A Fast Marathon Needs More than Fitness: My Boston Marathon Race Report

by Jason Fitzgerald

How do you run a fast marathon? It’s one of the most interesting questions I can think of as a runner, training geek, and coach.

Jason_Boston Marathon

It’s also incredibly complex. With a race as long as the marathon, there are more opportunities for something to go wrong. Quite often, your finish time is more strongly influenced by outside factors than your fitness level.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

You could be in the best shape of your life but temperature, stress levels, sun exposure, pace execution, course conditions, or fueling could completely derail your race.

On April 21st I ran the 118th Boston Marathon and experienced a trifecta of conditions that prevented me from running a personal best. Today we’ll dive into my rookie mistakes and struggles – and why it was still one of the best days of my life.

A year after the 2013 bombings, the energy level in Boston was practically tangible. The city was alive with support and pride for what this year’s marathon represents to Boston, victims of last year’s tragedy, and the global running community.

Being a part of that is an experience that I’ll never forget – no matter my finish time.

It started on Saturday with a Strength Running meetup where I got to hang out with many readers for the first time. I also got to see almost all of my 1-on-1 coaching runners that were competing in the race. Everyone was excited to race, spectate, and enjoy the energy of marathon weekend.

Thank you to every SR reader who braved the T to hang out in Faneuil Hall. I had a blast talking shop and drinking (one) beer with you.

Race Day!

I woke up at 4am – an hour earlier than my alarm – presumably because I was excited and nervous to race Boston. The morning went by uneventfully while I focused on fueling and staying warm in the Athlete’s Village. Soon it was time to walk to the corral and I made sure my laces were double-knotted, gels were securely positioned in my pockets, and I had an empty Gatorade bottle (you know why…).

During the walk to the corral, I was spotted by Andrew Deak, a runner I wrote a training plan for back in November. We chatted during the walk and briefly in the corral – and then he went on to run 2:40:10! Big congrats Andrew, that’s a fantastic time on the Boston course.

After the helicopter fly-over (so cool), the race started and we were off. I only managed a modified version of the Standard Warm-up with no running before the race started, so I tried to speed up gradually during the first mile. That mile went well but soon I got too aggressive on the early downhills as you can see from my splits.

Here are the mile-by-mile splits to geek out on:

Mile 1: 6:16
Mile 2: 5:41Jason Boston
Mile 3: 5:48
5k: 18:23
Mile 4: 5:52
Mile 5: 6:04 (29:42)
Mile 6: 5:54
10k: 36:56
Mile 7: 6:03
Mile 8: 6:05
Mile 9: 5:56
15k: 55:40
Mile 10: 6:10 (59:52)
Mile 11: 6:05
Mile 12: 6:06
20k: 1:15:25
Mile 13: 6:37
Half-marathon: 1:19:22
Mile 14: 5:54
Mile 15: 6:07 (1:30:44)
25k: 1:33:56
Mile 16: 5:55
Mile 17: 7:33
Mile 18: 6:23
30k: 1:54:42
Mile 19: 6:19
Mile 20: 6:54 (2:03:51)
Mile 21: 6:47
35k: 2:15:54
Mile 22: 6:54
Mile 23: 6:53
Mile 24: 6:31
40k: 2:36:40
Mile 25: 6:39 (2:37:37)
Mile 26: 6:32
Final .2: 1:18
Finish: 2:48:27

Unfortunately, you can spot some clear rookie mistakes in my splits. I underestimated the difficulty of the course, particularly the toll of running too fast on the early hills. Early speed on the downhills during the first six miles introduced significant muscle damage that caused a lot of problems later in the race.

The rolling course left me struggling, even though my average pace through mile 10 was what I wanted. I never fell into a rhythm or felt comfortable. By mile 12, my legs felt like they should have at mile 20!

Then, my real problems started. The heat was starting to get to me and was likely the cause of some GI distress because I simply wasn’t used to training in the heat this early in Spring. The stomach problems persisted and I needed a quick Porta Potty stop during mile 13.

Thankfully it didn’t take too much time and I was back on pace for the next few miles. During that time my goal was to run about 6:00 pace or a little over for the rest of the race – it would still result in a big personal best.

But at mile 17 the stomach problems were back and I needed a longer bathroom stop. When I started running again, my IT band almost immediately started to hurt on the outside of my left knee. It felt fine on the uphills, but soon the big downhills were causing sharp twinges that I couldn’t ignore.

I was forced to stop four times and do leg swings to loosen the area but it didn’t help much. Slowing down on the downhills and running more conservatively was the only thing that lessened the pain.

So by mile 20, I was resigned to run a relatively comfortable pace. A PR was out of the question so I walked most of the remaining water stops (I think dehydration was a minor contributor to my stomach distress) to satisfy my water cravings.

I was still in good spirits, thriving off the unreal crowd support and giving a few waves to get the spectators cheering even louder. It was a lot of fun :)

The Silver Lining of the Boston Marathon

No warm-up, starting too fast, stomach problems, slight dehydration, warm weather, IT band pain… I had a helluva day.

It seems like when something can go wrong, all the things go wrong! But there’s a silver lining to my Boston Marathon, a lesson that I saw only after a few days of clarity.

Even though I ran about ten minutes slower than my goal, I was a mere 4:55 slower than my PR despite all of those problems. I walked or stopped TEN times, losing at least 3-4 minutes from that alone. And the course itself is significantly slower than the Philadelphia Marathon where I ran my 2:39:32 PR.

With all that adversity and the number of challenges I faced last Monday, a 2:45 ain’t too bad. I truly believe I’m in shape to run 2:35 – 2:37 on a faster course if I had a race like Philly.

And there’s the lesson: a fast marathon needs more than fitness. It requires ideal conditions, smart execution, and a course more forgiving than Boston. I failed in my execution and other factors were out of my control but I’m still happy with my performance – and more importantly, incredibly grateful for the experience of running the 2014 Boston Marathon.

What Now?

If you ran Boston this year, enjoy your break from running. Take a week or two off and enjoy the extra time you now have. Start thinking about your next goals, but don’t rush into the training just yet. Be patient. Marathon recovery takes longer than you think.

As for me, I’m not sure what’s next on my bucket list. An ultra? A go at the Warrior Dash world championship? Another marathon?

Anything is possible.

And that’s precisely why we keep doing what we love to do: because anything is possible.

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Greg Kuhl

Thanks for writing this. Nice to know someone had the same kind of day. Would have never traded that day for a PR.

Lisa G

Hi Jason! Congrats on gutting thru a challenging race! Thank you for sharing your splits and thoughts from the day. I’m glad you feel more positive about it and got to experience this year’s race.

Chris Villareale

Either way, you did great! I would be careful with Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder events. There are some potentially hindering things that you might want to consider. After completing the Tough Mudder in Buffalo last year, I’ve got some good and bad opinions of the event.

Jason Fitzgerald

Thanks Chris. I’ve run a Warrior Dash – and won – before, so I know what to expect. It’s a weird event but fun.

Sean

I had a similar experience on Monday. Knew the legs couldn’t hold the marathon pace pretty early on (8/9 miles) but ignored the signs and pushed on anyway. After the hills, suffered some cramping and forced to shuffle home. Off my goal by 19 minutes from the shuffle. Guess I’ll have to try again.

Lisa W

Jason, sorry Boston didn’t show your true fitness. Luckily, a bad race doesn’t take away the fitness we worked so hard for in training. I had the same kind of day in Boston. First, my feet started cramping at mile 16, then the quads. I tried stopping to stretch and power walking. In hind sight, it was probably low sodium and I should have had some Gatorade. Having never experienced cramps and being salt sensitive, I was hesitant to deviate from my fueling plan. I agree with you, though, I am so glad I ran Boston this year. The crowd support was phenomenal! Especially when I stopped to stretch or power walk. I can’t wait to hear what will be next on your race schedule. Thanks for the article.

Stephanie

You are fast! Those splits are amazing! Thank you for sharing your experience. It is important to remember that some days are harder than others, yet we press on. Well done!

Namita Patel

Bravo Jason! Well done! It takes a humble spirit to look back and understand what could have been done differently, and learn from it for the future. You have many more PRs in you! Congrats again.

Trent

Congrats Jason! I was tracking your progress online and cheering you on. You still put forth a pretty impressive effort. If you get a chance, watch a replay of the elite race. Meb crushed it!

Franzi

Woah… what a story. Well done and thanks for sharing!

Rooney

Congratulations, Jason. My friend, Arlene vomited a couple of times at mile 20 and had to walk off the course. I believe she still did an amazing job.

Rooney Kelly

Mike

Jason,
Thanks for sharing your experience. Sorry to hear you did not go as fast as you would have liked. But it was good to hear you had a great experience. I really like your attitude and appreciate you sharing it with all of us.

Campbell M

You described all the things that went wrong…but what would you do differently to avoid them if you had the opportunity?

Jason Fitzgerald

I would have started slower and turned the thermostat down :)

Maisymak

Great job! I have yet to qualify…but hoping this is the year. Your times are so fast! My running buddy ran Monday and experienced trouble with the heat, esp after training for four months in brutal New England weather. Great day in Boston though and what a spirit the whole event had. Good luck in your training!

Megan

Ah sorry to hear about the gut, that is the worst. You still ran a great race and your positivity through it is great. Congrats : )

Andrew Deak

Great report, Jason. And congrats on making good time despite the obstacles. It was a tough course, and having a chilly morning in the Athletes village followed by a warmer day on the course through some people’s systems out of whack. It is so hard not to go fast on that first 4 miles. Predictably, I was definitely suffering in the Newton Hills. I wonder though, if one were to slow up in that first 4 miles, how much can you really save your legs for later? By the time you get to mile 16, I fell like your legs will have taken a beating no matter how you managed your pace. Only way to know is to try it again!

Jason Fitzgerald

Oh man, you mean I have to race it again?!

Andrew Deak

Yup, that is what I mean! Next time you will have your own data to strategize with, less nerves related to logistics. I am thinking my next race will be flat, and then maybe have another go at Boston in 2016. Hope you’re recovering well!

Lacey

I came across your website via Zite- nicely written! I enjoyed hearing from a much faster, smarter runner than myself that I wasn’t the only one to experience some problems on Monday. I also went out much too fast. My pace for the first 10k was comparable to my start when I pr’d last year, only this year I’m just 9 weeks post-op on a torn meniscus. Total rookie mistake.
Thanks for an honest look at how it went for you. And congrats on what was still a fantastic time.

Kendra

Congratulations Jason! That is a big accomplishment. I’ve heard about/ experienced the stomach issues that come from eating gels. My ultrarunner friends and acquaintances tell me carbonated drinks like soda or nuun tablets can help calm the pain and nausea. Worth a try I guess? Nuun is convenient since you can just put the tab in your empty bottle for later… Besides, I detest pop so the tabs are much more appealing.

Brian McSweeney

Hi Jason–That is so fun to get an inside account of your Boston Marathon. Man that is a long way to run with that early leg pain. Then all the other challenges on top of that. You were a true running warrior to finish as strong as you did. Also amazing how you can keep your clarity of mind to remember all those details while in the altered state of pushing so hard. My hat goes off to the combined running/writing virtuoso you are. I’m sticking to halfies for awhile! Congrats–Brian & Noah

Joe Richardson

Jason,
Your report sounds oh so familiar to mine! I knew by the third water station that the heat was going to be an issue and started throwing a cup of water overhead at every station thereafter. I held the pace I wanted and came thru the first half at 1:40 but the wheels started to come off just before the Newton Hills and really struggled in the last 10k. I agree that this race was bigger than anything emotionally and physically that I’ve ever been apart of for obvious reasons and it took it’s toll on me for sure. I can put a check mark on my bucket list and now I’m looking forward to NYC Marathon in November! Thanks Jason for all your hard work here on Strength Running!

Kevin

Thanks for the write-up. I’ve was waiting eagerly to see your result, and anxiously for your thoughts post-race. Honestly, I connect more with the write up of all the things that went wrong and how you coped during and after. I’m pretty sure I’ll never have a sub-3-hour marathon, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have plenty more less than perfect races, if history has been any guide.
Out of curiosity, what’s the logic of shooting for a PR in Boston? It’s obviously possible (Meb did it), but one of the things that makes Boston the “it” race is that it breaks people who do so well everywhere else.

Jason Fitzgerald

If you always race with logic, you may never find out what you’re capable of accomplishing. I just went for it, knowing that my training and fitness level was better than it ever was before.

Kevin

Fair enough, and exactly what I expected. Please don’t think I was criticizing. Love the blog, and Injury Prevention is how I rehabbed and prepped for the Texas Independence Relay.

Jason Fitzgerald

I didn’t think that at all Kevin, no worries! Glad you found success with the Injury Prevention for Runners program :)

Aaron

Great objective race report and good that you were able to take some positives away. Like you my legs felt like mile 20 at around the halfway point; when I did my warmup in the athletes village I felt something wasn’t quite right with my quads. Anyway it was an experience I was glad to be a part of and cannot wait to run it again, maybe next year, depending on whether I focus on London. If you’re in town, London is a great event and being flat, fast and iconic there will be a PR with your name written on it.

Brenda

Very exciting write-up. A good marathon requires not only fitness, but mental preparation and a bit of luck as well.

John Harris

I have yet to run my first marathon, thank you for sharing your insights. I’m still working on improving my endurance for long distance running.

John

Congratulation and thanks for sharing your insights. It is my four consecutive time at Boston and wanted to break the three hours mark with no success. Trained hard this winter with more running “5 times a week average 80KM”. no idea how you guys run at this speed !!!!

Again congratulation and thanks for your advices !!!

Kim Silverman

Running a marathon is something that should be taken seriously it requires months of training and preparation you have to be fit to survive and make it to the finish line that being said congratulations to you!

James Betts

Thank you for sharing. I also need to make a similar post, it’s a great insight.

Kate

Thanks for sharing, Jason. I feel the same way about my race that day. The heat was the first thing to go wrong and the mental focus was incredibly hard with the energy of the city this year. I also got thrown off when I heard that Meb won the men’s race (I was at about mile 8) because I I burst into tears of joy! And for the next mile or two couldn’t get my breathing back and ran way too fast! Regardless, it was great to be part of that day!

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