Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Boston Marathon - Reflective Perspective

With the arrival of April the city of Boston is a buzz with talk of the upcoming Boston Marathon, and with good reason. Boston is the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the United States. It’s also the fastest according to the latest statistics from the Running USA Annual Marathon Report. Boston’s median finishing time of 3:44:04 in 2009 edged out the Baystate Marathon’s median time of 3:48:42. So Massachusetts goes 1 & 2 for the fastest marathon courses in the country. Sweet!

Back in the day I was a decent short and middle distance road racer placing in the top 5-10% at most races. Even won a few smaller ones outright. But I never had an interest in running a marathon. That was until I got talked into running my first one by a few friends. It was the Cape Cod Marathon in December of 1979. The course was contained entirely within the grounds of Otis Air Force base. I remember running the cold, lonely, wind-swept roads as if it were yesterday. I was woefully undertrained for the distance but after finishing the race I was hooked. I just HAD to run another marathon and I HAD to qualify for Boston. And that’s when qualifying meant something, like running a 2:50 marathon in the open division.
The last chance to qualify for the 1980 race was at the Lowell Marathon, held just five weeks before Boston. The race was run on the rolling back roads of Lowell, not the pancake flat course of the current Baystate Marathon. I met Paul M, an experienced marathoner about 2 miles into the race. He was also gunning for the elusive 2:50 qualifying time so I just stuck with him for as long as I could. He dropped me with a few miles to go but his steady pacing was all I needed to qualify.

Running to the finish at the Lowell Marathon (1979).

Caught up in the excitement of qualifying for Boson in only my second marathon, and being very inexperienced with the distance, I made enough mistakes to guarantee I would have a miserable race at Boston. After qualifying only five weeks before Boston, I went from running 50 miles per week over five days, to running up to 70 miles a week on 6-7 days of training. I was so over trained and exhausted by race day that my Boston Marathon debut was pretty much over by the time I hit mile 10. I staggered to finish and was very disappointed with my 3:12 finishing time. I’d kill for that time now!

Bill Rogers on his way to a 4th Boston victory (1980).

My girlfriend (now wife) snaps a photo of Rosie Ruiz cheating her way to first place (later disqualified).

Me (in white and yellow) looking and feeling like I've been run over by a Green Line trolly car.
I gave up marathons for seven years until I got the itch again. By then the qualifying standard was relaxed to 3:00 for the open division. I qualified again in November 1987 at the Boston Peace Marathon running 2:58 on training of 40 miles a week and no speed work. I again made the same mistakes I made in 1980, increasing my mileage and training intensity in the weeks and months leading up to Boston. I went into the 1988 Boston Marathon with a bad hamstring injury and ran another crappy race. Boston was never good to me, but I didn't deserve it the way I trained. Bombing at Boston was hard to swallow.
When most runners think of Boston they think of the Newton hills, and Heartbreak Hill in particular. They’re not particularly long or steep but they get most of the media race coverage and instill fear in many runners. I never thought they were all that bad. In fact, the first few miles can do more to ruin your race than the hills. The first few miles are downhill. When combined with race day excitement, they cause many people to go out way too fast. Those that do pay a price later, most likely when they hit Heartbreak Hill. I think that’s why most runners struggle on the hills.
As marathon courses go, Boston’s is not a very difficult one. In fact, it’s rated at slightly below average difficulty by The Ultimate Guide To Marathons . On a scale of 1 to 10 for course difficulty, with 10 being extremely difficult and 1 being completely flat, Boston is ranked at 4 minus (average difficulty, rolling) by The Ultimate Guide.  Boston has about 1000-1500 feet of elevation gain from information I could gather online. By comparison, many trail ultras have over 20,000 feet of elevation gain! 

Boston is just a small speck when compaired to many trail ultras.

If you think I’m bashing Boston I’m not. I’m very happy and proud to have been a small part of it. I’m just trying to make a point about human potential. Back when I ran Boston I thought it was hard, very hard. I thought it was the most difficult thing I could ever do. Years later I realized it was not. I found out I was capable of even more. We all are capable of more if we believe in ourselves, if we free our minds of negative thoughts.

I’m beginning to see the hidden potential within myself. It began when I completed my first 50K trail ultra in August 2009. As soon as I crossed the finish line I told my friend Paul, who had finished 2 hours before me, that I would never run a 50 mile race. I suffered badly during the 50K so how could I ever run 19 miles more? But as the weeks passed I began to think, “If I ran 50K why can’t I run 50 miles? It’s not that much longer.” I went on to complete my first 50 mile ultra in the fall of 2009. It was my mind that was holding me back, not my physical capabilities. Yes, I've made progress but I have a way to go. I still don’t believe I am capable of running 100 miles, but by this time next year I’m sure I will have a different mindset. All I’m saying is look beyond your greatest accomplishment to date and set a loftier goal. The reward is great.

So, to all you Boston qualifiers out there, my wish for you on race day is clear, cool weather, a strong wind at your backs and all your race day goals met. To those still chasing that Boston qualifier, keep working at it and it will come. No worthy goal is ever reached easily. Lastly, to those of you that believe there is nothing beyond 26.2 miles, think again. You are capable of so much more.


  1. Wow, Dan, this was great, thanks for sharing. You were so fast, I can't even imagine. For me, Boston is harder than Baystate. I think the median comparison does not work because the people who go into Boston are faster due to the qualifying standards. I too don't think the hills are such a big deal, but I tell you I have never had such muscle pain as I have had when I ran Boston! And I paced myself well, ran the first 6 miles slower than possible. I think most people are not used with such downhill running, and don't train on it. I planned to train on the downhill this year, but I ended up not doing it bc the logistics of finding a long stretch of downhill were hard.

  2. Ana, I remember my quads being so sore I had to walk down stairs backwards. My legs would be sore for a week after running a road marathon. After running 50 miles on trails they were only a little stiff for a day or two. Pavement just beats you up.

  3. Hey Dan

    I ran Cape Cod in 1979, 2nd marathon ever. The course was horrible, 3 loops around the AF Base. Snow started coming down around 18 to 20. I almost got run over by Bob Hall in a wheelchair and had another guy drafting of us for 15 plus miles and he would not help out at all. We buried his ass somewhere around 18. I ended up dropping at 20 as i had run 2:40, four weeks earlier at Ocean State. There was a jetplane on a pedestal in the middle of the base that never got any closer, no matter where you ran and eventually, you ran right under the plane. This was one of the worst courses, mentally, that i ever ran. I have a friend of mine that qualified for Boston there, running 2:49 and change. He was so overjoyed, just incredible to have run a time to get into Boston. Those were the days! Boston has gone so far downhill since then. Anyone can get into the race, there are no real standards anymore. Too bad, but i guess that is what greed will do to you. See you on the trails


  4. I am a young pup as far as running experience goes compared to most I know who are life long runners. You guys all have these great stories of how fast you were and how much fun you had when younger.......wish I had half of that experience. How did I manage to miss out on all that fun? I am jealous

  5. Hey Scott, That's too funny that we were in the same race way back they. Yes, it was a desolate place for a race. I agree Boston is not the race it once was. The BAA sold out for big crowds and big money.

  6. The last time I ran Boston, a guy dressed as a clown (with big floppy shoes and a bunch of balloons) passed me in the last mile. That's when I realized what a circus it had become and vowed to never return!

  7. Hi Dan,

    I ran the old CC marathon course on Otis AF Base in 1982 I think. I was running leading with the eventual winner Jack Carroll until I crashed and burned around 20 miles. That course was a real mind numbing one. It was so flat that it seemed like you could see forever ahead of you. During one stretch we came upon guys from Otis running with full packs and doing the military chants back and forth. (I hope I didn't hallucinate that)
    Ah, Old fart running! Gotta love it. Gone are the days when you could post register for any race for just a few bucks and run your ass off. Usually for the fun of it or a free beer or two... I don't race much anymore because it has just gotten out of hand with the costs and with anyone that can pony up the $$$ entering. Some of my best memories are weekly fun runs on Tuesday night in Abington put on by the Colonial Road Runners. Went up there; ran as hard as we could; jogged a second loop and shot the breeze with good friends; and called it a day. No pre registration, no qualifying, no special equipment; no bull.

    Man am I old.


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