Saturday, November 1, 2008

How I qualified for Boston without even trying

Okay, I guess I should say that I did actually try for it, I just didn’t plan for it. And here’s a warning: this post is ridiculously long and may contain both feminist ideology and mild profanity.

So the Boston Marathon is like, the holy grail of marathons. I guess it was the first marathon ever held in the US, so its steeped in history. It holds a special place in my feminist heart too. Women used to be prohibited from running marathons, you know, because we’re supposed to be barefoot and pregnant all the time. In 1966, a woman named Roberta Gibb ran the Boston Marathon as a “bandit” (without really registering for it, because it wasn’t allowed), and then there’s a really famous story about a woman named Katherine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 and race officials literally tried to push her off the course. Because she was a woman. It was unseemly. Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich. But she persevered, I guess, and somehow managed to finish even though being physically assaulted on the course. In 1972, women were officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time. When you think about it, that really wasn’t all that long ago.

The other thing about Boston is that you have to qualify for it by running a specified qualifying time for your age and sex bracket. For me, this is 3 hours and 40 minutes. My previous best marathon (in 2005) was 3:47:39. My most recent marathon (May 2008) was something in the neighborhood of 3:50. For me, Boston wasn’t even something I considered reaching for. In fact, I never really considered attempting to qualify for it. Afterall, its at a bad time of year for someone in academia (finals time—late April), plus its always on a Monday. A lot of people run marathons with dreams of BQ’ing (Boston Qualifying) as we call it, but honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. I run just to run.

Which is why I signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon today. It seemed like it would be a good race, plus Rob and I have a lot of friends and family in the area who we’d get a chance to see. I trained pretty hard—around 2 months of nearly 40 miles per week, plus a peak week when I managed to run just over 50 miles. And all that training went really, peculiarly well. No injuries, illnesses or ailments. Despite the high mileage, I took it easy, always running at a slow pace. I never did “speed workouts” and rarely, if ever, even took a watch with me while I ran. As we headed over to Indianapolis yesterday, I reviewed my 3:45 pace band, hoping that this would be the race when I’d finally get there. I’ve probably printed out a 3:45 pace band for every previous marathon, and always ended up ripping it off my arm in anger at some point during the race, as I realized I’d fallen unattainably behind.

We arrived at AK and BY’s house in Indianapolis last night, which incidentally was Halloween. Little Miss C was a pink princess (complete with tiara) and Little Mr E was a robot. Adorable. AK had fixed us a lovely pasta dinner, and we had all the creature comforts of being at home, or being at the home of someone who is your family. We went to bed at a fairly reasonable hour and then woke up bright and early on race morning. (Well, dark and early actually).

I knew that this marathon had the potential to be either the best or worst one I’ve ever done. I’d trained better (at least, at higher mileage) than any of my previous 7, so I had that going for me. But I’d been feeling downright terrible the whole week before the race—only able to sleep a few hours each night, and an upset stomach that made me wonder if I’d even make the start line. When the alarm went off this morning, I still did not feel too great, and I actually had a minor freak-out that I was even attempting to run 26.2 miles.

But that’s what I’d come here for. So we went to the start line. It was freezing. I’d solicited the advice of Rob and BY and consulted and finally opted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Unpleasant standing in the dark at the start when the temperature is in the 40’s. But welcome once the sun came up and it gradually warmed to the 60’s.

The start was super-congested. There were so many people that after the gun went off, it took me more than a minute to even get to the start line. Once I actually crossed the start, I still was just walking because it was so congested. The whole first mile was slow, but I thought that was probably a good thing. During my last several marathons, I’ve started out way too fast and ended up paying for it dearly at the end (or middle!) when I run out of energy. My GPS wasn’t working right (this is the last time I ever will run with the aging Garmin ForeRunner 201!), so I had to just rely on the mile markers along the course. At mile 1, my time was 9:20. Yikes. I’d wanted to start off slow, but not that slow! The pace per mile for a 3:45 marathon is 8:35.

While freezing at the start, I had met up with a woman named Denise who also wanted to run 3:45. We resolved to stay together as long as we could, and when we saw how much our pace was lagging, we picked it up. I think we over-compensated. We started running 8:20’s or below, and by at least 4 miles in, we were back on pace for 3:45. We didn’t slow down though. In fact, we kept speeding up. By mile 11, we were about 2 minutes ahead of schedule. Denise was pumped. But I knew, from so many previous experiences, that this did not bode well.

I knew that Rob, AK, BY, and the kids were planning on being at a corner around mile 11.5, so I’d really been looking forward to seeing them there. When I got there, much to my surprise, there were some additions to my cheering section. Rob’s aunt and uncle and baby cousin were there, and Rob’s parents were too! It was like the whole corner erupted in huge: “Go, Melissa!” cheers. I felt like an honest-to-goodness celebrity. I felt like a million bucks, and it meant the world to me. This powered me to run an 8:16 for my next mile. By around mile 14, I had cruised ahead of Denise. I knew I should pull it back, but I just couldn’t. I kept hammering out 8:16’s, 8:12’s, and so on. Pretty soon I was 3 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of pace. I told myself, okay Melissa, keep your cool. If you feel good at mile 20, you can go for it. But don’t do anything stupid before you get that far.

Denise, wherever you are, it was great running with you!

Surprise!! The whole gang was there!

Around mile 16, I saw Rob and our friends again. I was so far ahead of schedule that Rob’s family hadn’t made it to that point yet. I hollered for Rob to bring me the “emergency stash” of pretzels I’d had him hold for me. He ran them over to me, and it was a lifesaver. I’d brought a couple of carbohydrate gel packs with me, but, my body was having none of that. I wanted salt. And lots of it.

Seeing my cheering squad and having the pretzels gave me even more speed. Pretty soon, I realized something. Boston was within my reach. My BQ time is 3:40, but they accept anything under 3:40:59. So all I had to do was be 4 minutes and 1 second under my original goal pace. And I was already over 4 minutes ahead. And I felt great. So I picked it up even more, running close to 8 minute pace. Pretty soon I was 5 minutes up. Still tenuous, but getting close to safe. I saw Rob a couple miles later and I told him, “I might qualify for Boston.” Suddenly I wished I hadn’t said that outloud. I didn’t want to jinx it.

"My quads will destroy you"

By mile 20, I was nearly 6 minutes ahead of 3:45 pace. And I was running sub-8 minute miles. I think mile 22 was 7:40, though its hard to say for sure with my malfunctioning GPS. It was such a weird, almost out of body experience. It was like I was in a war zone or something. All around me, people were going down, shrieking in pain as they clutched throbbing legs and fell to the ground. And here I was, fleetly picking my way through the fallen masses, practically skimming through the air.

By mile 23 I was almost 7 minutes up, and I realized I could slow down significantly and still make it. By mile 24, I was so ready for this to be over. At mile 25, I saw Rob and BY again on their bikes. Even though I had just puked a little bit in my mouth, their exuberant cheering bolstered me onward, and I ran a 7:56 mile. At mile 26, I had only 2 tenths left to go, and I ran like hell. I could see the finishing line and I started sobbing hysterically. The announcer called my name as I ran across the finishing mat, in something like 3:37:20 (chip time). I started screaming, “I JUST QUALIFIED FOR BOSTON!! I JUST QUALIFED FOR BOSTON!!” A man put a medal around my neck and wrapped a mylar blanket around me. “I just qualified for Boston!” I sobbed, and he held my hand for a minute and told me congratulations.

I couldn’t eat or drink or do anything other than sort of pant hysterically. I wandered aimlessly through the finishing area, sidestepping people who were being put on stretchers and lifted onto ambulances, probably still hoarsely whispering, “I just qualified for Boston.” I barely managed to get it under control by the time Rob and BY found me in the crowd. Eventually, we walked back to the car and went to AK and BY’s house, where I had a warm shower and a delicious vegan lunch.

My head is still sort of reeling from all of this. I normally take a nap after a marathon, but this time I am way too excited. Things couldn’t have gone better if I’d planned it. The weather was ideal. The course was nearly perfectly flat. I also had a cheering section of friends and family who helped me keep the crazies at bay. If I’d gone into this with the hope of BQ’ing, I would have inevitably been stressed out and enjoyed the whole experience much less. The way it happened was like a nice surprise—a really nice surprise.

The only thing left to do is go to Boston, I guess. The thing is, I’m not sure that I’m even going to. Its just nice to have qualified. There are so many things to consider. Like what a horrible time of year it will be for me… as I scramble to finish my dissertation and hopefully find some type of gainful employment. And how expensive it will be. Plane tickets, hotel, race registration fee, etc. I’m just feeling so overwhelmed. I don’t know if anyone besides my immediate friends and family will have gotten through this gargantuan post, but if any runners out there are reading, what I’m wondering is if I can elect to do the Boston Marathon in 2010 instead of 2009. From the information on the BAA website, it seems to indicate that a qualifying time after September 29, 2008, makes you eligible for both the 2009 and 2010 race. If I could really truly defer my time and run the 2010 race instead, that might be so much better for me. There is just so much in my life that needs to be accomplished between now and April, that the thought of cramming in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Boston is almost more than I can handle. We’ll have to see how to work this out.

At any rate, I should end this before it gets any longer. I just want to point out that the icing on the cake is that I did this whole thing 100% vegan. I know there were people out there who thought I was going to wither up and die when I went from vegetarian to vegan, but I’d say this is living proof that an animal free lifestyle suits me well. Its kind of amusing to see the look of horror on peoples’ faces when they find out I’m vegan and to hear the inevitable “What do you eat!?” I eat lots of lovely, lovely things that allowed me to BQ and to shave off 10 whole minutes from my previous best marathon time!

Oh yeah, and I did the whole thing wearing my Bitch Socks.

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!!!!! I felt like I was RIGHT there WITH you, as I followed along with your blog!!!!!!!! THANKS and MORE THANKS to ALL ROB's FAMILY who showed up and SUPPORTED YOU and gave you the ENCOURAGEMENT YOU needed!!!!!!!!!! I told you I would be RIGHT BEHIND you, sooo??? do you think, I might have "PUSHED" you along and made you go fast????? nah, that wasn't it, you had trained WELL, and 'eaten' well? and it paid off!!!!!! YOU LOOK SUPER in the PHOTOS , thanks to your SUPPORT team partner!!!!!!!! You'll be RUNNIN marathon's when your 90!!!!!!!! YOU GO GIRL!!! luv you , foxymama

Anonymous said...

Mom Scho said...
C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S, MELISSA, YOU DID FANTASTIC JOB!! We were very proud to be a part of it.

Let us know when we're going to BOSTON!!!

It's pretty cool to have a BQ qualifier AND a NATIONAL CHAMPION Triathlete!!

I feel pretty special!

Mom Scho

Logan's Mama said...

Congratulations on your triumphant marathon and your BQ qualification. Sorry that we missed it. If you don't go to Boston in 09, you are certainly welcome to return to Madison for a "practice run"!

Anonymous said...

CONGRATULATIONS!!! loved reading your blog ... especially the part about your cheering section!!!! by the time you got to the finish line, i was sobbing with you!!!! Qualifying for Boston is like winning the world series ... i want you to go -- and hopefully it can be in 2010 when it will fit better in your schedule. again, congratulations to you (and to your national champion triathlete) for all the hard work and training that you do!! hugs, auntie

Cathy said...

That is so amazing and awesome, that you were able to do it without the Stress of Trying for Boston. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Melissa! I am so excited for you.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations! My wife just sent me the link to your post, and I was sucked in. In fact, my coworkers are all giving me funny looks because I got all teary-eyed when you crossed the finish line.

I actually ran the Monumental Half Marathon that same day -- I've been running for a little over a year, and have set a goal to qualify for Boston for 2010 (so I've read and re-read the qualification rules several times over the past several months) -- and yes, I believe their qualification window is nearly 20 months prior to each race, so this would qualify you for both 2009 and 2010.

amypfan said...

So I am just now getting caught up on weeks and weeks of friends' blogs, and WOW, I am so excited for you!!
(and it was also great to see you while you were here, although I was a depressive mess and it was a short visit--hopefully next time around will be more with the fun)

Anonymous said...

Yours is a very inspiring story. Thanks so much for sharing!