Runner's Footprints

Runner's Footprints

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Boston Marathon & Race Tips

Reflecting on my past years at Boston, I am grateful to have returned each year. Here I share my times for my last nine Boston Marathons and my 2016 Boston Marathon Recap with race tips that are specific to Boston. Many can translate to any race distance or marathon. Enjoy!

It's usually our best performances that leave us glowing for days. However, it's our most challenging 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. After reflection, I realized there are sometimes more important things to learn from the experience. In 2016, my heart was missing my family and thinking of Ecuador. 

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 stresses 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 drama, 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. After LAM, I knew I needed to stop the downward spiral I was falling into, so I cleaned up my eating lifestyle and refocused on trying to find positives. 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 energy. Boston race day rolled around and I was determined 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 earbuds, play my pre-race music, and get into the zone. But this time, I knew I was off. I ate my first half of breakfast which included home baked bars made by my friend, Laura, and a protein bar. I immediately fell asleep on the one-hour shuttle ride to the start. My mind was tired and when we arrived, 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 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 thinking I was off was 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 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 start. I felt like a lost child. Weird in a field of over 30,000, but I did. 

Wave 2 went off at 10:30am and I settled into my corral. Once I crossed the start line: game time. I eased into my planned race pace and 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. 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 electrolytes, I drank 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. Why couldn't I just get my game face on? Because I wasn't looking inside my mind. I was mentally wandering elsewhere. By mile 13, I was desperately holding on. Runners were walking the aid stations due to heat 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 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. I felt the tears welt in my eyes at Mile 13: How could I let myself down? Wrong thoughts, 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. Once I 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. Tears came again. Why was I such a pansy today? Every 5K when we passed a timing mat, I slowed more and more, despite trying. Every mile, I was slowing. Goal A slipped. Goal B slipped. Mile 19: Goal C slipped. I felt defeated. I felt heavy. Not my body but my heart like I just couldn't push my mind like I normally would. 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 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, tucked my head, 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. I needed to keep trying. 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. Finally, the final 5K. If I continued as I was, Goal C was taunting me by seconds! I pushed. I huffed.

No more tears, just determination to get one foot in front of the other as quickly as I could. I was cutting it so close. The Boston crowds were mesmerizing as usual cheering emphatically for everyone. Boston Strong adorned large over a street overpass in the final mile. I was going to keep trying. Another slight incline right before we turned on Boylston. I felt like I was dead sprinting. Seconds. Seconds away. I opened my stride as much as I could through the burn, through the heart warming finish line. If you've ran down Bolyston, you know it is a mesmerizing energy. Mile 26, my watch clocked 3:35. I missed all my goals then I crossed the finish line. I gave everything I had and fell short 43 seconds. After a few steps, I saw Tim. "How'd it go, Nadia?" I immediately sobbed; I 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 you strategize your race execution. The two go hand in hand. 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 well trained, you still aren't ensured the 'perfect' race performance because something may go wrong in race execution. Race execution takes practice -- consistently following a strategic training plan that is tailored for you AND mentally preparing race execution race day are both key. Here's how I do it: 

  • Embrace the process. Fitting in the training is difficult with life's responsibilities but if you really want to reach your goal, remind yourself every single time: drop the excuses and show up for yourself. You have to do it.
  • Embrace the suck. It's supposed to be hard or else everyone would do it.
  • In other words: get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Biggest key: practice your hardest training sessions while visualizing your race day over and over. Once you have done it several times, do it again.
  • Training is groups is great. Relying on pacers is awesome. However, you need to train solo as well to develop the mental strength to dig yourself out when it gets hard out there. 
Every distance from the 100m, mile, marathon to ultra require its own strategic training plan, strategy, and execution in order to be done to its fullest potential. A professional sprinter can train an equal amount of volume/time as an ultra athlete; the main difference is the training plan and the race execution. I practice racing several distances -- learning to push myself on my own is mental training that strengthens the ability for race execution. Group or personal pacers during a race are an asset and advantage; however, to develop a strong race execution, a competitor needs to develop that strength during training on their own as well. Believing in yourself and practicing that belief DAILY is a skill not only in sports, but also in academics, professional life, and relationships. Winning isn't everything, but aiming to try your best fundamentally gives you the most personal growth. Practice race execution in training. Allow yourself to visualize yourself succeeding. 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 nine Bostons, I've experienced all of the above. 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 and adjust your pace if it's warm or your body will slow down dramatically in the 2nd half. 2012 Boston had peak record heat temps. 2018 Boston had peak record cold/wind/rain temps. Prepare for anything. 

Several articles have shared that the number of days you arrive before race day should equal the number of time zones you cross. This isn't feasible for most 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 long runs on 2-3hrs of sleep or after 3-4 consecutive days of very little sleep. Compounding fatigue is real. Your body will learn how to push hard when it is sleep deprived. Despite what some may say their bodies have adjusted to, our bodies NEED sleep as a regular routine. 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 entire taper week prior that you should be training less therefore banking in on sleep. 

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. 

The biggest tip for a marathon: learn to hold back the first half. THIS is especially important for Boston because you need your quads to smash the hills in the 2nd half. 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.

Collective research has shown that elite and age groupers alike have ran their fastest personal performances at Boston by running a 1-2 min positive split. What does this mean? If you are in 3:28 (+/-2min) marathon shape on a flat course then your possible time goal is 3:30 at Boston. Run the first half at 1:44 and second half at 1:46-- which translates into holding back just the right amount and then turn on the fire for the second half. If you have a larger positive split, research states: you most likely started too fast for your race day potential. If you have a negative split at Boston (depending how large), it either meant you held back too much in the first half OR you were a beast hungry up Newton and Heartbreak to run faster and stronger over hills. in the second half. My fastest Boston marathon finish times are also aligned with this 1-2 min positive split theory at Boston. Please note: these numbers are the same on all marathon courses. It's unique to Boston. A coach can help strategize your race day potential with numbers. 

Boston is truly special and worth experiencing. If it is your goal to Boston Qualify, 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 for yourself. 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 find the better versions of ourselves every single day. If you need a training plan to reach your next marathon PR or BQ, email me your three goals and we can get started. 

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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