Thoughts on Boston…

I have a week vacation from student teaching and I expected to spend this afternoon applying for teaching jobs. With the idea that writing one’s thoughts can be therapeutic for author and reader alike I offer some thoughts about today.

Patriots day is arguably the best weekend of the year to be a resident of Massachusetts. Celebrating the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the Revolutionary War, it is a great weekend filled with events, patriotism and fun. It is like a version of July 4th specifically for Boston. Monday is the cap off with a mid-morning Red Sox game and of course the Boston Marathon.

Most people might think of a marathon as fairly unexciting for anyone who is not running in it or knows someone who does. Growing up near Boston though this event is the talk of the town. It is the oldest continuously run marathon in the world. It is televised from start to finish on local TV. Terms like Hopkinton, heartbreak hill, Wellesley, and Boylston St. are well known markers and subjects of conversation. I always watched it when I moved back here in middle school. When I became a runner in high school, I dreamed of running it officially. Many of my high school friends ran it as unqualified “bandits.” My dad had run it a number of times when he was younger. Boston loves its marathon.

To qualify you have to run an entire other marathon in a fairly competitive time based on your age and gender. In 2009 I qualified and successfully ran in the Boston marathon. Friends and family were at various points on the course. My mother and her best friend were in the bleachers at the finish exactly where today, 4 years later, the first explosion ripped through.

My finishing time would have me safely on the way home with my mom at that point but that gives me little comfort for the pain and destruction wrought today. I hate that this happened. I hate that it destroyed such a wonderful celebration of this city and our country.

I ran a road race today in Lexington. I did warm up strides on the green where the “shot heard round the world” occurred. I ate ice cream and relaxed in the beautiful sun off main street afterwards. And then I got in my car, turned on the radio and heard that two explosions had occurred.

I have heard back from as many family and friends as I can figure might have been there and all are safe. Of course some people are not. Tonight we will pray for them, think of them and grieve for them. But no matter how awful today has turned out I still love this weekend and this marathon and all it represents. May we be given peace in these thoughts at least.

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Boston’s Real Problem

After my entry last week, I got a number of comments. Some were helpful, others less so. I feel like clarifying and adding to my ideas from my last entry would be helpful. Also after some thought I realized what Boston’s real problem is which I’ll address at the end of this entry.

1. It was helpfully noted that the BAA operates with a “net runner” formula that predicts how many people will drop out and will get the field to a manageable size for the course. This sounds fine but a formula, no matter how accurate, is still little better than an educated guess. Given the sky-rocketing popularity of the event, leaving the exact number of entrants to a formula seems unfair. The BAA should pick a number that it thinks the course can handle. Then, if for any reason, the number of registered runners drops below that number, a waiting list should be in place to replace the missing runners. Even if this only allows a 100 more people to run, I think it would be worth it.

2. Apologies if this point looked like I was picking on women. I wasn’t. But just to cover my tracks, here’s a slightly different approach. Raise the qualifying standards for men AND women under 50 by 5 minutes. This would lessen the pool of qualified runners and hopefully lessen demand for a few years until runners get even better. I would leave older runner’s standards alone because you shouldn’t be left out of the chance to run a prestigious marathon just because you have aged.

3. I realize that this point might have hit home with a lot of people but some of the responses were unbelievable. I say verbatim in the entry that “charity is great”, and still I got attacked by people who evidently scored low on reading comprehension in grade school. I apologize for botching the exact number of charity runners; I do not apologize for questioning the system. Charity should be a large, visible part of any significant race. However refining the system might be helpful given the current popularity of the race. One idea I heard was to have charity runners meet a qualifying standard. This doesn’t seem unreasonable given that everyone else does. Running a race for charity is a great, noble, altruistic thing. But if you can’t qualify, run another race.

I hope the above clears some things up. However they all skip over the main problem: the flawed and overwhelmed registration system. Last year it took over two months to fill up. Given this window, it could reasonably be said to anyone who didn’t get in, well you should of been paying more attention. This year that window was less than NINE HOURS. Many people were at their computers feverisly pressing submit, to no avail. Some thought they could do it after work around 6PM. It closed at 5:03, sorry. Allowing people only a nine hour window is simply not fair.

I’m willing to give BAA a free pass this year. No one could predict how fast it would fill up. I bet most thought they would have at least a few days. However now that it is known how popular the race is, changes must be made to the registration system. I’m not sure exactly what the answer is here. Perhaps a lottery, or windows for different sets of runners to be able to apply. At the very least, the website needs to be updated so it can handle the expected traffic so that people don’t have to take three hours to merely register.

How to fix Boston.

On Monday The Boston Marathon filled up in an unprecedented 8+ hours. 21,000 slots snapped up. Inexplicably, that was and is the only chance that many qualified runners will have to enter this, the oldest and most prestigious of marathons. Many people are trying to paint this positively as a win for the popularity of running. I disagree. This event simply showed the overwhelming weakness of the current qualifying and registration system. Here are a few of my thoughts on how to improve the race. Full disclosure: I qualified and ran Boston in 2009 but did not attempt to register this year as my qualification time had expired.

1) Make a waiting list. This seems almost painfully obvious. Boston is not only incredibly popular but an event that requires an extraordinary amount of commitment and luck to even attempt. Between now and April, tons of people will drop out, for various reasons. And the BAA will say, “OK, great. Thanks for your money, now we have a smaller race.” This is absurd.

As soon as registration fills, people trying to get in should be notified that they have been put on a waiting list. Credit cards would not be charged until they move up the list into an actual racing spot. This one move alone would probably get a few thousand more people into the race.

2) Raise the women’s qualifying standards. Boston is one of the few races that require qualifying standards in order to register. They are far from impossible but stringent nonetheless. You have to be a solid runner and train well to meet them. Right now men aged 18-34 have to run 3:10 to qualify. Women of the same age only have to run 3:40 to qualify. Women athletics continue to improve and as running becomes ever more popular surely even better runners will continue to emerge. Elite women are typically only 15-20 minutes behind men. The BAA should move the women’s standards up at least 10 minutes to 3:30.  This would certainly lessen the pool of runners able to qualify and therefore lessen the burden on registration. Will many complain that this makes it harder to qualify? Of course. But guess what, it’s a marathon. It’s supposed to be hard.

3) Lessen charity slots and put a lottery in for those slots. It’s easy to forget with all the well meaning charities out there that a marathon is (and should be) about running. Right now thousands of slots at Boston go to charities. You have to raise a significant amount of money but get to avoid the bothersome task of running a qualifying time. Rich people and big corporations can just pay out of pocket and boom: one less spot for a legitimate hard working runner. Charity runners should be limited, perhaps to about 1,ooo or 2,000 total. Whoever want to do the run as charity should be entered in a lottery. If you’re picked you are in. Charity is great but actual qualified runners should not be penalized for not being a part of an official charity.

I would estimate that each of these changes would allow 2-3,000 more runners a year to enter Boston, at least in the short term. Will people still be left out? Sure, but at least the system will be fairer and make more sense.

Boston. Check.

It’s probably too soon to fully appreciate what I did today but I wanted to write about it while it was fresh in my mind. Today I completed my first Boston Marathon. I ran it in 3 hours, 6 minutes and 29 seconds. That time is just over a minute faster than my Qualifying time that I ran in the Disney Marathon. This is weird. Before 2009 I was just an ex and fairly casual college runner. Now I can legitimately say that I run marathons. Kind of cool, I think.

Boston was totally different from Disney but really great for a number of reasons. Starting in a small town 26.2 miles outside Boston it meanders through parts of 8 towns in Massachusetts before ending on Boylston street. Some highlights:

1) Little kids watching with their parents who hand out oranges, water or just try to get a high-five from you. Very Cute.

2)The sheer noise of the Wellesley college girls. I knew it was coming and I could literally hear their roar as I approached. For a good quarter-mile theer is a sheer wall of screaming, crazy, college girls leaning over the barrier, cheering you on. Add in the noise of the crowds in Boston and it is pretty surreal.

3) I high fived a guy in a chicken costume on the side of the road and ran by Santa and a few elves later on. Also late in the race I ran past a guy dressed as Captain America, complete with a shield.

My ultimate goal, sub 3 hours, was not met, but in terms of pure effort I am amazed at what I did. My performance was vintage me. I ran the same pace for about 15 miles, running even and fairly strong. I picked it up on a downhill mile and then slowed on the hills as it got later into the race. But after I crested the last major hill around mile 21 something strange happened. I decided to make a surge. It was still a long way to the finish but at this point I knew 3 hours was not in the cards and so I think that sort of took the pressure off.

So I took off. I found open space on the sides of the route and just started blowing by people. And another amazing thing happened. My legs handled it. At Disney, my hamstrings were gone by mile 22 but here they survived the whole way and never really hurt. I didn’t train more or better for this race, so the only explanation is the crowds and pure adrenaline carried me.

The last few miles I kept pushing. I had tunnel vision of sorts, keeping my eyes ahead and missing a lot of the fantastic crowds. At this point every mile feels like it takes two to complete and it was touch and go but I still kept surging and when I made the final turn, all I could do was try to remember to smile, pump my fist a bit and get to the finish line.

After I crossed the line and stopped running I realized how much I had overextended myself. My legs were shot and the long walk to get water, food, a medal, and meet family was difficult. I considered plopping in one of the available wheel chairs for a minute but didn’t. I met my mom and her friend, got home and promptly passed out on the couch for 2 hours. I feel better now. My legs probably won’t tomorrow…

So that’s it. I ran Boston. And it was awesome.

Accomplishments

So this blog is supposed to be about the Czech Republic and my prep to get there but I just had a big highlight in my life and wanted to share it with others.

On Sunday I successfully completed my first marathon at Walt Disney World (for those keeping score I’m 1 for 1). I ran 3:07:34 which was 3 minutes better than my goal time of 3:10:59 which would allow me to qualify and run the Boston Marathon in April. I did this race to qualify for Boston, a race I’ve grown up watching and since I started running, dreamed about completing. It is so totally awesome.

I finished 133rd overall out of 14,940 finishers. Disney is more of a fun, entertaining marathon than a competitive one like Boston and they did not disappoint. I got to run through all 4 major Disney parks, seeing Disney characters all the way. I ran through Cinderella’s castle and saw Cinderella and the fairy Godmother while I did it. I felt really good until the last 5 or 6 miles when my legs tightened up a bit, though I still finished strong. I paced myself exactly how I wanted running my second 10 miles faster than my first 10 miles. (By the way, for any non-runners out there, a marathon is ALWAYS 26.2 miles, a half-marathon 13.1 miles).

One funny story from the race will give you an idea of what the disney marathon is about. For the first half of the race there was a small middle-aged man running near me. He ran at a very excited quick clip. Nothing too odd about that, but this male runner was wearing a minnie costume. With Spandex underneath. And he stopped to take pictures with every character. And he kept up my pace for the first half. Pretty funny…

Anyway this was a huge accomplishment for me, the cumilnation of over 20 weeks of training in South Africa and here. Thanks to all my family and intern friends who saw me at the finish or wished me well from abroad. You were all great.

ON TO BOSTON!