled when I saw them! That slapped a huge smile on my face and was the perfect reminder to enjoy the day, at the precise moment where I could have started to think otherwise.

My people!!!
So I went on my way, finished my gel, and kept running through Framingham to the next aid station (mile 8ish?), which I walked through to take care of business: Some Gatorade, some water, one cup of water poured on my arms, and another on my head -- which resulted in the taste of pure salt. Yikes, definitely running a hot marathon, definitely sweating, definitely need to stay on top of that! Luckily, I had a tube of BASE salt in my back pocket, so as I was running, I reached back, grabbed it, and had my first few licks (of many that day). And then grabbed a cup from a spectator and washed it down with a quick swig. Check. Everything's under control. Still running 7:20 pace but aid station walk added 20 seconds. That'll have to be fine. And look, I'm almost to Natick!

I continued on and saw a kid holding a sign that said: "Only six 5K's left!" And I thought, "I honestly don't know if I can do that." Not a great feeling to be 8 miles into a marathon wondering if you'll be able to make it the next 18. You should be feeling *awesome* and totally relaxed until at least the halfway point! I had that moment of doom, and then told myself not to be silly. (Actually it went something more like, "Don't be ridiculous, Ashley. Of course you can finish a marathon. You're a good runner. And you're a freaking Ironman. Suck it up." Haha!) So then I forced myself to smile until I felt it, and went back to the "I'm running Boston! That was Framingham! I'm in Natick!" mode.

Watching Boston: The Documentary a couple nights before really helped me recognize and be excited about different points along the way. Little things, like a store with reflective windows and a sign that says something like: "Check yourself out!" And you glance over and see this huge crowd of runners on the move and realize you're part of it and think, "K, this is pretty cool." (Also: "This would make an awesome picture." Ha) All along the way, the spectators were life-saving with the extra fluid and ice. I'd never felt so hot or flushed while running, which was weird because I've run and raced in much hotter temperatures. So oh my word, the ice people made my day! As did the hose people. Bless your souls, hose people. Then, of course, the encouragement and energetic atmosphere is unmatched -- and you can get as much out of it as you put in! I "touched here for power" on signs, I danced along to the music, I thanked the volunteers. I ran mostly on the right side so I could interact with the spectators and tried not to miss giving any kids high fives. Just so, so fun!
Only 6 more 5K's, everyone!
Sometimes, you hear the famous landmarks long before you see them -- like the scream tunnel at Wellesley College. Those girls are awesome! That was probably the only time that I didn't load up on the high fives, though -- because everyone else (ahem, of the male variety) was darting over instead haha. The entertainment factor is sheer gold. Definitely one of the fastest (mentally) miles of the day! Afterward, it got much quieter and I could hear my music (Hamilton!) again and realized it was like four songs further ahead in the story -- that's how long the screaming lasted. :)

Right after leaving Wellesley College, I hit the 13.1 mile mat at 1:39:47. And I literally laughed out loud! Because that is the exact same time I hit that half split when I ran a 3:21 in St. George -- and I knew I would be landing nowhere near that mark today. (I'm glad I was able to find comic relief in the dwindling situation...) Then I weirdly felt bad for my family and friends tracking me back home who saw that and therefore still had hope that I could pull out a PR race. "Sorry, friends!" I thought, hoping they wouldn't be worried about me the next few times I hit the timing mats. I was fine; it just wasn't my day for a myriad of reasons. And I was emotionally fine, too, because I'd accepted that beforehand and wasn't going to let the clock tell me how much to enjoy my day.

My body was hurting, though. I was coughing and my legs were over it and I was just lacking energy overall. It was tempting to pull way back and just joy ride jog it in. But every time I was tempted to do so, I glanced at my arm and was reminded to "Never Stop." (Story here.) And I kept pushing. It might not be my "best day," but I was going to give the absolute best I had to give on that day!

Tess is the cutest! And so is this Hyperthreads tank! All the love.
Just still ridiculously crowded going into mile 16.
As I approached Newton, I got the best surprise of my day: my crew had made an extra cheer stop! It could not have been better timed and was the perfect boost before hitting the hills. I was feeling the love! My brother yelled, "That's my sister!" And I was like, that's right -- best brother ever.

And I'm just going to say it -- I didn't think the hills were that bad. People talk about them like they are mountains you have to climb. Yes, the timing stinks. And yes, it especially stinks if you trashed your quads early on the downhill (if you are just seeded properly, though, and can avoid braking downhill, you'll be fine! Downhills are only bad if you don't run them right). But if you train for them, you'll be able to handle them, no problem. I'd done hill sprint workouts, incorporated hills into some of my normal runs, and found as many hills as possible for my long runs. If not for that, in my degraded state, I would have been toast. But as it was, I chugged up the hills just fine! Slower pace, sure. But steady and strong. Highlights of those precursor hills were 1) the sprinkler tunnel around mile 18ish and 2) running into my friend Jenna and sharing a high-five and encouragement for a moment before going ahead.

I remember staring at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and being SO excited to run up it! The Hamilton soundtrack had ended at mile 19 so I was onto a normal race playlist and the perfect song came on right then: Good ol' Rihanna singing, "Baby, this is what we came for." And I was like, Heck yes! THIS is what we came for! Everything crazy and hard and awesome. Like Heartbreak Hill. Let's do this!!! So I kept on trucking, got myself a few high fives, danced to the spectators' music, and smiled all the way to the top! And man, what an exciting place to be -- at the top of Heartbreak Hill! All (well, mostly all) downhill from here into Boston!
Of course, there was the physical aspect that was not ideal. I somehow managed a decent running pace throughout -- while actually running, but that was pulled down 20+ seconds per mile by the heat-maintenance aid station routine. I'd walk long enough to make sure I was getting enough fluids in me, alternating Gatorade or water, sometimes a little of both, then grab and dump multiple cups of water -- on my head, arms, back, legs, everywhere -- because I was still so hot. And I was on top of my gels and salt. But my body still felt awful on multiple fronts, from being sick to the shredded quads to the now-cramping calves to just the overall malaise. I'd never cramped like that before and was, therefore, pumped when I saw a couple spectators handing out HotShots on the side! That's what Matt uses for Ironman, thanks to all the research I'd done on the subject. Basically, it's a spicy little drink that shocks your nervous system into relaxing the cramps. So hallelujah for the HotShots! I grabbed one, immediately chugged it, and started looking for a cup of water to grab. Those cups of water were honestly everywhere from mile 10 on, with spectators constantly saving the day. And then suddenly, at the precise moment that I downed a spicy drink, they were missing in action! Hahaha. It took probably a whole mile to find some fluid to wash that taste down with, and I was so amused the whole time thinking how Matt would get a kick out of this. But it kicked the cramps, so success! One less thing to worry about.

But still, there I was, feeling crappier than I'd ever thought I could feel toward the end of a marathon. And I'd have the fleeting thought, "I don't know if I can run five more miles." And then respond by telling myself, "You only have to run four more miles. The last mile runs itself." And then, a mile later, "I don't know if I can run four more miles." Followed by a glance at my arm and, "It's okay, it's like you really only have three left because the last mile will run itself." I was also doing the math and realized I'd be cutting it awfully -- awfully -- close to a sub-3:30. I thought I could maybe make it if I kept pushing, but knew that if I let up at all, I'd lose it. And then who's to say that if I let up, I wouldn't totally implode and lose a BQ altogether? No, I had to keep fighting. Never Stop.

Probably wondering if I can run another mile or not.
And then getting my crap together one second later. Haha

As I made my way toward Boston, I turned my background music off and let the 3- and 4-person deep crowds carry me the rest of the way. I was hurting but giving it everything I had left, and I was loving every second (well, probably 99% of the seconds), knowing I was about to finish THE Boston Marathon. I saw the Citgo sign in the distance and finally made it to the announcement: there was only one more mile left!

And I was right -- that last mile took care of itself. I soaked in the sights and the sounds of those streets and those crowds. I went down and up that tiny little blip, and then I saw the famous turns. I made a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston. I saw that finish line off in the distance and began to follow the three blue lines toward it.


A thought entered my mind of the people who were following that same path and the spectators cheering them on just four years ago, so I said a quick prayer for those affected by that attack and others. I felt all the more gratitude toward the spectators lining the streets today, standing in the very places where others' stood, choosing to never let evil win, likely not even thinking about it as they cheered for the runners. And for me. That's the most amazing thing about the Boston Marathon. The crowds aren't just there for their friends or family. They are there for every runner. They are supporting every single one of us. And all of the runners are supporting each other, helping one another along the way. It's really a beautiful show of humanity.

The sounds of cheers and cowbells are deafening as you make your way down Boylston. I reveled in the experience and took mental pictures of that channel lined with rows of spectators, leading to the celebratory blue and yellow line in the ever-nearing distance. I felt so lucky to be right there, right then.

And in that moment as I ran toward the finish line, my first Boston Marathon was everything I'd dreamed it would be.


I crossed the line in 3:29:44, which was far from my best, but it was the absolute best I had to give that day. I'm really proud of that. It actually was a good performance on the day, sick or not -- I finished as the 1442nd female and 6983rd runner -- which is more than 5000 people faster than I should have finished (bib 12005). It was the 2nd hottest Boston Marathon in a decade and just a tough day for everyone out there!

After receiving my prized unicorn medal, I walked back toward the finish to figure out how to wait for and spot Kindal. A med person asked if I was okay and I responded "Yes..." Then paused and added, "My hands have been numb for that last few miles, though?" I expected him to be like, "Oh yeah, just do X and you'll be fine." Instead, that earned me a ticket to the med tent. Inside, I told them I was fine, that I just had numb hands. No, this hasn't happened before. They asked about my toes... hm, I guess those were kind of numb, too. They took all my vitals, asked if my blood pressure was typically on the lower end (no), and had me lay down and answer a bunch of questions. Meanwhile, in my mind, I was missing Kindal crossing the finish line, my mom and brother were only here for a few hours and I was losing precious time... They asked if the numbness was going away ("No, but I'm really fine"), and I asked what I had to do to get out of there. To which they explained that my blood pressure was really low and they couldn't release me until it came back up. Well, crap, because there's no faking that. Thank goodness that I'd handled the hydration + electrolytes game well, because if that was combined with the low blood pressure, I actually might not have been fine. The consensus was basically just that being sick + being on an antibiotic that makes you more heat sensitive + all the heat while being cold-adapted caused the low blood pressure? That made sense to my ER doctor friend back home so I'm rolling with it. Anyway, it was all rather non-dramatic but just time consuming. I felt awful that everyone was waiting for me and was quite happy to be released after an hour. Hopefully that's the last of my med tent visits.

After that, I met back up with Kindal, took our finisher photos, and finally found my family! We sat in Panera Bread while the crew grabbed food but I was too nauseous to eat. Then we hurried back to Tess's house, I took the fastest shower of my life, and my mom, brother, and I grabbed an Uber over to the North End. We walked the entire Freedom Trail and I was giddy like a kid in a candy store the whole time. All of my 11-year-old run-loving, history-loving self's dreams coming true all at the same time. It was SUCH a happy, happy day!!!

And it was made that way because of the people. The volunteers were amazing, as usual. The spectators were life savers all along the way, both with their bonus "aid stations" and their encouragement. They are the reason the Boston Marathon is such an incredible experience. On a personal level, it was so kind of Tess to open her home to me for the weekend and join cheer squad forces with my family for the race -- they couldn't have seen me three times during the race if not for her Boston savvy. Then to spend the whole weekend with Kindal, one of my very best friends who I shared this whole journey with? It's a runner's dream come true. And I couldn't possibly be more grateful to my mom and brother for coming to Boston to support me. Matt wasn't able to get military leave, which meant that he and the kids couldn't come, and I knew that all along and was okay with the girls' trip. But then my mom and brother called the Friday before to say they had just bought tickets to be there for the marathon, and I was so excited about it all weekend. They flew a red-eye across the country, were with me in Boston for 14 hours, and then flew right back. I mean, who does that? They do. I am so lucky and felt so, so loved. My people made all the difference.

So sure, from a performance perspective, this marathon may have been "a nightmare." But the experience? That was everything I'd hoped it'd be and more. Such a special race and a happy day in Boston! :)


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