For most runners, that single word is loaded with significance. It’s the oldest annual marathon in the world, and perhaps one of the most exclusive. To achieve a Boston qualifying time is a singular accomplishment, a feather in the cap of any runner, and a feat that commands respect.
For some people, qualifying for Boston is a lifelong goal. Many put in years of hard work and attempt marathon after marathon to whittle down their time to reach the required mark. That was not me. I never, in more than six years of serious running, contemplated qualifying for Boston. It’s not that I wasn’t touched by the allure of that event, or didn’t understand its significance. I just never considered that I would be able to run fast enough. As a male younger than 34, I would have had to run a 3:10 marathon to qualify, and that was so far beyond my capabilities that it was laughable to think about. I’ve finished one marathon in my career – in 4:07, almost an hour slower than my age-group BQ time. Even last summer, in the middle of my most dedicated year of training, my running paces were still significantly short of the speeds I needed to hit to think about Boston.
Over the course of last year I toyed with the idea of a spring marathon in 2012, my only goal being a finish time that began with a 3. I felt that I could reach that milestone and then step away from the marathon for good. After all, even though I “age up” this year to the 35-39 group, the BAA adjusted the qualifying times downward last summer, so I would still have to run a 3:10 to qualify – far faster than I could hope for.
But then, on the perfectly crisp morning of October 8, I ran the race that changed everything. I had been focusing on triathlon all year, and when I ran my first road race of the fall season I blindsided myself with a 19:12 5k – almost a minute faster than my wildest prediction. As soon as I got home from the race I pulled out my training book – “Run Less, Run Faster” – and flipped nervously to the last chapter – Getting to Boston. At the beginning, it lists race times that indicate a Boston qualifier might be realistic. The 5k that I had run that morning was 18 seconds faster than the 19:30 listed in the book. I memorized the other scenarios and ticked them off over the course of the next few weeks – 40:50 10k (I ran a 40:22 time trial in my hilly neighborhood); a 5-mile tempo in 34:10 (done in 32:50); a 15- to 20-mile run at a 7:40 pace (I ran 15 at 7:08).
The final test would be my fall half-marathon, which the book suggested I would need to run in 1:30:27. I missed the mark by only 20 seconds, and despite my frustration at finishing just over that time (and coming so close to a sub-1:30), I knew then that my next goal would be to qualify for Boston at the Shamrock Marathon in March.
Despite hitting most of those targets with time to spare, I often struggle with alternating doubt and confidence in my ability to BQ this spring. Here’s why:
It’s a marathon. As we all know (and I have experienced first-hand), anything can happen during a marathon. No matter how well your training goes, you can never approach that distance with complete confidence. The race itself is about 4 to 6 miles farther than the longest training run, and those last miles are where the race is run.
Externalities. Even if the training goes perfectly, you only have one shot at race day. You wake up to drenching rain an hour before the start? You get hit with the flu the week before the race? Too bad.
I feel slow. Sometimes I feel as if marathon training has made me slower. To run a 3:10 marathon I would need to hold a 7:15 pace for the entire distance. There was a time last fall when that seemed reasonable, but now I question my ability almost every day. I just keep thinking about those last 6 miles of the marathon, when things start to hurt. Am I mentally strong enough to push through?
The next 9 weeks: There are still 9 weeks of intense training to get through before I even get to the starting line. I need to stay healthy and make it through without injury.
No cushion: To hit my qualifying time, I’ll need to execute a perfect race. There is no room for error – running a sub-3:10 will take all that I have. If the qualifying times hadn’t changed this year, I would be much more comfortable with the mark of 3:15:59 for my age group. But that is not to be.
My training. Training has been going well so far. I’m not breaking any land-speed records, but I’m not even halfway through the cycle and I’ve already successfully completed two 20-mile runs and two 18-mile runs. My second 20 was run at a 7:25 pace and my second 18 was at 7:18 – and I felt great after both runs. I’m certainly in a good place as I enter the second half of my training.
My body. Knock on wood, but my body has been holding up pretty well with all of the mileage I’ve been piling on. We’re just halfway through January and I’ve run almost 90 miles so far this month – and last week was a recovery week. Sure there have been aches and pains, but nothing like the major injuries I sustained in my previous marathon cycles in years past. I’m focusing on all the extras this time around – strength, stretching, recovery – and I think it’s making a big difference.
The course: Shamrock is just about as flat a course as you can find. There’s rumor that the winds can be strong, but at least there is little to no elevation change to contend with. And I train in a pretty hilly area, which should pay off on a flat course.
This is a huge goal for me, and it scares me to put it in public like this. There are moments when I think I have it in the bag, but more often I find myself thinking about what a monumental challenge this will be. Either way, I’m always thinking about it. The thought pushes me through sub-6:00 intervals in my speed sessions, it drives me to hold the hard pace on a long tempo segment, it fills my mind as I cruise through the long miles.
But, as a fellow blogger wrote recently, “If your dreams don’t scare you a little, you aren’t dreaming big enough.” There’s no point in setting goals that are easily achieved. This goal is going to push me to the limit of my ability, while relying a little on luck as well. I even wrote myself that I needed to rethink what’s possible. I have, and that is what has brought me to this point.
My goal for Shamrock is to BQ by finishing in 3:09:59 or better.
Now it’s time to get back to work.Bike: 17/109.6 miles Run: 25.4/89.3 miles