Tuesday, April 19, 2011

With Swagger: 2011 Boston Marathon Race Report

It's Boston, so this is special enough to merit its own (most likely) lengthy post. As I write this, I'm not sure that I've fully processed my performance, which, to recap, was a 7-minute PR, on a marathon course where I've suffered through some of my most spectacular failures, in shoes (the Asics Pirahna SP 3) that people told me I couldn't run a marathon in. (And probably some other, less significant "obstacles" that I'm forgetting here.) Nevertheless, I have to give this a try, before the memories go stale . . .

By way of background, if you've been paying attention to this blog recently, you'll have noticed by now that in 2011, I haven't run a single race that wasn't at least a little bit scary to me. This is by design, because if the training and mental preparation that I've engaged in leading up to these races hasn't been sufficient to allow me to rise to the challenge, then there's something wrong with one or the other (or both), and I need to address it in order to move forward. In this case, the "scary" was my attempt at 2:50. Considering how much faster this would be than my PR, this was a brash goal, but one that, given the new Boston qualifying standards, was absolutely necessary to achieve if I wanted to assure myself a spot in the 2012 running of the event (which would be my eighth consecutive finish).

With that in mind, I slogged through a 10-hour drive in a hot car on Saturday (always in training for Badwater), slept soundly on a friend's futon for eight hours, then woke up, dressed, and headed off for the expo. Along the way, a lot of bizarre stuff happened, including stumbling up the steps from the T into the tail end of the Women's Elite Mile race, confetti and noisemakers at the Palm Sunday service at the "church of the finish line," a ridiculous picture with Josh Cox that made the teenage girls that took it giggle, and a "who's THAT guy" look from a girl that I'd like to think was Desi Davila (it was sort of the same look the confirmed Desi gave me when I got her autograph at the expo last year) . . . but none of that is the point. The point is, in spite of the crowds, I felt very, very alone. Not that I was expecting company, but with my "outlandish" goal in the back of my mind, and nobody else willing to step up and be equally (or more) convinced that it was possible, I began to have the vague sense that I may have been setting myself up for failure.

And then things took a turn for the better, when, as I was sitting outside City Hall Plaza, waiting for the time on my meal ticket to come, I decided, even though I was dressed in torn-up Abercrombie jeans and a polo shirt, to run on the Adidas "charity mile" treadmill while I waited. I still needed to get at least one mile in to keep my streak alive, so why not? As I hopped on the treadmill and cranked it up to a low-7-minute-mile pace, a strange thing happened. People stopped to watch, and then smiled, and I smiled back, and then three women (who were more dressed for this than I was) came over and signed up to run a mile, marveling at how strong I was running in jeans (not that I haven't pulled similar stunts before, in front of fewer people, over longer distances). This convinced me of two things: 1.) whatever happened in the race, the training I'd put in had me at the point where the joy that I feel when I run was visible to others, and 2.) this race would not go badly, because this pace, even in the wrong clothes and the wrong shoes, felt very comfortable. As it turned out, running a charity mile in all three locations made you eligible for a drawing to win a free pair of Adidas shoes, so I spent the next couple of hours mostly walking between other locations to get my three miles in. (The last of the three was the most amusing - a small, slender girl in the dress, seeing me on the treadmill, dragged her well-dressed boyfriend over to run a mile, and he refused, in spite of her insistence, while all the while, I trotted along happily.)

By race morning, not that everything was fine, but I was feeling better about this entire endeavor. I have the bus ride and the athlete's village bit down now, and my timing from port-a-pot to nutrition to port-a-pot to clothing change to start line was very comfortable, even if the temperature, for standing around, was not. As I jogged down the road in my Pirahnas, I felt strong and in control (at least, that was what I was telling myself, because the pre-race psychology speaker told us to tell ourselves that), and increasingly convinced that this would be a good race.

The gun went off (I could actually hear it from the second corral), and the crowd lurched forward, gradually breaking into a run. As we headed down the first downhill, I reminded myself not to push too hard, as this is the part of the race where breakdowns are born. Still, I found myself passing a lot of people on the first downhill, and on all of the downhills within the first few miles. I would have been more concerned about this, except for the fact that it felt very easy. Maybe it was the fact that this year, more than ever before, I've put a lot of effort into being light and fast on the downhills, or maybe I was just very prepared for the race.

Whatever the case, I was loosely tracking my splits, and I could tell that I was going pretty fast, although I couldn't exactly tell what sort of finish I was on pace for. I decided to wait until the halfway mark to pass any judgment on my progress, and to re-assess at that point if necessary.

If only there were something more dramatic to talk about here, but there really wasn't. I kept gradually moving up in the sea of people, although occasionally, one or two people who felt the need to kick in a very early finishing sprint would come whipping past me (in most cases, only to eventually get caught again). I experienced some minor discomfort here and there, but overall, it was manageable, and I felt strong and comfortable. I reached the halfway mark in a little over 1 hour, 25 minutes, which was effectively my strategy - to be in the 2:50 ballpark at the midpoint, then to run the best second half that I could manage from that point on.

And in the second half, the lack of drama continued. I kept riding the downhills and passing people, and when the Newton Hills hit, well, I was trained for them, and I kept passing people there, too. At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, Steve Uhl, a classmate of mine from high school, saw me and shouted "Go Ploskonka," the first time in the race anybody had acknowledged me thus far. This was a great time to hear that, since I was already fixated on attacking the hill, and this gave me an even better reason to do so. Once I made it through the Newton Hills, my biggest worry was my stomach/nutrition. My stomach had been feeling lousy since the start of the race, and I had been balancing that with my need for nutrition. A couple of times, I felt the "bonk" coming, and I forced down Gatorade to stave it off. The last such instance would be Mile 24, in deference to my Holiday Lake finish, when I bonked spectacularly and took 40 minutes to go the last 2 miles.

Then, in the last few miles, things got interesting. I passed somebody I knew from the Army 10-Miler team at work, and then Seth Tibbitts, who I was sure had a much faster marathon in him than I did (and as it turns out, his chip time was a minute faster than mine, because he had started a corral behind me). Passing these people turned this into a real race. While I was still cautious about blowing up, I had the general sense that I was potentially going to run under 2:50, and I pushed closer to the red line (although, in retrospect, I was still far from overheating the engine). I felt strong and fast until the last turn, when I rounded the corner and saw the seemingly never-ending path to the finish line, which conjured up all sorts of memories of my past struggles to the end, and these memories overcame me to the point that I may have lost a bit of time here. But this close to the finish, anything less than the magical 2:50 was "loser talk," something I take care not to engage in these days. I did my best to suppress all of the bad memories of this part of the race, and crossed the finish line with 2:50:10 on the clock, and I was pretty sure that my starting line offset was more than 10 seconds (as it turned out, I finished in 2:49:33). As it turned out, I had split the last 5K in 19:17, my fastest 5K split of the race. This was apparently pretty dramatic to people who had been watching my progress online, since up until that last 5K, I was on track to run about 2:51. I congratulated Seth on a great race as he came in shortly after me, and then began the deathmarch through the finish chute to post-race food, mylar blankets, medals, clothing pickup, and the family meeting area (although, of all the post-race things I could have, at that point, the thing that I wanted most was a port-a-pot).

And here endeth the lesson.

Except not really, because it turns out that my parents had decided months ago to come up to the marathon to watch me run, and had seen me rounding the last turn and heading for the finish line (although I hadn't seen them). They later said that (in spite of how I felt at this point) people remarked at how strong I looked at the end of the race. I didn't find out that my parents were there until my mom called me, and said she was at the finish line waiting for me. Strong as I was, I couldn't hold back tears as I walked towards the family meeting area to see them. To be fair, I cried in 2005 when they handed me my first Boston bib at the packet pick-up, and I cried in 2009 when I broke 3 hours at Boston for the first time, but this was the most I ever cried at the marathon. To understand this, you have to realize that they didn't show up at my first marathon (Baltimore in 2004, when I ran 3:00:51, qualifying for Boston on my first try), and then they came to Boston in 2005 and 2006, when in both cases I blew up and finished well over 3 hours. They don't normally come to my races, and so to have them show up here was beyond unexpected, and made even more amazing by the fact that they had just seen me run the fastest marathon of my life, the marathon that I wanted to run to make them (and everybody else who's supported me along the way) proud.

Which brings me to the part where I try to make sense of all of this. Clearly, I trained both hard and smart since the beginning of January, I came into the race prepared, and I ran a smart race, utilizing every bit of my knowledge of the course. But to leave it on that level would be doing a disservice to the performance. And in the interest of plumbing the mind behind the run, I think there are two intertwined lessons here:

The first (which was to be the original title of this post, before I ran the way I did) is about being "alone in the crowd." We've all heard the cliche about "being alone in a crowded room." I'm a master of this - superficial socialization doesn't satisfy me, and in many cases, I'd rather just avoid it entirely. And in that spirit, it dawned on me this year that in many ways, a marathon, and, in particular, the Boston Marathon, is, at its core, this sort of socializing. We all gather in one place for one race, and we wish each other luck, and graciously accept the well-wishing from family and friends back home. And all of these things are all well and good, and we would do well to draw energy and support from them, and to be thankful that they are what they are. At the same time, when the gun goes off, and there are 26.2 miles between you and the finish line, the ultimate responsibility for your performance lies within. Only you know how you feel, only you know the struggle you're dealing with, and only you have the answers. And so, paradoxically, the marathon is both a joyous social gathering, and an intensely personal struggle. To be as successful as possible in a marathon, and in particular, in a race like Boston, you have to be able to optimally reconcile this conflict, whether, for you, that means charging forward with your head down and not acknowledging anybody, or smiling and waving to the crowd the whole time.

Which brings me to the second lesson, which is about "swagger." In case you somehow missed it, the "boston with . . ." campaign was plastered all over the city in preparation for the marathon, and one of the phrases (which was important enough to make it onto a pair of shoelaces, for goodness sake) was "boston with swagger." At first, I was a bit offended by this, especially since the poster children for this were two average-looking runners wearing those ridiculous mylar finisher's blankets. But after this race, I'm convinced that "swagger" is the most accurate word to describe what it takes to run a fast Boston Marathon. Consider that this race filled up just 8 hours after registration opened, and that unofficial world records (on a "net downhill" course, arguably wind-assisted) were set this year. Make no mistake, Boston is vying to be the grand marathon stage for years to come. And if you want to perform well on a grand stage, you need swagger. You need the borderline ridiculous confidence and flat-out guts to haul down the early downhills, your legs moving uncomfortably fast, banishing thoughts of a late-race crash due to your reckless abandon early on. And you need that same confidence to attack the climbs in the Newton Hills, in spite of what you just did to yourself on the downhills, knowing that even though you might be moving forward more slowly, you'll make up the time on the downhill backside, and still have plenty left to do it again. I will admit that the first few times I ran this race, I lacked that swagger. I was afraid. But this year, especially since I trained more specifically for this race than ever before, I came in with much more "swagger" than ever before, and it showed in my performance.

And just to make that last statement clear, just because "swagger" rhymes with "bragger" does not mean that they are necessarily related words. In this case, "swagger" is not about intimidation, talking a big game, or trash-talking after the race. "Swagger" is about having the quiet confidence to line up at the start and know that for the whole race, you will remain focused, positive, and confident, attacking the course and drawing strength from your competitors' challenge, rather than wishing it all away. And when the race is over, you know that you've run a clean, hard race, and risen to the challenge of your competitors the whole way.

So there (in probably too many words) is the 2011 Boston Marathon. Barring disaster, I'll be back in 2012, chasing a time that's 5 minutes faster, to assure my spot in the 2013 running. And I'll train even harder and smarter, so that I show up with more swagger than ever before.


  1. In the immortal words of Soulja Boy, "hopped up out the bed, turn my swag on, took a look in the mirror, said what's up"

    You could also listen to Swag Surfin by F.L.Y.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this report.

    Not trying to make this post about me, but despite what some people may feel, I really enjoyed my first Boston experience and will be back again some day (with a much better qualifying time and starting position).