For many runners, the Boston Marathon is the “holy grail” of marathons. Those of us for whom qualifying for Boston is a pipe dream must settle for something else. In my case, that something else was the Boston Half Marathon, which took place on Sunday, October 11.
While there is no qualifying time for the Boston Half Marathon, registering for the race was not a straightforward process. There were only 5,000 spots available through online registration—the first 2,000 participants were accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis and the remaining 3,000 were selected by a random lottery. I had noted the registration date in my calendar months ahead of time. By 10:00 a.m. on the day of registration, both my husband and I were sitting at our computers, fingers and credit cards ready. He completed his registration in four minutes and secured a spot in the first 2,000. The three extra minutes it took me to complete my registration landed me in the random selection pool with the rest of the slow-typers and double-checkers. But as luck would have it, my name was drawn in the lottery and we were off to the races!
Going into the race, we knew that it would be a hilly course so we incorporated a lot of hills into our training. The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes both the Boston Marathon and the Boston Half Marathon, provides a 12-week training program on their website with different versions for beginner, intermediate and advanced runners. We didn’t follow their program exactly but we did use it to set the distance for our weekly long runs and decide whether we should do hill or speed training (or both) that week.
For our runcation in Boston, we used AirBnB to find a place that was within walking distance to Franklin Park where the race starts and ends. After arriving on Saturday morning, we set out to the park to figure out where we would need to go for the race the next day. The walk from our AirBnB to the starting area turned out to be much shorter than expected! After lunch, we headed downtown to the Boston Marathon Adidas RunBase store to pick up our bibs and race shirts. The pick-up process went smoothly but I was disappointed that the shirts were unisex and a rather boring shade of grey. I had initially wanted to take it easy on Saturday by minimizing the amount of walking and maximizing our hydration and food intake. After an afternoon of exploring and shopping, we had covered almost 15 kilometers—so much for “taking it easy”!
The morning of the race we woke up, ate breakfast and got ready in time to make it to the starting area half an hour before the race began. The line up for gear check was long and chaotic so we didn’t have a lot of spare time to get to the start line and find our corrals. Unlike most races I’ve run in Canada, the Boston Half Marathon does not pre-assign runners to a start corral. Instead there were markers at the starting line indicating different paces (for example, 7:00–7:59 minutes/mile, 8:00–8:59 minutes/mile, etc…) and runners were expected to line up in the right corral according to their expected pace. That shouldn’t have been a problem except I always calculate my pace in minutes per kilometer. So I frantically tried to do some math in my head and slotted myself in with the 7:00–7:59 min/mile runners. It turns out that I’m not so good at doing math under pressure. With my normal pace of roughly 5:40/km, I should have actually been way in the 9:00–9:59 min/mile group. Oops.
Standing there waiting for the gun to go off, I reminded myself of my goals for this race: have fun and not get injured. I had been experiencing some pain in my left knee in the weeks prior to the race so I took a break from running in the week right before we came to Boston. Even so, I was nervous about how my knee would hold up with all the up- and downhill parts. Having accidentally surrounded myself with really fast runners and knowing there would be a big downhill in the first mile, I knew I would have to hold back to avoid going out too fast in the first part. I needed to save some energy for the second half of the race, which would be a slow, steady climb all the way to the finish line.
The course itself was very scenic, looping through the Emerald Necklace park system. The route took us through picturesque neighbourhoods, parks, ponds, a golf course, an arboretum and even a zoo! I also loved all the beautiful fall colours in the trees lining the route. There was a marker at every mile with a clock so I was able to check in on my pace regularly. There were also hydration stations roughly every two miles and a Clif Shot Energy Zone at mile six where volunteers handed out energy gels. Instead of downing my energy gel in one go, I held on to it and took a gulp every one and a half miles. That really helped me maintain consistent energy levels and a constant pace throughout the second half of the race.
Maybe it was the adrenaline or maybe it was all the hill training we did but the hills on the course were not actually all that bad. Sure, there were a lot of them but for the most part, they were short and not as steep as I had imagined them to be. About eight or nine miles into the race I suddenly realized that I hadn’t experienced any pain or discomfort in my knee, which was a huge confidence boost. At that point, I started thinking more about speed and beating my previous half marathon time. During the last two miles of the race, there were some downhill portions where I felt my toes jam against the front of my shoe. Thankfully, it wasn’t serious and I was able to ignore it and keep going.
The final kilometer of the race was a long downhill leading to the entrance of White Stadium where spectators were waiting and cheering in the stands. Heading into the final stretch, I knew that I was really close to matching or beating my previous time so I went full balls to the wall and sprinted all the way to the finish line. I finished in 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, beating my previous time by 1 minute and 24 seconds and setting a new personal best.
Overall, both my husband and I had a great time at the Boston Half Marathon. Everything in the lead up to the race and during the race was fantastic. The post-race refreshments made up one of the best spreads we have ever seen at a race. In addition to the standard bagels and bananas, there were full-sized Clif Bars, chips, pears and dried cranberries. There were even mini burgers and smoothies! Our only complaint was that gear check was too disorganized and not well staffed. There was a huge bottleneck at the start of the race with everyone trying to get a bag and tag from a volunteer. After the race, runners had to dig through a large pile of bags to find their gear because there were no volunteers to help retrieve your belongings. Even though everyone was trying to be really careful and tiptoe through the piles, we saw bags being stepped on and tossed around.
Has this race satisfied my desire to “run the Boston”? For now.
As elusive as it is, I would still love to run the Boston Marathon one day. Assuming that the qualification times don’t change and I can maintain my current pace for the next 22 years, I should be able to qualify for the Boston when I’m 50—something to look forward to!
Betty is a science communicator living in Toronto. Her two proudest accomplishments are completing a full marathon without barfing and obtaining her Ph.D. She has an unhealthy obsession with pancakes and good deals. Luckily, her husband is very good at eating pancakes and finding creative storage solutions. In her spare time, Betty blogs at Eat, Read, Science where she writes about the latest and coolest science papers in a way that won’t make you fall asleep. You can follow her on Twitter at @BisousZou.