Runner's Footprints

Runner's Footprints

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Boston Marathon

My Boston Race Recap & Tips 

It's usually our best performances that leave us glowing for days. However, it's our most challenging and/or defeating days that can leave us questioning ourselves: what went wrong? After I completed my 7th Boston Marathon, I felt defeated, deflated, and disappointed. It left me wondering why and emotional shortly after the race. However, after I allowed myself to recollect and reflect, I realized there are sometimes more important things to see that arose from an experience. In this case, my heart was missing my family and thinking of Ecuador. When something bad happens, you lose someone, you experience heartbreak or experience defeat, people who love and support you will try to uplift you. However sometimes, we may be inconsolable. In times of pain or defeat, sometimes the best we can do is take a moment to step back, allow ourselves the space to feel the emotions, and reflect what may have went wrong. 

Bodies rose as clockwork before the alarm. I cracked open one eye to see all my hotel roommates already dressed and making final pre-race meal prep. Race morning had arrived. My insides turned to think it came too fast. After the LA Marathon, I took a six week break from racing and focused on losing weight I had recently gained due to some emotional challenges in February. I had arrived to the LA Marathon start line with an excess of 7lbs I had gained in the previous three weeks due to emotional eating. I was battling a recent car accident, my last living grandparent fell ill, my past was giving rise to some personal drama again, and I was dealing with a court battle against an officer who used 'excessive force' while stopping me during a run with my boxer, Bruno. I resorted to unhealthy eating habits for comfort, especially around Valentine's Day, I was an emotional mess. After LAM, I knew I needed to stop the downward spiral I was allowing myself to fall into so I cleaned up my eating lifestyle again and refocused on trying to find the positives of my life. Fortunately, with some very strong focus, I lost the 7lbs I had gained and an additional 5lbs for a net weight loss of 13lbs spread over a span of two months before Boston race day. I felt stronger, livelier, and overall happier with a renewed sense of positivity and energy. Boston race day rolled around and I was certain from some recent training days that I wanted to achieve certain goals for Boston. 

We gathered in the lobby with our gear bags and internal race adrenaline ready to toe the start line. We all were informed how it would warm up on race day upwards to a 25 degree difference, but when we stepped outside into the 44 degree crisp morning, we all remained hopeful: the temp high couldn't be that bad. 

Gathering at Boston Commons, we stepped onto the shuttle buses that transport +30,000 runners to the start line in Hopkinton and the nervous chatter began. Normally, I insert my headphones, play my pre-race music, and meditate my race strategy en route to the start. But this time, I knew I was off. I ate my first half of breakfast which included home baked bars made by Laura and a protein bar. I immediately fell asleep the entire one-hour shuttle ride to the start. My mind was tired and when we arrived to the start, I knew my mind was distracted enough to fall asleep.... I knew it. I missed my sister who I had recently gotten in a little tiff after Easter, but we did make up just before the race. I missed her. She is my strongest cheerleader and I felt her void. I was worried about my dad who was visiting Ecuador. I was worried about family and the community in Ecuador that just experienced a 7.8 magnitude earthquake where the death toll was rising. How could I concentrate? I didn't mention anything to my friends because I didn't want to distract anyone else's race day. 

My mental game is my strongest asset come race day and already thinking I was off was already bad news. I tried to focus. I tried to think about how I was going to execute, but I couldn't. Part of me just wished I didn't have to run. This thought rarely EVER happens to me on race day. The congestion at the start line drained my phone and made it die early. I couldn't text or call my sister, my dad, or anyone when I normally do right before the race start. I felt like a lost young child. Weird in a field of over 30,000, but I did. 

Wave 2 gun went off at about 10:30am and I settled into my corral. Once I crossed the start line: game time! I was on the clock. I eased into my planned race pace, but caught myself still checking my phone trying to revive it to reach my family one last time. Bad idea. My pace for the first 10K dropped below my planned strategy and then at that point I just told myself oh well let's just hold on. Bad idea AGAIN. I know better. There is no such thing as banking time. I knew I was going to pay for it later and I did. The warm temps and baking sun heated my body and by mile 8, I felt the dead legs coming. Why so early? Because I wasn't focused? Every aid station, I drank the electrolyte, I drank the water and tossed a third cup over my head. I looked around and thought: I wish I was standing on the sidelines cheering for everyone else. Bad idea..... why couldn't I just get my game face on? Because I wasn't looking inside my mind. I was looking elsewhere. By mile 13, I knew I wasn't comfortable. I was desperately holding on. Runners were walking the aid stations so early and I wanted to walk along with them so bad. But I knew if I did that was it. I would significantly slow my overall pace and could easily just say oh let's just run the rest for fun. I knew I would kick myself for doing that later because that's not me. I wanted to keep trying. I wanted to keep digging. This is why I came to Boston. I came to see what I can do whether I was well prepared or not, I know we can always try. But I couldn't help but feel the tears welt in my eyes at Mile 13: How could I let myself down? How could I let others down? Wrong thoughts to allow to enter my mind, but they came. The energy of the crowds was the only thing that kept me going. Their cheers for absolute strangers is so uplifting and my favorite part of the Boston course: Wellesley College. The energy and excitement of the college girls are an absolute hoot and I love them! My tears covered a smile as I watched them cheer us on and hand out kisses like candy. Once we passed Wellesley, I was back in my head. Not a good thing at this point. 

Mile 16: the Newton hills began. I pushed but just had no oomph. The tears came again. Why was I such a pansy today? No, I won't walk. I refuse. I have to just keep trying. Every 5K when we passed a timing mat, I slowed more and more. It was seconds but I knew it. Every mile, I was slowing. Goal A slipped. Goal B slipped. Mile 19: Goal C slipped--to BQ was a minimum expectation for myself. I felt defeated. I felt heavy. Not my body but my heart like I just couldn't push my mind like I normally could. Then I heard it: NADIA!!!!!!!! I looked to my left through my slow shuffle up Heartbreak Hill and there was Linda. She had flown red eye the night before to come cheer on her sister, LeAnn, and she cheered emphatically for me when she saw me. I cried so much inside. She reminded me of my sister, Angela. How I missed her so much. I cry now as I write this because I love my sister so much and felt so angry at myself for allowing something silly to cause some hurt feelings. Linda screamed at the top of her lungs and practically jumped over the barricade fence: GO NADIA GOOOOO!!! I saw my sister in her and it was all I needed. I smiled the tears back, tucked my head back in, and pushed up Heartbreak Hill. I may or may not have gone any faster, but the little fire inside was lit up again all because of Linda--she reminded me of my sister. I can't give up. I can't give in. Giving in is giving up and I needed to keep trying for myself. My legs screamed in fatigue and throbbing pain because I had started too fast. The damage was done and now I needed to do what I could to shuffle forward. Mile 21, 22, 23 finally the final 5K. If I continued as I was, Goal C was taunting me by seconds! I need to at least BQ. I pushed. I huffed.
No more tears just shear determination to get one foot in front of the other as quickly as I could. But I couldn't get my pace under 7:50s as much as I tried when I normally can finish the last few miles of a marathon strong. I was cutting it so close. Another hill at Mile 25. The Boston crowds were mesmerizing as usual cheering emphatically for everyone. Boston Strong adorned large over a street overpass in the final mile. Pushing, pushing, I was going to keep trying. Another slight incline right before we turned on Boylston. I felt like I was dead sprinting and looked at my watch it was only a 7:45 pace. Seconds. Seconds away. I opened my stride as much as I could through the burn, through the fatigue, through the physical pain I was feeling, through the heart warming finish line chute. If you've ran down Bolyston, you know it is a mesmerizing energy to feel. Mile 26, my watch clocked 3:35. I missed all my goals.... then I crossed the finish line. I gave everything I had, but fell short 43 seconds. After taking a few steps, I saw Tim. "How'd it go, Nadia?" I immediately sobbed, I just couldn't do it today. I didn't have it in me. He shared, "I know. I fell short today too. Next time. You know what you have to do." Next time was true. 

* * *


Race day performance comes down to two primary factors: 1) how well you have trained and 2) how well can you strategize your race execution. The two go hand in hand and have a reverse correlation balance of each other. For any given race, any distance, any terrain: If you lack training, then you will need to rely more on your race execution. If you're very well trained, you still aren't ensured the 'perfect' race performance because something may go wrong in race execution. Sounds unfair, but the two combined factors is what makes a well trained athlete a great race day performer. The two facets of racing are separate but not independent of each other. Training takes training--consistent following of an efficient training plan. Race execution takes practice. It takes mental training. It takes mental strength. 

Having completed 125 marathons with over half as Boston Qualifying times, many have shared that marathons must come easy for me. That is far from the truth. For any distance, if you are pushing for your best on that given day, it will never be easy. In the past 18 years of running and participating in triathlons, I've completed over 400 races of several race distances: 400m, 800m, 1600m, 3200m, 3mi, 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, 50K, 50 mile, 70.3, and the Ironman. I can tell you as anyone who specializes in any of the distances above that EVERY single distance requires its own specific race training, strategy, and execution in order to be done to its fullest potential. Respect all distances. A sprinter athlete trains just as rigorously as an ultra athlete. It is just different training if each are aiming to reach their best. In training, I've completed far more because I do enjoy training. I've reached a point in my life where fitness isn't an obligation. Instead a way of life where during my peak training weeks I can train a couple hours before work then another couple hours after work on a weekday and look forward to the next day. Being active makes me feel alive. It allows me to think, to stop thinking, to feel I can overcome anything even if it isn't true. How can I not want to repeat that feeling every single day? I've learned to fall in love with the process and, most importantly, I practice racing strategically in training--learning to push myself on my own is a priceless mental training aspect that strengthens ability for race execution. Group or personal pacers during a race are an asset and advantage; however, to develop strong race execution, a competitor needs to develop that strength during training on their own. Believing in yourself and practicing that belief DAILY is a priceless asset not only in running or other sports, but also in your academics, professional life, and relationships. Winning isn't everything, but aiming to try your best fundamentally gives you the most personal growth. Aim to be the best you can offer in your school projects, work projects, and in your relationships. The more you offer, the more you inversely receive in return larger fold. Personally, my primary motivation to race is not to collect medals or stats. I race because I believe in pushing myself to be the best I can be. It's made me the person I've accomplished at a young age. I've failed and lost in areas of my life, but it's where I've failed I also learn. Practice race execution in training. Allow yourself to visualize yourself succeeding. But also allow yourself to recognize that there is a possibility of failing and learning to be resilient. Resiliency keeps you going in the long run.

The Boston Marathon in April on the east coast can throw anything at you weather wise so be ready and train in anything: heat, cold, headwinds, tailwinds, and/or rain. After completing seven Boston Marathons, I've experienced all of the above for Boston. In your training, if the weather calls for far from optimal conditions, get out there. Boston will throw anything at you. On race day, toughen up mentally and adjust your pace if it's warm or your pace will slow down in the 2nd half. 2012 Boston saw peak temperatures reach over 90 degrees and even though 2016 Boston peak temperatures peaked to only 70 degrees in comparison, without adjusting for the warmth, race performances can unfold unexpectedly. 

Several articles have shared that the number of days you arrive before race day should equal the number of time zones you cross. Sometimes, this isn't feasible for most to take the time off depending where they are traveling so practice traveling across time zones to a race before Boston so you can learn how your internal body clock adjusts. Everyone is different. Some may need more time; others may need less and also depends physiologically with age. If you are unable to practice with race day travel before Boston, then practice in training. Do some of your hardest workouts on 2 or 3hrs of sleep or after 3 or 4 consecutive days of very low sleep. Your body will learn how to push hard when it is sleep deprived. Despite what some may say, our bodies NEED sleep. I don't care how many hours you get and you say you completed a distance: you can do better if you gave yourself ample amount of sleep. It is completely normal to not sleep the night before the race so don't stress about it: adrenaline will have you amped on race day regardless. It's the taper week prior that you should be training less therefore sleeping more as there is an exchange of time. 

The first five years I completed Boston, I flew from the west coast red eye to arrive the day before race day. Very far from optimal and it causes unneeded drain for a short race weekend. These past two years, I now travel three days before race day, enjoy the city for two, rest completely the day before, and allow my body to race on Marathon Monday. Plus as I have gotten older, I have recognized I need more sleep in order to perform. Enjoy the amazing race weekend and energy that is like no other. 

The Boston course relative to other major marathons offers such a unique challenge to a competitive group of runners. A little taste of everything: a deceiving net downhill course, downhill first half that can potentially crush the quads, and a series of short and longer hills beginning from mile 17 to 26. When you are racing a road race, you feel every single incline. Runners that arrive to the Boston start line are ambitious. Every single one has a story that brought them to the coveted start line so naturally we want to see what we can do on Marathon Monday given any circumstance. 

The biggest tip you can ever get for a marathon is: learn to hold back strategically the first half. THIS is so important for Boston because of the hills you need your quads to smash in the 2nd half. You're not aiming to just cover these hills; you are racing these hills so you need your quads. Smash your quads by going too fast in the first half (by eccentric contractions that occur in downhill running) and you will be fighting to hold on for dear life in the 2nd half. Holding back during the first half is so hard and much more at Boston because everyone is so excited to race and try (whether publicly or secretly) a time goal. Since Boston is seeded by your recent qualifying time, it is AMAZING to run those first few miles at Boston because the runners move in a powerful wave in unison driven and eager to reach those hills. 

Statistically, collective research has shown that elite and age groupers alike have ran their fastest personal performances at Boston by running a 1-2min positive split. What does this mean? If you are in about a 3:25 (+/-2min) marathon shape then your possible time goal is a 3:30 at Boston. That means you run the first half at approximately 1:44 and the second half at 1:46--which translates into holding back just enough to allow yourself to race and glide the downhill first half and then turn on the fire for the second half charging up every single hill during the 2nd half to run a 3:30. If you have a larger positive split, research states: you most likely started too fast for your given race day potential or race conditions at Boston. If you have a negative split (depending how large), it either means you held back too much in the first half OR you were a beast of an animal hungry up Newton and Heartbreak hills to run faster and stronger in the 2nd half. My fastest Boston marathon finish times also are aligned with this 1-2min positive split at Boston. Please note: this numerical factor is not consistent on all marathon courses. It's unique to Boston. Trust me when I say it is difficult to find that fine line of holding back enough but pushing just the right amount during Boston's first half. 

Performances are always relative. What may seem disappointing to one person may be amazing to another. After a performance that we feel may have not met our expectations, despite how others may aim to console us, we find ourselves internally wondering: why? When reviewing personal performances, it is ok to take an honest assessment of our personal training, execution, and mindset that may have led to any given outcome. This should be done whether it was a great personal achievement or if we feel we fell short from our goals. Goals are personal so allow your reflection and assessment to also be personal. Each performance can serve as a learning experience. Take the time after a race, for example, to list what were five things you did right and what were five things you feel you could have done better. If our goal is to improve then with this form of assessment, we can aim to repeat what works and focus to improve the areas that didn't. 

There are times when our ambitions don't completely take into account the weather, internal fatigue, and/or emotional distress an individual may be experiencing when we arrive to any start line. Review your recent race times, review your recent training splits for key workouts, and make an honest self assessment on how to execute your next race strategy. Boston is truly so special and worth experiencing. If it is your goal to Boston Qualify, then go for it. Get hungry for it. Visualize it daily. Don't say someday. Say today I will start taking small steps towards my goal. It's the small steps we take day after day that get us closer to our big goals. Have high expectations of yourself and gain the most you can each day by day. I hope to continue to earn the privilege to return to Boston every year or at least I will keep trying. Running provides that gift and we all have the beautiful potential to always aim to find the better versions of ourselves every single day. I am grateful to have experienced Boston once again. And I am grateful to come home to my loved ones to hold that much tighter.

2016 Boston Memories with Great Friends


  1. Thanks for having the courage to share. It's not often we get to learn about the struggles athletes face, especially in detail and right after an event. I know I've learned that we can be prepared physically but the mental game is just as important especially in endurance events where there's a lot of time to get into your own head. Everyone has a bad "game", Kobe, Peyton Manning, Kershaw and every runner has had a bad game. They all were trained but sometimes you just can't get in the zone and sometimes there's absolutely nothing we can do about it. The mind is very powerful. The saying that "the mind is willing but the body is not" may have some truth if you're a person who goes out and expects to compete at a previously high level without any or poor training but I actually think it works both ways. If you prepare and train for an event then the body will be ready. I also believe that the mind can push your body to new limits but in endurance events, we need this usually needs to happen at the part of the race when we're starting to fatigue and other times, there are things in our lives that make it impossible to get into the zone. With this being my race week for the OC Marathon, this is when I'm working on getting my mind focused. I think I knew all this but reading this blog entry brought things all together for me.

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