Boston Strong

Scratch That

In Fall 2022, I made an ambitious bid for a sub-2:45 time in Valencia, Spain. On week 5 of training for the race, I finished a kilometer repeats workout at target pace, but immediately sensed something was off. I unprofessionally vented, peeling off my socks angrily and throwing them at the wall. Though it was a successful workout, my body was sending signals that future runs wouldn’t be so fruitful. A sharp tightness in both gastrocnemius calf muscles continued to grow in the following weeks. Finally, at week 10, after a Hail Mary attempt to cobble a semblance of race-ready fitness, I threw in the towel. The muscular pain was too great, consistently stabbing through a mirepoix of painkillers. This would be the second scratch in 2 years.

Having scratched more races than I’d completed post-pandemic, I sent pleas to multiple local physiotherapists in hopes of mollifying the calf tightness before training for Boston. One office connected promptly, and we worked on different strengthening and stretching exercises to loosen the muscular knots in my lower legs. My dad mentioned the mind-body connection and the importance of being able to communicate one’s pain. With this in mind, I worked on clearly describing where I was feeling pain, its intensity, and the kind of pain with specific adjectives (e.g. tugging, sharp, tense).

During our sessions, we would discuss my training goals and make the necessary adjustments. I was told that the muscular tightness could take 10 weeks plus to wear off, which left me crestfallen. Still committed to running, I made it my goal to simply finish the Boston Marathon. I conceded that a PR would be very unlikely given the circumstances.

In healthy times, I’d run 5-6 times a week, including 2 key workouts and a long run on Sunday. However, with the lower leg tightness, I cut the volume by a third, running at most 4 times a week, with just 1 key workout and a shorter long run. Every run was important, but my injury emphasized a more holistic mindset. I would peel back home early if I could feel my muscles acting up, making sure that I would be able to run the next day, and the day after that. Exercising prudent load management became front and center, making training a delicate balance of miles, pain, and expectations. One initial conclusion was that speed workouts, especially Fartleks, exerted a much heavier wear on my legs, and necessitated a longer recovery period.

Die Aufbau Principle

My race in Eugene retroactively informed some theories I had about the marathon distance. Progression and fast-finish runs were incredibly important because of how they addressed different phases of the race. While 21.1km marks the halfway point of a marathon mathematically, it does not split the race evenly in reality.

A marathon is actually a 30-32km (20 mile) run with a 10km attached on top, and it must be treated as such. The second half of the race only begins at 32.2km, with ten kilometers to go. This is because the same mental and physical energy necessary to get through the first thirty-two is equivalent to that of the final ten. Not all splits are created equal; what buys you 3 kilometers at the beginning of the race will barely get you one in the final 5km.

Fast-finish runs would mimic the marathon’s division of labor, as the easy-pace portion followed the buildup, the middle stage matched that of the race from the 30K to 40K mark, and the final progression stage mirrored that of the last 2km and change of a marathon.

I used these special progression runs as lodestars of pre-race fitness. If I was hitting reasonable paces in the latter progression stages, I would have a good race. The 32.2/10 split of a marathon gave rise to an internal mantra, “Focus on the buildup.” Although I’d probably feel great in the early stages of the race, there wasn’t any point in getting carried away, especially in Boston with its opening downhill gradient. The course would fight back in the end, and I needed to be ready to meet the final 10K head-on with enough left in the tank.

Road to Recovery

In the middle of week 3, among some slight improvements in mobility, my lower leg pain got worse. We started meeting twice a week, and my physio recommended more frequent foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching before runs. I followed through, and the muscular knot gradually improved, shrinking in the later weeks. I was able to hit faster speeds in tempo runs reminiscent of healthy fitness, a good sign. The peaking phase bore some more good news as I was able to complete a 32km long run, a progression 25K, and a “1/3 marathon” – a 14km run at goal pace.

In the last third of training, the pain in my right leg had dissipated entirely, but my lower left calf muscles continued to pose problems. I opened the final week of training with a progression half marathon run. My brother and I headed over to Lake Merced together. The goal was simple – build up the first 10K at an easy pace, and close out the remaining 11km at race pace. The calf knot reminded me that it was there in the first 30 minutes. It faded away after I completed one lap of the lake, and it “softened” into general soreness in the closeout phase. I completed the entire workout in 1:37, notching goal pace in the back half of the run. I also didn’t keep my brother waiting, finishing less than ten minutes after he’d gone through a bucket of balls at the driving range.

As we trotted up the stairs to our apartment together, I noticed that a chunk of my faithful pink racing shoes looked to be falling off of the left sole. The right shoe had a growing crevasse indicating that it was ready to split apart. I knew that the special Vaporflys weren’t meant to last as long as conventional running shoes, but I was hoping they’d hold together for one more race. I’d have to shell out for another pair and cross my fingers that the new ones would simply work, all within a week of race day. Checking online and in person, the new Vaporflys model, Vaporfly 2, was in high demand. All Nike stores in the Bay Area and in Boston were sold out. A second search revealed that a local running store in Boston had a pair in my size available. I seized the opportunity, ordering the shoes for pickup. I’d collect them the day I landed.

Later in the week, the left leg knot flared up harder. The growing muscular pain dampened my mood, and I only mustered a couple of short 40 minute easy runs, completely eschewing a set of final Fartleks. On Thursday, I met my physio for my final appointment before the race. We worked on some light stretches and strengthening exercises. There weren’t any major adjustments to be made at this point; how I felt now would be how I’d feel at the start line in a few days.

Preparation, Powwows, and Ponchos

My brother and I touched down in Boston Friday morning. The city was in midst of an unusually warm heat wave, with temperatures eclipsing 80 degrees midday. Thankfully, the race day forecasts were still predicting much cooler temperatures, albeit with some rain. I biked over to the running store around noon, picking up my new pair of shoes. They felt snug on my feet, and I felt confident that they would be the correct choice on race day.

I headed back over towards the Convention Center where the race expo would be taking place. I met my dear friend, mentor, and ultramarathoner extraordinaire Kowsik Guruswamy for lunch. After Kowsik notched his BQ in spectacular fashion, we agreed to meet up for a beer in Boston. Enjoying some Thai food and a pair of IPAs, we conversed about training strategy, race refueling, and balancing our endurance backgrounds with speed for this “shorter distance”.

Kowsik is a proper legend! Amidst scoring a 15 minute marathon PR, he ran fifty 50Ks last calendar year!

We grabbed our bibs from the race expo together, then wandered towards Copley Square where a couple of pre-race interviews were taking place. Meb Keflezghi, the 2014 champion, was making an appearance, so we didn’t want to miss any words of wisdom that he had to share. He recounted specific moments from his winning race in Boston, and a particularly difficult New York Marathon when the airline had misplaced all of his race gear.

All set for my first Major!

I rounded out the day with some more foam rolling, static stretches, and loosening with a massage gun. The muscular tightness stood pat, and after applying pressure with the massage gun, I yelped in pain. I swore I could’ve seen my gastrocnemius muscle wiggle slightly. There were still a few days left until race day, and I wished for the best, hoping that the tightness would soften up before then.

Saturday’s weather was a bit nicer, so I took advantage and slipped on my new pair of racing shoes. Looping over Charles River and up the Esplanade, the shoes felt fine but the left leg tightness remained. Turning back into Cambridge, the tightness faded slightly, lifting my spirits. I finished a brisk 10K run feeling much better than yesterday.

I linked up with an old friend / fellow Boston participant for an afternoon Red Sox game against the Angels. We enjoyed some Sox baseball together, sitting next to a pair of visiting fans from Los Angeles. One of them was a hardened Boston veteran, having ran the race every year since 2011. Astonished, I asked him how he’d dealt with the stormy conditions in 2018, and he responded enigmatically, “Man, it was a time.” He recounted specific areas of the race, remarking that the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and its energy was his favorite segment. We all traded some good-natured baseball banter throughout the game, and wished each other the best of luck for the race.

The Boston Red Sox’s City Connect jerseys (not worn on this day) bear a light blue and yellow color scheme, paying homage to the Boston Athletic Association and the city’s resilience after the attacks in 2013.

I took Sunday slowly, working on some more stretching and rolling. I also decided against a short shakeout run, opting to rest instead. The shoes felt good on my feet yesterday; it wasn’t necessary to put more miles on them right now. Later in the day, I made my way towards Maverick to pick up a pack of ponchos that I’d ordered in anticipation of rainy raceday weather. I collected my package from a nearby 7-11 and then grabbed an impromptu assortment of food and snacks for tomorrow’s breakfast. I settled on some sandwiches, granola bars, bananas, and Triscuits.

Descending into the local T station, I sprinted quickly to a waiting train. To my surprise, I ran into Kowsik again! We chatted briefly, discussing pre-race logistics and final preparations for the race, before wishing each other good luck. It was unlikely that we’d run into each other at the start since we had different start times, so we resolved to try and meet up postrace.

Back home, our host Yusuf cooked a wonderful impossible beef kheema for race day eve. The rice dish was packed with flavor and spice and served as top-notch pre-race fuel. I went to sleep full and satisfied, doing my best to not let my mind wander too much.

Yusuf’s vegan beef kheema was a delicious treat! The dish incorporated a secret ingredient – his mother’s homemade masala.

First Major: A Major First

It was still dark outside when I woke up. I scarfed down a quick breakfast accompanied with some sips of Gatorade and a protein shake. I wanted to eliminate any possibility of a hunger issue during the race. As Kowsik once quipped, an Ultramarathon is “an eating-and-drinking competition with a bit of running in between”. Today wouldn’t be a 50K, but I took his advice on fueling to heart. I carefully arranged my essentials for my gear check bag and stuffed two GU gels in my pocket before heading towards downtown Boston. The T gradually became more crowded with eager participants as it made its way towards the Arlington stop.

After a lengthy wait for a pit stop, I boarded one of the buses heading to the Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton. The ride itself was uneventful – my seatmate used the hour-ish drive to rest quietly before the start. Having surrendered my phone at the gear check earlier, I focused on strategies for mitigating the pain in my left leg and managing specific segments of the course, especially the four Newton Hills in the back half.

The Hopkinton Athlete’s Village atmosphere was electric and abuzz with excitement. I donned my poncho in the misty weather, keeping myself warm before the start. I opted for a couple more bathroom breaks for good measure, keen on preventing any unscheduled stops during the race. My wave was called around 9:25. We made the kilometer walk to the start line through the quiet neighborhoods towards the Hopkinton town center. Residents of the abutting properties festooned their lawns with blue and yellow balloons, wishing us the best of luck as we ambled to the starting corrals. I shedded my poncho with 25 minutes to go, getting ready to warm up.

I took some time before the corral filled up to perform some of my prescribed dynamic stretches. The knot in my left calf reminded me that it was still there. I decided that I would load-manage strides in the first half of the race and then reevaluate my leg’s pain. With less than 15 minutes to the start, it began to drizzle. I silently cursed myself for fiddling with my poncho too early, and lined up for a wet start.

The pair of waves in front quickly pushed off at 10am, and we followed shortly after. Jogging carefully past the start line timing strip, I locked in and focused on the task at hand. There were many fellow runners to keep me company – the start was a crowded one, and looking off in the distance, I could see a train of runners snaking their way over the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Heeding the advice of numerous Boston veterans, I reminded myself not to get carried away early on pace, and to focus on the buildup of the race instead. Sure enough, the first kilometer came through at a slower 4:18, despite the significant downhill. I checked my watch to make sure that I was staying between a 4:05-4:10 / km pace. Occasionally I’d feel a bit buoyant coming off of the crests from the small rolling hills, so I reminded myself of my mantra, and to “focus on the buildup”.

Shortly after the 5K mark. 31,000+ runners toed the starting line this year. The start was a crowded one, but everyone was moving in unison so peloton problems (e.g. handchecks, tripping, etc.) were practically non-existent.

The course flattened out after 5km, and the drizzle abated slightly. My sunglasses were thoroughly fogged up, so I eschewed using them and placed them on my head for the remainder of the run. I am particularly fond of my sunglasses during races, but sacrifices would need to be made today. We made our way into Framingham past the 10km mark, coasting off of the crowd’s energy along the way. A T purple line train had just pulled into the town’s station, and morning commuters screamed a volley of cheers before boarding the eastbound to Boston. The train sounded a few extra horns for good measure before trundling off. I continued to load-manage strides on my left leg, making sure to evenly distribute stress and impact between both legs at regular intervals. Even slight cambers posed some problems during training, so I kept toward the middle of the road when possible to minimize the impact on my legs.

The field strung out considerably after 12K and into Natick. Fellow runners found their stride and started to press forward with confidence. I held back and avoided following suit; it was still early and we were still well inside the buildup phase. I focused my thoughts on other things instead, admiring the neat nature preserve and Fisk Pond that we were running past. The next few kilometer splits were consistent, all coming in close to 4:10 per. I grabbed an energy gel at the next aid station, washed it down with some Gatorade, and continued along.

The field was much thinner (and wetter too) by the time we’d reached Natick. This was the fourth town of seven throughout the course.

The 5k split between the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and the town’s western limits came in a little hot. Buoyed from the boisterous cheers and noise, I clocked my fastest kilometer split at a 3:56, and recorded a 1:27 half marathon split. I dialed back my speed, reminding myself that although we’d crossed the halfway point mathematically, we were still in the buildup phase of the race.

Leaving Wellesley and crossing the 25K mark, the course made a precipitous dip before leveling out and continuing upward onto an I-95 freeway overpass. This was the first of four Newton hills, and I buckled down, digging my toes into the slope. I wasn’t afraid of hills – no run in San Francisco was complete without one. Not feeling any excessive soreness from the new incline, I attacked the hill, chasing knots of runners up the gradient. “That’s one of four!” remarked a nearby runner. The road leveled out again, and I resisted the urge to surge on the slight downhill. I grabbed electrolytes at every possible station during this segment, and picked up another gel along the way. I did not want to be hungry or thirsty for the final “half” of the race, and certainly not while tackling hills.

We passed the 30K mark and my mind began to wander a little. I lost count of the Newton hills. Cresting over the third of four, and, arrogantly thinking that Heartbreak Hill was behind me, I drifted forward, only to face the formidable final hill. I executed the same strategy as the last 3, attacking the slope head on and catching runners on the incline.

All business at the 30K mark.

The course gave back the elevation gain from Heartbreak Hill in the next kilometer before we turned past Cleveland Circle and made our way to the cemetery. With 10km to go, I focused all my efforts on keeping the distance on my watch ticking. This was the halfway point, and it was going to take everything left to make it back to downtown. I wasn’t afraid of the wall anymore. This was my office: this was where my desk and my chair were, and this was where I went to work.

All of those teams dreading the difference from 8K to 10K… that’s actually our office. That’s where your desk and your chair is [sic]… that’s where you go to work.

-Mike Smith, NAU Cross Country and Distance Coach

Halfway through the second “half” of the race (about 5km left). The crowds were deep here and provided a major psychological boost.

For the most part, I was able to quash any pain or thoughts of stopping. I focused on going stride-for-stride with my fellow participants, and using the crowd’s noise and support to drown out any unwanted thoughts. I was making steady progress towards the finish. Just as I began to wonder if there was another twist left in the tale, the course immediately fought back with a vengeance. The misty drizzle turned into a downpour, and was accompanied with a wicked headwind.

The course would not give up without a fight.

My shirt was plastered to my chest within seconds, my fingers went numb, and my shoes became sopping wet. Instead of wasting valuable mental energy silently complaining about the weather, I committed to my cadence and held position with other runners. The CITGO sign poked through the low hanging clouds in the distance, slowly but surely coming into focus.

The CITGO sign defines the Boston skyline, but also serves as the bona fide “1 mile to go” marker for Boston Marathon runners.

With 1500m to go, a sharp pulling pain in both legs tripped up my stride momentarily. I’d experienced this before 4 years ago during my first marathon in Illinois, albeit much earlier in the course because of poor conditioning. I arrested my stride’s motion so as to exert less tugging on my muscles. I was going to finish, but there wouldn’t be a good close-out kick available today. The tugging continued through the final underpass on Commonwealth. I continued putting forward the best, even strides that I could muster for the right on Hereford.

A Boston Marathoner’s six most favorite words: “Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.”

I turned left onto Boylston and the finishing gantry looked as if it was a world away. My watch vibrated gently, marking 42km. I kept my focus on my strides, drawing off of the energy from the deep crowd. I fought the pulling pain all the way to the finish, striding through the pair of timing mats for good measure.


My brother Rahul and I eventually linked up in the torrential downpour and waddled our way onto the T. After a prolonged ride back up to Cambridge, we made it to our hosts Yusuf and Maille’s place. I showered up and treated myself to the rest of my Triscuits.

My final time was 2:52:25. Though I was minute off from a PR, I was overjoyed with the race that I’d put together. My splits were much more consistent and evenly paced than in Eugene. The standard deviation of my splits was 5.9 seconds; in Eugene last year it was 10.7. I ran a negative split over the two halves of the race, even though the second half was considerably hillier. I successfully managed a chronic muscular tightness throughout the run, finding the fairer side of 3 hours. I was able to grind out the last 3 km in 2018 conditions, demonstrating a kind of grit I didn’t know that I had. Best of all, my time was likely good enough to re-qualify for next year’s edition of the Boston Marathon.

Looking forward, I want to shoot for a sub-2:45 time again at Chicago this October. That mark would enable me to submit a time qualifier entry for all other international majors (London, Berlin, and Tokyo). For now, I’m happy to take a breather and to enjoy an offseason before entering the next training cadence.

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