Boston Marathon (UK) 2020

Well, sort of. The title of this page is what was shown on my bib, after the race was postponed three times, eventually taking place on Monday 31 May 2021 rather than the originally planned Sunday 19 April 2020. I think most of us in the race would probably regard it as the Boston Marathon 2021.

My 16-week marathon training plan for 2021 was stretched to 22 weeks when the third postponement took place, but I felt ready. Training had gone well: I’d run at least a marathon distance over the course of every week since November, many weeks totalling over 60km, including several individual runs over 30km; I’d run slow and I’d run fast. I wasn’t going to be challenging the elites, but I’d done my preparation.

On the Monday morning I got up at 5.05am for breakfast and we left the house just before 6 o’clock, Lucy driving me the 1.75 hours to Boston. She dropped me off outside Central Park and then drove off to Butterwick, location of our first meeting point, and also her morning run beforehand.

I walked around the perimeter of the park and in to join the rest of the runners in my Wave D area, putting on my mask on the way in – it was a requirement to wear the mask in the assembly area, and rules had required it to be worn for the first 300 metres of the race, though the latter requirement was dropped a few days beforehand. Having said that, a cursory glance around while I was waiting for the toilet suggested that maybe 50% of people were ignoring the amended rule.

In the assembly area

When I eventually emerged from the toilet, I found that my wave had already moved to the exit of the park, though it wasn’t yet the published time of 8.20. The six start waves for the marathon were scheduled to start at 10-minute intervals from 8.00 onwards, with the half-marathon waves following. Each was limited to a maximum of 200 runners under the Covid-19 protocols.

Heading for the start

Wave D were soon were under way to the Market Place for the start, and as I arrived there, the runners at the start of my wave began their runs. I removed my mask, tucked it away, and slowly made my way to the start line. I was conscious that I was in Wave D rather than Wave E because, last July, I’d given my estimated finish time as 4h20. Today I was aiming at 4h26 (or at least better than 4:27:21, last year’s unofficial time), so I deliberately tried to start near the back of my wave.

The Market Place and the race start

Although it was a wave start, there was still atmosphere from being among over 100 other runners, and some crowd support – the official line from the race organisers being a statement that they had been advised to discourage supporters and spectators, without actively doing any discouraging.

We made our way through the town centre roads and across the ring-road where the traffic was being held for each wave, before heading along an arterial road towards Freiston. With the exception of the first few hundred metres, none of the roads for today’s race were closed, and though there were signs and marshals, one had to be aware of traffic, particularly in these early stages on the way out of Boston.

I banked a small amount of time in the first kilometre or two, then settled into a good rhythm and stuck to my target pace. I successfully met Lucy at Butterwick and was passed fresh supplies.

Me approaching Lucy at Butterwick, wearing my distinctive blue legionnaire’s hat

With the exception of the start and finish, only Freiston, Butterwick (twice) and Fishtoft constituted real villages, and the rest of the route was very rural with an occasional hamlet. After mile 6 I was startled to find runners coming the other way, more than 9 miles ahead of me, but the shared route didn’t last long and we north-east-bound runners were soon alone again.

Those near the front, running towards me

A few runners from Waves E and probably particularly Wave F (people who didn’t submit an expected time) gradually started to overtake me, but mostly it was fairly quiet – I very slowly overhauled a few people, but for the most part we were well sorted by finish times and running at our own consistent paces.

Lucy’s spot at the crossroads for miles 9 and 12.

At water point D, just short of mile 9, Lucy met me again, passing me more supplies. She was able to stay there because just over three miles later, the course had looped around and started back towards Boston, passing the same point again.

When I got to 20km I felt really quite strong, and now with the wind tending to be behind me (albeit very inconsistently as the route twists and turns greatly), and where the situation allowed, I gained a few seconds on my target pace on some kilometres.

As I approached Butterwick for the second time, just short of 29km, I looked out for Lucy at the road junction, but couldn’t see her. I assumed she must be just around the corner for some reason, but I didn’t see her there either. By the time I was certain I hadn’t see her, I glanced over my shoulder and in the distance saw a red car that looked familiar. A quick phone call as I jogged along confirmed it was her, and somehow I was there sooner than she’d expected. Analysis later showed I’d supplied Lucy with incorrect information and so she’d been expecting me a few minutes later.

Although spectators are generally asked not to drive on the marathon route, in practice the roads are open and at this stage the field of runners is very thin. Lucy in the car overtook me and pulled in, to pass me my final batch of supplies. I’d been 90 seconds ahead of schedule at Butterwick, so there was scope for this tiny delay which flustered Lucy more than it did me.

By now the early cloud and chilly breeze had turned to almost clear blue skies and the warmest day of the year. I still felt good, but not as good as before, but pressed on at my target pace, feeling increasingly queasy and slightly nervous about whether I was going to need a toilet.

With less than 5km to go, I began to find it really tough, but with almost two minutes in hand, I knew I could ease off the pace a little and still meet my time objective. However, my energy rapidly began to fade – whether that psychological acknowledgement that I could ease off was actually counterproductive, I’m not sure, but it became harder to push my body.

However, as I reached the edge of Boston, my legs became less and less cooperative, and the running intervals got shorter and the walking intervals got longer. My arms and hands were now tingling from poor blood flow, and my feet were starting to cramp a little, or at least to complain and to hint that they were soon going to cramp fully. I rapidly moved to being totally zonked, and started to wander around a little as I progressed. Quite a few people cheered me on, though no-one asked if I was ok. My target time now unachievable, I was now almost continually walking with only the briefest of attempts at a jog. I walked around the last two corners and then jogged over the line, my official chip time being 4:34:18.

Jogging across the finish line.

The mild cramping signs in my feet for the last couple of kilometres now got much worse and I got Lucy to remove my shoes and socks. But the cramping in my feet and particularly toes got worse and worse, and spread to my calf muscles.

The next two hours were spent around the finish area, with me trying to walk and stretch away the cramps as I would normally do, but they just kept getting worse, despite taking on lots of recovery and rehydration drinks and ordinary water. A series of physiotherapists tried to help with massage, ice, and deep heat – at times I had four of them working on me at once. They were very keen for me to sit down but that was extremely difficult as my lifelong experience is that removing the weight off my legs makes my calf and foot cramps ten times worse, and such was the case today. They managed to get me sitting by the tightest of grips on my calf muscles as I sat down, and with Lucy standing on my toes to keep them straighter and make the pain there bearable.

I had ibuprofen and paracetamol an hour after the finish, and twenty minutes later the ambulance crew took the decision to put me on gas and air. That helped with the pain but not the underlying problem, though it did allow me to sit for more muscle massage, but eventually I exhausted two full bottles of gas, which was their entire supply, and they decided to take me to hospital. Getting me onto the trolley was very painful as there was now no gas, no weight on the legs, and no massage going on. They radioed ahead that they were bringing in a patient with a 10/10 pain score.

The ride to the hospital with the blue lights and sirens on was an experience, I suppose, but rather uncomfortable. I managed to jam my left leg against the ambulance to keep some pressure and relieve pain in that leg, but the right leg kept cramping very intensely and I could rely only on breathing techniques to see me through. There was talk of possibly being prescribed diazepam when we arrived but in the end that didn’t happen.

We parked up outside the hospital A&E entrance, and from there, things started to improve. It was a long wait, first to be triaged – by that time the worst of the pain had gone (albeit not the anxiety that it could return at any second with any movement), but my feet and toes were locked upwards at the maximum angle they could produce, but now only the mild pain that you’d get if someone was pushing your foot and toes a bit further than they wanted to go. The reduction in pain was a good thing, but may have contributed to the delay in eventually being admitted. I gave a variety of bits of medical history to a variety of people, and various blood samples, testing of my heart and lungs, and eventually urine, but it was the litre of saline that made the difference, coupled with rest and the drinks at the finish, in the ambulance, and in hospital.

When I needed to go to the toilet, I was given some non-slip hospital socks (as my socks and shoes were with Lucy), and very tentatively got to my feet. Though I felt unsteady and my calf muscles were bruised, I found I could walk slowly without much difficulty. On the second visit to the toilet, the consultant said he would now discharge me, but it took about 40 minutes for that to happen, and it did feel like I’d been forgotten – not unlike that time in a restaurant after dessert when all you want is to pay the bill and depart, yet the previously very attentive waiting staff have lost interest (oddly as this is the time when you might be deciding on a tip). By now I needed to go to the toilet for the third time, but after that I was outside, wandering in my slightly dishevelled state in socks, rather uncertainly around hospital car parks looking for Lucy, but we quickly found each other and were underway once Lucy had sorted out payment for the parking.

Hospital socks – XL

So, a very good race for almost all of it, a very poor end to it, and a very traumatic afternoon. I achieved a marathon race PB, though not my best time over the distance, though I did gain my best 30km time along the way.

Lucy’s afternoon view

Lucy had a tough afternoon, being bossed around while I was in so much pain, and then having to linger in the hospital car park for almost four hours. The physios who worked hard to care for me had a tough time and I suspect may have perceived me as a rather uncooperative patient, but I’m grateful to them, and the two guys who took me to hospital. One of the marathon organisers commented that it had been some endurance by me, and a Strava running friend commented it had been scary seeing how much pain I was in – I was almost totally unaware of the impact I might have been having on other runners who finished after me, but it could have been a bit of a spectacle – there was a lot of screaming!

The Boston medal and t-shirt after a slow 2.7km run 36 hours after leaving hospital – it was all worth it!

So, what can I learn? Pay more attention to hydration, I suppose. I took on 500ml of electrolyte drink just before the start, and regular electrolyte gels during the race, plus plenty of water, but presumably not enough. I am a copious sweater, and while it will never be possible to replace everything lost during the course of a long run, maybe I could get a better balance.

As for Milton Keynes Marathon on 27 June – I think I’m likely to pull out, but will make a firm decision shortly.

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