The Finish Line: Boston Marathon Recap

On Monday I took part in what some are calling the greatest day in running history. It was a day of healing, celebration, and for me, a day to overcome. I ran the Boston Marathon!

Early that morning, there was an energetic and positive vibe in the athlete’s village in Hopkinton. Everyone, including myself, seemed really excited to be there. The security may have been heightened a little as expected, but it was still easy for my Dad to drop me off right in front of the village, and in order to enter, all I had to do was show my race number and get a quick check by a volunteer with a hand scanner.

I was assigned to Wave 2, Corral 1, which meant I got to start in the very front. The first time I ran Boston in 2011, I was assigned toward the back of the first wave, so by the time I actually crossed over the start line, the only thing I could see ahead of me was a sea of bobbing heads. This time, however, there was nothing blocking the view of the pavement leading steeply downhill. It gave me an idea of what it would have been like to start up front like one of the elite athletes earlier that day. It also allowed me to visualize what the scene would have looked like fifty years ago, when the number of entrants was only 400 and it was probably possible to start up front no matter who you were.

The first ten miles or so of the race had some major downhills, especially toward the very beginning. My plan was to run conservatively, with my goal pace being between 7:40 and 8:00 per mile. Even though I started toward the front, I was immediately swallowed up by hundreds of runners passing me on both sides. Despite my intentions, I was shocked when I looked down at my watch as I passed the first mile mark- it read 7:04. I did my best to slow down, but with the combination of having well rested legs, the swarms of people passing me and carrying me along, and the spectators lining the streets and cheering on the runners, it was difficult to rein in my pace. My next mile was in 7:14 and I felt like I was jogging, when in fact, I was well ahead of my goal pace. Eventually I settled in and hit a rhythm of 7:30-7:40 minute miles.

Leading up to marathon day, my left foot had been giving me quite a bit of trouble. Even as I was walking around the athlete village race morning, I had felt a few pangs. After about ten miles into the marathon, however, any worries I had about my foot began to disappear. It felt completely fine for the first time in weeks. I knew my husband and family and friends were tracking my progress online, and I so badly wanted to communicate with them, “Hey, I feel great! I’m going to be fine!” so they wouldn’t have to worry. I went into cruise control, gliding from town to town, smiling at all of the spectators and giving a wave or fist pump to anyone that saw my Portland Running Company singlet and yelled “Yeah, Portland! Go Oregon!”

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Around mile 15, a fellow Portland runner from Team Red Lizard came up beside me and said, “Hey, I think I just heard that Meb won.” Wait… wha?? I had to make him repeat himself. Because this guy was telling me that Meb Keflezighi, an American runner whose personal best was more than four minutes slower than the top contenders in the field, had won the Boston Marathon. I needed more confirmation. As I ran through the next water station, I asked several volunteers who had won the marathon. They had no clue. I asked several spectators as I ran by, and one said, “An American!” Then finally, another runner out there with me shouted, “MEB!” The news was spreading like wildfire- Meb had won the Boston Marathon! He was the first American to do so in 31 years. I absolutely could not contain my excitement. I was grinning ear to ear. It was all the inspiration I needed. I could no longer hold myself back and I started to take off, passing runners left and right. Over the next few miles, the amount of spectators grew, and at soon enough I was dashing through the main street of Newton, its sidewalks filled to the brim with people. My energetic running was earning a LOT of cheering for Portland! It was an unforgettable moment. I kept telling myself that if Meb could win the marathon, I could stand to pick up the pace a bit. I finished that mile in under seven minutes, and threw in a few more 7:30s.

After that magical little moment, it was back to business. It was time to tackle the Newton Hills, and I was ready. I had held back so much earlier in the race, that once I started to ascend the hills, I felt that I could give myself permission to let it hurt a little more. I was able to maintain my sub-8:00 goal pace, but this time I had to earn it.

Once I made it past Heartbreak Hill and entered Brookline, my goal was to not fall apart. It’s always through those last several miles when it seems that time slows down. Despair starts to set in. You start to wonder when you’ll ever see the next mile mark, and when you do, all you can think of is how very far from the finish you still are. It was through those last few miles that I really drew from the support of the crowd. I tried to keep my chin up and be strong for everyone cheering. I wanted to be strong for Portland and strong for Boston. I thought of the the mantras that two of my running heroines had written for me on my bib number just days earlier. Lauren Fleshman wrote, “Be the lion.” Kara Goucher had written, “Always believe.”

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I thought back to the time Kara had run Boston for the first time in 2009, and I was home watching on TV. At the same point in the course I was at, she was chasing down Salina Kosgei and Dire Tune with all of her might. It looked for a moment like Kara had been broken, but then just near the tunnel with 1K to go, I remember her throwing off her gloves and surging ahead once more, refusing to let the other women break away without a fight. I tried to be strong like Kara and strong like Meb had been on that very same day.

As I turned the final corner toward the finish, I did my absolute best to keep it together physically and emotionally. The sound of the crowds cheering was deafening. I heard my name in what can only be described as a ROAR coming from my Dad somewhere in the throng of spectators. My legs felt pulverized and I was getting passed by what seemed like multitudes of marathoners raising their arms and celebrating their soon-to-be finish. I definitely could not lift my arms. I definitely was not thinking about smiling for the cameras. But I definitely kept my eyes on that finish line and continued pumping my arms forward in seemingly slow motion until finally I had crossed.

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I made it. With a finish time of 3:22:31, which is more than I could have asked for considering this crazy year. I was honestly a little stunned. After months and months of worrying about the outcome of the race (read about my training leading up to Boston), and whether or not I would even make it to the start, let alone the finish, there I was, just past the finish line with a volunteer congratulating me and hanging a medal around my neck.

As I slowly and painfully made my way through the finisher’s area, I was met by the friendly faces of volunteers congratulating me, handing me water, and wrapping a Mylar space blanket around my shoulders. I did my best to thank each and every one of them for being there. I eventually turned a corner to make my way toward the family greeting area, where I was met by another big group of volunteers. There were maybe twenty or thirty of them, and they all began clapping for me. I tried to hold in my emotions, but it was impossible. I felt so humbled. I thanked them for being there while trying to wipe the tears streaming down my face. I learned later that almost all of the volunteers in the finish area were returning volunteers from the previous year, when the bombing had occurred. I can’t imagine the emotions they were going through by returning to that very same place.

I continued hobbling along to the family meeting area, which getting to seemed like a mini-marathon in itself. I desperately scanned the crowds for my family, then finally, I saw my sister Katie who gave me the biggest smile. She, my Mom, and my Dad came rushing over and gave me huge hugs, and of course I lost it again. There’s nothing quite like the comfort of being embraced by your family after being in so much physical pain. There’s nothing quite like the Boston Marathon.

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Why Boston?

Last year, the evening before the 2013 Boston Marathon, I was home in Portland, going for a quick jaunt around the waterfront loop. While I wasn’t physically in Boston, I specifically remember feeling a sort of magic in the air. I was the only runner out there. The city was quiet and the air was hauntingly still. It was the calm before the storm.

I was feeling positively giddy in anticipation of following the race online the next morning to cheer on friends, colleagues, Portland Running Company teammates, college teammates, coaches, and my all-time running heroes Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan. To me, the Boston Marathon is the biggest sporting event of the year. As I ran around my familiar running loop, I tried to channel the excitement and nerves my fellow runners in Boston were probably feeling just as they were winding down to go to sleep before their big day.

The next morning I had a great set up- a live stream of the elite race on one tab, a website tracking all of the runners I knew personally on another tab, the Runner’s World live updates on another tab, then following @flotrack and various other handles on twitter mobile. It was an emotional morning of witnessing struggles and triumphs. I was so incredibly inspired and proud of everyone. As I was waiting for the last few people I was tracking online to cross the finish line, I refreshed my twitter feed for probably the thousandth time that morning, and my heart dropped. There had been an explosion at the finish line. No, wait, now two explosions. I quickly jumped back on my computer to check the news and there was nothing. It had literally happened within the past minute or two. As I refreshed my twitter feed, photos of the scene emerged and I knew whatever happened was serious. It dawned on me that a pretty enormous amount of people that are part of my community and from all different parts of my life could have been near the explosions, and I had no idea if they were injured, or worse. I texted anyone whose number I had to make sure they were safe. I heard back from some, but not all. I then began to receive texts from concerned friends who thought I might have been there, followed up by a few that read along the lines of, “Good, you scared the shit out of me!” The rest of the day was a waiting game. I had spent the morning glued to my computer and phone waiting to see how my friends and fellow runners would fair in a footrace. For the rest of the day I was glued to the same screens waiting to find out if those same people were alive.

Thankfully, everyone I knew was safe and physically well. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel shaken that an attack of that magnitude would hit so close to home. It directly affected my community. The people that piece together almost every part of my life, and not just runners. I ran Boston in 2011 and both of my parents were cheering for me on the homestretch, just near where the bombs went off. So what happened last year, despite whatever reasoning there was behind it, was extremely personal.

The next evening, Tuesday, April 16th, I went out for a run on that same familiar waterfront loop that I had run on alone the night before the race. It was different that time. There were tons of runners out there, donning yellow and blue, wearing Boston Marathon finisher shirts from years past, and some wearing their finisher shirts from the day before. There were people carrying American flags and many wearing race bibs printed with the number 415. As I ran by them we nodded at each other, and I noticed that even people out walking or driving by in their cars would give the runners a little nod or a wave. It turned out that everyone was congregating on the east side of the waterfront for a group run that had been quickly put together after the events of the day before, to mourn the lives that had been lost and as a sort of show of solidarity among the running community. I was never so happy to see so many familiar faces- those who had returned from Boston, my personal running buds, and even just people I recognized from local races, group runs at Portland Running Company, and track workouts at Duniway Park. It was then that I knew I had to run the 2014 Boston Marathon. Not for myself, but because I’m part of something much, much bigger.

Running with Jordan Hasay

I ran a 10K on the track with Jordan Hasay! The race was put on by her coach, Alberto Salazar, in perfect weather conditions with pacers to lead her to the ‘A’ standard of 31:45 for the T&F World Championships in Moscow.

In order to cover his bases and make it a legitimate race against real people, Salazar offered to pay $100 to four women capable of running a sub-45 minute 10K to participate. The meet director posted about it on facebook on Saturday night. I immediately messaged him and he told me I was in!

I didn’t exactly feel prepared to run a 10K. I was coming off of a great week of training with two good workouts under my belt, but that meant by Sunday I was feeling pretty tired. My easy run the day before the meet was 10 miles!

I was a little nervous when I arrived at the track, mainly because I did not know what to expect. My worries vanished when I met the other women. We were all on the same boat- all local runners, not really ready for a 10K on short notice (some of them had even raced a 5K that morning), not really sure what to expect, but just having fun and going for it. Most of the women were running it as a workout, and a couple of them were using it as a time trial. The atmosphere felt relaxed, and everyone was just excited to be there and root for Hasay. I didn’t get to meet her before the race, but I saw her warming up around the track in a hot pink Nike jacket, then later speaking with Salazar, likely going over her race plan.

At the start, we were lined up slowest to fastest based on our predicted finish time. In the pic below, Hasay is toward the left with the braided hair and I am in the middle with the split shorts and arm crossed over my front.

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The start gun fired, everyone took off, and I found myself immediately in last place! Ahh oh no!! My plan was to try and run 93 second quarters. I felt like I was running so fast, and surely the women around me took off too fast, and surely we were running sub-90. The first quarter went by in 95 seconds. Oh dear. One lap down, and I was already behind on my goal pace, AND it felt hard. I knew this should have been one of those “listen to your body” moments, and I should have settled into that pace because it already felt plenty fast. Instead, I chose not to listen and started chasing the women in front of me.

I passed a few women that were doing a tempo run together and did my best to speed up. However, it became clear pretty quickly that 93 second laps were just too fast. My breathing was okay, but my legs were tired. I went through mile one in 6:16 or so and mile two in 12:32. I must have slowed down a little bit in mile three, and went through the 5K mark in 19:43.

Throughout all of this, so far, the crowd was going nuts every time Hasay and her pacers ran down the homestretch. Every time the announcer called out her splits, which were right around 75-77 seconds, a big cheer would erupt because she was right on target. By the 5K mark, I think she had already passed me twice. There were officials with flags stationed on all four corners of the track that would signal to me when Hasay was approaching, so that I could move out to lane three and allow her and the pacers to pass. Every time she zoomed by, I shouted words of encouragement to her. I noticed the other women out there doing the same.

Every time I ran down the homestretch, I could hear several people yelling, “Go Liz!”, which surprised me a little. The only person I knew for sure that was there was my husband, so it was nice getting some unexpected support. As far as my pace, I sort of lost track and stopped paying attention to my watch, but I felt like I found a manageable rhythm.

Since I had stopped paying attention so much to my own race, I started noticing what was going on around me a bit more. As Hasay got closer and closer to finishing her race, the crowd seemed to be getting more and more frantic. I think her pace was starting to slip a little bit and everyone was getting nervous. I noticed Alberto Salazar watching intently from the 100m mark on the track. With a few laps to go, Hasay passed me yet again. I saw a young woman in a navy track jacket in the infield shouting at Hasay that she knew she could do it. I had to do a double-take, because I realized it was none other than high school phenom Mary Cain.

Simply being in the presence of national and world class runners, plus the incredible crowd, was enough to give me a little burst of energy. My legs were not happy and I was feeling weary, but it was simply impossible not to get excited. I think I had five laps to go when the bell rang and Hasay was completing her last lap. I realized that I would be running down the homestretch at the same time as her! Not wanting to be in the way of photographers, or mess up her race in any way, I swung way out into lane 5 to give her all the space she needed.

 

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.@lizanjos running with @jordanhasay

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I was about 20 meters into my next lap when Hasay crossed the line. I kept running, but I had to at least crane my neck around and see her finish! She ended up running a time of 31:46- just one second off her goal. It was still good enough for the ‘B’ standard, which meant she sealed the deal for her trip to Moscow.

Meanwhile, my mortal self still had five laps to run! My legs still weren’t happy, but I felt a surge of energy after seeing Hasay’s big finish.

The last mile went by pretty quickly and I ended up crossing the line in 39:25. Just seven seconds off my PR and a negative split by one second (19:43/19:42)!

Afterward I found Hasay in the infield and gave her a high five and my congratulations. She seemed incredibly sweet and humble. I also went up to Salazar, introduced myself, and thanked him for having me and the other women in the meet. I’ll admit, I was a tad starstruck.

By the time I got home, it was around 11:45PM, but my day wasn’t over quite yet. I made my way downstairs to the gym, hopped on a treadmill, and ran another 6.25 miles. Exactly enough to complete 65 miles for the week. Ah, the strange yet satisfying life of a runner.

Update: Flotrack posted a video of this race (or as they more appropriately called it, standard chase) here.

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Hayward Magic

Last Friday I ran in the Oregon Relays. It was my first-ever track meet at Hayward Field in Eugene. Getting a chance to race on this track was particularly special to me because of how many historic running events have taken place there and how many of my running heroes have raced on that very track.

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I competed in the women’s 5000 meters, which is the distance I’ve raced the most both on and off the track. The 5K has been a steady marker of progress since I began running at the age of 14, with every minute knocked off being a new milestone. For the past five years or so I’ve plateaued somewhat, as I’ve run countless 19-something-minute 5Ks, but never faster.

This meet was probably the most formal/organized one I’ve ever entered. To start, they had a special outdoor warm-up area just for the athletes, complete with a mini track and field where we could do drills and strides. There I had to wait for my event to be called. Once my event was called, the other competitors and I had to take all of our belongings with us, and an official escorted us to an indoor warm-up area under the bleachers. This room had maybe five track lanes if we wanted to warm up some more. It was blazing hot in there! I’m guessing they have it this way so sprinters can warm up and not have to worry about pulling a muscle. As soon as the event before ours ended, all of my fellow competitors and I were ushered outside to the track. We had to walk along the perimeter to the 200m start, and I have to admit for a tiny, fleeting moment, I felt kind of like a track star. As we walked by the covered bleachers along the backstretch, the crowd just started going nuts for us. It was unreal. I almost waved.

Let me point out that this was a B heat at a relatively low-key event. The Mt. SAC Relays were happening the same night, which is where many of the nations fastest collegiate runners were. This worked out well for me because my seed time of 18:28 (a calculated guess based on a recent mile finish time) was just barely fast enough to squeeze into this race. However, it was also potentially dangerous because if I had a bad race, I ran the risk of being lapped and/or placing last.

After the meet officials made sure we were lined up perfectly at the start, the gun shot and we were off. Everyone started very fast and I had to make a decision to either go with them or get left behind. My breathing was getting labored after just two laps, but I’m pretty sure there was only one woman behind me, so for the sake of not losing contact with the group I pressed on.

After about a mile, some of the women seemed to be getting tired and slowing down, so I used the opportunity to catch a few of them. I had no idea what pace I was going (it seemed almost wrong to look down at my watch in the middle of a track race), so I just focused on catching up to the person in front of me, passing her, then catching the next person. I was glad to have people to go after because it helped me to keep pushing and never settle into a comfortable pace.

I couldn’t believe how quickly the laps flew by. Before I knew it, there were five to go and it was time to start moving. I spent the next several laps going back and forth with a runner from Gonzaga University. Every time I thought I had her beat, she’d pass me, but then I’d pass her right back. Then she’d pass me again. And so on. While we were both probably annoyed at each other, I think the fact that neither one of us wanted to give in helped to keep our pace up. The last lap was painful, but I felt strong and kicked it in as hard as I could, outkicking Gonzaga-girl. When I looked up at the scoreboard, I was completely ecstatic to see my name with 18:25.82 right next to it! A personal record by 42 seconds, and finally an end to my 19-something streak. My PRC teammate Laurel also ran, and she broke 18 minutes for the first time, setting a new personal record of 17:57. We both couldn’t have been happier.

That's me on the left, Laurel on the right
That’s me on the left, Laurel on the right

I’m getting used to the irony of my fastest races being the ones I place the worst in. In this case, I placed 14th out of 19 runners. Looking on the positive side, I’m happy to have even been in the mix.