Monday, April 20, 2020

Heartbreak and Hills: The Virginia Boston Marathon

3:09am, April 20, 2020.

I am awake. I am still. Calm.

I am not in the Ritz Carlton Boston. I'm home. "The Ritz Clorlton" I think to myself, as I get up to go to the bathroom. I believe myself to be well hydrated, so having to go to the bathroom at 3:09am is not a surprise. With only one eye half open, I reach for the toilet paper. I realize I have pulled too hard and too much will come off the roll. I roll it back some and then tear it off. Just five weeks ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about using a few extra squares.

Back in the bed, I now have both eyes open. Staring at the darkness around me. Wondering where my Boston Marathon medal is right now. Have they even produced the medals yet? And if so, is mine in a box somewhere at the B.A.A. headquarters? The one that I was supposed to earn today. Where is it right now?

I'm actually pretty lucky. Not only do I have the health to run 26.2 miles today, but I have friends and family supporting me. People who have actually volunteered to spend 30 minutes of their day to be able to see me and cheer for me for about 20 seconds. Lisa. Cheryl. My mother. And of course, Greg.

The Ritz Clorlton is a nice place to be. The bed tops the one in Boston. I'm safe. I'm at peace. I never really grieved the loss of the Boston Marathon. Something that had defined my life for over seven years. From 2008-2015, I ate slept and drank Boston. It was what I lived for. One of my greatest passions. One of the things that got me through those hard years was the certainty that Boston wasn't going away. It would be there for me whenever I qualified. I had my whole life ahead of me to run it; there was no need to rush it. Boston's not going anywhere, I would tell myself.

But today, it went to Virginia. And this is my race report.

Before the Race
I fell back asleep at 4:00 and woke up for good at 5:00 naturally, without an alarm. I had slept soundly until about 3:00, which was decent, considering I went to sleep at 8:45. I went downstairs and had a salted bagel with peanut butter. I drank some water with it. I then proceeded to mix Generation UCAN with a little water to make a gel-like substance, which I put into a disposable baby food pouch. I then mixed another serving of UCAN with water and put that in a bottle to drink in the car on the way to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Finally, I mixed one serving of UCAN Hydrate into my 24oz water bottle that I would carry with me.

All of this was followed by multiple trips to the bathroom as I continued to get ready. I wore a bright blue tank top and yellow shorts, along with a homemade Boston Marathon bib. I chose number 10262 because I thought that based on my qualifying time, my actual bib number would be in the high 9000's or the low 10,000's. I liked the idea of having 262 in the number, so I went with 10262. I qualified with a 3:15:34 in December 2018. It felt like a lifetime ago.

At the start line
Since I am not running the September race, I'll never get to run Boston with that bib. My qualifying time for 2021 is 3:22:23, so I will have a higher bib than I did in 2018. Unless I manage to PR a fall marathon.

Greg and I left the house at 6:45 for a target start time of 7:30. It took us about 30 minutes to arrive in Leesburg, where I would start at mile 31.4 of the W&OD trail. Once there, Greg took some photos and a video of me. I didn't feel nervous, but I was ready to get going. I knew I would see Greg on the course, plus Cheryl and then my mother at the end. Lisa unfortunately didn't feel well so she was smart to stay home!

It was 52 degrees with 69% humidity. Overcast. A light breeze that would be a sidewind the whole way. On my personal weather scale, I gave it a 7 out of 10 in my mind. But in retrospect, I think I will revise that to a 6 out of 10 because I am not acclimated to weather above 45 degrees with any kind of humidity.

Strategy and Course Profile
I did not taper for this run. In fact, I ran a 5K time trial on Thursday at a pace of 6:36! And last weekend, my long run was 15 miles. I was looking at this as a hard training run which did not require a taper.

As for my goal, I wanted to run a BQ time, which would be 3:40:00 or faster. That's a pace of 8:23, which is within my easy range. But my goal didn't stop there. I wanted to proceed to run a 90-mile week this week, which meant I couldn't trash my legs. I wanted to put out a solid effort without killing myself and needing to recover. I thought that if I was having a good day, I could run 3:30, which is an 8:00 pace, and just slightly faster than my "easy" pace. I thought that if I was having an okay day, I would be around 3:35.

I have run 20-milers at a pace of around 7:45 in the past in training, so I was pretty confident in my ability. Plus, my recent 10-mile time trial predicted a marathon time of 3:15, so a 3:35 should be doable without killing myself.

The plan was to run the first 6 miles in the low 8:20's and speed up from there. Once I got to the halfway point, I hoped to be sub 8:00 for rest of it.

I did not choose an easy course. According to Garmin, it had 789 feet of gain. According to Strava, it had 708 feet of gain. The Boston Marathon has 813 feet of gain, according to Strava. However, the Boston Marathon has a net elevation LOSS of 500 ft. Whereas my course had a net even elevation gain. Therefore, I consider this to be the hardest marathon course I have ever run! My other hilly marathons (CIM, Sugarloaf) all had net elevation losses, whereas my W&OD route was net even, with almost as much gain!

My Marathon Course Elevation: Miles 18-23 are all uphill, with a heartbreak hill to polish it off.
I would spend most of the run regretting my course profile choice. I started at mile 31.4 of the WOD and if I had started 8 miles west (the trail is 40+ miles long), I could have avoided that huge climb and ended on that downhill. But I chose the part of the trail I was most familiar with.

Miles 1-7 (Leesburg & Ashburn)
Greg started a timer so he would know how long I had been running and at 7:30, said "Go!" I had to restrain myself from going too fast in the beginning. I felt great, the pace felt very easy and sustainable. I did not want to go under 8:20 during the first six miles, so I tried to keep it really controlled.

Mile 1, photo by Greg Clor
This part was relatively uneventful. I didn't see many people on the trail, which was good, but also kind of scary because I could be attacked with no one nearby to see. I wore my Apple Watch (in addition to my Garmin), which has a panic button feature, and I could also use it to call Greg. I bought the Apple Watch for this exact reason: potentially needing to make a phone call while running alone in an area that might not be safe. I could have worn my Aftershokz headphones, but I decided I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.

My hydration plan was the same as it always is in marathons and long runs: drink every 15 minutes. If it had been cooler (say, under 45 degrees) I would have probably filled my bottle with plain water. But since it was on the warmer side for me, I added a packet of UCAN Hydrate for extra electrolytes. On 20-milers in the winter, I can get away with running the last 10-12 miles of my long run without any water. At the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, where I ran 3:15, I didn't have any water from mile 15-finish.

The plan was to drink every 15 minutes, figuring that the 24oz bottle would last me until mile 14. And then I would see Greg at mile 20 who would have another bottle. Even though my strategy was to stay in the low 8:20s and not go under, I kept going a little bit under.

All elevation gains and losses are in feet:

Mile 1: 8:25 (13 gain, 57 loss)
Mile 2: 8:20 (59 gain,  0 loss)
Mile 3: 8:18 (23 gain, 25 loss)
Mile 4: 8:18 (26 gain, 34 loss)
Mile 5: 8:16 (0 gain, 25 loss)
Mile 6: 8:20 (40 gain, 38 loss)
Mile 7: 8:10 (0 gain, 40 loss)

Miles 8-13 (Sterling & Herndon)
Greg met me just as I was finishing up mile 7. Once we started running together, the trail became all uphill and I noticed that I was working much harder than I should be for the pace we were running. I
Mile 7, Photo by Greg Clor
chalked it up to being the constant climbing and I wasn't too worried that my easy pace felt like a strain. I should not have been working that hard at mile 8. But I was running on the edge of my easy/moderate range, so I continued to go with it.

Greg handed me my Generation UCAN gel at mile 10 and with it, I took a huge swig of water, I had been drinking every 15 minutes, but I wasn't taking big swigs. It was a 24oz bottle, and I was almost halfway done at 60 minutes, which meant I was only getting 3oz every 15 minutes. In my recent training runs, drinking this amount had worked well for me, but those had been much cooler and less humid days.

After about 3 miles, Greg turned around and ran back to the car. Time for a few downhill miles. I was really ready for them. I felt much better once I started running downhill. I did, however, abandon my hydration schedule because I was thirsty. I started drinking sooner than planned and my water bottle was almost empty when I got to the halfway point. That was not good. I'm normally not thirsty when I'm running. I knew that once you actually felt thirst, it was too late-- you were already dehydrated. Even during CIM when it was much more humid, I wasn't thirsty.

At mile 12.9 I knew to expect Cheryl. And there she was, jumping up and down waving with her fancy camera! She was wearing a mask and as I passed, she made sure to be 6 feet away. It was such a pick-me-up to see her.

Mile 8: 8:07 (65 gain, 0 loss) - no wonder easy pace felt hard!
Mile 9: 8:07 (56 gain, 9 loss)
Mile 10: 8:17 (45 gain, 0 loss)
Mile 11: 8:02 (13 gain, 44 loss)
Mile 12: 8:04 (14 gain, 0 loss)
Mile 13: 8:18 (22 gain, 16 loss)

Miles 14-20 (Reston & Vienna)
Mile 13, Photo by Cheryl Young
Shortly after the halfway point, I walked! Crazy, right? I don't know what came over me, but I was tired and I wanted to walk. I finished off my bottle and tossed it. I also had my first Maurten gel earlier than planned so I would be able to have it with water. I would see Greg in a little over 6 miles and he would have a new bottle. No big deal - I can run a half marathon with no water and be fine. Well, okay, that's when it's in the low 30's.

I refused to believe that walking during the 14th mile meant I was in trouble. I just needed a little break, that's all. It was only a 10-second walk. Maybe shorter.

I knew that I would get a nice long stretch of downhill and when I did that really perked me up. Wow! Everything felt great and I was cruising along faster than expected. This was awesome. I must have just hit a rough patch at the halfway point. That happens, right? And then you recover. I was recovering nicely.

After the downhill stretch, I knew that the next six miles would be one long climb. See the elevation chart above. I felt awesome at the bottom of that big hill, but now it was time to really rally!

Just three miles to Greg. And water. Greg would have water. Ooooh- look at that stream. How nice it would be to drink from that! Soooo thirsty!

Two more miles to Greg and my water. Just rally for two miles! It's uphill. It's going to hurt. But then. . . WATER! I was really, really impressed with how I handled miles 19 and 20. Both were uphill, I was so thirsty, but I kept pushing. Mile 19 was 8:09 with 58 feet of gain and no loss! Yes! Mile 20 doesn't look so good on paper because I stopped for the water at 19.9. but I was running a pace of 8:15 up until that point.

Mile 14: 8:19 (43 gain, 35 loss) - included some walking!
Mile 15: 8:08 (50 gain, 37 loss)
Mile 16: 7:47 (0 gain, 86 loss)
Mile 17: 7:52 (0 gain, 86 loss)
Mile 18: 8:05 (35 gain, 0 loss)
Mile 19: 8:09 (58 gain, 0 loss)
Mile 20: 8:49  (49 gain, 0 loss) - included complete stop for water

Miles 21- Finish (Falls Church & Arlington)
I was so happy to see Greg and get my water. As I said above, I pretty much stopped dead in my tracks and gulped down a third of the bottle. It was hard to get going again, but once we did, that's when the cramps started. When you drink so much water really quickly and you are running,
Mile 20, Photo by Greg Clor
cramping is bound to happen. This is why I always take those small 3oz swigs.

Greg was worried and told me I could stop if I wanted but there was no way I was stopping. I would finish no matter what. Despite my cramping, I drank even more water. I knew the water was causing the cramps but my thirst was so powerful. It wasn't like it was that warm I think it had climbed to 53 or 54 degrees at that point, but still somewhat humid.

Greg stuck with me for about a mile so that he would have time to run back to the car and see me finish. I knew he was worried about me, but I wasn't worried about me. It was really just this uphill battle and as soon as the downhill came, I would be okay again. At mile 22 I took my second Maurten gel with some more water, and then tossed the bottle so my arms would be free to really grind it out. It took me 13 miles to drink 24 oz, and then later in the run it took me 2 miles to drink 12 ounces. Wow.

Mile 21 clocked in at 9:56 and Mile 22 was 9:43. At least the trend was moving in the right direction.

I battled the cramps for a little bit, but as suspected, my world became so much brighter once the downhill came. I started gaining momentum, and then BOOM! My first intersection where cars were not stopping. This had not been an issue at any previous intersection, but of course, once I had momentum going and was running strong, I was forced to stop. I did not stop my Garmin because I wanted a true finish time. So I was losing time, so annoyed because I knew I was within seconds of getting my BQ time. Every second mattered and these f'ing cars were taking it away from me.

It seemed like eternity before I could cross, but in reality it was probably just 10 seconds. That's a lot, though, when you are on the borderline of meeting a time goal. My lap pace for that mile had been 8:30 and now it was 9:30.

Before the real downhill came "Heartbreak Hill". In the elevation chart above you can see it's the highest point on the graph. This involved some more walking. It was steep. I was exhausted. I imagined myself running up the real Heartbreak Hill at mile 21 of Boston. That one has much better crowd support.

With just three miles to go, I tried to bring my average pace down to 8:22. I could see that it was 8:24, which equated to 3:40:xx. And my plan was working out great. I was rallying, I was working hard. I was being mentally strong. No more walking. Just fast running down the hills. Mile 24 was 8:07 and mile 25 was 8:09. Yes! But then, things got dicey.

At 25.6 there was a trail detour that interrupted my rhythm and was unfortunately uphill. And then came an intersection. I waited and waited and waited. Finally I crossed, only to see a "trail closed"
sign. Seriously? My Garmin read 25.9 I was so close. I had to stop the Garmin. I didn't know where to go. I needed to look around and get my bearings. After about 10 seconds, I saw two cyclists and I followed them, restarting the Garmin. All of my momentum was lost. Mile 26 was a disappointing 8:37. I had been running a pace of 8:10 until all the stopping. According to my Garmin data, my moving pace was 8:07 for that mile, so I must have stopped for 30 seconds waiting to cross the intersection. UGH.

Once the detour ended and I was back on the trail, I gunned it. I wanted to run 26.3 miles to be fair but then I encountered a "trail closed" sign right at 26.2 so there I stopped. 3:40:02. Sigh.

Mile 21: 9:56 (63 gain, 0 loss)
Mile 22: 9:43 (31 gain, 35 loss)
Mile 23: 9:38 (74 gain, 26 loss) Heartbreak hill!
Mile 24: 8:07 (0 gain, 93 loss)
Mile 25: 8:09 (0 gain, 38 loss)
Mile 26: 8:37 (8 gain, 37 loss) moving time was 8:07!!
Last 0.2: 7:36 pace

After the Race
So, officially I ran a 3:40:02. But that includes about 40 seconds worth of stopping at intersections. However, I also stopped the Garmin for 10 seconds when I was trying to figure out where to go. So, in all fairness, it was probably 3:39:32. But then again, I didn't run 26.3 miles which is what a typical marathon is due to all the weaving. So, who knows really?!

At the end of the day, I am not going to sweat those 2 seconds. I know I can run a BQ time as a training run while clearly dehydrated, and then not require a week to recover. That's pretty bad ass! (Well, I plan to run tomorrow and my legs are not destroyed. Hopefully that happens.)

My mother was waiting at the finish line. I hadn't seen her since February, so that was really nice. She lives just 2 miles from there, so it worked out well. We kept social distance though, with her being in the "at-risk" population. Not like she wanted to hug salty, smelly me. Definitely the 6 feet thing worked in her favor!

Greg wrapped a towel around me and I asked for another bottle of water. I was still very thirsty. We said goodbye to my mother and drove home. The thirst continued into my Epsom Salt bath where I found myself drinking water directly from the faucet. I wasn't hungry and I didn't eat for almost two hours. But finally I had a slice of pizza, more water (mixed with lime juice) and a Pepsi.

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
Where to start. I have so many mixed emotions. I never once cried about the real Boston Marathon being canceled. But I reserve the right to now that the day has come and gone, and I never had that experience. Today was about grinding it out when I didn't feel great. My body clearly didn't show up for me and I learned a good lesson in hydration. I'm glad that didn't happen in a real race.

The difference between today and CIM was that I knew CIM would be warm and humid so I drank way more the day before and I drank more early in the race. The key is really drinking early, which I didn't do. I think I ditched my water bottle at about the same point in CIM, but the huge difference was I drank more of that bottle early on, instead of having it all right at the end.

I wasn't tapered for this race. I ran a 5K time trial on Thursday in 20:34 (6:36 pace). It's good to know I can run a marathon so soon after a 5K!

My legs held up really well. They were not the limiting factor, and even on the hills they didn't really bother me. I suspect I will be able to run my planned 7 miles tomorrow (slowly) provided that I continue to re-hydrate all day today.

Running a marathon is really all about not giving up on yourself when your body is telling you to. My body told me to stop many times today and I did give in from time to time. But the walking never lasted long and all my miles were sub 10:00. I had such amazing support from Greg, my mother,  Cheryl, and all my friends who sent me messages of encouragement beforehand.

I don't have my medal. But I do have an experience that enriched my life in a different way and has made me stronger.


  1. Congrats for getting your marathon in! I never expected to learn so much from virtual racing. My latest takeaway is how my racing fees go toward so much more than the shirt and the medal, they are providing all of the people who look out for us on the course and manage road closures and our hydration. I think it's going to be so *easy* once we have those luxuries back in our life again.

  2. Great job! Again! And love your outfit. You are so committed and inspiring. Why aren't you running Boston in September? ��

  3. Pretty interesting. Few thoughts. 1. Did you Carboload? How about your 12 oz. of beet juice before bed? 2. Prerace. Protein? Caffeine? Energy Drink? 3. Any stops are bad, better to just slow down.

  4. Awesome run Zebra and amazing and impressive you do a virtual Boston Marathon run in Virginia. You ran exceedingly well despite the glitches with the hills, the short stop for water, the wait for cars to clear, and the glich at end with trail re-route and trail closed at your virtual Finish Line! You covered marathon distance in 3:40....and that's good enough in my. You picked a tough course to run. There's always "things that happen" in both training runs and races...responding and adjusting to them...that's what makes a great marathoner. Awesome Zebra you are! Did I interpret correctly your not running Boston in September? If so why?

    1. Greg and I have a trip to Africa near that time, so it doesn't work out for the schedule! I also have learned that I can't safely train for a marathon in the summer - it really weakens my immune system.

  5. Congrats! I am from Lorton, Virginia and I was supposed to run Boston 2020 also. I am part of Kathrine Switzer's @261Fearless club to empower women through running. I qualify for Boston and I am also on the 261 Fearless Charity Team hopefully running on September 14, 2020. Are you interested in joining our social women's running club in the Northern Virginia area? We meet once per week for a fun time with women supporting women. If you are interested, please contact me at 808-388-0818 or checkout We are on Facebook at @261fearlessclubdcmetro. Happy running! Rosemary Spraker

  6. Yay! You did great! Every marathon has ups and downs and lessons to be learned. This one will help you in future races. I'm rooting for you to run Boston IN Boston one of these years- it will happen! Thanks for sharing.

  7. I really can't believe you did this! A solo marathon is quite the undertaking. Just like a real race you worked through hard patches and still finished strong - impressive, well done. I'm glad you felt like you recovered quickly, too! You must be in really good shape. Hopefully you can apply that to a race this fall. Fingers crossed.

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  9. This is a shocker to read honestly... You chose to run a full marathon on the day because it was Boston Marathon day. Just wow!! Of course there would be some obstacles given you don't have crowd support or tables for fluids every mile or two so when you're empty, well you just gotta tough it out. That course looks awful!!

    As for TRAIL CLOSED!! I would have ignored it and just finished my route (then again that's what I'm doing here in NJ after Governor Murphy closed all the state park trails) given it's the only way to safely deal with my peroneal tendon issue (you know this already but that's for anyone else who reads this post and wants to tell me I'm a trespasser lol.)