Striving for Boston (My Experience Qualifying for the Boston Marathon)

BostonI did it!  On October 15, 2012, I received an e-mail from the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) letting me know that I had been accepted into the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.  For me that simple e-mail served as a somewhat climatic achievement of a goal that I had been pursuing for quite some time.

Being Drawn to Boston

Back in 2011 when I was training for my first marathon I would scour the internet looking for ideas of how to train.  One cannot enter runner forums and seek marathon information without finding all sorts of references to the Boston Marathon.  Whether it was people seeking to qualify for the race, people recounting their experience as made their own mark in race history, or simply people providing their perspective watching a loved one run or simply taking in the energy from the surrounding populous, it was obvious that Boston had a special aura about it.

Why is that?  Is it because of the history associated with the oldest continuous marathon?  Is it the fact the event attracts some of the fastest marathoners in the world?  Is it because Boston is just a great place to be in the spring and spend Patriot’s Day?

I think that answer is in the fact that Boston has a qualification standard with represents a realistic but challenging target for the goal minded recreational athlete.  It gives us a chance to be part of something special, to experience what athletic accomplishment feels like, for the recreational runner to catch a glimpse of what it is like to be a professional.  Boston means different things to different people and is the reason it is so special.

Failure in Seattle

As I sloshed through the my long runs in the Pacific Northwest preparing for that first marathon, I could not help but keep in the back of my mind that qualifying for Boston would be represent quite an achievement, particularly as those around me continued to ask whether such was a goal of mine.

If it was ever considered a goal, it went quickly out the window during my first marathon that sunny spring in Seattle.  That race could best be described as an absolute dumpster fire of flaming garbage.  Sure there were circumstances that impacted my participation that I will have to share one day but the fact of the matter was I had completed a full marathon training program and ended with a final time that was an hour off of the BQ (Boston Qualifying) pace for my age group!

The Leavenworth Marathon Saves the Day…Sort of

Dejected at my performance and looking to make my way to the nearest Krispy Kreme donut factory, I knew I needed another shot when I could run a marathon to the best of my abilities.  Best move I have ever made!

I was able to keep that consistent training base up that I had developed and in October 2011 I found myself at the starting line of the Leavenworth Marathon in Leavenworth, WA.  The air was cold and crisp and the first part of the race was on a fairly downward steady grade.

I could not help but run those first few miles at a solid pace for me and then though heck, I am just going to try to hold this as long as I can and see what happens (no usually the best marathon strategy).  As the miles accumulated so did the fatigue but I managed to cross the finish line in a time of 3:12:27 good for 9th overall and 1st in my age group.  It was a PR by about an hour and more importantly I clocked a BQ time!

That feeling of accomplishment was somewhat short lived.  The day following the race all participants received an email explaining there was an issue with the course directors as traffic control blocked off a short out-and-back dog-leg on the course somewhere around Mile 22 or 23.

Pretty much all of the marathoners and half-marathoners who finished in the first hour of the winners had missed that portion of the course.

That would explain why my Garmin running watch said 25.6 miles instead of 26.2.  So as it turns out, that the BQ time was in name only – it was not real.

If you looked at my finishing time and extrapolated it out to 26.2, I had probably really run 3:16:58.  While not anything to sneeze at, it certainly would not have met the minimum BQ time that year for my age group of 3:15:59.  The internet may have said I had a BQ but in my heart I knew that I had not.

Focusing on Qualifying for Boston

Now I was committed.  Now I knew that I needed to do this and do this right.  I needed to prove to myself that I could get a BQ time.  Now there was a new problem as the next year the BAA had implemented a new time standard for the next Boston Marathon.  Check out the current Boston Marathon time standards here.  For me, it meant to get into the race I had better find a way to get run at least a 3:09:59 on a certified course.  This became my goal, no my quest for 2012 – qualify for the Boston Marathon!

I was planning to train for a spring marathon and even registered for one in Spokane but the circumstances of life occurred and I had to take a deferral on that race.

Again I found myself staring the Leavenworth Marathon in the face as a target to reach my BQ.  I have to admit I put together a pretty solid training program and did a decent job executing it given the fact I am subject to the personal and professional constraints we all have as recreational runners.

I adopted a long-week, short-week training philosophy where I would escalate my long runs every other week and back off the next to make sure I did not get injured or more importantly burned out.

By the end of the of summer 2012 rolled around I felt I was in pretty good shape (for my standards) but I had no idea if I was anywhere close to being able to break under that 3:10 mark in a marathon in October.

Testing Run at Lake Chelan

That September, Spencer and another friend of ours I headed up to Lake Chelan, WA to run the Lake Chelan Half-Marathon.  The race was put on by Run Wenatchee who managed an excellent event.  It was super pretty up there and while I through the course was going to be essentially flat, it had some rolling hills on it including one that I would consider somewhat gnarly at around mile 6.

The event gave me a good opportunity to test out where I was in terms of conditioning.  I managed to finish in 1:27:47 and helped fill me with some confidence that I might realistically be able to achieve my BQ goal.

A Race and a Goal in Jeopardy

I was one month away from the big race and felt confident that I would at least be in the mix for a BQ time after 20 miles of the upcoming marathon and then I would just have to see what would happen over the last 10K.

Then it happened – there was a large series of wildfires up in the Wenatchee/Leavenworth area that not only put multiple people’s homes in jeopardy but also filled the air with all sort of smoke and awfulness.

I did not think too much of it at first but then you could start seeing the writing on the wall, the air was so bad Run Wenatchee was forced to cancel their River Run at the Taste of the Harvest Festival Half-Marathon due to poor air quality a couple of week prior to the Leavenworth Marathon.

That coupled with a forecast of continuing unseasonably dry conditions led to some of the worst air quality you could imagine in the Wenatchee Valley as the wild fires continued to grow.

Forget running – people were being advised not to go outside for any reason!  As time grew closer to the event, it looked less and less likely that the Leavenworth Marathon was going to happen.

To help the runner’s deal with the uncertain conditions, the race directors offered a registration deferral to those did not want to take the risk of not being able to run but would prefer to run in 2013.  Unfortunately, that would not help me achieve a goal of clocking an official BQ time in 2012.

I was already well into my taper at that point when I frantically started to try to find another marathon in the Pacific Northwest with a certified course so I could cling to any ray of hope of not wasting all the training I had done to get ready for the race.

Fortunately, the heavens were smiling upon us as the week leading up to the Leavenworth saw a noticeable improvement in the air quality.  All I was hoping for was a chance to run and fortunately I got my opportunity!

Leavenworth Marathon Redux

So there I was on October 6, 2012 riding on a Chelan County school bus with Spencer and two other friends by my side riding through the winding darkness as we trekked up into the mountains for the start of the Leavenworth Marathon.

I will have to admit, the Leavenworth Marathon is absolutely beautiful and as the bus drops you off in the dark, seeing the sun come up as you are standing in a forested wonderland is absolutely breathtaking.  While beautiful, the mountains of Washington in October can be pretty cold and while I was looking over the splendor of the valley below, my teeth were chattering because it was not dissimilar to standing inside a freezer.

I could hardly wait to strip down to shorts and a short sleeve shirt and start hurling myself down the mountain road.  In some ways participating in a polar bear plunge seemed more appealing.

After a pathetic attempt to warm up it was time for the race to begin.  I had focused on this for a year now and as I wished my friends good luck, two of which were running their first marathon, I could not help but feel both anticipation and relief that no matter what happened in 3 hours and 10 minutes I would know whether it had all paid off.

The race started at 7:00am sharp and I made a couple of weaving moves to get up around the bulk of the pack and get some open running room.  Within the first few strides I had a clear view of what was in front of me.

Descending down the canyon road, I had a clear view of the 20 or so runners starting to congeal into packs in front of me.  I crossed the first mile mark in 6:52 and knew that I was on a good opening pace and just needed to relax and keep things going.

The course itself heads down a canyon road for most of the first half and while there are very few spectators in those miles you cannot help but feel at one with nature cutting through mountains.  For a few miles a runner came up beside me we chatted about trail running versus road running.

I was able to keep a pretty stable pace as we reached the bottom of the canyon road and the course started to flatten out.  By this point, my quads were pretty sore from the decent and the air was still very crisp and chilly. I was still moving at a pretty steady pace by the time we hit the first set of trails.

The one thing I love about the Leavenworth Marathon is that it incorporates trails on the course and not just asphalt.  Just about the time you are sick of pounding your feet on a hard surface, you get a reprieve with a softer train and just when you are sick of almost falling on your face with uneven trail terrain, you are back on the stable consistency that a road has to offer.

I crossed the half marathon point in just under 1 hour and 30 minutes and was probably up in 9th or so place.  The second half the race is essentially flat with the exception of a somewhat nasty little hill coming up from the river around Mile 19.

There were stretches where I felt I was running by myself, not seeing much of what was going on in front of me, but by the time I hit the main street in Leavenworth I found myself having caught a pack.  We all jockeyed back and forth along a trail next to the Wenatchee River for a bit when we hit that darn hill near Mile 19.  I can’t say it was fast but everyone in the pack sort of lost track of each other and internalized as we went up the hill.  By the time I got to the top I was absolutely spent but noticed that I was now in the front of that little pack so I tried to focus and keep moving forward.

There was only 10K left and I was still on pace for a BQ time.  The course was revised a little from the previous year and now had a couple of short out-and-back offshoots off of Icicle Road leading to the fish hatchery where the finish line could be found.  As I entered the turn for the first out and back offshoot, I could see the people in front of me.  To my amazement I could see the leaders and they were not that far in front of me!

I passed another person and kept moving forward toward the 2nd offshoot.  I was still moving by the time I hit the offshoot but was absolutely thrashed.  I noticed that I was in 3rd place overall with just 5K to go – I could not believe it!

I looked at my watch and saw that all I had to do was finish the last 3.1 miles of the race at 10 minute mile pace and I would hit my goal time.  That realization was both exhilarating and somewhat deflating as I found myself becoming less focused on pushing through the now very obvious fatigue that was setting in.

Coming out of the 2nd offshoot back onto Icicle Road I was passed as we headed up a short hill which might have well as been a mountain to my now dead legs.

The last few miles were nothing more that perseverance as I got passed by another runner about 2 miles from the finish.

Now running in 5th place as I hit the rolling trail section before the finish line, the uneven ground and my completely spent legs were not a good combination.  I almost completely bit it a couple of times along the wooded trail but there it was…the opening at the end of the trail.  200 yards straight in front of me was the finish line.  I mustered what I had left and made a final push to the finish line.

I crossed the line in 3:03:22 in 5th place overall and 1st in my age group.  After catching my breath and confirming that my Garmin said 26.2 miles I could not help but be filled with the realization that I had achieved my goal, I had run actually run a BQ time!

Headed to Boston

As my family and I traveled back home I was confident that the 2013 Boston Marathon would be sold out by that point and contemplated the optimum time to try to register for the 2014 race.

I looked up on BAA website and confirmed that the 2013 race was full but the next day a curious update on the Runner’s World page in my Facebook feed showed up – there was some sort of mix-up and there were actually a few hundred sports available for qualified runners in the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Registration had been briefly reopened so I threw my name in realizing that across the nation there were likely thousands like me vying for those same few spots.

To my surprise I received a registration application confirmation e-mail that noted that as soon as they verified my BQ time I would be added to the race field.  That official confirmation came a week later and represented the end to the achievement of a long lived goal or was it just the beginning of my next one?  We will have to see but one thing is for certain, I am grateful to be able to participate in this historic and hallowed event.

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