Race Report: 2011 Boston Marathon

Wow, my race report for Boston. I don’t even know where to start. I guess I’ll probably start somewhere around last September, when I really started to think about this race. Even though at that point I had about 20 marathons on my schedule before I could get to this one, in the back of my mind, the 2011 Boston Marathon was the race I was focusing on.

Just in case you’ve never been here, there’s two things I need to explain. One, I’m a father of three and a marathon runner. My middle child, 7 1/2-year-old Jack, is severely autistic. Last year, I ran 61 marathons and a couple of ultramarathons to raise money and awareness for a charity I’m proud to be a part of called Train 4 Autism. It was a difficult (but great) year and I knew towards the end (roughly September, when I was about 40 marathons into the year), that I was too physically worn down to truly chase any individual goals. That was OK, though, because last year wasn’t about individual goals.

The second thing you should know is that in 2007, I ran a personal best of 3:00:05 in the Tucson Marathon, just six seconds shy of a 2:59:59 — a “sub 3″ milestone marathoners try to achieve. It’s difficult to run that fast — that’s 6:52 per mile. But that was something I had been chasing.

Anyways, I decided to take Boston as a “me” race. For the first time in a while, I wanted to run a race for me. I wanted to train hard and go get that sub-3 I’ve been chasing. I got that personal best in my 8th marathon. Monday was my 92nd.

So, I had a great training cycle, and really, I knew I would. In the past, I’ve followed the training plan I used, and I struggled and broke down the whole way through, but I tapered and showed up ready to roll on race day. I figured that with the endurance base and ability to run through fatigue that I developed last year, that I’d be able to train really well. Sure enough, I not only didn’t struggle during the cycle — I got faster! I couldn’t wait to taper! I also dropped a little bit of weight. I finished last year at around 207 and got down to 195 for Boston.

So anyways, the race. While it was a “me” race, I found a way to do it for Jack, too. Plus, I’m using this as a baseline for when I run the San Francisco Marathon to raise money for two cancer charities this summer. I’m really looking forward to see what I can do there.

But Boston … I did some tests at the track and was scared because I was way faster than I’d ever been. I wanted to run roughly in the 6:40/mile range. My marathon heart rate is 170 bpm, but I thought I could do that pace at closer to 160. I got rolling and felt the way I thought I would early, but I could tell by mile 3 that it was going to be a tough day. I just didn’t totally have it. I felt a bit off — not like there was a problem, just that I was struggling a little more than I wanted to. My calves and achilles were a little tight in both legs, and while that typically happens for 4-6 miles for me when I get rolling in a race, I mentally prepared for a battle.

I think at this point, my pace per mile was about 6:41 per mile. There were mats every 5K and I went through 5K at 20:51, which was about where I wanted to be. At 10K, the half marathon and 30K, text alerts got sent out to everybody who was tracking me. I knew I had a ton of people following me (well, in the hundreds), so I thought about what people would think about my paces when they saw them. I told everybody that would listen that my pace would gradually slip and that if I didn’t hit the half in 1:28 flat, I was in trouble. I hit the 10K in 41:56. The average pace on my Garmin said 6:41 because of the tangents at that point. I was OK with how I was moving, but very concerned that I was going to break down.

First five miles: 6:42, 6:38, 6:41, 6:33, 6:52

I was turning out fairly consistent miles, but I was slowing a little bit. Based on the tangents I was running, I figured I’d need to average a 6:48 pace on my Garmin for the race because it looked like I was going to cover about 26.4 miles. The general rule is that for every 1/10 of a mile extra you run, you need to drop two seconds per mile off your pace. My pace was slipping a little quicker than I wanted do, much as I suspected it would. I didn’t feel like anything was wrong, I just didn’t feel “on” for the most part. I felt a little off. It was getting a little warm, maybe low 60s, and the tailwind I’d heard about didn’t feel like it was doing me any good. From what I found out later, if you have people behind you, that blocks a tailwind and doesn’t help you one bit. I really started to feel like I was going to choke this one away again. I only had one mile that was slower than my goal marathon pace through 10, and it was only by one second, but I was definitely starting to panic.

Miles 6-10: 6:43, 6:42, 6:53, 6:46, 6:48

I hit the half in 1:28:55. Anybody who knew anything about what I expected out of myself and how I expected to run the course probably knew that I was in big trouble. Boston has a lot of rolling downhills in the first half, but there are four good hills in the second half. I always positive split the course (run the second half slower) by about three minutes. My average pace on my Garmin at the half was 6:44 and I still hadn’t hit the hills. I was already thinking I was going to go 3:01 or so. I was pretty upset. This was supposed to be my race, my day. I trained hard and trained well. And I just can’t get this sub-3 monkey off my back. I ran the first half faster in 2009 when I went 3:01. I was pretty crushed mentally at this point.

By mile 15, my average pace for the race was down to about 6:45 per mile and I could feel it slipping away. I kept looking down at the “I’m going the distance for Jack” bib I was wearing and I just told myself that I had to do it for him and for my wife, Tiffany. I didn’t know if I had the physical ability to get it done, but I had to try. I didn’t want to fail them. And coming back with a 3:XX:XX finishing time would have felt like a complete fail.

Miles 11-15: 6:51, 6:41, 6:45, 6:48, 6:56

At mile 17, we hit the hills in Newton. This is why I was concerned about my slipping pace — those hills drop your average time a bit. I was down to 6:47/mile, barely hanging on with nothing to give. And I knew that when my text alert went out at 30K, people would see my time slipping and know I was in trouble. I felt strong at times, but it came in spurts. I’d get strong all of a sudden and the wheels would start turning a little bit better. But I wasn’t feeling great and I had a long ways to go.

For the most part, I never really felt like I was truly slowing down. I just felt like I wasn’t fast enough for long enough. As I approached mile 20, I was right on the edge. That’s when my race came down to a promise I made.

Miles 16-20: 6:32, 7:05, 7:05, 6:43, 6:48

I have a friend named Louis. You might remember, last year before Boston, Louis gave me a pep talk that inspired me to run my best race of the year. He told me that mile 20 in a marathon is what separates the men from the boys. Anybody can run those first 20 well. It’s those last 6.2 after mile 20, when you’re in pain, and there’s still a 10K to go, that make or break your race.

I ran a 3:21 two days before Boston last year. But what Louis told me stuck with me all day and I ran my fastest time of the year that day, a 3:03:48. I’m not going to get into a ton of detail about Louis because I want to respect his privacy. But I will say two things. One, in his first sub-3 back in 2008, he dedicated a mile to his late brother and really ran it hard. That really stuck with me.

Also, he loves running Boston as much as I do. He absolutely loves this race. He runs it every year with his wife Jackie. This year, they couldn’t make it because of a serious injury he suffered. He’ll be back next year. I know it. But he wasn’t there this year. I missed hanging out with him before the race. It just wasn’t the same.

I told Jackie that I was going to run the heck out of Heartbreak Hill for Louis, much like he ran that mile for his brother. What better place to run something for Louis than a long hill after mile 20? I got a note in my email from him on Friday that made my day — he told me loved my attitude and my training heading into the race and was excited for me to get the sub-3. That totally made my day. I’ll just leave it at that.

Anyways, I hit the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and I was struggling physically and mentally. I was getting tired and I was right on the edge of 3:00. My pace for the race was 6:47 and I knew that would drop a bit getting to the top. I didn’t think I had the energy to charge the hill. But I told myself I promised him I’d kill that hill, so I did. I just took off. I was a little bit concerned that I might be wrecking my race by doing it, that I’d ruin the last 5 3/4 miles after that, but I didn’t care. At that point, it was time to keep my promise, roll the dice and go for broke.

I got up that hill at about a 7:00 pace. I was passing people left and right. I was thinking about Louis the whole way up. I’m proud to say I absolutely destroyed that hill like I never have. When I got to the top, my average time was still at 6:47. I was barely ahead of schedule and the tough parts were over. Now, I just had to be a man, not a boy.

When I crested, I just turned my wheels as hard as I could, stopping just shy of an all-out sprint. I was flying and I felt good. For the first time in about 15 or 16 miles, I really thought like I might have a chance at the sub-3 again. It was go-time. This was my day, and it was time to claim my prize.

Mile 21: 7:03

I was in a zone. I proceeded to turn in my four fastest miles of the day. I was cruising, passing people, totally locked in. With four miles to go, I did the math and knew I only needed to average 7:00 miles the rest of the way. I started to think I really had a good chance if I didn’t bonk. I looked down at my Garmin at one point and saw I was going at a 5:53 pace. Another time I checked and I was going at a 6:12 pace. I didn’t hold those, but I knew my strength and endurance were paying dividends.

I was putting this thing to bed. With three to go, I only needed to average 7:15s to get the sub-3. I was still strong, still fast. This day had turned in an instant for me, at the bottom of Heartbreak HIll. This sure-fire choke was turning into a sure-fire sub-3. I couldn’t believe that this was the day it was going to really happen. This was my 84th marathon since my last PR! I’ve been failing at this since 2007!

When I hit two to go, I only needed to average 7:40s to make it happen. That’s when I knew I had it. Well, I was about 99% sure. I started getting excited because I knew my wife would be jumping up and down back home when she got the final text update. And this time, she’d finally get a good text update, unlike in years past. I started think about people I had on Boylston (the street with the finish) who were there cheering for me. I knew they were going to be excited to see me early. It was such a great feeling at two miles to go — I knew I got it done. I’d been trying for so long.

I also did the math, though, and knew that averaging 7:40s would net me a 2:59, 7:10s would get me a 2:58 and 6:40s would get me a 2:57. I really wanted that 2:57. I just like the way that “7” looks!

There’s a sign at one mile to go. I couldn’t wait to see it. The three times I’ve hit it in the past, I knew I had no chance. This time was going to be different. In my mind, I was going to hear the bell ring for the final lap. This was my victory lap. I passed that sign at 2:51:20. At that point, it was a done deal. I had 8:39 to spare and my slowest mile through 25 had been a 7:05. I’M GETTING A SUB-3! It took me 92 marathons, but hard work paid off and I got it done!

I started clapping my hands because I was so excited. I just kept on flying. The only thing I was checking was the distance on my Garmin. I just wanted to check off those tenths. I didn’t worry about my pace — I just kept pushing. With around a 1/2 mile to go, we turn right onto a street called Hereford. Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. That’s how Boston ends. We made that turn and I was way too amped for my own good. This race was just about done and I nailed it.

I turned onto Boylston and looked for my group that was out in front of Trader Joe’s on the left side. I was waving my arms to get them to make some commotion because I couldn’t see them. They were surprised to see me that early so they started screaming and I saw the sign they made for me and I was SO excited! It was an unreal feeling that I don’t have words for. I pumped my right fist in the air, then pumped both fists in the air. I DID IT! My hamstrings seized because of the fist pumping, but two strides later I was totally fine.

About 1/10 of a mile up, I saw my brother and a friend and they were just as excited. I did more fist pumps because I couldn’t contain my excitement and there went my hamstrings again! I finally just locked in on the finish line and continued to barrel through it. I threw my arms in the air, because I’m buying those pictures and I don’t want the finish line photo to be me stopping my watch. I stopped it after I crossed through the cameras and looked down and saw it. 2:57:54. I knew I got that sub-3, I got the 2:57 and I was done. My official time was 2:57:53.

Miles 22-26.2-25: 6:26, 6:31, 6:30, 6:27, 6:44, 2:32 (.43 Garmin, 5:54 pace)

I was just giddy. I was smiling from ear to ear. Still am, actually. I wanted to jump up and down. I couldn’t believe I finally got this 800-pound gorilla off my back! It was truly an amazing day, an amazing experience and the best run I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a perfect day or a perfect run, but it was good enough and finally … FINALLY … I got it done. It was fun to have a “me” race for once. I ended up running 1:28:58 for the second half, a three-second positive split. I was pretty happy about that. Even splits is a good sign of a great race and that’s tough to do in Boston. I wasn’t perfect, but I feel like I was strong and fairly consistent and I got the job done.

And that’s pretty much it, I guess. I don’t have a lot of pictures (I don’t have my camera cable with me, so I have to use what I can get from Facebook). Thanks so much for reading if you actually got to the bottom of this!

sam finish line
Done! Sub-3!

Me.

Me.

Danielle Sterling, a friend of mine who was/is a big Operation Jack supporter from Maine, with a sign she made.

Me and three friends of mine who were/are huge Operation Jack supporters, Sarah Emerson, Ally Phillips and Danielle Sterling, at a post-race party.

Comments

  1. says

    LOVE IT!!! Seeing you fist pump us on that course was pretty much the highlight of my year. Awesome job, as always!

    Hope you enjoyed some Diet Coke and partied it up last night!

  2. sarah loy says

    WAY TO GO SAM!!!!!!
    what an awesome Race!- I was following you online and at one point it had your “expected finish” at 2:59 so I prayed a big prayer that you would speed up! so happy you did!

  3. says

    HOOOORAY, SAM!!!! Huge congrats! I am so proud of you! You’ve done so much for Jack, and Autism and I’m glad you got to really run one for you. Way to decimate Heartbreak Hill. If I ever get to run Boston, I’m going to think of it as “Heartbroken” Hill.

  4. says

    oh man, I’m all teary eyed now. I’m so proud of all your efforts and hard work, and especially proud that you DID NOT GIVE UP when you thought the sub 3 might be out of the picture. the mental part is so important in the marathon…. so so so impressed. congrats and enjoy your new PR!

  5. says

    You’re so inspiring. Every time I read your blogs I just want to put on my running shoes and run and run and run. You are a great athlete with an even greater heart! I love how you find such amazing things in life to keep you motivated! Congratulations on your sub 3!

  6. says

    Congratulations! I never for once doubted that you’d do it at Boston. From looking at the orange guy’s reaction, that must have been quite a celebratory run down the final stretch! Once again, great job on a gutsy run!

  7. says

    Congratulations Sam!! That is so awesome! I was tracking your progress here in Afghanistan. It was a nail biter! My finger is sore from refreshing the stats! I cheered out loud when the final result posted. Well done!!

  8. Nancy Fries says

    Just reposting what I wrote on RWOL: When I got to my computer at 10:30 Pacific Time Monday morning, the first thing I checked was not who won Boston, not how Kara Goucher did, not how any of my personal friends did, but whether or not you broke 3:00. Congratulations to you from one of the many, many grateful parents in the autism community. You have done so much for all of us and our children, and this one’s FOR YOU!

  9. Erin F says

    CONGRATS Sam! So proud of you. So happy for you. I was thinking of you all day, wishing I could be there to give you a high five at the end. You DID it! So happy that the girls were able to get your attention and capture those photos! Yay!

  10. Audrey Price says

    That got me as excited and emotional as yesterday when I got that text you hit your Sub-3. Great job Sam. I know you are finally proud of yourself. BTW, you arms look ripped in that photo! Enjoy the glory. You separated the men from the boys for sure!

  11. says

    Oh Sam… As if it wasn’t an epic enough day, your Finish just made it all the more memorable. We were frantically refreshing the runner updates making sure our friends were on pace, when yours dropped we were freaking and then you hit the 40k and we were already screaming our brains out!!! When we spotted you headed our way after the turn it was all out hysteria! Sub-3… nah how about 2:57 instead. You are amazing Sam, congratulations!!! Like Sarah said, I was so happy to be there to witness YOUR day.

  12. Jackie Sullivan says

    Yeah Sam! You amaze me! I want to be a 5K runner sone day and if you can go sub 3 I can go 3!

    Thanks as always for being awesome!

  13. Kris Nicholas says

    I’m almost started crying reading this blog today – I am so happy for you, what an awesome accomplishment. I was watching the finish line live on the internet for you, but I was looking for a yellow shirt – DOH! You were the talk of the office on Monday – You are an inspiration to everyone!!!

  14. Josh Felsenfeld says

    I don;t know why but I knew it was going to be a race that your time would a 2:XX, and when you we passing me in front of the Uno’s I am always at I only got one picture bit will edit it and make it better than it really is. I am also happy that I got a shout out considering I am at the same location of the race very year… so the question is are you going to get the custom license place?

  15. Jeff Cate says

    Wow, seeing the actual mile splits, you absolutely nailed it. You obviously were wise and patient in the first 16 miles. Then your splits through the Newton Hills are amazing. 7:03 for the Heartbreak Hill mile is daggum awesome. Then you were flying on the backside of HH. Huge congrats again. I’m curious… I haven’t seen you mention your HR… what was your HR like in the opening miles?… and overall avgHR? Keep up the great running!

  16. says

    Congratulations!!! What a great blog, what a great cause, and what an amazing race!!! Congratulations all around, and I look forward to following your blog :)

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