Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Boston Marathon 2014: Boston Strong Race Report

Boston, Massachusetts, 21 April 2014: Today, I achieved a new milestone in my athletic career having completed the prestigious Boston Marathon. It was a culmination of 10 years of training, and three years of visioning. I crossed the line, in high spirits, fatigued legs, and diminished speed in 3:48. For three hours and over-48 minutes, I ran past one million spectators, more than a dozen towns and locales, and major landmarks.
In 2011, I missed earning an entry in the 2012 edition (116th year) because I had a fallow margin of one minute. I earned my first Boston Qualifying (BQ) time of 3:29:59 in the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon in February. Interestingly, many well-intentioned friends suggested that the hilly course in Hong Kong would forbid me from earning a Personal Best (PB) easily. I prevailed, and it was not easy but I gratefully received my BQ timing (less than 3:30) in July 2013. This time, I ran it at 3:16 (how apt for a biblical passage), which was far better than what I fared in 2011, with 3:32. In 2012, I raced the Berlin Marathon in September in a dismal 4:00, after recuperating from a hairline toe fracture incurred before Ironman Switzerland (which I hobbled painfully to completion). I learnt abject lessons from my two months of a forced diet of no-running, and only riding and swimming. 

I arrived on Thursday in Boston, after passing through Frankfurt and New York City. I had taught two workshops over-3 days before so I was pleased to travel the extended distance on Singapore Airlines. My lounge privileges allowed me to shower, and enjoy warm food and beverages (and a wine/beer) during transit. During that time, I was contemplating whether to race as a celebration, or to run a hard race. My friend, Celene Loo suggested that I enjoy the race thoroughly since I had suitably qualified, and to immerse myself in the Boston Experience. I laid that plan latently, electing to 'go with the flow' of my intuition, and pace of fellow runners around me.
The race-fair was three-days long, highlighted by my early-arrival in an already long, snake-like queue for race-kit collection. I treasured my Runner's Passport, which included race-information, entry coupons for Pre-Race Dinner and Post-Race Party. There was much to see, and collect (insoles, organic muesli, the special race-only Samuel Adams Boston Lager '26.2', energy drinks, and much more) from the exhibitor booths - and I returned on Day 2 to attend the touching talk by The Hoyts. Never have I seen so many standing ovations and enthusiastic applause for two of endurance sports most-enduring father-son teams. This was their swan-song for the Boston Marathon, as it is taking its toll and toil on the senior of the pair. 
Race Morning: I was up at 4.30pm and out the door by 6.00pm. We took the crowded (but orderly) train to Cropley Square, whereby (after a comfort-stop) we were ushered up into buses to be ferried to the start-point at Hopkinton. The emotion in the bus was mainly apprehension, excitement and a sense of pride. We had arrived, and time to complete the race, collect our medals, and bask in the afterglow of accomplishment.
It took an hour, and we arrived at the car-park whereby we were led by the friendly volunteers into the gathering-area. Runners were assigned specific pen-numbers and wave-numbers (based on our qualification times). The elite runners were flagged off first, followed by the fastest qualifiers.
I must say that the race was a bit of a blur, after the usual pre-race preamble and scramble. There was no rush to jockey for a good start position. The race-bib with the integrated-chip determined our final time. When I was flagged off, it was boisterous and rowdy in a good way, ushered by residents of Hopkinton. It was cheerful, happy and hopeful. Along the way, I smiled (abundantly), gave high-five slaps to children (I felt bad I missed a few of them), got kissed (and kissed - on the cheek, of course) the Wellesley College Girls (an all-girl, liberal arts, college) who were a pleasant distraction and utter attraction at Mile 13 (before Heartbreak Hill met us), Heartbreak Hill (more a series of undulating roads stretching for five miles until Boston College), and the spectator-lined streets for all of 42 kilometres. Between these scenic and jubilant accounts, were the well-manned aid-stations that were highly considerate and caring to all (including I, who tended to stand beside them to consume my water, CrampFix salt-tablets and Hammer Nutrition Perpeteum/gels) runners. We were well taken care of, and I would not fault anyone. The residents in the towns were also extensions of the volunteers, offering wet-sponges, refreshments, and encouragement. 
To summarise my experience: Boston was strong, and its spirit was Stronger! 
I raced, I suffered, as I approached the finish-line. The last one kilometre was tough as 'my mind was willing, but my legs were weak'. However, my meek jog strengthened to a plausible gallop as I increased my stride-length. For one fleeting moment, I was reminded of the vicious act of violence last year, as I approached the grandstand, packed readily with officials, first-responders, spectators, families and VIPs. 
It was merely a shadow of past that would not be repeated today, or on any other day. This was a day that runners united, a city braved its grief and losses, and emerged victorious. The most poignant line I recall somebody tell me was: 'Thank you for saving our city!' I was dumbfounded to hear that, as I stifled my emotions, but honoured for playing a small part in a bigger piece of the cosmic equation. I was compelled to thank everyone I met (who seem to revel in congratulating us finishers) and reciprocate their hospitality. I felt like a celebrity racing the half-Ironman in Cebu!
I crossed the line at Boylston Street in about 3:48. As I crossed the line, it felt like my first marathon and Ironman triathlon completions. One's sense of fatigue was erased by the sense of euphoria, achievement and accomplishment. A heady concoction of emotions mixed with realisation that I had achieved large and empowering, alongside 32,000 of my fellow brothers/sisters in marathon.
I was led in, by enthusiastic and congratulating volunteers to receive my thermal sheet, race-medal, and post-race refreshments. My face felt flushed with excitement, although technically, my race was over. I walked besides many participants (now christened by the Boston Strong Experience) who, now, were my friends-for-life, united by one unique experience cherished only by this peculiar fondness for this distance and activity.
I connected with two journalists from Channel NewsAsia; Dr Derek Li (who did 2:42 at this race) arranged for this opportunity, which I coordinated with editor in Singapore, and ended up doing the interview alone. Although I enjoyed the post-race recognition, I felt my experience would have been enhanced with the presence of team-mates, Derek, Jenny Huang (who did 3:30) and Blade Runner Shariff. Nevertheless, it was what it was and I ddi my best - in one, take - to capture the essence of the Boston Strong Experience. I received much positive response from this piece when it was broadcasted a day after. I cringed at my post-race attire, as I felt chilly in the windy 16 degrees Celcius conditions. It was my virgin foray into compression-socks, encouraged by the cold.
Overall, I enjoyed my first Boston Marathon/Boston Strong tremendously. I was pleased with my approach, enjoyed most aspects of my experience and promised to return in 2016. I hope to earn it through a more-challenging PB of 3 hours, and less. I have a grand plan ahead of me, and I hope to achieve it within a year, so as to attend the 120th edition of this historical race.
*Photo-credits: Melina Chan & Marathon Photos*
*Sponsors: CrampFix, On Shoes, Jabra*

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