Earning my unicorn / 26.2 marathon challenge finale

The Boston Marathon is a big deal. Qualifying is a huge achievement: just being able to line up at the start requires you to run a fast marathon – and then pay the high entry fees/flights/accommodation etc.. The race itself is iconic, with its infamous Heartbreak Hill or the final turns ‘Right onto Hereford, Left onto Boylston’. It is the Mecca of marathon running, the oldest continuously-run marathon in the world.

And in 2019, it was a huge deal for me. It took me 13 marathons to qualify, my 3:28:41 at Berlin in 2017 coming a week too late for the application period for the 2018 edition of Boston. Instead, I planned everything out so that Boston would be the final race in my challenge to run 26.2 marathons by age 26.2. ~4 years of work, from when I started training in June/July 2015 for the Melbourne Marathon (18 Oct, 2015) would culminate in this race. For the first time in years I did a complete 16-week marathon build-up, PB’d in the half-marathon and was ready to go. I wanted to finish with a bang – not only completing my challenge with the Boston Marathon, but also running my fastest-ever marathon time.

My training in the lead-up had gone remarkably well. Aside from one week out sick in January, I had run pretty much every session that Coach Ben had given me, built up my long-runs to 35km and improved on Tuesday threshold intervals. Not every run was perfect, but it was a consistent body of work, and everything indicated that I was in shape to run a great race. My goal was not just to improve on my Chicago PB of 3:25:45, but to obliterate it and run sub-3:15. It would be difficult, but possible.

We flew out to Boston on the Friday before the race, amidst threats of thunderstorms and rain similar to the monsoon conditions of the 2018 race. As the weekend passed in a flurry of bib pick-up and sight-seeing excitement the forecast had improved, and now it looked like it would at least be warm, even if it did rain. I was glad to have packed shorts.

And yet. The Boston Marathon runs from Hopkinton, some 42.2km away and runs point-to-point into the city. To accommodate the 30,000 runners, you have to arrive several hours early (7am for me, for a 10:25am start) to be bussed to the start area. Exiting the metro to drop my bag it had already started to rain, but by the time I was walking back towards the busses there was a veritable deluge released from the sky. Luckily I had packed a poncho and was wearing a throwaway pair of shoes and socks, but it was still not very pleasant. And once inside the bus we had to keep the roof-windows open to reduce the condensation so that the driver could see – which meant being dripped on for the hour-long ride. It was pretty nasty.

Later I learned that the organisers had decided to keep people on the busses to stay dry, but mine didn’t get the message. We all piled out into Hopkinton, where I made a beeline for the large white tent and attempted to secure myself a not-too-muddy spot on the floor. A nice guy offered me a spare bin-bag to sit on and soon was chatting/complaining with the runners around me. There was still ~1.5hrs to wait until my start time.

At some point I got up to go to the portaloos and left my race shoes and pre-race fuel with a lady I’d met. The ground around the toilets had turned to a swampy muck, and on several occasions it felt like my shoe wasn’t going to come free from the mud. Eugh! I pitied the few people I saw who were wearing shiny white race-shoes, which wouldn’t stay white for long…

We half-heard an announcement for Wave 2 (my wave) while I was still waiting for the lady to return from her visit to the portaloos, and once she was back headed to the start. I must have missed an earlier announcement though, because my timing was totally off and for the first time in 26.2 marathons I was late for the start. It turned out that the start area continued quite a way further than where I’d been sitting (including some non-muddy portaloos…) and it was then another 10-15min walk to the start. It also didn’t help that I needed to do one last nervous pee, and by the time I’d queued and finished, it was 10:24am. Oh fuck. And I still needed to take off my spare clothes (which I’d left on as long as possible), and switch my pruny feet into race shoes. Double fuck.

I speed-walked to where swathes of people were surging towards the start, and just about managed to catch up with and jump into my Corral 7. What surprised me though is that there was no gantry indicating the start-line, instead it was just marked on the floor. From back where we were walking, it was impossible to see the difference between moving-towards-the-start and actually-running-the-race. Plus, my lateness meant I hadn’t had a moment to collect myself before this all-important race. Suddenly, I was just running the Boston Marathon.

Because Boston is so well-known, it was easy for me to research in the weeks leading up to the race. I had formulated a race-plan according to the course: 5-10sec slower than MP for the first 5 downhill miles, MP from 5-16mi, up to 20sec slower than MP up the four Newtown Hills to Mile 21, then 5sec faster than MP for a roaring finish. I had it all planned out. I knew there would be some rolling hills along the way, but it was only the Newtons that I thought would be a problem.

However, I think that everything I read had been written by people from the Boston area, or at least from places in the world that are a lot hillier than Paris. Also, when they said ‘downhill section’ they forgot to explain that there would still be some significant hills (to me) in that bit, even if there was an overall elevation loss. Within the first mile I was looking at the first of those climbs, which looked bigger than any of the hills I run at home. I got up it fine, but there were little alarm bells going off that this was only the first few minutes, and there were bound to be a lot more like that to come.

A 3:15 marathon is an average 4:37/km pace, or 4:35/km on my rounds-pace-to-the-nearest-5sec Garmin. This meant I wanted to be running at 4:40-4:45/km for the first 5mi, or to cover that section in ~38minutes. I spent those first miles stressing about whether or not I was hitting pace – on the uphills my watch would read 4:55/km, on the downs it was more like 4:35/km (but I didn’t want to go too fast either). I split 5mi pretty much bang on 38:00, which should have been a relief – except that now I had to pick up the pace.

You would think that after 25.2 bloody marathons I would know that stressing about time is only a recipe for disaster. Seriously, eugh. Crashing and burning happens the most when I target a particular race, create a race-plan and go after a time (Copenhagen, Paris, kinda Chicago). I seem to do much better (Sydney, Reykjavik, San Sebastian, kinda Berlin). I’d discussed this with Sye before the race, but by then Boston was too big in my mind.

I lasted three more kilometres of pace-stressing before making the decision that changed everything. At 11km I realised that I wasn’t having much fun, despite running the race I had dreamed about for four years. All around me were people screaming my name and begging for high-fives, yet I was too concentrated on my watch and maintaining a fast pace to be able to respond.

In that moment, I chose fun.

Immediately my pace slowed and my mood lifted. I slapped some hands, grinned at spectators and waved at other ones. This is how it was meant to be – a celebration. The more I responded to the crowd, the more they carried me forwards, and the runners around me said ‘oh you’re Julia, can I have some of your cheers?’.

I had slowed just a little at first, but at the 10mi mark I stopped to walk through the water station and the following pace was slower yet again. But who cares? Other runners were passing me but my time-goal was out the window. If I wasn’t going to hit my 3:15, then I would make the most of being on this course, clock be damned.

Just before the halfway point, the route runs past the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel. For seemingly as long as history can remember, the students (mostly girls) cheer for hours on end out the front of their university, and invite runners to kiss them. Every third or fourth girl had a sign saying something like ‘Kiss me, I’m from Mexico!’ or ‘Kiss me, I need a Green Card!’. They were all hilarious, and the vibe was incredible. I kissed four girls (pre-discussed with Sye, don’t worry), took a selfie with some of them, and came out of the tunnel on the biggest high. Those few hundred metres are the most insane, wonderful thing I have ever experienced in a race, ever. Or perhaps just ever. Wow.

Past halfway and my focus turned to getting to Sye who was patiently waiting at Mile 17. Instead of the thunderstorms that we had been promised, the weather had turned out humid and hot, and had been so since we had started. I would have loved to take my shirt off, but I didn’t want to lose the cheers that my bright orange + tutu + Julia got for me. (One lady said she hadn’t seen anyone in a tutu yet, which shows how serious people take this race). Thankfully some spectators along the course were giving out wet paper towel, which was incredibly refreshing and thoughtful. Others had bought packets and packets of freeze pops and were handing them out, with the tops already cut-off so that you could easily suck down the sugary icy goodness. They became my heroes, as much as they said we were theirs.

I made it through the first of the Newton Hills out of sheer determination, but was determined to walk the other three after I’d seen Sye. A marathon is a hell of a long way, and I felt pretty done with still 9 miles left to go. He was waiting just after 17mi and it was so good to see him. Even better, because time wasn’t an issue I could properly stop and have a chat to him. That morning he’d given me a beautiful necklace as a good-luck charm, but I’d been too scared to run with anything new on race day. Now though it felt right to wear, and carry his support with me through the most difficult part of the race.

If you don’t live in a hilly city, don’t believe it when someone says that the Newton Hills aren’t that bad. They’re very, very hilly. Running up them would have taken a lot of mental effort – of which I had none left to give. And so I walked, happily, smiling at the amazing crowd who had come to support us runners. At the top of the second I forced myself to run again, and was almost annoyed by how long it took to get to the next one. Running was hard.

On the third hill another hero appeared at the sideline, this time armed with a can of Bud Light which he cracked open and handed to me. Beer, during a tough race? Hell yes! It was crisp and refreshing, and exactly what I wanted. As I walked up the hill, a supporter saw me with the can and said “Beer? You’re a legend!”. I walked past a police officer, who didn’t seem to care. Another runner came up beside me and said how great it was, so I offered the can to her, which she took with enthusiasm before powering up the hill. With the top in sight I handed it to a couple on the side saying “You look like you could use a drink”. Bye bye Bud Light, you were wonderful.

Alas though, I’d failed to consider the effect of beery bubbles on the stomach, and was hit with stomach cramps as soon as I started to run again. Whoops… It was much the same for the rest of the race after the final hill – I would manage a few hundred metres of running and then drop to a walk, either because my stomach, legs or brain just didn’t want to move anymore. At times I felt like I was going to fall asleep, my eyes would start to droop shut and I’d have to force them open again. My cheer had turned to resignation, and the extra enthusiasm gained from the crowd when I picked up to a jog again didn’t help my exhaustion – they wanted me to run, but I didn’t. When I did run my pace was what it was 20km earlier, just interspersed with a lot more walking.

Sye was there again at 25mi, halfway up a hill which I had to walk up – again. I would have loved for him to see me strong, powering towards the finish as planned, but instead I leant my head on the barricade and wished for it all to be over. Eventually he urged me onwards, there were only a few kilometres to go. I could do this.

The Citgo sign is another famous landmark of the course, supposedly you can see it for kilometres before actually reaching it at with a mile to go. Somehow though I totally missed it until I was right underneath, thankfully with still enough energy to smile for a photographer! Then we hit the underpass, the last hill of the entire course – and a last chance to walk (hallelulia). As we exited a runner on the other side of the road yelled across to me “Hey Julia! Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston!”.

And there we were, turning towards the finish line. There was no more walking allowed, just a few hundred metres to the end. On the wide Boylston Street there are spectators lined up a few deep on either side, and I blew kisses to thank them and everyone else who had supported me that day. Even while I was hurting and tired they had been joyful and energetic, willing all the runners towards our common goal. The volunteers too had been incredible, all with a big smile plastered on their faces. I ran those last hundred metres with appreciation for this city which loves its marathon.

And then it was finally over, and I was so done. Emotionally, physically, everything – done. I cried for all sorts of reasons, and multiple times a volunteer would come over to make sure I was OK. “Really, you’re OK? Just emotional?”. Yep, just emotional. The race was over, my Boston dream was realised, and my marathon challenge was complete.

It had felt in those last kilometres like I had been carrying all my 26.2 marathons with me. The cumulated effort of four-ish years of marathons, all the way from October 2015, through five in 2016, ten each in 2017 and 2018 and then the Boston finale. I had worn my t-shirt for the last time – I was no longer ‘running 26.2 marathons by age 26.2’ as it said on the back. It was done, I was done. If I didn’t want to, I never had to run another marathon again in my life.

Straight after the Boston Marathon, as I made my way to get my bag and meet Sye, I honestly never wanted to race or train again in my life. I was totally spent. The race hadn’t turned out at all as I expected – it was beautiful and amazing in its own way, but not the ‘strong athlete’ one I had hoped for. The hills were brutal, and they beat me. The weather beat me. The day beat me. I had thought I would finish on a high, the knowledge and experience of 26.2 marathons carrying me to the end. But even after all those races, it seemed like I still had a lot to learn.

It’s taken me two weeks to write this race report because I couldn’t reconcile the Boston I wanted with the Boston I had. For whatever reason, in my mind I downplayed the fun moments of the course and could only fixate on the fact that I had so badly missed my time-goal, and had struggled so much at the end. I felt like a failure, like I had let everyone down. Had I made the decision months ago that Boston was going to be a fun race, then 2019 could have looked very different.

That night I lay on the bed of our AirBnB and sobbed my eyes out, until Sye explained that no-one other than me really cares what my result is. He, my parents, you all (I hope) love and support me because you can see how much this means to me – the process of training and trying. You will celebrate my successes, but you don’t love me less for my ‘failures’. Running my 26.2th marathon before age 26.2 was already such a success that it stands by itself, and doesn’t need a PB to make this race legitimate.

But that didn’t sink in until I started to put this post together. Writing about the Wellesley Scream Tunnel brought that experience back to life, one I couldn’t have had if I’d been racing past. Is 3:15 worth having watched the girls from the other side of the road? No. Is a PB worth missing out on smiling, high-fiving and waving at the supporters? Maybe in some races, but not in Boston. My Boston Marathon was a celebration, a party, and I am thankful that it turned out the way it did.

4 hours, 9 minutes and 1 second making the most of the Boston Marathon experience.

Marathon number 26.2.

Challenge complete!

2 thoughts on “Earning my unicorn / 26.2 marathon challenge finale”

  1. Oh dearest Julia, indeed you have completed your goal as you had promised. It is with absolute admiration that I have been following each and every one of your races. I am so glad you have found the real wisdom in all and chose fun over speed in Boston. You have fully proven your determination and strength. Thanks for sharing your incredible effort and achievement and yes, you deserve all the love and joy radiating from it all.

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