I am no Bill Belichick. I am not burning the midnight oil, breaking down race film, using the sofa as my bed as 4-hour-old coffee dribbles down my chin and my eyes turn the color of the Kansas City Chiefs uniforms. There are no trick plays in a marathon, and if you try to bring out new tricks on race day you will fail. Miserably. There are no schemes to design to take away the opponent’s top weapon. Unless you consider the opponent the weather and its top weapon to be the rain. In that case you bring a hat. Yes, a hat to deflect some of the water. There’s no lengthy playbook, no cover two, no hard snap count.
But that’s not to say running a marathon doesn’t involve a game plan, because it absolutely does. You need to dress appropriately for the weather conditions. It behooves you to study the eccentricities of the course, where the elevation gains and drops are located. Back to the weather, you may want to pace yourself slightly differently depending on temperatures and humidity on race day. If it’s in the 70’s, you’ll need to take it easier than if it’s in the 50’s for fear of burning out early. You need to know your body and its signals and rhythms, know how much you have left in the tank, know when to drink water versus Gatorade and when to take an energy gel. You must have a decent feel for your pace, how fast or slow you are going at the moment and how sustainable it is. All of this matters.
Two weeks out, I continue to form my Boston game plan in my mind, and it’s taking a different shape than any marathon I’ve run previously. Part of that is due to the course, and part is due to the way I know I will react to the course.
This will be my 11th marathon. I’ve been better trained for some than for others. For this one, I’m pretty well-prepared. I resisted the urge to slack off and trained hard through the cold months. I have thankfully made it through the training season 100% injury free, which is certainly a boon. There have probably been a couple of marathons for which I was better-trained entering the race, but not many. I’m comfortable with where I am for this one.
Typically in past races – and I think this is the case for most marathoners – the heart of the game plan is not to go out too fast, and just make sure you have something left in the tank for the grueling final push. If you’re properly trained, you barely feel the first 15K or so, and even the first half of the race you could just roll out of bed and knock out without too much difficulty. It’s the “bite me” zone between Miles 14-22 where the race really becomes either a larger success or less of a success. If you’ve paced yourself appropriately for the conditions, trained adequately, and are blessed with the fortune of happening to have a “good” day – yes, this is as much art as science and there is some luck involved – you will know it in these miles.
While none of the above is untrue for me this go-round, I’m mentally focusing my make-or-break miles significantly earlier in the race. Boston is a bit unorthodox in that, instead of finishing close to the starting line as do most marathons, it’s a straight point-to-point race from west to east. The finish is in the heart of Boston’s Back Bay, but the start is in a sleepy distant suburb called Hopkinton.
I grew up in Newton, which comprises roughly Miles 16-20 of the course. Once I enter Newton, I believe my adrenaline will kick into overdrive and power me through the final 10 miles of the race. It will feel almost as if I am racing in a dream. In a way, I suppose I will be. But before Newton and Brookline and Boston itself, there’s a lot of, well… this…
The picture above is of Route 135 in Framingham. And Framingham and Ashland and Natick, while perfectly nice and all, are not in all honesty particularly interesting. It’s Boston, so of course crowd support will be excellent as long as the weather somewhat cooperates, but the pure rush just won’t be the same as in the later miles. Also take into account the elevation of the course. Boston is mostly downhill through the first half, which I suppose sounds great in theory, but in reality repeated downhills can do a number on your quads. I have sturdy quads, but it’s still a danger.
Add it all up and, if there’s a section of the course where I’m worried about faltering, it’s in the middle miles. Call it from 10-15. This includes the section where you pass Wellesley College and that’s supposed to be a lot of fun (I have a couple of lines in mind to tell the Wellesley students why I will not kiss them as I pass them, but I won’t spoil those lines before the race) but the town of Wellesley itself is also not exactly a mecca of excitement.
If I can get past those middle miles feeling strong and with a solid pace intact, look out.
Adrenaline and the thrill of the experience will carry me the rest of the way. I am certain of it. The hills of Newton will soon bleed into Brookline, where runners spend a couple of miles kicking up Beacon Street next to the street cars of the Green Line trolley. I look forward to that experience, having seen it as a passenger on those trains as a kid. From there it’s into Kenmore Square, past the famous Citgo sign, and on into Copley Square and the finish.
It is difficult to fully explain the range of thoughts and emotions I will feel in the final 10 miles of the race. I will be thinking of my family who is in town to watch me, and those who are not. I will think of kids I grew up with and have long lost contact with, who would be surprised to hear I’m running marathons these days. I will think of the strength of the people of Boston, which is real and predates my time there and made the saying “Boston Strong” something that would have made perfect sense before it became a trademark and a cliche. I will think of my city with pride for the way it responded to the bombings of three years ago and emerged stronger and more determined than ever. I will think of all the many days in my past that I’d walked or ridden or driven these same streets, somewhat hoping but never realistically imagining that one day I’d be among the marathoners. I will think of my teammates both with Dana-Farber in Boston and with Team in Training back in Illinois, who along with me care so much about this cause of defeating cancer for good. I want to run strong to honor all of them. And I will also think of the cancer I fought eight years ago, how thankful I am to have put the fatigue and memory loss and appetite loss and night sweats and uncertainty behind me.
As I did in the final stretch of my first marathon in Chicago in 2009, I will imagine that cancer on the other side of a wall, and I am pushing the wall as I run. If my energy seems spent, I will dig for more and I will find more. Because the cancer cannot win and it will not win. Cancer intended to make a victim of me. Instead, it made me a marathoner.
Buckle up. This is going to be fun. 16 days to go.