One week later and I’m still on a runner’s high from finishing the Boston Marathon. This wasn’t my fastest marathon — I finished in 4:09 compared to my top 26.2 times of 3:41 in 2013 and 3:43 in 2014 — but I consider it to be my best, most consistent effort at this distance. After several days of reflection, I’ve determined it was my gutsiest race–not because of the cold, windy and rainy weather (I’m a Michigander, after all!) but because of what clicked internally for me. This makes me feel pretty amazing and proud.
It was the first time in seven marathons that I didn’t hit “the wall” during the final miles.
It was the only time, in my years of racing long distances, when my mind actually felt stronger than my body from the half-way point through the finish, when the going can get really tough. I’ve always believed, in theory mostly, the whole mind-over-matter thing as it relates to running and endurance sports. Now, though, I have an even greater appreciation for the power of what’s happening in our heads on race day.
At the suggestion of a reader, I posted a call-out for questions about my Boston Marathon experience — and boy, did you guys ever respond! Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions over on the MRG Facebook page. I’ve done my best to answer as many of them as I could in this post…thank you for all of your support, encouragement and interest!
First Things First: Getting that BQ (Boston Qualifier)
Q: How long did you work at a qualifying time? What was your first marathon time compared to now. Tips on gaining speed for the distance? – Julie F.
A: In December 2010, I hired a coach to help train me for my first marathon, the Bayshore Marathon. I also told her I wanted to qualify for Boston. The fact that she didn’t laugh in my face but instead got on board with my ambitious plan speaks volumes about Coach Lisa. She believed in me, which in turn led me to believe in myself. I just had to do as she said for 22 weeks. It was tough but it also was exhilarating. I got my BQ — 3:43, just under the required time of 3:45 — at the Bayshore Marathon that spring and ran the Boston Marathon the following spring, in 2012. After a disappointing 5+ hour finish in Boston, however, I vowed to go back. I wanted a redemption race. So I trained again, following the Train Like a Mother Own It Marathon Plan, for the 2013 Bayshore Marathon. But this time I needed a 3:40 or better, even though I wasn’t in a new age group. The Boston Athletic Association tightened the qualifying times by 5 minutes that year. I trained hard and even PR’d at Bayshore. Still, I fell short with a 3:41. I then attempted another marathon just a few months later — the Marquette Marathon in the U.P. — and learned the hard way that two marathons in one year isn’t such a good idea for me. I finished (hobbled) to a 4:33 finish. I undertrained, plain and simple. And I just don’t think my mind and body wanted to give 26.2 a go so soon after my previous marathon. To qualify for this year’s Boston Marathon, I followed the advanced, 18-week marathon training plan outlined in the book The Hansons Marathon Method. Now in a new age group — yay! — I needed a 3:45 or better. I crossed the finish line at last spring’s Bayshore Marathon in 3:43:44. I qualified, but cut it close. I worried about making the cut to actually run, given the rolling registration the marathon has been following the past few years. In September I learned I made the cut–by four seconds!
To gain speed…the best, simplest (yet hardest) advice I’ve heard, and have tried to follow, is to run faster. Hill running/repeats also helps build speed and strength. Find a training plan that includes speed workouts. Consider hiring a coach, too. It may seem like an extravagance, but if your budget allows it, consider it an investment in yourself. You’re worth it. And it can make all the difference in reaching your marathon goal, including gaining speed.
Q: What inspired you to even want to run Boston in the first place? And how does one go about prepping for such a significant race? (How’d you get your family on board?) – Colleen H.
The idea of running this historic, well-known race intrigued me for a long time. From my earliest days of running, in my mid 30s, I’d hear about someone local running the race and I’d wonder, could I do that, too? I had no idea if I really could–I hardly had a grasp on my pace and what I could do in distances longer than a few miles. Still, I was fascinated enough to keep the idea of maybe-possibly running it one day. Maybe. Of course, I’d need to actually run a marathon first…
From the get-go I wanted my family involved with my running this race. Joe knew this was a big goal for me and has been incredibly supportive, for which I am very grateful. I know this doesn’t always happen for everyone. What’s helped us is to talk with each other throughout the prepping and planning. Honestly, there was a time when we considered just me going to Boston — to save money, because traveling to Boston as a family of five adds up — and we were coming right off spring break and we were aware this trip out east would mean extra school days off for our kids. But I couldn’t shake my strong feelings that we all be there together. This wasn’t just a race for me–this was a family experience for us all to treasure; they helped me get to this point, after all. We just had to communicate with one another, do what we needed to do to ensure our kids’ schoolwork wouldn’t suffer (especially our older two, who are in middle school and high school), not to mention work hard ourselves in the months leading up to race day so we felt good about financing this trip. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s absolutely been worth every sacrifice we’ve all made.
The Road to Boston: Training
Q: How do you train yourself mentally for a marathon? And what is one piece of advice you’d give someone considering a marathon? – Heather Quinlan, of Finding Her Happy Pace
A: This is such a good question, because for me, the marathon is such a mental challenge, particularly in those last six miles. I remember starting to train for my first one several years ago and thinking, “How in the world will I ever run 16 miles, 18 miles … let alone 26.2?” I couldn’t fathom it. But then I trained, I worked with a coach, and the miles slowly built up and the longer runs got longer. Solid training helps you mentally prepare for the marathon. Getting through crappy runs also helps a lot. You realize that you can actually push yourself to finish a long training run on snowy roads or on the treadmill or wherever in whatever elements that are tough for you. That builds confidence. And I’ve been reminded time and again that bad runs don’t last. Getting right back out there, sticking with your training plan even when you just don’t want to, will make you all the more prepared for race day. I also think incorporating a race or two in your training — many training plans include this — is helpful, to gauge where you’re at physically and mentally as you get closer to your goal race. Piece of advice for someone considering a marathon? If you’re already thinking about it, I’d say GO FOR IT. It is life-changing, and I’m not just talking about the race itself. The training you’ll do will be like nothing you’ve ever done before, and it can be a game-changer. It was for me that first time, and each time I’ve trained for a new marathon, I learn new things about myself. You can do it, you can run 26.2 miles.
Q: Did you ever train for your qualifier at the pace that you actually ran your qualifying race at, or did you run slower in training and let the adrenaline take you as fast as you needed. What was your qualifying pace and how did that compare to your training long runs, speedwork and tempo runs? –Debbie S.
A: I did train at marathon pace during designated runs. I qualified after following a plan suggested to me by my running coach. This plan included runs during which you run at pace, to get your body accustomed to running certain distances at that pace. It’s also important to run easy, to run long and slow, and to do strength runs like hill repeats and speed workouts like intervals at the track. Combined, these workouts prepare you to run the marathon at a targeted pace. Specifically, when I was shooting for a BQ, my tempo runs were averaging right around 8:15 minute/mile. My long runs were a minute to a minute and a half slower per mile; it was about getting the time on your feet and building endurance. Speedwork could mean really pushing it on the track–I’d basically be trying to run crazy (to me) minute miles like 6:45 or 7:15 or 7:30. I needed to get a 3:45 or better at the race, which would be around a 8:30 min/mile pace, give or take. But I wanted to give myself a cushion; in fact, for that BQ race, I was gunning for a sub 3:40. This all being said, there is something to be said about the adrenaline that kicks in at a race. In fact, at Boston, because the first part of the race is a downhill, I knew I needed to reign it in and really make sure I didn’t go out too fast. When a race has lots of crowd support, like in Boston, it’s important to be aware of how easy it can be to get swept up and run faster than planned.
Race Day: Athlete’s Village, the Race Course, Crossing the Finish Line
Q: Do you have any pre-race rituals or superstitions? – Heather Quinlan
A: I always set out my race outfit the night before, down to even the tiniest of details, like the hair tie I’ll need for my ponytail or braids and the race bib with safety pins all ready. Having the complete outfit all together is a tremendous help in the early morning hours when it seems I’m often dressing in the dark (especially in a hotel room when I don’t want to wake my sleeping family.) I also eat the same food, though it can vary from race to race. For Boston, I had a 5 a.m. wake-up call (from the hotel and also Joe, who is an early riser to my night owl) so I could have plenty of time to dress, eat and not have to rush to the train to get to the buses taking runners out to the start line. We made sure to find a hotel that had a continental breakfast option, for convenience purposes. The hotel — La Quinta in Somerville/Mystic River area, just outside Boston — was incredibly runner-friendly; breakfast opened at 5 a.m. and they offered a free shuttle to the train station throughout the day. I ate half a bagel with cream cheese, yogurt and banana with peanut butter. I know some runners who find comfort in eating a specific pre-race meal, sometimes something they themselves bring to a destination race like Boston. Find what works for you on race mornings and stick with that. Superstitions? Well, for Boston, I wanted to see the finish line the night before, when we were down on Boylston for the Expo, and I made sure I didn’t cross it. I wanted to save that for race day. I also always wear my runner charm necklace during a race. This year I wore an MRG charm I’ll soon be selling at the MRG store. My sister made it for me. I reminds me of my strength and determination to be my best self.
Q: How do you get to the starting line, and how long were you waiting before you started? How did you stay warm!? –Ashlee LaVallee
A: School buses transport runners to the race start in Hopkinton. Depending upon the wave of runners you’re in, you catch a bus in Boston Common and then head out to the Athlete’s Village and wait for your start time (mine was 10:50 a.m., and I got on the bus around 8:30/8:45. Around 10:30 a.m., my wave was called to start lining up to head toward the start line. You walk close to a mile, I believe, to the start. To stay warm I wore a windbreaker/rain jacket I had bought the day before (I’d never done this before, worn something new on race day). I also wore a rain poncho over top for extra warmth. I was chilly and did a lot of jumping up and down to stay warm. In Athlete’s Village the tents were completely packed as we all tried to stay out of the wind. I ended up throwing the poncho away — I’d bought it for about $5 the day before — but I wore the raincoat the entire race. I was so happy to have it.
Q: Did the bus ride from Boston to Hopkinton take longer than you thought it would, and during the bus ride, did you think at all to yourself “Wait, I have to run this entire distance?” – John S.
It felt long, for sure. And yes, I did think this! 26.2 miles is a very long way, even when you’re driving it! It was about a 45-minute ride and it’s a school bus — not the smoothest of rides. I sat next to someone who I felt wasn’t too into having a conversation, which was fine. I took the time to focus on my race ahead, to breathe deep and just relax as much as possible. I did chat a little with a couple of runners sitting behind me, but mostly it was a quiet ride for me. The process of getting on the bus and out to Hopkinton, the town where the start line is located, is pretty seamless. It felt very organized. I don’t love this part of the race experience, but I like the point-to-point course.
Q: Did you run with music? If so, what songs inspired you the most and do you remember where you were on the course when you heard that song? –Kelly F.
A: I didn’t listen to music this time around. In fact, this was my only marathon out of 7 that I didn’t listen to music at all. I brought my headphones, just in case, but I was pretty sure I’d instead take in the scene, soak up the festive atmosphere and savor the energy from other runners and the spectators that line pretty much every inch of the course. I’m really glad I took this approach–I didn’t miss my playlist at all. It gave me the chance to hear cheering and whoops and hollers, and there was a lot of this! A few of my favorite shout-outs from spectators: “Welcome to Boston, we’re sorry about the weather!” and “You’re running the Boston Marathon!” and “You are Boston Strong!”
Q: Craziest thing you saw while running? – Tara S.
Less than two miles into the race, when the race field hadn’t thinned out much at all, I overheared a woman to my right say, “Oh!” kind of loud, followed by a chuckle. I followed her gaze to our left, where a couple of runners had jumped off the course and into the grass. One of them, a guy, was squatted, giving us a full view of his backside. I reflexively turned my head to look straight ahead — I was good with that one quick image and didn’t want to see anything more. It was funny. You can’t help but laugh at how all vanity goes out the window with runners during a race. I say never say never–who knows, it could be me someday doing that. I hope not, but who knows. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.
Q: Aside from the final stretch down Boylston and crossing the finish line, what was your favorite part of the race and why? – Heather Quinlan & Abigail P.
A: The tough thing about choosing a favorite part of this particular race is that the entire course is great–I love running point to point, having the opportunity to glimpse different scenery the entire way as opposed to looping past the same thing twice (or more). Each town along the course has its own personality, which is fun. I’ll say seeing my family just past mile 14 was huge for me. We’d planned to catch each other around miles 12-13, just past the screaming Wellesley College girls (holding signs saying “Kiss me so you’ll go faster!” among other similar messages). Joe had talked with a local at the Expo and he’d suggested they take the train to one of the three Wellesley stations and get off there for a great race spot. When I didn’t see them at mile 13, I figured they had to be a bit further down–I’d been scanning the crowd pretty well and didn’t think I’d missed them. Then, I spotted Joe’s MSU hat (it helps that he is 6′ 4″). I veered over to the right to get hugs and kisses and a really nice couple standing next to Joe and our kids snapped this photo.
Q: Which hills were more difficult, Newton or Heartbreak? – Heather Quinlan
A: All of them — they all kinda blurred together! Heartbreak is indeed the toughest hill and lives up to its name, not just because it’s at the highest elevation compared to the three previous hills in Newton, but because it comes just before mile 21 and after you’ve already pushed yourself up and over three other tough hills. My quads were screaming at me, not just from climbing, but because they’d endured so much downhill.
Q: How tough were the hills? – Dan H.
A: I’ve thought a lot about this in recent days. Partly because my legs were sore up until yesterday (me + stairs = not happening). I felt tight in my quads and hamstrings throughout the second half of the race, when the hills really come into play. As I crossed the finish line, my legs felt more sore than I’d ever felt in the past after completing this distance. The thing is, I train on hills and I’ve run hilly marathons in the past — the 2011 Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco, not to mention this very same course when I ran the 2012 Boston Marathon. Still, I think this race was significantly different for me. For starters, the 2012 Boston was incredibly hot, temps in the high 80s, and I ended up walking up much of the hills. And in San Francisco, the hills weren’t nearly as rolling and ongoing. Ultimately, I think my consistent pacing for this year’s Boston — something I’m pretty proud of — kept me going strong up and down the hills, but it also does a number on your legs. There’s just no way around it. Though I have thought for next time (if I do get back there), I’ll train more on rolling hills and add extra hill repeats into my routine.
Q: How did it feel crossing the finish line? I can’t even begin to imagine putting that experience into words. Congratulations!!! – Marie C.
A: Oh, wow. It is tough to put this into words, you’re right. It was emotional. I actually am tearing up right now typing this, just thinking about it. I’m always emotional crossing a finish line, particularly the finish line of a marathon, because I’ve run with all of my heart and there’s something about this distance that just strips you down. But this particular finish line, given the events of 2013…it was just extremely emotional. I felt proud, of myself for accomplishing this long-held personal goal, and also of every other athlete, the countless people involved in putting on such a significant race, and the resilient Boston community at large. In practical terms, I was relieved to have finally reached the finish. My legs felt ready to give out, and it was all I could do to just keep walking and not stop — I feared my muscles would lock right up. I immediately felt cold to the bone — the rain and wind didn’t bother me as much on the course as they did right there at the end when I’d finished. I was so grateful for the many, many volunteers who were there ready to help with runner blankets, fuel and directing us to the family meeting area.
Q: Did you ever feel, despite your training, that you might not finish? I’m curious because the monkeys like to play in my head during every race and I wonder if a runner with your caliber struggles with this as well. – Heather B.
A: Yes, yes! This thought usually pops into my head at least once during a race, especially the marathon. The first time may even be relatively early on, like miles 8-10. Usually I can dismiss them fairly quickly at this point. Maybe it’s just nerves or something, I don’t know. If it happens later on, like at miles 16, 17, 18…I find it a bit more frustrating. I battle the mental monkeys at times, too. Maybe it’s just our brain’s way of processing what we’re doing, what we’re putting our bodies through. This time around, I remember a brief moment in the early miles when I had a brief negative thought, but I pushed it away. And as the race continued, I shut down any of those thoughts before they even cropped up. What I mean is that I just kept focusing on staying strong, staying steady. Just one foot in front of the other. Eyes forward. Body in motion. I knew it would get to a point where it would likely suck — I think it’s elite runner Desi Linden, this year’s first American female finisher at the Boston Marathon who said to “embrace the suck,” which I love — but I knew I was stronger. I could be uncomfortable for awhile. It clicked that my desire to finish strong, without walking at all, with knowing I had tackled the hills with strength and determination, was way more important than giving in, even for a moment, to those mental monkeys. This time, it worked. I hope I can tap into this again at my next marathon!
Q: Did you feel your new training plan had you more prepared than ones in the past? -Carolyn W.
A: I think it would be easier to answer this question if I had run the same course that I did with my previous training plan. Then I could compare how each plan worked for that same course, which happened to be flat. With Boston, given its hills, it was entirely different. But, I will say that I felt strong going into this race. When I stepped up to the start line, I knew I’d done my best to train and feel ready for this race. It was a challenging plan, and there was a part of me that thought, well, maybe I’ll PR! But I also had different goals for this race–namely, I wanted to feel strong throughout, all the way to the end, unlike what I’d experienced in my BQ race last spring. Also, I wasn’t trying to re-qualify. I wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to hit a wall (and I didn’t, for once!). So, I felt I achieved my goals. And I think this plan helped me do that.
Odds & Ends: The Boston Experience, Making it a Family Memory, Etc.
Q: I know there are elites and qualifiers and charity runners, but can you explain the difference in the colors of everyone’s bibs? Also, what is the time limit? Would you do anything different if you ran Boston again? – Heather F.
Our bib colors were based on the wave were were in. There were four waves of runners. I was in Wave 3 and wore a blue bib. I also was in Corral 6 within than wave. With 26,000+ runners, I was impressed with how organized everything was and I think part of that is having runners categorized in these ways. It’s all based on your qualifying time. The best resource for all things qualifying, etc. is on the Boston Athletic Association’s web site here » As for doing anything different next time around, I am overall pretty pleased with how this race panned out. I mentioned earlier that I’d try to train on more rolling hills. I’d also like to try staying somewhere a little closer to the action, like in Back Bay right by the finish line. But our hotel was great, and definitely cheaper since it was just outside of Boston.
Q: Were you at all worried about another terrorist attack, and what kind of security did you see along the run? – Jane B.
A: I wasn’t worried at all. I have to say that the Boston Athletic Association does such an impressive job communicating with runners, from the moment you register and are accepted as a runner in the event through your entire training and the months leading up to race day. Then, once you’re actually there in Boston, there’s a sense of organization. At least, that’s how I felt. We were told there would be ample security throughout the course, and this was true. Police officers and race officials were everywhere — there are some 9,000 volunteers who help make this event happen, which is astounding to me. Joe did say that they were subject to numerous bag checks while on the course. They carried a see-through plastic bag for my post-race belongings, and that helped them move through security check-points smoothly. Emma carried a purse, and that did get checked a lot because it wasn’t see-through. I noticed more barricades along the route, separating spectators from runners, particularly closer to the finish. But whether those were always there or not, I’m not sure. At the Expo they checked your bags upon entry. I felt safe overall.
Q: Ok, you qualify for Boston…now what? What were the logistics and expenses like? What is the best way to run Boston without breaking the bank and still enjoy the experience? –Courtney H.
A: Truth: Running Boston can prove rather expensive. The race entry alone is nearly $200. Traveling from afar can cost a lot, especially if you’re flying. Hotel prices go up even higher on Boston Marathon weekend. Here’s how we’ve done it without breaking the bank: we don’t fly, we drive — more than 2,000 miles total from Traverse City to Boston — and we stay with close friends in Connecticut for a couple of nights. By staying in Boston just one night (the night before the race), we saved a boat load of money, on lodging and also on food in the city. The hotel we stayed in was $322/night, and while very nice and just fine for us, it wasn’t located in the heart of Boston, which some runners and their families may want (you’ll just pay a lot more for this). The city’s public transportation is great, and all runners ride free on race day — they waved me right on by as I got on the train with my family post-race. Very cool. I think it all comes down to what you’re looking for in your race weekend experience. Some runners want to sight-see in addition to the race, so you plan accordingly. Some runners make it a friend getaway. I have a few friends who chose to use it as a weekend trip with their spouse. We chose to spend a lot of time with our friends in Connecticut before and after the race, but we got to Boston on Sunday with enough time to enjoy the Expo and a visit to the finish line. It worked out well for us.
Q: This is more directed at your family, but how was it for them to try to watch? Was it easy for them to get to multiple places to try to catch a glimpse of you? Did you ever see them on the course? –Beth M.
A: I saw them twice, at miles 14 and 25. I asked Joe to answer this one! “It was fairly easy because the public transportation system is functional with the race route. What I found the most helpful was talking with other spectators who were on the public transportation and asking them, ‘Where are you going to go?’ That’s how I knew to go to the second Wellesley Station. We got off and the course was right there. Then, to find Heather again, after she passed us, we got back on the train and once again I asked someone. My intention was to go to Back Bay train stop, to be at the family meeting area, but was told about the Yawkey train stop, which would throw us right on the route at mile 25. After we saw her, we walked from Yawkey, about a mile, to the family meeting area. The key is a well-charged cell phone on the runner and with you as a spectator! We were also prepared — more prepared than most — for the weather with rain jackets and umbrellas. That made the experience all the better.”
Q: Did Boston have the magic, poignancy you thought it would? –Joan E.
A: Absolutely! It really is magical.
Q: Do you have a mantra that kept you going during the marathon? -Amy M.
A: “Steady” was something I repeated to myself more than once. I also told myself “You’ve got this.” I try to think about my kids during certain miles; I’ll dedicate a mile to each one, spending that time thinking about them and what I wish for them, how I want to be a role model for them. During this particular marathon I thought about what an honor it was to be there on the streets of Boston. I felt especially grateful.
Q: Food you ate post race? Comfort level of riding in the car on the way home? When is your next marathon? –Lynde S.
A: Post-race, we ate at a pub next to our hotel. I’m never nearly as famished as I think I’ll be after a marathon (that comes later, it seems!), but I knew I needed to re-fuel. I ordered a not-too-seasoned chicken and rice dish with a salad wedge. And a Sam Adams beer, of course, because we were in Boston. The ride home: we drove three hours back to our friends’ house in Connecticut that night. We left early the next morning for home, and I won’t lie, the drive was very long. But I put my legs up as much as I could. It actually was kind of nice to be forced to just sit. Luckily, Joe is all about the driving.
My next marathon? Hmm…I know there will be one. But I am not sure yet! Stay tuned!
Anything more you’d like to know about the Boston Marathon? Have you run Boston? Please share your most memorable marathon experience, whether it be at Boston or someplace else!