The Boston Illusion

[Dateline: Phoenix-Boston April 2005]

It’s only a long run. Ok, very long run considering my longest has been 15 miles (once) and a few 13 milers. Is it a new training approach or just malaise about going on “a long run.” I don’t know.

Lahcen and I planned on this run since last summer. Last Spring neither of us made it to the 2004 version… thank god. It was one of those days you just don’t want to go on “a long run.” Temperatures were well into the 80s by race time. Not good. The 2005 edition projects highs in the mid-60s. Not bad, not great, I prefer 40s or 50s. But, with a tame pace for our “long run” we should be ok.

Lahcen is well prepared. He has reeled off 18+ milers much faster than our projected pace. I just hope he has sympathy for my old body.

In two previous attempts (’89 & ’96) I completed in 3:02 and 3:08. This time it’s to finish a “long run.” The goal? Lahcen wants to run slow enough NOT to qualify for next year. It relieves any pressure to even think about running next year. My objective is to complete the “long run” in NOT my slowest time ever (3:29:41). I would hate to run my last one as my slowest. That would be too indicative of a demise.

Last night I was left a harassing phone message from James and Susan (my brother and sister-in-law – both runners) about picking up my remains after the race – very uplifting. It’s great knowing they are there for me. They have no doubts about Lahcen. They figure he’ll either dump my body in a ditch and come back to reclaim it later or have to carry me on his back to the finish.

This morning Lahcen and hooked up right on schedule at Phoenix Sky Harbor for breakfast. Then, he was off to America West and I was off to Southwest. He – Boston-bound and I – Providence-bound. I’ll get the rental car and proceed to get him at Logan. Then, it’s off to my staunch supporters – James and Susan’s.

I keep repeating to myself, we’re just going on a long run. Ya, with a little over 20,000 of our closest friends. I already met several people on my flight who are also running Boston. Isn’t it funny, everyone knows what you mean when you say “run Boston”? What would it mean to say do you “run L.A.”? Does it mean you are a big wig in the movie industry or maybe you allude to Arnold Schwartzeneger? Maybe it means you run to catch a bus or from a gang. Nobody runs Detroit, Tampa, Houston, Moscow, Tokyo, Denver, Seattle or San Francisco. And who would want to run New York?

It is interesting. It seemed that half of both our flights were filled with marathoners. Everyone comes to Boston. I met people who knew me but I couldn’t remember them. One had run some track workouts with her son who was deaf and ran also. Since I am fluent in American Sign Language it was a funny and remarkable coincidence that here she was with her son on the plane. Her and four of her companions ran for Brett’s Bandidos (antoher Phoenix area club). They talked about the times they wanted to run. If only they knew what lie in store for them.

Like clock work, Lahcen and I meet up at Logan airport. The plan is coming together. Off to my brother’s house in N. Reading, MA. No problem, we arrive without getting lost.

Generally, our advantages over most runners are threefold: our support crew, knowledge of the course, and our attitude – it’s just a long run. Those who come here thinking “I’m going to nail this one” usually get nailed.

Sunday is fun, a tour of the course courtesy of James with history lessons of Boston lore along the course. He even included the grave sites of runners who didn’t pace themselves well. And he made note of the head stones already carved with our names on it. The Newton hills were mere bumps we cruised over them in the car.

The expo is exceptional as always. We help with the Boston economy.

Monday forecast – 70 inland (i.e. Hopkinton) at the start and 59 in Boston with a cool breeze. It’s still warm for a marathon, but at least some relief after the hills as we cruise into Boston.

Ok, we have the support crew plan. James, Susan and my parents at mile 15. This is providing my parents can find the spot. James has only been watching the marathon at that spot for about 20 years now. Jackie, Bob and Mitchell (more family… and runners) will be just past 16 at the fire station just after the hard right hand turn starting the hills.

Finish plan is easy, we gather our carcasses and paraphernalia and hit the subway. An easy trek north and then James picks our bodies up at the end of the line.

Race day dawns with 55 degrees – if only it would stay just as it is. Off to downtown Boston and the buses. We arrive at 0730 and it’s an easy short walk to the lines. They move quickly and then we settle into our seats. The ride seems awfully long. We arrive at Hopkinton at 0920.

The runner’s tent city is well organized and though pretty crowded by the time we arrive, we find some great space on the grass in the shade. Music, live entertainment and some short statements from past Boston winners – Wiedenbach, Gareau and Pippig. Gareau is an interesting one since she was the victim of the Rosie Ruiz fiasco. We settle in and lay on our towels. We meet some wonderful people. It’s interesting how the social element is so strong in venues like this.

Bodily functions seem to dominate a runner’s world, but even more so on race day. Port-o-potties are plentiful and well stocked. After a couple visits all systems are “go”. We are definitely well hydrated. We are called to the starting line a three quarters of a mile away or so at 1100. We wait until 1115 to start over. We are in corral #4 (#4710 and #4721). We drop our bags off at the bus labeled with our numbers. Very slick, very orderly, again a well planned set-up.

Speaking of bodily functions, I realize I am VERY well hydrated and have to go again on the walk over to the start. We go by a house with a hand made “marathoners welcome” sign in their yard. They let us use their back yard or bathroom (depending on your degree of modesty or which number you had to do). We thanked them profusely. He said he hopes to plant trees out back and hope it’s well watered. We obliged for sure.

This however was only the start of the hospitality of the day. If you haven’t run Boston, you simply cannot understand. There is indeed a mystique that extends from the course, the fans and the history. This is not just a race. It is not just a marathon. It is not just an event. It is a cultural happening.

The elite women go off at 1129. The wheelchair division goes off early too. The elite men start at the front of the main crowd at precisely 1200 noon. At 1150 the Star Spangled Banner is sung and two jets fly overhead. We get into our corral at that time. We are a couple hundred yards from the starting line. We see a sea of color in front of us and behind us. There are 19 corrals of runners; each with about a thousand runners. This year 14,000 runners are running Boston for the first time. So, I’m in the minority repeating for the third time. Lahcen is a Boston virgin.

We leave right on time. It takes about 2:00 for us to reach the starting line. We are actually jogging about 50 yards before the line.

We hold back and I remind Lahcen to go “easy easy”. The crowds are more than expected. Lahcen is in awe. What long run do you go on with one million people in person watching you and cheering you on. The signs for individuals are everywhere. Runners use markers to put their names on their singlets and arms and legs so fans can call their names. And that is in fact just what the fans do. It’s unbelievable.

Wellesley does not disappoint. Lahcen gives high-fives to all the women of Wellesley. It is an experience not to be forgotten. They were even giving kisses to runners.

The miles pass effortlessly. We hydrate and munch on popsicles and oranges. We are right on plan for our “long run”. Through half-way, we maintain our pace averaging about 7:50s. We meet up with James and Susan on the left side of the road at the blue Prudential awning as planned… my parents are not where to be seen. Unknown to us they are on the other side and down the road a bit. Just how do you pick people out form 20,000 other sweaty bodies? We get some pictures taken and chat a bit. I tell them, we are doing great and ready to do well in the last 10 miles. Then off.

My parents in fact do see us and they see us and yell, but we don’t hear them. It’s too loud and chaotic. We are still in a pack of runners that spans the road with not more than six feet between any individual runner in front, behind or to the sides. To look into the distance, it’s a sea of colors and slightly bobbing heads. Farther off, the runners span the road from gutter to gutter and then it’s fans on either side of the road so it forms an indefinable mass. The road, sidewalks and lawns are indistinguishable. We move along crunching paper cups by the thousands on the road. It’s interesting how the plastic ones make a distinctively different sound from the paper ones. They almost break the rhythm of sound.

We have moved to the right side of the road. We make our turn at the fire house. Up 50 yards or so Jackie, Bob and Mitchell are there. We get more pictures and stretch. It’s the start of the hills. Both of us are a little tight but full of energy. We figure we have paced ourselves well.

I tried it all to get fluids and flavor. Popsicles are good. Otter Pops are great. Gatorade is ok and water certainly suffices but it’s better over your head than in your stomach at this point.

Throughout the miles, Lahcen has a habit of trailing just behind me. I keep an eye on him. He follows dutifully and on pace. We run side-by-side then he trails a bit depending on the traffic. All of a sudden, heading up hill number one Lahcen drops about five yards off. I look back. I wave him up. We run a bit further. I look back and I don’t see him. I stop. I look for him but can’t find him. I alternate jogging, walking and stopping. Now I worry that he in fact may have gone by me and he is in front of me. I jog onward, looking around. Up the last hill I feel twinges in my quads. I have plenty of energy and I’m ready to pick up the pace and take on the downhills. Unbeknownst to me, Lahcen’s lower back cramped up on him and he was reduced to jogging and walking.

It is warm and the breeze and relief that was supposed to take place after cresting the hills isn’t there. I’m still thinking about Lahcen and looking for him. I realize the cramps will be an issue. So, at this point, despite being on pace, and no real impetus to push, I resort to finishing and enjoying it. I yell back at the crowds and take in their offerings. At mile 22 I see a raucous group of twenty-somethings. I wander over. They all have cups in their hands. I ask what they have in the cups. “Hey wants some water?” “No.” “Got beer?” They hand me a three-quarters full red cup, and I down it. It tasted like heaven. And of course, they loved it. “Go, go, go” they shouted as if it were a jugging contest at a bar. I know it made their day.

I actually stopped cramping and ran the next three-quarters of a mile well before cramps in quads and my left hamstring acted up. Too fun. I tore a sign off a tree that was intended to keep cars from parking on the roads on race day. It said: “No Stopping Monday” with a little tow-truck logo. I flashed it to the crowd much to their delight. How funny – no stopping on Monday! Ya, right. They weren’t thinking of my quads. Still no sign of Lahcen.

I finish the last mile or so well, it’s not an energy issue, my quads just won’t relax. It’s a rush. I cross in 3:45 according to the official clock. Lahcen finishes in 3:49. I’m now worried about finding him afterwards. I grab some food, drinks and my baked potato wrap (Mylar) and sit on the curb. I watch the sea of runners limping by me. I hope to catch Lahcen’s yellow shorts. Sure enough, he comes along. We grab our medals then off to retrieve our equipment bags. The walk is actually feeling good. Again, perfect race organization – our bags are in the bus, by number and retrieved within just seconds.

Our splits for those who care: 735, 735, 7:46, 757, 757, 801, 7:44, 8:00, 7:38, 7:50, 7:53, 7:40, 7:54, (1:42:29 half way), 703, 805, 740, 813 (:30 with James), 1013 (2:20 with Jackie), 751, 855, 945, 952, 1038, 1032, 1133, 810, 140 (3:42:46).

We mosey along and grab food. Then out of the runners’ area and onto the streets of Boston. I find a place on the sidewalk next to a building and plant myself. Lahcen does the same. We spread out, drink, munch and make calls home. Now, I thought we looked pretty good compared to the guy vomiting 20 feet from us and the guy across the street who just fainted and fell to the ground – THUMP. Ouch! But, at least 3 people came up to me to ask if I was ok. One took my pulse and asked if I needed help! Hell, I have Lahcen sitting next to me, a friend and an RN on top of that; what do they think I’m dying and he’s just watching me die? Do I look that pathetic? They didn’t take his pulse! We have a great laugh wondering if it’s because he’s Morrocan or not. Maybe Morrocans always look this way?

We are in great spirits and feel good about the experience. Even the pain isn’t so bad. We both realize how much energy we really have. And, cramps aside, we both know we could continue on or go faster. Lahcen swears he never wants to do another marathon.

After recouping for about 45 minutes, we head out. Subway north and James Taxi service to home. James informs Lahcen that he will run not only another marathon but that he will run Boston again. He says that in fact is the power of Boston. Lahcen swears he is wrong.

The next morning on the way to the airport. Lahcen states “If I were to run Boston again, I will train for the rolling hills.” I look at him. I make a point of him now saying “if” whereas last night it was, “never again”. We get closer to Boston and our discussion continues on many topics. As we get to Logan airport, Lahcen blurts out, “When I run this again, I’ll be ready!”

I on the other hand have no such illusion.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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One Response to The Boston Illusion

  1. Lorie Tucker says:

    Dean, loved your story. I want to DO THIS!!! Can you teach a slow runner to run faster… fast enough to qualify? BTW, finished my Ironman last weekend. An amazing experience. Finished in 12:50 way ahead of my 14 hr. goal. See you at the track and we’ll talk….

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