The road to Boston is paved with MTA coaching

A couple of years ago during a business trip, I went to see the Boston Marathon finish line. I did not step on or pass the famous blue and yellow street decoration. I will run through it at another time, I told myself.

I repeated the same scenario last summer during a family vacation to Boston. At that time, I was going through a mix of emotions. I felt confident that my qualifying time from the November 2017 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon would be strong enough to get me into the 2019 race.

However, on that Boston trip, I was only a month out from emergency abdominal surgery. I had not been cleared to resume full activities at that time. Gentle jogging was as hard core as I was able to get at that point. Would I be able to regain the speed, endurance and fitness that I had developed since I began running in 2011? Would I still find the joy in the struggle? Would I still answer the alarm at oh-dark-thirty for training?

It did not take me long to answer my own questions.

Running, waiting, repeating

Soon after I could put the title “marathoner,” after my name, I became curious about the Boston Marathon. It seemed like a longshot at the time. My first two marathons were just over the four-hour mark, 4:08 for my first and then a 4:07 on my second one.

I chipped away at the times, and made a significant leap under the coaching of Angie Spencer of Marathon Training Academy (MTA). When I started with Angie, my PR was 3:53 and I needed a 3:25 to qualify.

Angie created a plan that set me up for a successful run in Indianapolis in November 2016. Not only was my 3:23:26 marathon a PR by about 10 minutes, I snuck under the 3:25 Boston qualifying time. At the time, I wasn’t sure that it would be fast enough to actually get into the race, based on previous cutoff times.

Ten months later — an excruciating wait — I applied for Boston but learned I missed the cutoff by nearly two minutes. By this point, I was about six weeks away from running the Monumental again with the aim of requalifying. For the 2017 race, my qualifying time received a 5-minute boost, thanks to a birthday that would elevate me to an older race group on race day.

The Indy training and race occurred while Angie had taken a break from coaching. But I followed what I learned from her. Hard days hard; easy days easy. Weekly core workouts. Yoga for recovery. At least one full day of rest each week.

My adaptation of her plan worked perfectly. I once again nailed a BQ. This time it was a 3:24:16, giving me nearly six minutes better than what I needed. While nothing is certain, I felt pretty confident that the time would get me into Boston 2019.

Then came another 10-month wait — the down side of running a fall race — until the Boston Marathon qualifying window closed in early September. But, as expected this time, I received a confirmation email.

New MTA coach, new goals

The following month, I completed my first of the six marathon majors, the Chicago Marathon. While my first BQ didn’t get me to Boston, it was fast enough to qualify me for Chicago.

That race served as a good way to experience a major marathon. The logistics are vastly different than for other races, even those the size of the Monumental. Major marathons have significantly larger expos, a full schedule of interesting speakers and other events that are appealing, and it takes longer to do anything on race weekend.

Chicago was not a goal race but it served as a good goal on my road to recovery from the surgery five months beforehand. I did not set out to PR or BQ. Instead, I wanted to push the pace while coming away in good physical condition because I had a goal 50-mile race in about two months.

After completing Chicago and the Chattanooga 50-miler, I outlined my goals for 2019 to Angie. While I believe we both enjoyed our coach-client relationship, she recommended that I work with a new MTA coach whose experience is more in line with my goals.

Enter Steve Waldon.

Coach Steve took over at the start of 2019 and began helping me build my strength and endurance toward my big goal for the first half of the year: my first 100K at the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) in Virginia. That goal had been deferred from 2018 when my emergency surgery occurred four days before the race.

Steve created a plan that would increase my mileage significantly in order for me to handle my longest race distance so far. In February, I hit my highest month ever, 181.3 miles. In March, I eclipsed that total with 259.9 miles. And I concluded April with 195.3, including 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston.

Before the race

I leaned on the experience I had at Chicago to plan out Boston. I organized a schedule of what I wanted to do each day, while leaving the afternoon before the race open for rest. While not everything went according to plan, I had an enjoyable time before the race including taking in the expo, learning more about the course and — of course — hanging out with friends at the MTA meetup.

It was a great way to spend some quality time before the race, swapping running tales, exchanging goals for the next day and wishing everyone luck.

As far as the actual race goes, the Boston Marathon is incredibly well organized. The shuttles to Hopkinton for the start were easy to access (though I could have done without the driving rain that left me soaked). The shuttle delivered us to the Athlete’s Village, where we had a 90-minute wait until heading to the corrals.

Race organizers had raised large tents to protect the runners from the winds and rains. However, the grounds were a sloppy, muddy mess. I immediately regretted not bringing a towel from the hotel to sit on since I did not want to stand for the next hour and a half.

Fortunately, a group of three guys appeared right in front of me and unfurled a large pad. They welcomed another eight or so runners, including me, to join them. It was a huge relief that I had a place to sit and chat with other runners.

Soon enough we headed to the start.

Hopkinton to Boston

Residents, volunteers and the overall organization was incredible as runners walked about three-fourths of a mile to the start.

Along the way, residents cheered us and wished us well while volunteers lined the street. The volunteers instructed us to place throw-away clothes in white plastic trash bags and garbage/recycling in black bags that were strewn along a temporary fence leading to the start.

One last bathroom break and I headed to the start line.

Thankfully, I had attended a valuable session two days beforehand about race strategy. Among my key takeaways: take it easy the first four miles since they were downhill. My goal was to hit those between 8:30 and 9 per mile, saving energy for the Newton hills much later on.

My first mile was in the low 8s. Oops.

I backed off and my third and fourth miles were in my target zone. The next section, miles 4 to 16, were a series of rolling hills. The goal here was to keep a steady pace and not burn out before hitting the series of hills in miles 16 to 21. I found a flow state during these middle miles, finding strength in the incredible support by those cheering seemingly all the way from the start line.

The day was warming up and the sun broke through the clouds, confirming that my strategy to hold back early was a good one. I felt strong through the hills and began to pass more people than were going faster than me.

I saw runners who looked like they should have been way ahead of me reduced to walking. I saw several others laid out on stretchers. And others were still moving forward but clearly miserable.

After finishing the hills, I felt confident in getting through the final miles. At Mile 23, I saw a friend of mine ahead of me. I instantly knew she was struggling as she started a corral ahead of me; and her goal finish was 3:15 while mine was 3:35. As I passed her, I put a hand on her shoulder, turned back and gave her an encouraging, “Let’s go!”

While she looked like she was not having any fun at the time, she later thanked me for the encouragement on social media. The positive nudge I provided her also gave me an added boost and I felt a surge of adrenalin as I moved ever closer to the finish line.

The finish

The next thing I remember is the second-to-last turn. The crowd was deafening and I wanted to take it all in, so I took my AfterShokz earbuds off my ears and soaked it all in. As I turned on to Boylston, I thought back about all that I had overcome.

I only began running eight years ago. It took me years to get a successful BQ time. Surgery sidelined me for a couple of months last summer.

But now, here I was, surging toward the realization of a dream. The final mile was my second fastest, behind only the first downhill mile.

I looked around the crowd, hearing the cheers, thinking about my journey. For some it’s Hopkinton to Boston. My road was a lot longer, spanning thousands of miles from those first steps taken outside my driveway a lifetime ago. The final step in this particular journey concluded with an official time of 3:47:06. But that doesn’t really matter.

That moment was simply about crossing the blue and yellow finish line.

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