Three Years, Three Hours

“A problem worthy of attack proves its worth by fighting back.” -Simon Singh

It’s been three years since I’ve gotten back into running, and I’ve been trying to achieve a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time ever since. It hasn’t been easy, and before entering a new training cadence for the Eugene Marathon this year, I was confronted with the graveyard of previous attempts at securing the coveted BQ.

Illinois Marathon 2019

In April 2019, I ran my first marathon at my alma mater in Illinois. Despite poor and inconsistent training routines, I was able to stay on pace through the first half of the race, crossing the 13.1 mile mark at 1:27:30. However, less than 3 miles later, I slowed down dramatically before alternating between walking and running while managing a right leg strain. I finished in 3:28:50, completing the second half over 40 minutes slower than the first.

San Francisco Marathon 2019

In July 2019, I trained more consistently, increased the distance of my longer runs, and paid attention to hydration and refueling. Leveraging home field advantage, I ran the San Francisco Marathon in front of friends and family. I matched the 3 hour pacer for 18 miles before relenting and gradually fading back multiple minutes in the last 7 miles. I finished in 3:06:16, shaving more than 22 minutes off of my time, but still falling short of the desired BQ.

Santa Rosa Marathon 2019

Eager to quickly re-attempt a BQ, just a month later in August 2019, I ran the Santa Rosa marathon. I opted to use a lighter set of shoes, believing that this choice would make the difference in the race. Due to a shortened training period and residual soreness, I maintained 3-hour pace for 15 miles before peeling off and losing the pace group. Limping through the last 10 miles, I finished the race 7 minutes slower, running a 3:13:02.

Honolulu Marathon 2019

Taking a few weeks off before entering the 12 week training period, I resolved to achieve the BQ in Honolulu before the end of 2019. In December, I traveled to Oahu to run the Honolulu Marathon. Inconsistent training and poor hydration and refueling in a humid environment doomed the bid as soon as 14 miles in. By mile 18, I was alternating running and walking, simply content with finishing the race. But with less than 2 miles to go, I keeled over in fatigue and dehydration and collapsed on the side of the course. I lost more than 45 minutes waiting to recover while I consumed enough fluids and electrolytes to continue. Finally, after receiving medical assistance, I completed the final tenth of the race, notching an abysmal 4:14:00.

Eugene Marathon 2020

2020 was going to be a much better year. I signed up for the 2020 Eugene Marathon, which was known for its fast and flat course and favorable race day weather. The COVID-19 pandemic reached its nadir in March 2020, necessitating the race’s cancellation. However, as I’d already reached my training cycle’s peak phase, I continued onwards, eventually running the marathon distance around the city of San Francisco by myself. While a 3-hour time was out of the question (and would not be certified anyway), I ran a 3:48:33 on my own.

Chicago Marathon 2021

Hoping to get a boost from the large crowds of a major marathon (pun intended), I applied for and received an entry into the 2020 Chicago Marathon. While the 2020 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity presented itself 12 months later when I was able to defer my entry into the 2021 edition. Training was shaping up to provide a good chance to notch the sub-3 mark, with my speed and tempo workouts becoming more consistent and quicker. However, halfway through the training cycle, I felt a twinging pain in my upper right leg during an hour run. Optimistically believing that the pain was transient, I decided to proceed onto a tougher fast-finish long run workout a few days later. Progressing to the second phase at goal pace, the pain in my right leg became more pronounced, abruptly ending the workout. While I would try to continue training around the injury, the pain did not subside, and what would become a vexing IT-band issue would culminate in a DNS for my Chicago Marathon entry.

Training

Now, it had been a while since I’d run a race, but maybe this time would be different. Armed with the lessons learned from my previous attempts, I focused on three aspects of training: consistency, health, and speed.

Consistency

Strava provided a 12-week marathon training plan that I attempted to follow as closely as possible. The hardest challenge was simply lacing up and getting outside. The miles generally clicked by fairly smoothly once I was out on the roads. Life would sometimes get in the way, or I’d feel frustratingly lazy and arbitrarily postpone runs. Early in the training cycle, I fell three days behind. I let the week lapse, but, since I’d budgeted an extra week out before starting the 12-week plan, I picked up where I left off the next Sunday. Although consistency against the training plan left much more to be desired, I did not skip any workouts, making them up without running into scheduling congestion.

Health

With the Chicago DNS fresh in my mind, I was committed to staying healthy in this training cycle. I focused on small adjustments for avoiding overexertion.

For example, on most runs I would need to ascend a 12% grade to get back home. Generally, I would push the pace hardest at the end of workouts, striving to finish strong. Running up the hill back to my house at a relatively fast pace meant that my heart rate would exceed 180 beats per minute. I would continue all the way until I’d reached the front door before ending the workout. Instead of tackling the hill each time, I ended workouts at the foot of the climb. Then, I walked the remaining distance back home slowly, paying careful attention to my heart rate. Once my heart rate was below 120 bpm, I allowed myself to go back inside my house. I found that I wasn’t as exhausted as before, and that the walk back also allowed me some time to mentally recount the workout.

Speed

I’ve had a dislike for speed workouts since high school, always favoring the free-flowing longer runs. While the marathon would draw on my endurance, I realized that the speed workouts sprinkled in the training plan could not be ignored.

The faster workouts formed a progression that would serve as an important indicator for marathon success. Fartleks were a bona-fide sprint followed by an equal-time jog. Putting them together, I’d get a tempo run. Cranking up the pace from the tempo run and stretching the distance a little yielded a goal pace run. Removing the rest between 800m repeats formed the final 2-3 km of a progression run. Finally, the “fast finish long runs”, a key workout where I’d start at an easy pace before graduating to quicker paces later in the run, was a combination of an hour jog, followed by a goal pace run, topped off with the last 3km of a progression run.

I also noted that Fartleks could help me disburse some quick speed to grab a cup of electrolytes ahead of a crowded pack during the actual race. Understanding the importance of speed workouts encouraged me to take them more seriously. Pushing the pace on tempo runs and goal pace runs, I found that I was running 5-10 seconds faster per kilometer than my previous training cycle, a good sign.

Eugene Marathon 2022

The training cycle had gone well. I left for Eugene in high spirits, focused on the goal at hand.

I arrived in Eugene well past midnight Friday morning. I claimed my bag at the carousel and waited a few cycles for a Lyft or an Uber to materialize, but with no luck. Gradually, the passengers from my flight filed out of the small airport as they caught their rides to town. Eventually, a trio of fellow San Franciscans traveling together offered to share a taxicab with me. I happily agreed, and our gregarious cab driver shuttled us to central Eugene first. The three Good Samaritans hopped off first, and we exchanged names before they disappeared into their Airbnb. The cab driver then took a left before driving up north towards Springfield, pointing out Eugene landmarks like Hayward Field and Autzen Stadium along the way. By the time we’d gotten to my motel, it was half past 2.

I got out of bed Friday morning and immediately threw on some shorts and an old half marathon long sleeved t-shirt. I headed south from my motel towards Eugene, crossing over I-5 and continuing south towards the hallowed Prefontaine trailhead. I kept the pace controlled and relaxed, getting a feel for the roads and surfaces that I’d be running on in a few days. Half an hour later, I crossed over a stream and the Willamette River before doubling back on the same bridge and heading up north. Retracing my steps back to the motel brought the morning jog to a full hour – good enough for now. My legs felt good, with no sign of pain or any problems. It was a bit warm, but not muggy or excessively humid. Satisfied, I showered and headed out towards Eugene again, this time to pick up my gear check bag and racing bib.

I didn’t spend much time at the expo, collecting my bib and promptly leaving the race hotel to grab some Thai food. I noticed that I’d been assigned Corral B instead of the quicker A. The 3:00 and 3:10 pacers would be in corral A, whereas the fastest available pacer in corral B would be targeting a 3:20 finish. Initially thinking of returning to the expo to appeal a corral upgrade, I decided to stay in B. I would chase the 3:00 pacer and catch them later in the race when the field thinned out.

Ducking into a coffee shop, I reviewed the course map and the elevation profile over a cappuccino. I traced the route a few times using Google Street View to note the climbs and the quirks of the course. There would be a noticeable climb after the 7K mark, followed by another incline just before 14K. Both wouldn’t pose any issues since they were early in the race and they weren’t large hills when compared to the ones that I’d scaled near my house in San Francisco.

I laced up my training shoes again for a short evening run. Heading north this time, I cut under the 4 lanes of I-5 before curling past Armitage Park towards McKenzie River. A light rain started trickling down, making the roads slick. Soon enough, I found myself at the start of a small truss bridge carrying the sidewalk over the river. I turned back around, following a small two-lane road back south. The road made a gentle curve southwards back to the motel, tracing the outline of a few quaint farms. With another run in the books, I treated myself to some penne pasta for dinner before turning in early.

I woke up early on Saturday and opted to get a small run in before breakfast. This time, I donned my pink racing Vaporflys and stuffed an unopened GU gel in my shorts’ pocket. The run was fairly uneventful and served to iron out any wrinkles before tomorrow’s race. It would be far better to encounter any hiccups now than to deal with them tomorrow. My shoelaces did come undone after 10 minutes, after which I silently scolded myself before double knotting them and continuing onwards. On the other hand, the GU gel didn’t slip out of my pocket throughout the run, so I was confident that it wouldn’t do so during the race tomorrow either.

I grabbed some fried rice for dinner before shopping around for tomorrow’s pre-race breakfast. Perusing the aisles of Target, I settled on instant oatmeal, bananas, apples, protein bars, and iced coffee. I laid out my racing attire and pinned my bib on my blue t-shirt before turning in early again.

I was up as soon as my 4:30 alarm sounded. Helping myself to the aforementioned breakfast, I wrote down kilometer split times for a 2:58 marathon. I’d need a 4:13 for each K to achieve a 2:58, which would put me 2 minutes ahead of the Boston qualifying time for my age bracket. Running anywhere under 3 hours would be a successful race, but every additional second under that mark would be just as crucial since a high cutoff time could see a successful BQ be for naught.

I joined a sizeable group of eager runners boarding the race shuttle, and sat next to a seasoned ultramarathoner named Rob. Rob and I passed the short ride talking about his previous race experience. He’d mentioned that he was training for the upcoming Western States Endurance Run, and was using this race as one of his training long runs. Rob also reassured me that the course was highly conducive to running fast times, saying that he’d run his fastest marathon times on the Eugene course. This filled me up with a bit of confidence, and I optimistically headed to the start line to get ready.

After navigating a crowded gear check line, I queued up in the front of corral B at the start line, next to the 3:20 pacer. I could somewhat make out the lollipops of the 3:10 and the 3:00 pacers further ahead in corral A. The few minutes before the race melted away quickly. Soon enough, the starting pistol cracked through the cool morning air and we were off.

The field was quite congealed for the first 3 kilometers, since both marathon and half marathon runners shared the course and were finding their pace. Worried about falling behind in the first K, I breathed a small sigh of relief when my watch beeped, showing a 4:12 split. Forty-one more to go! The general pace within the field quickened a little, sweeping myself with it.

The next pair of kilometers came under pace, so I slowed down slightly. No point in getting excited early – there was still a lot of race left to run. Just before 5K I found myself not far behind the 3:00 pacer. I was hoping to have caught them a little later through a more gradual progression, but I wasn’t feeling tired. I could stick with the pacing group until 40K or so and then push the last couple Ks to get to 2 minutes under 3 hours. Easier said than done, but if I stuck to this plan, I’d score the 2:58 I wanted.

I had caught up with the 3 hour pacer (far right in the green cap) shortly after the 5K mark.

The pacing group pulled ahead slightly over the next 2 kilometers as the course turned to its highest elevation. I recorded a few kilometers over pace at this point, but wasn’t too far off of the pacing group. The pace picked up a bit as the course rolled back downhill, and 8K and 9K were both well under 4:13. The quick pace continued through 12K, at which point I’d found myself in front of the pacing group. The field had thinned out considerably by 14K, marking a third of the race. While I would have preferred the healthy company of fellow runners, I’d also be able to pick out a cup of water or electrolytes at the next hydration stops much more easily.

The second incline resulted in an over-pace 14K and getting swallowed back up by the pacing group. A slower 16th kilometer over a minor incline brought us to the 10 mile mark. I’d need to be at 1:07:51 to be on pace, but my watch showed 1:08 and change. I passed a pair of familiar faces that I couldn’t place. “Hey, it’s Rohit!” one of them remarked. I immediately recognized them as a pair from the group that I had shared a taxi with at the airport a few days prior. I flashed a grin, employed a small burst of speed, and continued onwards.

The half marathon runners peeled left at a fork in the course, leaving the roads much quieter. Despite the small morale boost, some unwanted thoughts started to creep into my mind. Was the chance at a sub-3 time slipping away already? No, definitely not. “I’m not tired”, I told myself as I slotted behind the pacing group again.

A little past 19K, the course turned back westward. Someone within the pacing group remarked to another, “I wonder how many here will fall off?”. “I don’t know”, I thought silently, “but I won’t be one of them. Not today”. I started picking up the pace, recording a 4:07 and 4:08 right before the halfway mark. I checked my watch, and I looked to be close to 1:29 even when passing the half marathon split sensor.

I could still hear the 3 hour pacer chatting with some members of the pacing group behind me, but they sounded a bit farther away. My watch beeped through the next few kilometers, and to my astonishment, I was clocking kilometers nearly 10 seconds ahead of pace. Was I going too fast? I still wasn’t feeling any pain so I continued at the quicker established pace. After 25K, the course made a hairpin bend. Reaching the turnaround and running back, I could see that I was ahead of the pacing group by 20 seconds, maybe more.

By 27K, my watch indicated that my splits were closer to 4 minutes even per K. There were only 15 kilometers to go, but I knew that the race could easily fall apart in the last third. At this point, I realized that if I could make it to the 30K mark without feeling any pain or soreness, a sub-3 hour time was well within my grasp. My watch beeped, marking 28 kilometers. The split read 3:53 – a whole 20 seconds above pace. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I had only run under 4 minutes per K a handful of times in speed workouts, and even then, I felt winded and had to slow down the pace substantially afterwards to recover. But the same fatigue did not present itself today, and I adjusted into the new quicker gear. I passed a small cluster of runners, recognizing one wearing the same shirt and shoes as me. “How’s it going, twin?” I joked. He shared a chuckle and paid me a complement as I continued along.

My watch beeped again, a 3:55, marking 30 kilometers. My watch read 2:05, which meant that, running the math in my head, I needed to run 4:20s all the way to the finish to get a 2:58. It was just a 12K race at this point. I had run 12Ks around Golden Gate Park. I had run 12Ks at goal pace after feeling some fatigue – this was just another goal pace run around Golden Gate Park!

The hydration stations weren’t congested at all, so I grabbed a cup at every station in the last third of the race. The soreness in my legs started becoming more pronounced, but I ignored it and focused on the kilometers ticking down towards the finish. 11 to go. 10 to go. Just another stinking 10K tempo. Beep! 3:50, 3:50, 3:51. I was banking 25-30 seconds per kilometer. Was a 2:55 possible today? Every second mattered now, and I didn’t dare stop.

The last 10 kilometers were the most formidable. The course was more sparse, and there were fewer runners to chase or to pace with. I reached into my pocket, and helped myself to a generous serving of GU. I was going to need every last bit of energy to tick down these final kilometers. The distance on my watch seemed to move more slowly. I quashed any poisonous thoughts of flaming out or stopping to walk. Absolutely not today. The 36K split came in, and it was a 3:48. I was going to run 3:50s until the finish.

With 5K to go, I slurped the final bulge of the orange GU that I’d stuffed into my pocket at the start line. I discarded the empty packet, washed down the gel with some electrolyte water at the next aid station, and willed my legs harder to keep up with 3:50 per K.

My watch beeped again, this time marking 40 kilometers. Just a little over 2K to go. Soreness and fatigue forgotten, I channeled the mentality that I’d used to get through my fast finish long runs in training. The race was just the final portion of a fast finish run’s progression now. The course wound back onto Agate Street, heading up towards the start line. My watch beeped – a 3:45. Just one more K to go.

On Agate Street, just past the 41K mark. Only 4 more minutes until beer and pancakes!

Hayward Field started to come into focus, and the fans’ cheers became louder and louder. The storied track was the most wonderful feeling for a pair of tired feet. It felt like stepping on a springy but firm sponge. I could see the finish line at the other side of the track. The race was less than a Fartlek now. I kicked harder, running in the outer lanes up to the finish line. Twenty meters to go, then ten. Continuing to stride past the timing pad, I ran through the finish arch.

Did that really just happen? I quickly stopped and saved the workout on my watch. It read 2:51:34! That would be good enough for Boston for sure. I collected my medal and wandered through the crowd, anxious to retrieve my gear check bag. I slipped on my jacket and fished my phone out of the bag, eager to break the radio silence with family and friends.

A few hours later, my official time read as 2:51:22, working out to 4:04 / km or 6:32 / mi. I ran the first half in 1:29, and the second half in a quicker 1:22 – the first time I had ever run a negative split in the marathon. I’d shed nearly 15 minutes since my PR in San Francisco almost 3 years prior. This made up for every race that didn’t go to plan, and then some.

The 7 minute differential between my first half split and my second half split makes me believe that there’s much more time to shave off. I don’t know what my next race will be, but I’d like to shoot for another marathon PR before I start training for Boston in 2023. In any case, you’ll hear about it here when it happens!

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