Friday, April 21, 2017

Boston 2017: Aim Small, Miss Small/ Aim Big, Hit Big (Sometimes)

Anyone who has studied and/or practiced the art of long range shooting (as I have in a previous life) knows the old saw: Aim Small, Miss Small. While this is great guidance for hitting a man-sized target at 1000 yards, it’s not an approach that suits me as a runner.

For me, running long distances is about finding things out. It’s about exploration. It’s about testing the limits. Mostly, it’s a chance—In our safe, comfortable, insulated life—to stare into the abyss. Running offers the chance to grow. To strive, to seek, and to not yield even in the face of struggle.

With that approach to my chosen hobby, I often gleefully toe the line at races with goals that are improbable. Sure, I always set more reasonable sub goals to keep me pushing when the big dream has been swallowed by a cruel reality (see my Grindstone race report here. But, I’m not interested in having things that are easily attained. I never have been.

I share this idea as an introduction to my race report from the 2017 (121st) Boston Marathon. In November 2015, I ran the Richmond Marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston. As someone whose preference is 100 milers and not marathons, I thought it would be cool to run a “fast” (for me) marathon. Qualifying for Boston would represent that. So, I ran Richmond and snagged a 3:09 (and change) that put me well under the 3:15 qualifying standard for my age group.

Fast forward a year and a half. Add in the greatest addition to the world I can imagine (Paul Thomas born November 10, 2016—the USMC Birthday, btw), and this is where the idea of Aiming Big to maybe hit Big comes into the picture for Boston.

I knew that I wanted to spend the bulk of my time after Paul was born learning how to be a good dad and a good partner for Ginger in this thing called parenthood. That meant making a commitment to the home life first and running goals second.

I adjusted my running and training to reflect that priority. Instead of doing speedwork, going for a regular run before or after work, and hitting the track once a week, I shouldered a backpack and ran to work and back a few days a week. When PT was big enough, I knocked out my morning miles with him in the stroller on the other days.

The strategy was to get in the miles where I could without sacrificing time at home.

Ginger was an awesome partner and made it possible for me to do my long runs in the mountains on the weekends, so I could still feel good about building my base for Tahoe Rim Trail 100 this summer. I managed to get in a little tempo (with the pack or the stroller) here and there, but mostly I knew I’d be running Boston on some quality volume and HEART. I had, after all, run over 700 miles for the year and paced 43 miles at Umstead a few weeks ago (Thanks for letting me run with you Chris and Star).

In the face of the facts, which I did consider based on the sage advice of Wendell Berry and Zach Miller ( I decided to follow my pattern of setting a big goal that would give me a chance to explore. The facts told me that I probably wasn’t in the kind of shape you need to be in for big marathon goals. My friend Pawel also made I was aware of this fact. He is right; running 6:50s for 26 miles DOES require a certain amount of turnover. But…

Facts should not limit us. They should inform us.

I considered all the facts as Wendell Berry has suggested, and then I joyfully set about Aiming Big in the hopes of hitting big. One never knows when the stars will align and hard work and heart will give you a gift. Considering the facts helped me formulate reasonable sub-goals and approach all the goals with joy.

So, I hopped a plane to Boston aiming for a sub 3 hour marathon.  Yes. I know. Sub 3 is a BIG goal. Yes. I also know that it was an unlikely goal. But this is where the joy of running is for me. I KNEW I could easily run a 3:25 marathon, which is the qualifying standard for me for next year. I knew I could go and just have fun cruising. But I wanted to explore. So I did.

I am, however, not foolish. I was not toeing the line without having fully considered all the facts and building sub-goals that were informed by them. So, I made a reasonable plan:

Run the first 5K at a pace neither too slow to allow a sub 3 finish or so fast it would cause me to blow up before the halfway point. After that, I planned to progressively ramp it up if it was going to be my day.

It wasn’t. I just didn’t have the turnover. That was apparent by the 10K point. Chris, my partner in this edition of Chasing Windmills, was feeling just the same. He had, in fact, just finished his first 100 miler two weeks earlier. We talked a little, pushed ourselves, and set about the work of chasing our sub-goals.

We’d hoped to run together the whole day and finish sub 3. Instead, we stayed together until our paces were no longer simpatico, and I took off at the halfway point and tried to just run splits that were as even as possible. That alone was a big goal considering my training.

At the half, I was at 1:36. I was planning to negative split as I had done at Richmond, but the facts told me that a negative split that would result in a sub 3 finish was a fool’s errand. I settled into a pace that would keep 3:08 (a PR) within reach. Each time I tried to pick up that pace, the heat from the sun made it seem like I was running faster than I was. Mile 16 was 6:57 and it felt like 6:30.

At mile 17, I started feeling low on energy, so I double fisted a couple of gels Jordan Chang style to ensure I wouldn’t bonk. A PR was out the window at this point, but running strong to the finish wasn’t.

 At mile 19, you roll into the “hills” that Boston has to offer. Heartbreak Hill proved to be much ado about nothing and I cruised up it thinking: This would, indeed, suck at a 6:50 pace, but it’s really no big deal in the 7:30s. Heartbreak hill came and went.

Rolling into Brookline at mile 22.5 was a big motivator. Chris’ family and Julia were lined up outside of the house where we were staying (Thanks for having me Frank and Megan). It was a big lift to have them cheering us on. Chris’ dad was there too. I never want to disappoint a fellow Marine, so I made sure to cruise through trying to make it look easy. Whether I did or not is up for debate. I doubt I did.

Photo: Frank Curran

I was able to pick up the pace a bit here. I was still really hoping to at least go sub 3:10 at this point. I wanted to just blister that last 6K or so. I figured: here’s a chance to explore—go hard in the last 5K of a marathon to sneak in under 3:10. Again, each time I tried to pick it up, my body responded with a laugh. So, just kept it steady and soaked in the scene.  

I did push (but not blister) the final 5K trying to get in under 3:15. It wasn’t easy mind you- 7:20s are not easy for me that far into a race under most circumstances, and they were not easy here. I laid down a 6:54 mile 26, but 3:15 wasn’t to be either.

The tale of the clock: 3:16:36

·      I finished 3466 (out of 29,000 or so runners), which is pretty cool since my seed was 7267. I’m proud to say I literally passed thousands of people.

·      My second fastest marathon. Link to the Strava data

The reality: I didn’t hit any of the big goals I was really aiming for—at least not on the clock.

But, my biggest goal was to explore. And that one I hit. I saw what was possible on the training I had put in so far this year. What was possible was NOT a sub 3 marathon.

I did, however, have a lot of fun. I finished Boston and chased another windmill with Chris. I would have loved to have caught that sub 3 windmill, but I have zero regrets.

My main goal this year is to learn to be a good dad and a good partner. I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve had with PT and Ginger for any running goal. Life is about balance, and I’m learning how to strike a good balance between home and hobby.

So, my final thoughts after The Boston Exploration:
  • Aim Big, Hit Big. Don’t be satisfied with things you can easily obtain.
  • Set big goals. Say them out loud, so you’ll be accountable for them. And enjoy them.
  • Do not be afraid of “failure” because failure takes on many forms. The only form of failure I’m afraid of is failing to grow by exploring. 
I owe some folks some big Thank Yous:
  • Ginger, thank you for supporting me as I continue to chase windmills and learn how to do so as a new dad. I love you. 

  • Chris, thank you for always being up for staring into the abyss with me. Looking forward to TRT this summer.

  • Frank and Megan, thank you for the hospitality. I enjoyed meeting you both.

  • Jordy, thank you for helping out at the house while I was gone. 

  • Amy, thanks for being there for Ginger and PT while I was off adventuring. 

  • Jordy, Brett, Sean, Andy, Pawel, the boys from Always Brothers, Kirby, Steven, all the folks at Runabout Sports, and the rest of the BBurg running crew, thanks for the encouragement and support.  
·      For Andy: The wall is socially constructed. I refuse to participate in that construction.
·      For Pawel: You were right. Again.
·      Mom: I ran this one for you. Thanks for giving me strength.