Marathon Man (Without a Plan)
Lessons from books, magazines, and a race before the big day
This is the second in a series of stories about training for the Boston Marathon. Click here to read the first installment.
Last month, I ran the Hyannis Half Marathon as part of my training plan — if you want to call it that — for the big Boston race. I clocked 1:53:06, a full 20 seconds better than my last official 13.1-miler in October. It was nothing to break out the confetti gun for, considering that I’ve been logging more miles-per-week since the October contest and have three 17-plus-mile runs under my belt.
For the most part, when it comes to strategy, I’m winging it. Charts and grids send me out onto the ledge. I hate to think in boxes. I need wiggle room. So for better or worse, I’ve been cobbling together a DIY plan, drawing on bits and pieces from Runner’s World, a BU running clinic, and Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running, written in 1977. My basic template: try to log 35 to 50 miles a week and put away two or three long runs a month. Last fall, when I overheard some runners at City Sports talking about Hyannis being a good race to gauge readiness for Boston, a canary in a coal mine of sorts, my ears pricked up. They wore Brooks running gear, and that was good enough for me.
For several days before Hyannis, in a clumsy attempt to carbo-load — a method to store up energy in the muscles — I attacked heaping bowls of pasta and jalapeno chicken sausage, shrimp tacos, and soy ice-cream sandwiches. It was heaven. I water-loaded, too, downing glass after glass in the 24 hours beforehand. At the starting line, I felt like a beef burrito bobbing at sea. Lesson number 1: don’t confuse carbo-load with truckload.
As I looked around at the thousands of racers waiting for that gunshot, I noticed plenty of iPods and MP3 players. Many runners train with music, including me. But for reasons of safety, and even unfair advantage some claim, many races forbid tunes and threaten to disqualify contestants who violate the rule. I assumed this would be the case in Hyannis, but it seemed that every other runner had wires snaking from under their hats and earmuffs, rocking on their heels, air drumming, getting their eye-of-the-tiger on. Not me. I was waiting to be tortured by the two-hour soundtrack of my own labored breathing and the scrape of fleet-footed running shoes hot on my heels. It was nice to hear the cheering though. Lesson number 2: learn race rules and train accordingly.
At around mile five, I passed Team Hoyt, on an uphill no less. I felt mighty, even though the venerable squad consists of Dick Hoyt pushing his grown son, Rick Hoyt (SED’93), who was born with cerebral palsy, in a customized racing wheelchair. To promote inclusiveness, the pair has raced in hundreds of contests, including 229 triathalons and 26 Boston marathons. At mile eight, the ache in my left knee was starting to bark. By mile nine, it was howling. At mile 10, Team Hoyt passed me and I never saw them again. I placed 779th out of 2044, and 170 out of 255 in my age group (30-39). Lesson number 3: pack Advil — and a little humility.
Now back to that time of 1:53:06, and big picture math. My Hyannis result averages to 8:40-minute-miles. Multiply that by 26.2 and wham, I’m putting away Boston in 3 hours and 46 minutes, about as long as it takes to watch Gandhi, if you stay for the credits. But the numbers hide the fact that I was jacked on adrenaline and burst out too fast, succumbing to the beginner’s urge to pass anyone within range, dodging and weaving instead of strategically waiting for pockets to open. I hopped onto sidewalks and skirted the edges of yards. I overdid the first eight miles and undercooked the final five. And when I crossed the finish line, I broke into a knee-buckling stagger. I could barely speak, tight as the Tin Man. Could I have run another 13.1 miles, as I’ll have to on April 20? I doubt it. There’s a big difference between training and racing. Lesson number 4: pace yourself.
Two months until Boston.
The front nine
In the spirit of lesson number 2 — learning the race — I decided I needed some face time with the actual marathon course. I’d heard somewhere that the flat running paths along the Charles River, where I log most of my miles, were not ideal training grounds for the hilly Boston Marathon So last week, I got in touch with Brandon Rhoads (at right, with the author), the marathon coordinator for my charity team, the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center, to ask if I could park in their lot, which sits half a mile from the starting line in Hopkinton. My plan was to run 18 miles, 9 miles in, to the town of Natick, and 9 miles back. “No problem,” Rhoads said. “We’ll hook you up with a room and shower, too. Just show up whenever.”
I really like these folks.
When I arrived, several young staff members sat on chairs strumming guitars and belting out Dispatch and Jack Johnson tunes. Knots of men, women, and children, some with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, sat rapt on couches and on the carpet and swayed to the music. A couple of small dogs trotted in from the nearby kitchen. In the center of the room was a large stone fireplace. I recognized the portrait of the boy above the mantel: center namesake Michael Carter Lisnow, who was born with cerebral palsy and died 10 years later from surgical complications, on the day of the 100th Boston Marathon. The center has been providing relief for the families of the developmentally disabled ever since. This year, the race falls on the 13th anniversary of Michael’s death.
Rhoads, 27, has kind eyes and a bright, youthful face. A Hopkinton native, he has worked at the center since he was 17. His best friend had gotten in a motocross accident and ended up a quadriplegic. Rhoads helped his buddy’s family with caretaking duties, and his friend got a job at the respite center entering data. About the same time, Rhoads’ parents got divorced and he began failing classes. The respite center’s Mary McQueeny (SED’83) and cofounder Sharon Lisnow stepped in. “I was having a real rough time,” says Rhoads. “Mary and Sharon took me in, got me through school. They lifted me up.”
Rhoads showed me to a staff bedroom upstairs, where I could change and take a shower. “It’s yours for the day,” he said with a smile. On the wall, hung several Boston Marathon finisher’s medals. I wondered if they were Lisnow’s and McQueeny’s — they’ve run six times — or from past charity runners. In a nearby room, a few women pushed back and forth in rocking chairs, cradling disabled infants. I changed, strapped on my fuel belt, and headed downstairs. On my way out the door, Lisnow, who was making sandwiches in the kitchen, told me to save some energy for the end. “Remember, it starts out downhill. So, it’ll be a long uphill coming back. I think it’s worse than Heartbreak.” Hmm. Maybe I ought to rethink my distance.
It was a crisp, breezy morning. I was nervous approaching the start line (right), a faded white stripe at the mouth of Route 135 East, the faint blue of the Boston Athletic Association unicorn logo visible. Here I was, stepping onto the most revered course in all of marathoning, the world’s oldest continuous 26.2-miler. I wondered if I’d see plaques along the way, statues, bronze mile markers. This has been the route since 1927, dominated in recent years by the Kenyans. The last American to win was Greg Meyer, in 1983. I was ready to be lifted off my feet with its glorious history, to mainline some serious running mojo.
The course sloped down, flattened out, then dropped again. I passed a few nurseries, a Christmas tree farm, a park, and a horse paddock and riding ring. So far, so good. Remembering Hyannis, I ran at a slower pace. I wanted to drink it all in. Then over the next few miles, the landscape shifted, revealing a Dunkin’ Donuts, an automotive repair shop, a paint store, commuter rail stations. Ranch houses and modular homes came into view. Salt and snow had faded the asphalt and cracked the yellow and white lines. Hey, this could be the outskirts of Anyburg, New England. Where’s the glory? Where are the ghosts?
I tried to conjure Bill Rodgers and John J. Kelley (SED’56), the only Terrier to win Boston, striding down the center line. I pictured recent race regulars Will Ferrell and Lance Armstrong, the three of us, amazingly, running neck and neck. But the image was interrupted by the smell of French fries from a Wendy’s across the street. Locals were going about their daily lives — men working on utility poles, a tractor trailer screeching its brakes, a cop with a car pulled over. I saw only one other runner. We waved to each other. I wondered if she was running Boston, too. Or just lived around here.
I ran through Framingham and into Natick, immediately scanning the horizon for the CVS, which McQueeny had told me sat a few hundred yards before mile nine. I was starting to feel heavy and had already killed half my Gatorade. At last, there it was, CVS, in all its red neon glory. Nine miles had taken me an hour and 19 minutes. But getting here was the easy part. My heart sank a bit at the thought of running back through those same drab main drags. I missed the Charles, the Boston skyline, the women practicing tai chi on the Esplanade. But as I turned into the traffic wind and around safety cones blocking off roadwork, I began to realize that the Boston Marathon comes alive because of one thing, the people — 25,000 runners putting themselves through a grueling 26.2-mile conquest fueled by sweat and tears and urged on by as many as half-a-million cheering spectators, a once-a-year moment of magic brought down to earth through collective effort. For the next several miles, I found myself moving at a real nice clip.
Lisnow was right about the hills. Returning to Hopkinton was a lot harder than leaving. I finally climbed to the start line and slowed to a shambling jog, not quite ready to let go of the run. I grabbed two vitamin drinks at a pizza joint and headed back to the respite center, confidence and spirits lifted — 17.77 miles down. Just 8.43 more to master. Putting away a run, no matter where, feels like victory.
Back at the center, I found Lisnow on the floor braiding hair. McQueeny had just come back from helping a client learn to bag groceries at the local market. Rhoads was downstairs in the media room, checking on a blown fuse. I smiled. Like the marathon course, the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center was all about people, too, a community within a community. You could feel the playful vibe in the air — the constant opening and closing of the fridge, the singing, and dogs nuzzling. The smiles and laughter were so pervasive that the place seemed packed with friends rather than staff and clients.
On my way out, Rhoads told me to wear my bright red respite center shirt on race day. “That way, we’ll be able to pick you out. We have big groups of people, clients and their families, all down the route, all wearing respite center shirts, too. Think about putting your name on your shirt. As soon as the crowd sees it, they’ll start shouting, ‘Go, Caleb! Go!’ They’ll scream your name the whole way through and it just keeps you going.”
Talk about an unfair advantage. The other runners don’t stand a chance.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers can click here to sponsor Caleb’s run and benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center. Follow Caleb’s training progress (and setbacks) at his marathon blog, where he charts his runs and muses about life in running shoes. Follow his routes, sample his playlists, and see what he’s eating. Tips, advice, derision all welcome.
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