I’ve been waiting to run the Boston Marathon for several years now. The main reason I wanted to run Boston was because it’s part of the World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York) and if I wanted to complete those and get a special Six Star Medal, I needed to complete Boston.
However, it’s not easy to get into the Boston Marathon. The first time I tried to get into Boston was in 2018 for the 2019 race. I didn’t get in. So I tried again in 2019 and I managed to get a ticket for 2020. You can probably guess what happened next, the race didn’t happen due to the pandemic. Well, it first got postponed and then it didn’t happen at all. I did run the virtual race that year, it did count as a Boston Marathon (that was the 124th edition), but virtual races don’t count towards the Majors. In 2021 the race happened, but foreigners were still not allowed to enter the U.S. and the race had a reduced field size. Which brings us to 2022 and the race being back in April rather than October.
If I finish Boston, that would be my 5th star and I will only have Tokyo left to complete all six Marathon Majors. But here’s the thing, Boston has changed its time limit over the years. I’m pretty sure that a few years ago it used to be 6:30. Now it’s 6:00 and they are notorious for being strict about it, unless the weather is horrible (which does happen in Boston once in a while), then they’ll keep the finish open longer. The point is, that they won’t tell you that you are outside the time limit or take you out of the race. They just turn off the timing equipment and you will not receive an official finish time. There are often still volunteers handing out medals, but without an official finish time, it doesn’t count towards the Majors.
And here’s the other thing, I’ve been on heart medication for several years now, but with varying degrees of success and varying side effects. I’ve also switched medication several times and the last two marathons I did on heart medication, didn’t go that well. Chicago was my slowest marathon which I did on medication “A” and London was a bit faster, but still slow and on medication “B”. Boston would be my first marathon on medication “B & C”. And to make the cut off, I basically have to run a PB. I’ve been close to it before, but that was before I was on medication.
I flew to Boston on Friday. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t do well on long flights (by which I mean 6 hours or more), due to the cabin pressure and the lower oxygen levels in the cabin (apparently if you have lung or heart issues you are more sensitive to this). Luckily for me, the flight to Boston wasn’t too bad. I landed in the afternoon and decided to go to the Expo right away. Picked up my bib and the obligatory Boston jacket and some other things at the Expo. Lots of runners were already walking around town in their (previous) Boston jackets. This year marked the 50th anniversary of women officially being able to run the Boston Marathon, hence why one of the colors for this year was purple. So, 50 years out of the 126… but it was great that they honored the women who were the first to run the race and who made it all possible.
Before I went to bed on Friday I noticed my heart rate was quite high, but I’d been awake for quite some time (I didn’t sleep on the flight) and had been on a plane, so didn’t really think much of it. But when I woke up on Saturday morning and looked at my phone, it said that my Apple Watch had sent me 4 high heart rate alerts while I was asleep, meaning that my heart rate was over 110 while I was sleeping. I hadn’t noticed the alerts during the night, either because I was pretty knocked out or because my watch was in sleep mode. Either way, not a great start.
Saturday mornings are for parkrun and luckily Boston has two of them these days. Since my hotel was in Cambridge, I decided to go to Danehy Park parkrun in Cambridge, which was pretty easy to get to with the Red subway line. There were more Boston Marathon runners at the parkrun from all over the world. The volunteers were amazing and I had an easy run around the park. Really enjoyed it.
The Boston Marathon is always on a Monday and mostly on Patriots’ day (the third Monday in April) unless there is a pandemic. That still gave us Sunday to get ready for the race. We had a bus tour of the marathon course, which actually made me more nervous, because it shows you how hilly the Boston course actually is, especially for someone who comes from a flat country such as the Netherlands. I spent the rest of the day trying to get the last things I needed before the race, but a lot of stores were closed since it was Easter.
I have been waiting for this race to happen for so long that it still didn’t really sink in that I’d actually be running it. I had also tried to make peace with the idea that I might not make the cut off time and that I wouldn’t be able to get my 5th star, since it seemed a bit unlikely that I would be able to run a PB, but you never really know until race day.
I left the hotel at 8 to take the subway from Cambridge to downtown Boston. There you have to drop off your bag, which stays in Boston and you can pick it up after the race. You can only take a small plastic bag with you to the start in Hopkinton and it won’t be transported back to Boston. So, you either have to carry it or leave it in Hopkinton. I got in line for the yellow school buses, the line was very long, but it did move quite quickly. Buses should all have left at 9 AM for Hopkinton since it’s about an hour drive. But my bus left at 9:08 AM and it definitely wasn’t the last one leaving. It did look quite impressive all these yellow school buses driving over the highway getting runners to the start and other cars were honking and waving at us.
Hopkinton is quite a small little New England village and from there you run back to Boston through a lot of other small little New England towns and villages. Only the last few kilometers of the race are actually in Boston itself. When you look around Hopkinton it doesn’t quite make sense that a major marathon starts there, but when the marathon started 126 years ago it only had 15 participants. Now it has about 30.000 runners each year. But when you think about Boston and Patriots’ Day, you still wonder why you aren’t running through Lexington and Concord ect. But apparently, the race director back in the day lived out towards Hopkinton so decided to start the race there, although back in the day the marathon distance was a little bit shorter than it is now (before 1908 the marathon was more around 40 kilometers rather than the 42.2 it is now).
Since the buses were kind of running late I didn’t have that much time in the Athletes’ village, but I guess that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When I got there I ran into Anna from the Running Channel. I knew she was running, but also knew she was in the corral ahead of me so assumed I wouldn’t see her on race day, so that was a very nice surprise. We took some photos, chatted a bit, got ready for the race and pretty quickly it was time to walk down to the start.
There was not a whole lot of ceremony for the start of the last wave, just a quick count down and off we went. As soon as you cross the start line the first kilometer is basically downhill. After that it’s basically rolling hills until you get to the Newton Hills, which aren’t so rolling anymore. As a policeman shouted at us at the 2 kilometer mark: “It’s all downhill from here, downhill, until it goes up again”. That’s pretty much a good summary of the Boston course. Theoretically, it’s a downhill course, the finish has a lower elevation than the start, but there are a lot of uphill and downhill bits in between.
Since the course is so hilly, it’s hard to keep to your kilometer splits. So instead I decided to focus on my time per 5 kilometers. I had calculated the time I had per 5k to make the cut off. The first 5k went well and I was about 4 minutes ahead of schedule, but the first section is mostly downhill and it’s just the first 5 kilometers anyway. Between kilometers 3 and 4 I saw a lot of runners standing still beside the course. At first, I thought that someone might have collapsed and the other runners had stopped to help, but it turned out the runners had stopped to take photos of Spencer, the now official race dog. I just kept on running, I was in a bit of a hurry anyway.
The next 5k went through Ashland and they also went pretty smooth, although I was starting to feel my stomach getting a bit upset. I had gained even more time and was around 6 minutes ahead of schedule now. After that it became a bit quieter on the course. Some parts of the course there weren’t that many spectators, since they were harder to get to and by now the runners had spread out quite a bit, which at least meant I had enough space to run.
I started to get quite nauseous and if I walked it would slowly go away, but just come back again when I started running again. I got quite worried since it was still a long way to go. I lost a bit of time, but managed to roughly keep the same pace. At the halfway point I was still around 4 minutes ahead, but I was still nauseous and still thirsty all the time, although luckily there were aid stations every mile. I did have my own bottle of Tailwind Nutrition with me, but had it mixed pretty strong, so was drinking water at the aid stations.
After the halfway point there is the Wellesley scream tunnel, an all-female college with the students screaming their lungs out to cheer on the runners. After that it was on to the 25k mark, which I passed about 3 minutes ahead of schedule, not too bad at all for a tough course and the nausea. We were extremely lucky with the weather though, around 11 degrees Celsius, sunny (actually a bit warm due to the constant sun) and I even got a bit sunburned even though I had put sunscreen on before the race, but you do run in the same direction the whole time and there weren’t any leaves on the trees yet. We did have a headwind in some places, but luckily there wasn’t that much wind.
For a flat marathon the challenge starts at around 30k, but for Boston the Newton Hills start around 25k. Four quite steep hills, steeper and longer than the previous rolling hills you’ve been running through the first 25k. With the worst and most famous being Heartbreak Hill. Not because it’s the steepest of the four hills, but because it is the longest and it starts 32 kilometers into the race. So you’ve run all this way to encounter a very long hill.
In Newton there were quite some people along the course cheering us on. Luckily for me people were also handing out oranges and water and one guy even had Coca-Cola! During a marathon I mostly drink Tailwind and water, but while running I mostly actually crave orange juice and Coca-Cola. I even remember thinking at one point: “This is a very long way to run just to finally get my bottle of cola back at the finish line”. I actually don’t quite understand why road marathons don’t just have some aid stations with (flat) coke, because I know a lot of runners have it in their drop-off bags waiting for them at the finish. I’m sure Coca-Cola wouldn’t mind sponsoring some big marathons.
Due to the hills I had passed the 30k mark just within schedule, but after a bit of a struggle with Heartbreak Hill and running down the cemetery mile (which actually passes a cemetery), I got through 35k 4 minutes behind on schedule. Not too bad considering all the hills and I’d already ran 35 kilometers. Everything considered it was definitely doing better than some of my other recent marathons. I started doing the calculations in my head and realized that if I tried to hurry a bit, I might still make it and luckily most of the course is downhill from 35k onwards, so it was not impossible.
I ran as much as possible on the downhills and tried to hurry as much as I could. At this point they were already starting to clean up some of the aid stations, although they mostly left one of them standing for the runners still out on the course. When I crossed the 40 kilometer timing mat I had gained one minute back, but I noticed I didn’t really want to push anymore at this point. But then I thought, what if I’m just over by a few seconds, I’d be really disappointed then, so I decided to keep pushing. When you pass the Citgo sign, you know you have one mile to go and I knew I still had enough time at that point to get under 6. In the meantime I was also receiving messages on my watch from people who were following me and telling me the predicted time in the app, which told me I was right.
You then make a right on Hereford and a left onto Boylston and you have 600 meters to the finish with spectators cheering you on. While running towards the finish it finally hit home: I’m running the Boston Marathon and I’m going to run a PB. I actually got a bit emotional then. So it turns out, I apparently like hills after all, despite living in a flat country. In the end, I ran 7 minutes faster than my PB in New York in 2018.
And I got my 5th star, just Tokyo left now. Impossible is nothing. Not even running a PB on a difficult and hilly course while being on heart medication.