A race report from the Boston Marathon by Liz Pepper

I ran the Boston Marathon on Monday 15 April, Patriot’s Day in the USA. It had been a reasonably long journey to get there. My marathon journey began in October 2014 when I was offered a place in the London Marathon the following April. I had not spent any time thinking about running a marathon prior to accepting the place. I never thought of myself as a marathon runner and after some quite painful and very slow training runs, I was remarkably pleased and slightly surprised that I completed it in 4 hrs 31 mins.

So, having achieved the feat of running a marathon, I had no intention of repeating the experience until I randomly entered some further marathon ballots later that year for marathons in places I wanted to travel to. That led me to Tokyo then New York in 2016 and by the end of that year it meant I had run three of the six World Marathon Majors and “only” had Chicago, Boston and Berlin to go. So that brings me to Boston this year. After attempting to run a qualifying time in Paris in 2017 and not quite managing the time, I did manage to achieve the necessary qualifying time with a 3 hrs 34 mins finish in Chicago later in that year.

So, Boston was the 6th World Marathon Major I needed to achieve the challenge I had inadvertently set myself. I didn’t need to run any particular time, I just needed to start and finish and I wanted to do that in as little discomfort as possible. I trained for 3 months leading up to the race. I ran once or twice a week with my running club and built up a long run each weekend so that I did 3-4 runs a week and three 20 mile runs in total. I didn’t follow a specific training plan and didn’t put any focus on speed work which I think does ultimately help when you are trying to keep up the pace in the second half of the marathon. I am also training for a cycling event in July, so I probably spent more time on the bike that would have been better spent running, had I been a little more strategic in my training, but I was choosing to train in this way and enjoyed my running and cycling over this period. I was therefore being realistic with my expectations and not expecting this to be my fastest marathon time, especially as the course was known as a challenging, hilly one, but equally, I hoped I had done enough preparation so that it wasn’t catastrophic.

The day came and the weather decided to do what is apparently quite common in Boston in spring – it gives you four seasons in one day. When I left the apartment at 7am to walk to the subway to get into town there was quite literally an apocalyptic storm raging, complete with thunder and lightning. Within 5 metres I was soaked through despite the coat and waterproof cape I was wearing. Once I had got to the centre of town and found bag drop I had totally given up on trying to find shelter. I waited a short time for the bus that shipped you out 26.2 miles to the start in Hopkinton so that we could all run 26.2 miles back to Boston. So I sat on a bus for an hour gently steaming along with 30 or so other people. Then we were deposited two hours before the start in the athletes’ village which was essentially a field that rivalled Glastonbury with its toilet queues across a mud covered field.

The majority of the runners were American and a lot had previously run Boston and were clearly in the know when it comes to optimal preparation for adverse weather. The one thing they all seemed to have done was wear an old pair of trainers to the event and just before the start they changed into clean dry socks and their race trainers so they were starting the run in dry footwear. Needless to say, I was starting the run in soaking wet, mud filled trainers which wasn’t ideal from a comfort perspective. It was also once at the start line that the weather cleared and humidity was increasing. I don’t think I’d ever previously run in really humid weather and it was a strange energy sapping feeling. I felt hot but drinking water didn’t really cool me down, although pouring water over me did seem to help. It was a relief finally at 10.50am (4 hours after setting off that morning) to start running, although I wasn’t feeling overly acclimatised.

I’d been warned that the first 10k or so of the course is primarily downhill and that it was easy to head out at too quick a pace and your quads wouldn’t thank you for it later. Well, I tried to keep the pace controlled but still felt my quads starting to scream at me from about the 10 mile mark as the course continued to undulate. I had hoped I would get further along before experiencing this level of discomfort!

My friends had arranged to meet me at the 16 mile mark, the point at which the first of the four Newton Hills kicks in. The onslaught of this first hill with the humidity and intermittent direct sun and temperatures rising well over 20 degrees continued to drain my energy levels. I countered this as best I could with energy gels and I started to take the Gatorade offered at some of the water stations. By the time I got to the notorious Heartbreak Hill at the 20 mile mark I’m not sure I actually knew that was what it was. I was just concentrating on keeping running although I felt I was shuffling rather than actually running by that point. Even the downhills didn’t feel like a relief and my legs wouldn’t let me run any faster to make up for the slow crawl of the uphill stretches. I just had to focus on keeping running as I knew if I stopped to walk I would struggle to get going again.

I live near Crystal Palace and with hindsight, it would have been very good training to have run up and down any one of the hills going up to Crystal Palace in long training runs. The gradient on any of the Newtown hills felt comparable to the hills I run on at home. They were not ridiculously steep and the course is probably best described as undulating with several long gradual climbs. It was more a matter of the continually undulating terrain mixed with the humidity and heat of the day that created the overall challenge.

The course from about the 16-17 mile mark was consistently well supported though and the closer you got to Boston, the greater the number of supporters. By the time you entered the city the spectators were several deep and that definitely helps tired marathon runners struggling with motivation, however slowly they are moving, although I’m not sure I will ever shout “keep going” to any marathon runner again!

I think it felt like the longest 26.2 miles I had ever run (longer than the 7 previous marathons had felt), but the relief to see the finish line and finally crossing it after 3 hours and 53 mins was the achievement I had come for. I’ve never been so glad for something to finish that I had actually chosen to do! Then once I had crossed the finish line the heavens opened again, temperatures plummeted and another storm set in. I managed to get to collect my finisher’s medal, Abbott World Majors 6 Star medal and then was once entirely soaked from head to foot for the second time that day. I found a bar near the point I had arranged to meet my friends and stood by an indoor heater, once again steaming and being continually congratulated by everyone that walked by, until such time as my friends arrived and I could hobble slowly homewards towards a hot shower and a bottle of wine. I never want to run another marathon again, and I’m currently in denial that I have a place in the London Marathon this weekend…