Return to site

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

My unorthodox journey to the Boston Marathon

Written by: Dan Bowers

My saga with the Boston Marathon started in earnest in 2018. After seven years as a distance runner, I had finally been consistent enough in my training, and healthy enough, to know that I was capable of running a Boston qualifying time (at the time, officially 3:05 for my 18-34 age group). My first attempt would come at the 2018 Eugene Marathon. I had run the half-marathon probably a half-dozen times, and it felt like it would be special to qualify for Boston in my hometown marathon. The training cycle went very well; my coach, teammates, and I all agreed that I was ready for a sub-3 hour marathon. Then a week before race day, I got sick. I mean really sick. 

It started with just feeling a bit off to the point that I didn't want to partake in my usual drink at a weekend board game night. On my last long run, the energy was definitely not there and by the end, despite just having run 14 miles on a pleasant spring morning, I was shivering uncontrollably. It progressed to a fever that fluctuated between normal and 102, muscle aches, and extreme fatigue. It seemed I had the bad fortune of catching the flu right before a marathon. I didn't panic though; I knew my training was in the bank, and I figured the illness would break after 4 or 5 days, and I'd be fine by race morning. Even up to race day morning, I kept assuming 'any hour now, this'll break and I'll feel fine'.   

It didn't, and I didn't.   

I did manage to hold roughly to my 6:50 goal pace for the first 2 miles of the race, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn't there, and I pulled back to what felt like a more sustainable 7:45 pace. At that point, I knew it was just about finishing (it was still my first time running the full Eugene Marathon, after all). I held that more conservative pace until about mile 16, at which point I felt so exhausted that I was forced to take regular walking breaks to try and get my wind back. I was so weak that at one point when Ipassed coach Lonn along the course, he yelled some encouragement and clapped meon the back, which damn near knocked me down. I managed to slog through andfinish in a final time of 3:32:56, a respectable marathon for just aboutanybody but a far cry from the 3-hour goal I had been shooting for.   

I felt worse the following week. My legs actually were fine within a day or so, telling me that I was definitely well trained. But I was completely laid low. After over 2 weeks of illness, I finally got a diagnosis of mono. Well then. Yeah, that explains a lot. And I mean, I admit I felt an odd sense of pride to run a 3:33 marathon with mono (I don't recommend trying). But the BQ marathon would have to wait a bit longer. 

Attempt number 2 would come at the California International Marathon in the December of 2018. Meanwhile, the BAA decided it was a good time to adjust the qualifying standards for Boston, moving them down by 5 minutes, so instead of trying to hit a sub-3 marathon to have a good buffer for my BQ, I had to hit sub-3 just to qualify period, and probably a little more for buffer besides. After recovering from my illness, a summer of hill-focused running had me ready to start the marathon training cycle feeling like I was at a similar level of fitness to when I was training for Eugene. Team 5AM had 5 runners training for CIM that year, of which I was the slowest. I spent awonderful (if, you know, painful and exhausting) fall trying to keep myteammates in sight on our tempo runs. Also, I made damn sure to get my flushot. Obviously I'm not going to get mono twice, but I didn't want to take anychances.   

The training cycle again went superbly well, and this time my final long run a week out left me feeling smooth and confident. Sacramento obliged with perfect running weather that day, cloudy with temperatures in the low 40's. Unlike Eugene, this time the race unfolded exactly according to plan: I held a steady pace through the downhill sections of CIM, avoided going out too fast, and maintained a steady 6:45-6:50 pace the rest of the way. I will never forget, at about mile 25 1/2, Lonn checking in with me to make sure I was on pace, and as he turned back toward the finish, just screaming himself hoarse inexcitement. I finished in 2:57:27, an absolutely magical day (my 4 teammatesall met their goals too). That gave me a 2:33 cushion under my qualifying time,though just due to the calendar relative to Boston's qualifying window, I wouldhave to wait 10 months to even register.   

Most of 2019 came and went. Of course, I meticulously watched the calendar and the BAA’s announcements for the exact dates I would be able to register. As it happens, during my registration window in September, I was attending a conference for work in Chicago. So there I am, day 1 of the conference, when the window officially opened and I got my calendar notification on my phone. I was occupied at the moment, so I thought to myself, ‘I’ll have lots of downtime between sessions at the conference, and I’ll havemy laptop with me, so I’ll just do it then’ and I dismissed the notification.   

If you think you see where this is going and you’re cringing, you’re exactly right.   I proceeded to return to the conference without once thinking about the Boston Marathon for the rest of the trip (despite, ostensibly, being obsessed with it for the last year?). Heck, even if I had remembered in the security line at the Chicago airport to fly home, I would have been able to sign up on my phone. But no. It wasn’t until I arrived at home after my flight back to Eugene that I looked at the date and time on my phone and realized what I had done. Or rather hadn't done. I panicked, my stomach feeling like it had dropped through the floor, and it was all I could do for about 10 minutes to sit on the floor of my bedroom and not hyperventilate. A frantic Google search for “late entry” options for the marathon of course yielded nothing. I had to break the heartbreaking news to my parents, coach, my friends… they were all understanding andgracious, and not one of them told me what a colossal idiot I was (I was doingplenty of that myself, anyhow). I just had to figure out how to accept the factthat I qualified but through my own negligence, failed to register for theBoston Marathon.   

The (checks calendar) 2020 Boston Marathon.   

I had a few friends (who did successfully sign up) set to run Boston that spring. Another getting ready for Paris, and of course many looking forward to Eugene. And I empathize with all of those who had their races cancelled, especially (like for Boston) when they were already well into their training cycles. But did the postponement, and eventual cancellation, of the 2020 Boston Marathon make me feel better? You bet your ass it did. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest; that one of the most embarrassingmistakes I can remember making ended up costing me nothing. I started beingable to just laugh it off and make plans to qualify again once marathon racingwas happening again. This time at least, I knew going in that I was good forit.   It was Coach Jenn who first mentioned to me that for the 2021 Boston Marathon, they were opening up the qualifying period back to September of 2018. It makes perfect sense of course; it’s not like there were many races being run for half of what would have been the normal qualifying window for the 2021 race. But for whatever reason I hadn’t thought to expect it; so it felt like a gift, the classic light at the end of the tunnel. And, I noted with excitement, they had already pushed the date of the 2021 marathon back to October, which had a serious impact for me on account of the fact that I turned 35 in June. Moving into a new age group and returning my BQ time to 3:05. Now, instead of 2:33 minutes ahead of my qualifying time, I was 7:33 minutes ahead. I felt more excited about Boston than I had probably since the days immediately following CIM in 2018.   

The announcement in early 2021 that the field size would be reduced for the 2021 race did cause me some concern; I knew that if they really limited the participant count and set a cap of like 8 or 10 thousand, I’d never get in. But when the cap of 20,000 was released, I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt really good about my 7:33 cushion, I was doing the math of the qualification cut off from the original 2020 entrants and was supremely confident that I’d make it.   

Oh, and yes, I set well more than one alarm on my phone this time.   

Registering for 2021 was super simple, especially since I remembered to do it. Now all I had to do was somehow try to be patient for a couple of weeks until they announced the accepted entrants.   

The week they made the announcement, I was checking my email obsessively. But it was the group chat for the 5AM team that clued me in. Teammate Rick popped into the chat announcing that he was accepted (I knew he had beaten his BQ time by well more than I did). I refreshed my email, still nothing. Then another teammate congratulated Rick, commenting “Tough year to get in, had to beat the time by more than 7 minutes!” My heart sunk again, that flutter of panic in my chest returning. 7 minutes? 7 minutes and what?!? Email again.Still nothing. I rushed to my computer to look directly for the announcementand there it was – the BAA stating that entrants who beat their time by 7:47 ormore were accepted. I felt so small, so defeated – this time not my fault atleast, but it barely lessened the heartache. 14 seconds! In a way I was alreadypracticed to deal with the disappointment, but having your heart broken oncebefore doesn’t exactly make the second time feel good, and Boston had nowbroken my heart twice.   

Dejectedly I signed up for the Virtual Boston race. Heck, I qualified, I figured, I’m going to get a damn Unicorn medal and jacket, even if it’s not the “real” Boston. I made plans to still take that week of Boston off work and treat myself to a road trip to Yosemite as a consolation.   

2021 turned out to be an awkward summer for my running too. I suffered a bone contusion from a fall on a trail run in May, which took a while to come back from. Then, mere weeks after I felt like I was back to 100%, I managed another trail fall near the end of July that resulted in a knee sprain that kept me out almost 3 weeks in August. I looked at my race calendar – Virtual Boston in October and CIM again in December – and figured, well it’s a good thing my marathon in October doesn’t count for much, cause I will not have the proper training time and it’s going to be a slow one!   

Then a funny thing happened late August. I got an email, and the first thing that came into my brain when I read it was, ‘It’’s got to be a scam.” But then, this would be an awfully specific-to-me scam, and looking closer, it did come from the same BAA email address, and they did have the details of my Virtual Boston entry. So, I read the subject again: “LIMITED SPOTS AVAILABLE FOR IN-PERSON 125th BOSTON MARATHONit exclaimed. I think it broke my brain, because the first thought that came to me was “I already have plans in Yosemite that week!” I recovered my senses though, and when I told Coach Jenn about the email her response summed it up perfectly – “Well, you’ve gotta do it!”   

So once more I submitted my registration for Boston, and this time, shortly after, there it was: “125th Boston Marathon Confirmation of Acceptance”. It felt surreal to have this whole journey result in such a simple email. I of course had cancelled my original flight and Airbnb bookings to Boston, so I scrambled to make new ones. Until I had a bib number, I hesitated to even tell anyone outside of my parents and the 5AM coaches about the latest turn of events, feeling like if I bragged about it now it would be daring some twisted form of karma to make something else go wrong and they would deny me an entry on some obscure technicality. I mean, it wasn’t realistic, but in the scope of myoverall Boston (mis)adventure, it would have fit right in.   

But no, this time there would be no heartbreak. Bib number confirmed. Flights and lodging booked. Vaccine verification made. So now I sit here in the city of Boston, having visited the race expo, participant bracelet on my wrist and race bib in hand, needing only to hydrate, fuel, and show up for the busses set to take me and 19 thousand other runners to the starting line.   

Owing to the abbreviated training cycle from the aforementioned knee sprain, my time on Monday isn’t going to be anywhere near what it was at CIM toqualify, but frankly I’m happy with that. You can be damn sure I’ll be savoring every single minute of the 125th Boston Marathon. 

broken image
broken image
broken image
broken image
broken image