“Crashed and Burned. No…Frozen!”
April 16, 2018
“Hey what’re you gonna wear tomorrow during the race?” That was the talk of the town as the top marathoners from across the country and the world had arrived to Boston, Massachusetts for the most iconic, historic and prestigious marathon anywhere. Runners deliberated as to how to handle the expected horrible weather for the 2018 Boston Marathon. Appropriately so, as the conditions would be the worst they’ve ever been. The forecast called for heavy, steady rain from start to finish with possibly windy and very likely extremely cold conditions. The newscasters predicted a starting temperature in the upper 30s with temperatures at the end of the race expected to be in the low 40s. Of course, they would end up being spot-on accurate.
While I was at historic Fenway Park, freezing my butt off in the stands while taking in a game between the Red Sox and the Orioles, my great friends Zack and Jamaal were out at a thrift store buying winter clothes that they would dispose of right before the gun went off. Man, did they look good with their faux fur coats and vintage clothing! The starting line was in Hopkinton, Massachusetts making this a point-to-point race. We would be shuttled out to the start early race morning. We would have to hang out at Hopkinton High School for perhaps an hour in the cold and rain, in preparation for being staged into the right corrals within four waves. Everybody and their brother wore warm clothing using either an umbrella, a poncho or a raincoat to try to stay as dry as possible.
The race organizers used the high school athletic fields as a staging area. They erected several very large tents which were packed with runners. I was one of the unlucky fools that was forced to wait outside of a tent, trudging through the mud with plastic grocery bags tied around my shoes, hoping to keep them as clean and dry as possible.
Upon arriving to the high school, I first sat down on a piece of plastic up against the outside of a tent, protected from the wind. I didn’t stay there long because believe it or not some snow and ice that had accumulated on the top of the tent kept falling down on top of me periodically.” Screw this,” I said. “I’m moving somewhere else.” I saw the lines for the Porta potties growing by the minute. I told myself I better get in line or else I could be stuck with a catastrophic situation if you know what I mean! I waited in line for about 45 minutes when finally my turn came to take care of business. Sure enough as I finished, they called for my wave to begin the 3/4 mile walk towards the starting line. Perfect timing.
I waited as late as possible to take off my warm pants and warm jacket. At this point, I made a horrible tactical mistake/error in judgment. I took off my poncho and threw it in the trash. Boy would I regret not having this during the race to protect me from the rain.
I was in the first corral of Wave Two. Mentally, I felt extremely strong and well-prepared. I was focused on the task at hand – that meant running an average of about 6:52 minute pace to accomplish my gold-medal goal of a three hour marathon. I knew it was a long shot considering the horrific conditions. I told myself however not to use that as an excuse. I told myself the following: “Bust your ass Russ. Empty the tank. Leave it all out there. Use your fitness maximally.” I didn’t even recognize that here I was at the starting line of the famous Boston Marathon. It seems like pretty much any other race except for the fact that I was here with 30,000 of my closest friends. I should’ve appreciated the magnitude of the moment and reminded myself of all the work that I had done to get here.
Last thing before the start: I jammed my earbuds in my ears and cranked the tunes, then entered “my zone.”
The gun went off and away we went. Already, I was saturated and feeling very, very cold. I told myself not to worry in that I would be warming up in just a few minutes. At mile two my watch said 17 minutes and eight seconds. This was much slower than desired. I told myself not to worry knowing that I could easily make up this time. In the first two miles I kept bumping into other runners being very careful not to trip or make someone trip. My next two miles were 7:06 and 6:57. I was running effortlessly. But I noticed that I was not warming up. At this point I started worrying that I had not dressed appropriately. I knew that if I hadn’t started to warm up by now, I probably never would. After a 7:13 mile, I ended up running a 6:54 mile and a 6:57 mile. I had now settled into a really nice groove. Despite the heavy steady rain, I rattled off the next four miles in 7:06, 7:06, 7:09 and 7:13. During these miles, my phone stopped playing music, probably because some water got into the headphone jack. I tried to troubleshoot but my cold, gloved hands wouldn’t work on the phone’s screen.
The 80 mg of caffeine from the Red Bull I drank before the race made me have to pee super bad. I held it as long as I could but finally I had to pull off and “water the plants.” I wasn’t the only one doing so on the side of the road as I was joined by several other runners at this point. Herd mentality, I guess! It’s funny what happens in marathons and ultras. None of the hundreds of runners that were passing me said a word. This seemingly brief stop made my next mile 7:35. In 30 seconds I must’ve peed about a gallon.
By now, I was very pleased at how fit I felt. The miles were passing extremely easily. However, I was falling way behind my goal pace and very worried that I would not be able to accomplish three hours. I tried to eat an energy Gel every five miles but my hands were so cold that I had trouble opening the packages. I had no manual dexterity. The Gels were so thick that I couldn’t squeeze the contents out with my fingers. As a result, I ended up not getting enough calories.
Going by Wellesley College, my plans took a significant detour. I simply could not resist getting some smooches from the famous coeds who were leaning over the fence puckering their lips basically asking for a kiss from us runners. So off to the side of the road I went. “Pucker up baby. I’m coming in!” Wow, that was fun” I told myself. I couldn’t break any hearts so I decided to pull over again in 15 yards. Then… again in 10 yards. Then… again in 5 yards. Then, I just smooched the girl next to the previous one. Finally, I reminded myself that I was in the middle of the doggone Boston Marathon. What the heck was I doing? Anyway, it sure was a nice, fun diversion. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in ultra marathons or for that matter any races.
The rain and wind and cold had by now really taken me out of my game. I now realized that my time would be much slower than desired. I decided to try to really enjoy the experience and worry less about my performance. I still pushed very hard but I did not “red line” it. Entering Newton, I noticed that my stride length was shortening significantly. The cold had taken its toll on my muscles, affecting my muscle contractility. My stride had become choppy. I couldn’t do anything about it except compensate by increasing my stride turnover. My mile splits slowed steadily.
I was expecting one of my good friends from work, BJ, to be at Newton City Hall. I really looked forward to seeing her. Sure enough, I saw her up ahead as she held a big sign with my name on it. This was a nice distraction from the task of the day. I pulled over to give her and her two friends each a hug and a kiss. This slowed me down yet at least another minute but it sure was worth it considering the circumstances. I was really grateful to BJ to come out and stand in the cold rain to cheer me on. It meant a lot.
Leaving them, I noted that I my pace was now horrific. I probably have never been so cold in a race except for after swimming in Lake Ontario in a triathlon where the water temperature was 54°. I barely finished that race because of hypothermia. I would not let that happen today.
I sure wasn’t the only one feeling the effects of the crappy weather. Off to my left I saw a woman being cradled by her husband as they were walking like robots as fast as they could. The girl looked simply miserable. Wearing a rain jacket and shorts and with tears streaming down her face, she was hanging on by a thread trying to finish despite her body shivering almost uncontrollably. I couldn’t imagine that she could make it six more miles in this condition.
Along here I took notice of the amazing Boston crowds. Their cheering was deafening. I couldn’t believe the five-deep rows of spectators packed along the side of the course yelling at the top of their lungs. They seemed to be genuinely interested in our performance. They really wanted us to do well. Over and over again I would hear ”You guys are amazing!” “You’re killing it!” “Give it your all!”
Kicking myself for allowing myself to get so stupidly cold, I focused on going hard knowing that my stride length was so short and choppy. I just couldn’t generate a fast speed despite my efforts. People were passing me in droves and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I became extremely frustrated. What a lost opportunity in such a great event. By now I decided to take in the experience as much as possible and cruise in at a decent pace. Getting closer and closer to the finish, I really absorbed the energy of the crowds and tried to enjoy each moment fully. I could tell by now that I would be way off my goal time but now I was at peace with that. I knew I would have a respectable performance but would not award myself a”medal”. Similar to Badwater last year when I simply couldn’t stay awake, I was now unable to use my excellent cardiovascular fitness because of some other limiting factor: Cold!
As I made the last left turn onto Boylston Street, I was really moved by the enthusiasm of the spectators pushing us down the final stretch. Normally I would nearly sprint a section like this. However I simply wasn’t able to. I made a steady push but was being passed in droves. I crossed the line in three hours and 23 minutes, 23 minutes off my goal time which is almost 1 minute per mile. Ugh!
One minute after I stopped running, I started shaking/shivering almost uncontrollably. I knew that the finishing chute was more than a half-mile long. I knew I would have to go that whole distance then turn around and return to the finish line area then walk another three fourths of a mile back to the hotel. I knew I would only be getting even colder. I decided to go to the finish line medical tent to get out of the elements. There I was greeted by some very enthusiastic and probably inexperienced medical personnel who attacked me super caringly. They wrapped me in three Mylar blankets and stuffed a PB&J sandwich in my mouth. It was delicious.
Not able to obtain a reading from the thermometer several times, the young nurse said ”We need to check your temperature down below.” Feeling a little overwhelmed, I said “go ahead.” It registered 93.8! For accuracy she checked it again. Same reading. I asked her, “Are you sure that’s correct?” So she checked it one more time. Yup. Same reading. The nurse yelled out to some other staff” we need a Bair Huggar over here!” This device is a warm air blanket used in emergency rooms to treat patients who are severely hypothermic. I told the nurse I didn’t think that was necessary and that I was warming up already just by getting out of the elements and by being wrapped in the Mylar blankets. I told her I was feeling much better and I wanted to get out of there soon as possible so they could attend to other runners. Embarrassingly, I told her I was an ER doctor and a doctor at the finish line at the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon in San Diego. She told some other volunteers, “This guy is an ER doctor.” I don’t know what she meant by saying this. I thanked the nurse and her assistant tremendously and waddled out of the tent, back out into the “Arctic Tundra.”
Feeling coherent now that both my temperature and my blood sugar were back to normal, it dawned on me that the Boston Marathon was over. I made an easily correctible error in logistical management: Not dressing appropriately for the elements. This prevented me from even coming close to achieving a huge personal goal on one of sports’ biggest stages. Would I get another chance?
Hmmm. I might have to come back next year!
Don’t take Mother Nature for granted
Don’t understand the effects of COLD. It affects one perhaps more than heat does. One of my first ultra running friends (Jimmy Dean Freeman) told me a long time ago “The cold cuts you in half.”
Cold is bad. Wet is bad. Cold AND wet is a recipe for disaster. Prepare accordingly.
Don’t allow ANY mistakes to happen in big races.
From Richard “Mack” Machowicz’s awesome book “Unleash the Warrior Within”, employ the “Advantage-Stacking Thought Process” to any competition/goal. “You want to stack so many of the advantages in your favor that…when the opportunity presents itself, you can’t help but win.” I did not adhere to this for Boston.