Sunday, April 17, 2016

The 2016 Boston Marathon: Run Steady, Run Strong

Photo of a sign indicating the start of the Boston Marathon
Enjoy the Boston Marathon, even when you are waiting at the start
It goes without saying that the Boston marathon is legendary. It is one of the toughest, but best, marathons in the world. I have had the good fortune to run it three times. Each experience was different and intense.

There are three core variables that determine a successful marathon: a good training plan, good nutrition, and the weather. The weather is obviously beyond your control. In fact, the weather was almost my undoing the first year I ran the Boston Marathon, in 2004. Many elite athletes did not complete the race that year. The weather was exceedingly hot. Still, that was the year that I ran my best Boston Marathon. I actually finished 12th place overall (more on all of that later). Therefore, even though the weather is out of your control, and even though it is looking like it might be on the warmer side this coming Monday, there is still a lot that you can do to ensure an excellent performance despite the unknown and unexpected factors that can arise in any road race.

Here are some basic tips to help Boston Marathoners new and seasoned to finish strong and to avoid heartbreak on Heartbreak Hill.

Pre-Race Nutrition 

About three days before the race, begin increasing your carbohydrate intake. Increase your fluid intake as well. Many runners refer to this period as the “carb load” period. As always, I recommend not altering your diet too much in the time before the race. Continue to eat balanced, healthy meals, but do add extra carbs into your diet. You need to run 26.2 miles, and you need the energy to do that. Carbs will help you there.

I offer the same advice with fluid intake: do it gradually, but do not overdo it. If your stomach is sloshing, take a break.

Finally, consider eating your last large meal roughly twelve hours before the race. That way, you will digest the food and will experience the benefit of its nutrients while you are running. Keep things light and healthy once you get under that twelve-hour window.

Dress for Success

The Boston Marathon, in particular, presents some slight complications with clothing, because it starts somewhat later than other races, and depending on which corral and wave you are in, you might actually start the race close to the time when temperatures will be reaching their peak.

Therefore, dress comfortably and in layers for the early morning conditions, while you are waiting at the start in Hopkinton. Remember that you can always discard layers of clothing during the race. Just don’t toss away your number! But do make sure that you toss your clothing clear off of the course.

As always, dress consistently with what has been comfortable during your training. Just remember that you will be running for a long time, so sometimes it is best to dress on the lighter side, even if you are a little cold at the beginning of the race, because you will heat up.

Shorts and short sleeves work really well for most conditions. In cooler weather, compression bands can work well to keep your extremities warm. You might also consider a long sleeve shirt. Still not sure? Check out the Runner’s World “What to Wear” tool for additional help.

Hydrating and Fueling During the Race

Discarded Gatorade cups from a road race
Be sure to thank your race volunteers
Again, eat and drink with the same consistency that you have during your training. GU gels, Chomps, Sport Beans should be taken at roughly 45-minute intervals during the race. Make sure to hydrate while consuming any energy food.

Once again, strike the right balance with your fluid consumption. I recommended drinking about 13.5 to 27 oz. of fluid per hour.

The Boston Marathon has plenty of hydration stations along the course. Plan when and where you will eat and drink before the race. Also, do not wait until you are thirsty to drink. At that point, you will already be risking dehydration. Drink according to your pre-race plan. Do not wait until you are desperate.

Finally proceed through each hydration station in a steady, controlled fashion. Make sure that you actually drink the fluid, rather than quickly splashing it onto your face (and, you hope, into your mouth). Proper fueling and hydration will help keep you on pace, even if you drop a second or two when you are receiving it.

And So It Begins

Image of a map for the opening segment of the Boston Marathon
Even though it's a marathon, the same rule applies: don't go out too fast
Seed yourself according to your assigned starting corral. Before entering your corral, jog an easy warm-up for about 10-15 minutes. If there is room—it can get crowded in Hopkington—add some strides to your warm-up routine to get your body acclimated to racing conditions.

Remember that a large part of course is downhill, so be prepared for that. Do not go out too fast. Stay easy and steady for the first four miles. Also, try as best you can not to get distracted by the excitement of the crowd. The spectator support on this course is excellent—perhaps the best in the world. Enjoy it, but don’t let it carry you to a very quick early stretch.

After the first four miles, the course starts to flatten out. Settle into a gradual, comfortable pace, and focus on simply covering the next nine miles—one at a time—to get yourself to the halfway mark. Keep eating and drinking all along the way.

Half-Marathon to Newton

Image of a map for the middle segment of the Boston Marathon
The Scream Tunnel is pretty awesome
This second chunk of the race remains somewhat flat, with a steady downhill profile and, at mile 16, one slight drop. Stay comfortable and relaxed. The challenging portion of the race comes in Newton, so you do not want to expend too much energy too early. Keep it steady. Once again, enjoy the crowd support, particularly the Wellesley Scream Tunnel. Just don’t get too excited. Stay focused, and remember that you want to finish strong.

Heartbreak Hill to the Finish 

Image of a map for the Heartbreak Hill segment of the Boston Marathon
Hang in the there. You'll be on the streets of Boston soon enough.
Heartbreak Hill rises from the course at roughly mile 20.5, following three other uphills between miles 16 and 20. Heartbreak Hill spans about a half mile of the course up to Hammond Street. On its own, the incline is challenging, but what makes this hill especially difficult is the distance you have run up to this point, combined with the three previous inclines that occur late in the race.

Expect Heartbreak Hill to be challenging. Don’t get nervous, though. Adjust your pace so that you can stay steady and can work the hill. Focus only on this comparably short increment of distance, and don’t worry about the rest of the race.

Once you reach the top of the hill, the city of Boston will come into view, and you can be confident that you will make it to the finish line. Relax as you work your way toward mile 21, and then focus on working the last five miles. Keep eating and drinking.

After the 21st mile, the course drops downhill again, all the way to the finish. Now, you can channel the energy of the crowd for a final push. As you make your way toward Kenmore Square, look for the city’s famous Citgo Sign on the horizon.

Know that the Red Sox will be playing, and whether you like them or not, you’ll love the crowd support that you’ll get as you make the push to Boylston Street. Know at this point that you will be finishing an elite premier event. Run confidently, and run strong, all the way to the end.

Best of luck to all of you.

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