Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lessons learned: Boston Marathon 2018

I'd like to say that I'd DNS if I ever again faced conditions like those at the 2018 Boston Marathon (below 40 degrees, rain, high winds).  But I'm just kidding myself - I'd absolutely take another shot.  And hopefully be a bit more successful, based on what I learned this time around.

So here's my notes, written as much for myself as for anyone else, on what I learned.

[An aside here:  Other runners have told me that they would have known how to handle these conditions, because they had run in this type of weather before.  Let me be clear: unless you have stood or sat outside for 90 minutes and then raced a marathon (not a half) in that weather you have not experienced what it was like at Boston 2018.

I've run in all sorts of conditions - I don't ever skip a workout or an outside run due to weather unless it is unsafe.  I've run long runs and track workouts in Boston 2018 type weather, and I've raced up to the half-marathon distance in similar weather.   Despite all of that, I did not understand what it would be like on that day until I experienced it.  And though I am admittedly an adorably neurotic over-preparer, I was not prepared.]

  • Nutrition: this is always important during a marathon.  But in very cold and wet conditions, taking in enough calories becomes even more important since you are expending energy not only to run but also to stay warm.  At the same time, cold hands that don't work well, combined with wet clothing, make it much harder to eat enough. 

    One mistake I made was carrying all my gels safety-pinned to the inside of my shorts.  It's routine for me to lose some control of my hands even in moderate conditions (Raynauds) and this method has historically worked well then.  I partially open the gels before safety-pinning them, and then I need only grab the gel and rip it off of my shorts.  If yanking it doesn't finish opening the gel, then I finish the job with my teeth.  I don't need fine motor skills or grip strength when doing it this way.  I just need to be able to get my hand around the gel packet, which I can generally do even when my hands are stiff and have lost feeling.

    But this method failed me at Boston, when cold hands that weren't working (expected and planned for) combined with very soggy shorts (unexpected and not planned for) meant that I couldn't work my hands underneath the waistband of my shorts to grab my gels.

    In retrospect, I wish I'd followed a friend's example and tucked additional gels inside my gloves as well as within my sports bra.  You can always run with gels and not use them.  (Others stored gels in their arm-warmers, but that wouldn't have worked for me, since my arm-warmers are not snug.)

    I also carried a handheld water bottle with me, but I won't do that again in these conditions, unless I intend to toss it when empty.  My hands were too cold to open and refill the bottle.  And I was so soaked that getting more cold water on my hands wasn't a concern.

    So... more gels in every possible place, and no water bottle.
  • Clothing before start:  I wore multiple layers before the start - rain coat over heavy sweatshirt/sweatpants over rain poncho, with a disposable body warmer tucked in there as well  And the best idea of all - waterproof shoecovers (just Google them - there are many brands available). 

    While others carried a second pair of shoes to the start to change into, I think that would have been tough for me - both because of the difficulty of finding a place to change shoes, and because my hands were already too cold to tie my shoes well.

    I saw others wearing plastic bags tied over their running shoes.  And for many of them, the bags had slipped and ripped - they really weren't up to the stresses of Athlete's Village mud.

    The shoe covers were one of my best ideas.  Absolutely will do that again next time.  $8 very well spent.
  • Clothing for race:  For Boston, I went with my singlet, arm-warmers, shorts, a running hat that I didn't like (so that if it got blown off my head I wouldn't mind) with a headband underneath. And then a throwaway long sleeve techical t-shirt (knotted at my bustline so my number showed) and a clear poncho.

    I went with this because this same outfit, less the arm-warmers, had worked very well at the Shamrock Half-Marathon in 2017, where we had similar weather.  However, I failed to consider that I would be running for more than twice as long in a marathon, and also that I would be running significantly slower, and thus generating less heat.
    This outfit also resulted
    in lousy pictures.

    Of course the problem here is that there's really no running clothing designed for these exact conditions - sustaining moderate effort in rain, high wind, and below 40 degrees for multiple hours.  I have a raincoat for running, but it doesn't breath well at all - it's only good for easy running.  I also have some lighter water resistant stuff, but it was way too loose fitting and would have created significant drag in the headwind.

    Thinking about it post-race, I realized that there is another type of athlete that deals with those conditions occasionally during long all day rides at moderate effort - cyclists. 
    You have your Boston Jacket
    and I have mine.
    So I bought a cycling jacket that was form-fitting and water proof/wind resistant.  A bonus feature is that it has a large pocket in the back where I can tuck yet more extra gels.  I'll race in this if there is a next time.

    Incidentally, I don't regret wearing shorts instead of tights.  I'm confident that my tights would have been waterlogged within a mile or two, and chilled me more than bare legs would have.
  • Hands.  For my hands, I wore Scotchgarded glove-mittens with handwarmers tucked inside and plastic gloves underneath.   This didn't work that well.  The Scotchgard in particular was a wasted effort.

    Perhaps if I had donned the plastic gloves earlier when my hands were warmer, they would have retained more heat.  But other than that, I'm not sure what else I could have done.  Others have suggested wearing the plastic gloves as a top layer.  However the issue there is that my hands do not generate any heat on their own when I am running.  That's why I carry handwarmers almost constantly - to generate the heat to be captured within my mittens.  And handwarmers wouldn't work under plastic gloves, since they require exposure to air.

    I think that in the end, my hands were a lost cause.  My only other option would have been to wear my "boxing gloves" - massive snowboarding mittens that I wear when it's 25 or below.  However, I can't take gels at all while wearing those (it's hard even to lap my watch in them) so I couldn't have used them for the marathon, even if I had brought them with me.
  • Pacing/race execution:  With regard to pacing, I almost always prefer to start slow and then gradually build my pace over time.  It works in nearly all conditions - when it's warm and humid I'll alter slightly to staying conservative for an extended period of time and then hammering the last quarter to third of the race.

    However, I think these conditions were the one time that strategy didn't work.  I didn't save any energy by running conservatively - in fact I expended as much energy, if not more, by trying to stay warm.  It would have been far better to pick up the pace after mile 4-5 (not hammering, but just slightly less cautious), so that I could have stayed warmer.  I would have been running faster with the exact same energy expenditure.
  • Seeding/Starting Place: In hindsight, part of me also regrets not seeding myself further back.  Because I'm sometimes worried about gun time (when masters prize money is at stake) and sometimes not I've experimented with seeding myself at different places within a start.   And I've learned that when there is a headwind, your experience in the race depends greatly on where you are in the crowds.  The further back, the better.  It doesn't seem like it at the time but you lose much less time and spend much less effort weaving around slower runners than you do fighting a headwind.   

    The best example I can point to is Cherry Blossom 2016, where we had a sustained winds of 15-20 mph with gusts much higher.  I accidentally started in the wrong corral, with those significantly slower than me. I had to do a lot of weaving in the first 3-4 miles (much of which was directly into the wind) but I didn't consider the wind a real issue until I caught up to where I "should" have been.

    [Related to this point, anyone who started at the front of Wave 1 had a completely different experience from the rest of us running Boston. If you were 1/1 or 1/2 at Boston 2018, I owe you a drink next time I see you.  Because you ran the hardest race of all.]

    So...with this knowledge, why did I start in my designated wave and corral, rather than move back?  At the time, I chose to stay in my wave because the forecast indicated that the weather would be deteriorating over the course of the day.  I thought that the earlier I could start, the better.  It wasn't until I got to Athlete's Village that I realized I had miscalculated, and the weather had already rolled in.

    That being said, in the end I'm not too upset about not moving back.  Sharing the whole bus/Athlete's Village experience with my training partners Larry, Chris, and Juan is actually one of my favorite memories of the day, and something I will always treasure (as sappy as that reads).  I wouldn't trade that for the possibility of a slightly faster time.


  1. I am mostly a runner but occasionally a triathlete, and while I've never experienced Boston like conditions, I did do a duathlon in driving rain plus of course generated wind from cycling, and honest to God it's a miracle I didn't end up in the hospital. It was literally hours after the race before I stopped shaking. I wasn't able to stop shaking until I'd first stood in a hot shower (mostly stopped shaking but not completely) and then soaked in a tub for a while, and that was after an hour drive home with heat on max. I swore after that experience that I would never, ever race in those conditions again. Interestingly, during the run portion of the duathlon, I was fine, because the wind was not as severe, but the generated wind on the bike just killed me. It was like being naked because my jacket just was not stopping the wind and rain. After the bike, I was barely able to complete the 1/2 mile run to the finish. I couldn't feel my feet.

    Anyway. I really admire the fortitude of all the racers who completed Boston. I think for the conditions, you need a GoreTex jacket. I am from Seattle and run in the rain A LOT, and "precip" jackets just do not do the job. You need GoreTex. Even that (single layer, lightweight Goretex) will only hold up for 1 to 2 hours, so ideally, you'd have a support person at midcourse waiting to switch out your jacket and probably underlayer. My favorite rain jacket is the Patagonia Flyer. It's no longer sold but is pretty readily available on eBay. I get a ton of use out of mine during rainy winters here.

    In terms of gloves there are some rock-awesome cycling gloves out there for extreme conditions which I'm pretty sure would hold up for at least a couple hours in Boston conditions. They are pricey. Something like this:
    You will generally find more information on British websites for rainy cycling gear for obvious reasons.

    1. Thanks - very helpful. I will check out cycling gloves. I usually need mittens to hold my handwarmers, but perhaps the cycling "claw" gloves I've seen would work similarly.

  2. I love this analysis and reflection, particularly in the fact that standing in Athlete's Village for 90+ minutes before the start was really a game changer. In terms of a hat blowing off: I used bobby pins (two on each side) to pin the hat to my head so it didn't budge at all in the wind. This was a strategy from Shamrock 2016 that worked well. Nutrition was my downfall as well and like you I ran out of gas in those final miles. You fared better than most people, so you did a lot of things right. This race (at least for me) was less about fitness and more about executing with the proper gear.