It’s been a day since I ran the Boston Marathon for the third consecutive year, and there are many takeaways from the experience. But none of it really makes much sense unless we go back in time and put some context behind what got me here. I want to lay out some background first and then a bunch of major takeaways.
I was never a runner growing up. I played sports and they often involved running (like soccer or basketball), but I always hated running long distances. In fact, I would easily get shin splints or muscle cramps if I ran too much. Even running a 5k at the beginning of the school year for the Varsity Soccer team left me feeling like I might vomit. Granted, I was a decent athlete, and very fast as a runner. I was on a 4×100 relay team that won a prep school New England Championship my senior year. But I was never tasked with running more than 200 meters at a time for that team.
To make matters worse, I have notoriously bad mobility for someone my age. I am very tight all around, have suffered from chronic lower back issues, and have a hard time doing basic stretches from time to time. Part of that is the tradeoff of being a little bit more on the muscular side, but most of it is just my genes.
All of this to say, running the Boston Marathon – or really any marathon – was never something that was on my radar or something that I thought I could do. But in my adult life, I started to dabble with running. At first it was never anything too serious, just a few miles at a time at a casual pace. Sometimes I would get up to 6 or 7 miles. I fluctuated for many years in terms of my level of interest, always flirting with a commitment to running, sometimes getting up to 9 or 10 miles but never really participating in a serious way. And I always looked at running people as kind of nerdy. I even wrote my first ever blog about it.
Eventually, I got around to training for a half marathon. My goal was really just to finish, but I thought being under 2 hours would be nice. I ended up doing it in 1 hour and 37 minutes. I really surprised myself. And this basically opened up the window where I believed something like a marathon might be possible.
The first time I ran the Boston Marathon in October of 2021, I developed a condition in Mile 11 called rhabdomyolysis. It’s too difficult to explain and to be honest I still don’t even completely understand it, but long story short, it’s very bad and can be life-threatening. It presents itself through intense muscle spasms, which for me were in my calf muscles. Thinking I was just dehydrated, I dragged myself to the finish line for a time well over four hours, often needing to stop when these intense spasms would present themselves every few minutes. My goal was to reach 3’30”, so this was a bit of a disappointment for me except for one thing: I showed more toughness that day than in any other moment of my life. There have been many moments in my life where I was tough and many moments where I lacked mental toughness. But of all the moments I’ve ever had with mental fortitude, if you were to ask me the one I am the most proud of, it is the way I responded to that adversity. I learned something about myself that day that was very important, and that is that there is no quit in me. Now, a doctor certainly would not have recommended that I finish the race, but that is beside the point.
On the flipside, there were two things I learned post-race. First, I had not adequately prepared. The reason I even developed the condition in the first place was due to a lack of preparation. Second, I was kind of destined to fail because it turns out the rhabdomyolysis had been presenting itself to me at several points throughout my training, including in my last tune-up run the weekend before the race. Each time I got these intense muscle spasms, I attributed it to a hydration issue and resolved to do a better job with my water intake. It turns out I was operating in rhabdomyolysis for much of my training and I am actually pretty fortunate nothing seriously bad happened to me. Long story short, it was inevitable that I was going to show symptoms of it on race day.
Due to what happened on race day, I was advised that I needed to pull out of the NYC Marathon a month later. This was for my own health. Because of how much my calf muscles had been through with the spasms on race day, I actually could hardly walk for about a week due to how tight they were. If I were to walk, I had to do so on my tip toes.
While this entire experience was unfortunate in some ways, it taught me a lot about myself and I was really proud of the way I responded to the circumstances. There was nothing I could do about the fact I was unprepared on race day – all I could do was respond in a positive way, and I did that. But I was still left with a feeling that I had left something on the table and I wanted to at least break the four hour mark, and ideally reach my dream of hitting the 3’30” mark. So I signed up to run the race again in April 2022.
This time around, I hired a running coach and put more intentionality behind my training. I followed a strict regimen. Along the way, I set a new personal record for a half-marathon time, eclipsing the earlier record I had set years ago when I was beginning my running journey. In my training, I was routinely running splits that would put me well ahead of the goal time.
Everything was hunky-dory until I tested positive for COVID-19 3 days before the race. When it happened, I really could not believe it. For one thing, I had managed to not catch COVID for the entire pandemic leading up to that point. But the more obvious thing was that this was the worst possible timing. And I would eventually need to make a decision about whether or not I was feeling well enough to participate.
When race day arrived, I was sick, fatigued, and struggling to stay hydrated, but I felt good enough to do the race. I could tell immediately that I was not my normal self as even my earlier splits in the race were slower than usual. However, I had the benefit of the prior year’s experience. COVID compared to those muscle spasms was really hardly anything, so mentally I knew I could do it, and I beat my time by more than 30 minutes right around the 3’55” mark. While it was not my end goal, I was happy to beat the four hour mark and thought I did the best I could given the circumstances.
That brings us to this year’s race. Obviously I felt going into it that I had unfinished business. Boston.com did a short write-up about it. But really at a certain point it wasn’t even about trying to hit this arbitrary 3’30” mark that I had come up with (and to be honest I still can’t tell you why that number even matters to me). It was really just about understanding what I was capable of if I had no injuries or distractions. In fact, I pulled out of the NYC Marathon about six months prior because I had just gotten married and my honeymoon was going to be weeks before the race. I just knew I wouldn’t be able to train properly and to me it’s all or nothing. I either do it and give it my all or I don’t bother.
This time around was really quite special for me. Completely uninhibited, I was able to set a new PR for myself shaving about 20 minutes off my time from the year prior and running the race in 3’36”53. While on the one hand this left me just short of my goal time, I was very happy about the result because it showed me that I can be in the blast radius, which means I can get there. But really I was just happy about giving it my all. Unlike the prior two races, I never stopped at a single point of time to walk for a single step – I ran the whole way through.
If I were to condense some of the major takeaways from this entire experience, here is what they would be:
The first time I ran a half-marathon, I was ecstatic that I ran splits just north of 7’30”. I thought I would be lucky to be at 9’! Then what happened was I signed up for another half-marathon two months later. For that one, I was not as intentional in my training or with my diet. But I had just run a half-marathon and assumed some of that would carry over. I ended up being fifteen minutes slower, but more importantly, I really struggled in it physically whereas the first one actually kind of felt like a cakewalk.
I was so upset with myself that I cried after the race. I started blaming myself for my lack of commitment, my poor training, and for not having the willpower to cut off alcohol sooner before the race. Long story short, I villified myself in a pretty unhealthy way, all because I was unable to adequately compete with a prior version of myself and win.
Back then, I was stuck in more of a fixed mindset. In the fixed mindset, you have an unhealthy attitude towards yourself and you treat failures as just that: failure. What I wish I had done back then was have the growth mindset. Under the growth mindset, I would have been grateful for the learning opportunity I gained that day. I would have leveraged those learnings to make myself better in the future. And I would have looked at that former version of myself that ran that first half-marathon as a role model.
This is the attitude I have learned to adopt with these marathons. I’ll admit that I don’t think I had fully bought in during that first race. I was pretty bummed, rhabdomyolysis or not, that I had failed miserably by my own standard. There was no amount of people who could tell me that merely finishing the race was its own achievement, or that most people do not even bother to try, or so on and so forth, that could convince me otherwise.
Over time, I’ve learned to view some of these shortcomings as a positive. I’ve learned to appreciate my mental fortitude in that first race, and to appreciate the learnings I needed for my training. And in this most recent race, while I would be lying to you if I said it does not nag at me at least a little bit that I did not reach sub 3’30”, there is another part of me that knows a bunch of little things I learned from this experience that I know I can carry forward to hit that goal someday. It might not be anytime in the near future (I don’t intend to run Boston again next year – but perhaps another city in the next few years if time permits), but either way, I learned enough about myself to know I can do it. But more importantly, I’m just proud of the effort I gave and I have learned that sometimes good enough is, indeed, good enough.
Dealing With Adversity
This may sound stupid, but even though the forecast called for rain on race day, I did not really prepare for rain. And I had never really trained in rainy weather.
This actually kind of threw me off for a bit, but not for reasons that you might expect. I use my phone to pace myself and I do the pacing manually with a stopwatch on the phone because the GPS apps drain your battery. Halfway through the race, my phone got too wet to actually continue using. This meant I could no longer pace myself, and I was using the stopwatch to close distance as needed at every mile marker to maintain proper pacing.
It’s not to make excuses for myself, but this is actually where my pacing started to drop on race day. While on one hand I wish I had prepared better for this scenario, the only thing you can do when adversity strikes is react appropriately. Sure, there was a learning in this just as there was with the rhabdomyolysis, but beating yourself up for making a mistake is not super productive. What I did was accept the reality that this threw a wrench in my plan and resolved to just run as hard as I could for the rest of the race. That’s what I did.
It was not until pretty late in the race that I was able to do some math in my head based on my start time to deduce whether or not reaching my goal pace was feasible. For awhile, it was. Eventually as I got towards the last few miles, I realized it wasn’t. Again, the only thing you can do is just keep marching forward.
One of the things I love most about running the marathon is the way it brings people together. I could talk endlessly about the people in my support network who have donated (some of whom who did so all three times) to various causes I ran for, like The Boston Police Foundation, The New England Patriots Foundation, and most recently, The Bill Belichick Foundation. I cannot express enough how humbled I am to have these friends who step up to the plate to help me out and support a good cause in the process. Sometimes, the goodwill comes from people I do not even know. Again, it is just a feel-good thing to experience that.
But it really goes well beyond that. My parents camp out between miles 18 and 19 every year to support me, and even they remarked to me afterwards about how friendly everyone is and how everyone supports one another. There are tens of thousands of people who line up to watch the race, make signs, and cheer people on. The entire city is in a good mood. When you are wearing your medal around town after the race, strangers approach you to shake your hand, say congratulations, and tell you how proud of you they are. You see stories of runners falling in the final mile and being helped along by total strangers to the finish line. In fact, when I had rhabdomyolysis in my first race and was dealing with heartbreak hill, several random strangers came along to help me and offer me support. One of them was a middle-aged woman who had run several times and walked with me for several minutes to make sure I was OK.
During the race, I had someone shout out to me that they follow me on LinkedIn. I also got reconnected with one of my favorite high school teachers, who I gave a high five to in Natick. We spoke on the phone for the first time in years a day before the race. Even today as I am writing this, I wrote a post on my LinkedIn page about running the marathon and there was an outpouring of support and appreciation from people both within and outside of my network.
This type of outpouring of love and support for one another is something that would be nice to have all the time. Unfortunately, we live in a world that seems too complex to allow for that. But it sure is a nice respite from that reality when you see all these people banding together to be supportive. And that leads me to the next one.
I know that people give a lot of credit to the runners, but I give a lot of credit to the spectators. These are people who essentially take a day off to watch the race, and most of them are not actually there to watch someone they know. Of course there are also people like my wife who do know someone in the race and go out of their way to make sure we feel supported. She drove out to Framingham to watch me in Mile 6 and then back to the finish line to watch me finish – all this after dropping me off in the early morning, doing little things to make sure I was prepared, dealing with my training schedules, and attending some of my half-marathons or giving me rides for long training runs.
With regards to the spectators, they stand out there all day cheering for total strangers. Many of them come up with clever signs or funny costumes and they say things that make you want to keep going. For them, they really have nothing to gain other than to be helpful to the runners. This is not lost on me, and I made sure to really soak this in this time around. I intentionally took off my headphones at the halfway marker so that I could hear and pay attention to the crowd for the second half.
I have the attention span of a squirrel and I can barely sit through an entertaining movie. How many of these spectators stand outside for hours watching people run is beyond me. But I sure do appreciate it.
My friend Chris Scribner became a wrestling coach in Huntsville, Alabama at a high school for relatively underprivileged kids and helped turn the program into a great one, with state champions and placewinners. A documentary called “Wrestle” was made about him and the program, and to this day, I still remember something pretty cool that he told me. One of his wrestlers did not achieve his goal, but he remembered to do a move that he was unable to perform before. When he got off the mat, he turned to Chris and said, “I’m happy because I got better.”
I think that is an attitude I have been learning to adopt. I alluded to this earlier but my 3’30” goal is actually kind of arbitrary. I think it is because that would be an 8 minute mile, and in some of my longest runs, I’ve been capable of achieving splits around 7’30” for sustained distances as high as 17 or 18 miles. So in my mind I just think it’s something I should be able to do.
Not to sound cheesy, but a lot of the fun is just in the journey. I’ve “gotten better” every single time I have set my mind to this. And if I don’t “get better” next time, I need to treat it as a positive: learn why, and execute better the time after that.
When I was talking to my friend and former high school teacher, he coached me about having small wins. I applied this to race day, especially at heartbreak hill.
Each mile on the hill, my goal was just to get to the next landmark. Once I got to that landmark, I would set a new goal. Eventually, when you set small goals, you put the sum of the parts together and you reach the big goal. Sometimes you just need to divide it up and make it more tenable for yourself.
Honoring the Victims
I would be remiss if I did not close this out with perhaps the most important part of the blog.
A couple years ago, I ran for The Boston Police Foundation because I thought police were being treated inappropriately at the time by the national media and, as a result, by a lot of everyday people. I happened to have known (vaguely, through a dodgeball league I was in in NYC years ago) a police officer who had been stabbed to death by a crazy person in Washington, D.C. I dedicated that run to him.
Last year, my mentor, friend, and former high school wrestling coach, Steve Ward, passed away a few months before the race. He was an avid marathonner himself. I dedicated that race to him.
This year, with it being the tenth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, I dedicated my race to the victims. I was living in Back Bay at the time of those bombings and remember how touched I was about the way everyone in Boston responded – running towards the bombs and to the victims and not away from them – to help those in need. But I was also very sad for those who lost their lives, especially eight year old Martin Richard (and for that matter, his entire family, as his mother and sister also sustained serious injuries). To imagine that these were people who were innocently cheering on random strangers and that they had no opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones or to even fathom for a single second what was going on just makes me so sad.
I’ve learned it’s important to be dedicated to something – anything – and to have a compelling “why.” Every time you want to give up, you think about that thing. And when you are thinking about honoring someone’s legacy, you feel awfully selfish to give up.