After years of trying, I finally managed to get a bib for the 2020 Boston Marathon. I also managed to get a bib for the 2020 New York Marathon. So, 2020 would be a great running year. And then Corona happened. Boston got moved from April to September. At the beginning of the year this still seemed plausible, but as time went on it became less likely. And in May it became clear that the Boston Marathon was not going to happen in 2020.
Desperate times ask for desperate measures and for the first time in its history, Boston became a virtual race, but only for those who had a 2020 bib. Presumably so they could use the medals and gear that they already had made for the original date back in April. It would remain the 124th edition of the Boston Marathon, it would just be virtual. Although with one important difference, it does not count towards the six star medal.
Since I’ve never done Boston before and I don’t know when I will get the chance to run the race, I decided to enter the virtual race. But running a race on your own and having to supply your own aid stations is not the same as running with 30,000 runners through a major city. I started planning a 42k loop from my house, passing several water fountains along the way and finding parking spaces where I could meet my family along the way.
The race would have taken place on September 14th, so the organisation gave you from September 5 until September 14th to run the race. But you did have to do it in one activity on the same day. So, technically that’s a 24 hour time limit. I decided that if possible I would want to run the race on a Monday, since the Boston Marathon is always on a Monday. I didn’t want to leave things to chance and wait until the last possible day, so I decided to run on September 7th, which would be Labor Day in the US.
Before the race we got a pre-race package from Boston, but the contents were not that exciting. Some sponsored sports nutrition, a sticker, a race drop off bag and a 2020 bib number.
The Boston Marathon organisation had also made an app that you could use to track your run, your family could track you and it would tell you things about Boston and the Marathon along the way. Well, that app was terrible. The tracking wasn’t working properly, other people couldn’t track me and the audio cues didn’t work if you were playing some other music on your device. Luckily, I decided to wear two watches during my run: my Garmin and my Apple Watch.
Now, running a virtual marathon is not ideal, but there are some upsides to it as well. Since I had to supply my own aid stations, I got to choose what was at an aid station. So besides Tailwind Nutrition my aid station also had Coca Cola and some solid food. I could also decide at which time I would start, or when I was ready to start and I didn’t have to wait hours in a starting pen before I could start.
But running on your own is not as much fun and the roads obviously would not be closed so I had to watch out for other traffic and wait at traffic lights. Luckily I could wear my AfterShokz Aeropex headphones, which allow me to hear my surroundings so traffic was not that much of an issue. I started listening to music, but halfway through switched to podcasts.
I had basically divided the race into four parts and my mom would be at a parking lot at roughly 10k intervals. I left home with my first bottle of Tailwind and would grab a new bottle from the car every 10k. I also had some other stuff to drink in the car and some solid food in case I got tired of all the liquids.
To avoid as many traffic lights as possible and also minimize other traffic I would run mostly through the forest and other nature areas, but I would run on the cycling path so it would still be a road marathon. Cycling intersections here are numbered, so I could easily follow the route by following the numbers. I had already cycled the route the week before so I already knew my way around it. Another reason to run on Monday, besides the fact that the Boston Marathon is always on a Monday, is also that I wanted to avoid the large amounts of cyclists that are on the paths on Sundays.
Another advantage to running a virtual race is that you get to decide the starting time, or decide when you are ready to start. I’m not a morning person, but I knew the race would take me a while and it would be about 20 degrees Celsius on the day of my race. So I left my house at 10:30 am. The first 10k I know pretty well, I run there more often. I did stop a few times in between to take some photos, because the downside of a virtual race is that there are no race photographers, so I had to be my own photographer.
At the 10k point I grabbed a new Tailwind bottle from the car, drank some flat Coke, changed my shoes and went off again. Onto the next 10k of the race. It was getting warmer and I was starting to struggle with the idea that I was running this marathon all by myself. During a big race there are so many runners around you and so many spectators along the streets and there is so much to see. Instead I was on my own on a quiet bike path in the forest. At around 18k I was starting to have some small aches. Not a big deal, but I wondered how it would be if the aches got worse.
At 19k I met up with my mom again, grabbed the next bottle, ate some cookies, changed my shoes again and off I went. Into Belgium for a few miles. At the beginning of the pandemic the borders were closed, but now they were back open again, so I could run a few kilometers in another country after all. I didn’t go into any towns though, just along some fields and would then wind up in the Netherlands again.
At 26k there was a water fountain where I got some extra water before heading into the next nature area. While running Chicago this was the point where I ran out of energy, but now I was still feeling alright and I could continue running. At 32k I had the last meeting point with my mom and grabbed the last Tailwind Nutrition bottle and ate half a sandwich before heading out for the final 10k. My legs were starting to get sore at this point, but they always do.
The last 10k was a bit more difficult since I had to go through a town, which did involve some traffic lights and some more traffic. But I managed in the end. The problem was to make sure my route wouldn’t come in short, so I had to zig-zag through the last few streets to my house to make sure the route was long enough. But I made it in the end. 42.26k in 06:24:24. Surprisingly, faster than Chicago, despite it being a virtual marathon. Obviously not anywhere near a PB, but I didn’t expect that to happen anyway.
But the downside of the virtual is that there is no finish line and no medal at the end of it. Or at least, you have to wait about a month to get the medal. It’s definitely not the same as crossing a big finish line, getting a medal and walking back to your hotel through a city full of marathon finishers. It’s a bit of an anti-climax. But I did it nevertheless, I finished my first Boston Marathon and my fifth marathon overall. I just hope I get to cross the real Boston Marathon finish line one day.