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The Fresh and The Familiar
Do you prefer perfecting a race you know, or trying a race that is completely new? I enjoy both, and had a chance to do one of each back-to-back last month. Much to appreciate, much to learn!
When race day comes, which situation gets you more excited - perfecting your execution on a course that you know well, or the excitement of a new course and location, not knowing how you will be challenged? Or maybe you change it up from year to year?
I personally enjoy having a few of each kind of race every year. Some “familiar” races to give structure to your training and provide a sense of ritual, and some “fresh” races to ensure that you stretch your boundaries with some guaranteed adventure. I had back-to-back extremes of each in the last month, running the Boston Marathon for the 19th consecutive time, and racing Ironman Marbella 70.3 in Spain for the first time. Activity, preparation, location, conditions, culture, community…these two races couldn’t have been more different. But together, they helped me appreciate the cornucopia of rewards that come from endurance sport.
Boston Marathon #19
The energy of the Boston Marathon is unlike any other race. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back year after year, even after moving to Austria. Thousands of first time runners come to honor their “BQ” qualifying time and cross Boston off their bucket list, joining regulars who have helped make this one of the oldest and most celebrated races in the world.
It helps that the race happens on Patriot’s Day weekend, turning “Marathon Monday” into a bookend of a three-day celebration of sports that also include the NBA and NHL quarterfinals (with Boston teams in both, natch), baseball openers at Fenway Park, and more. Needless to say, the community is pumped and incredibly supportive, making it very special.
Since I work for adidas, I get the opportunity to sell shoes at the Expo and meet a lot of runners from all over the world. I just love their appreciation of the lore of the course, asking “how big is Heartbreak Hill” (not big, but any hill at 21 miles feels huge), “can you really kiss the Wellesley girls at the Scream Tunnel” (just slow down, make eye contact, and you’ll find out pretty quickly), “have you ever met Kathrine Switzer” (yes, she’s right over there, let me introduce you), and “where are there bathrooms with no line” (nowhere, but the ones near the race corrals are the fastest). Two work colleagues were also running Boston for the first time - Stephen, who had returned to running a few years ago and focused his training for a PR, and Jason, who ran all of 18 miles total in training, and was planning to have some beer and BBQ along the race course. There are lots of ways to enjoy Boston!
My training was somewhere in between my two colleagues, having done primarily triathlon training through the winter, but with a few half marathon checkpoints that indicated a 3:00-3:10’ish marathon was within reach. But now that it is my 19th consecutive running, it’s also important that I don’t go out at PR-or-bust speeds…I don’t want to break that streak!
The rain sprinkled as we loaded into the race corrals in Hopkinton, but it was otherwise a fine, cool weather for racing. That’s a big bonus in Boston, where the weather can be anything from freezing, blustering rain, to a hot-and-humid meltfest. I was a few corrals back this year with #9945, but after comparing goal times with my fellow plastic-wrapped mates, this was the right spot!
It only took a few km’s for me to start reminiscing like a streak racer. Hey look, that family finished their new deck! That band in Ashland sounds much better with the new guitar player. Awww, the local bar and grill shut down! They were always a fun crowd.
More profound observations would follow, like realizing that the kids I had watched grow up as they handed out popsicles at the same corner for years, are now giving popsicles to THEIR kids to hand out. Moms become the grandmas sitting in the back, flashing a grin that condenses decades of their own childhood and motherhood memories. A ritual that spans generations…it’s quite powerful to see first hand.
And, of course, I had the pleasure of seeing Santa Claus at mile 8 where he is every year, and getting our 18th consecutive selfie. It’s hard to express the pure joy I feel wondering if he will be there each year (and of course he is), sharing a hug, and having him say “see ya next year, Scott!” like it’s just another day. For Santa and me, time seems to have stopped. Yet with the families along the course, I feel like I’m in a time machine stuck in 3rd gear, witnessing an accelerated view of multi-generational determination that will keep this race alive for centuries, long after Santa and I are gone. Streak racing creates a deep appreciation for time, the present moment most of all.
I struck up a conversation with a woman wearing a Moms Who Run shirt, chuckling about how running is likely the only time she gets to herself. “Why do you think I’m so fast?” she said with a wink, and fast she was! As fate would have it, her husband and kids were on the course just a few hundred meters ahead, so I slowed down and shot a video of her giving high fives to her brood of three boys under 10, and the prideful smile that followed for many km’s. How else would I get to meet THIS amazing warrior? Running really is incredible.
I got a kiss on the cheek from the Wellesley girls, and slammed a beer with the Hash House Harriers at Heartbreak Hill (they drink enthusiastically with you), two rituals that never disappoint. By the time the beer burps ended, we were already on Boylston Street heading to the finish line. I finished in 3:07:12, sharing stories with fellow runners as I made my way back to the hotel, and promptly crashing at my Vienna-bedtime. My colleague, Stephen, did get his 11 minute PR (with a wonderful write up on how running has changed his life) and is already planning for his six-major-marathon tour. Jason did get a finisher medal, and says the beer and bbq on the course was delicious. All in all, another solid Boston Marathon for all of us!
Will I be back? Well, you can’t stop at #19, right?!? The curse of round numbers demands at least one more. But let’s be honest…as long as I am fortunate enough to be healthy, I will find my way to Hopkinton again. See ya next year, Boston!
Ironman Marbella 70.3
Bienvenido a españa! This was my first visit to Spain, and I was eager to swim in the Mediterranean, bike through the steep coastal mountains (1500m of climbing), run along the beach, and of course, enjoy the great food and culture. But most of all, it was eight heaping scoops of all new experiences! I was going to enter this race without seeing any of the course, but definitely prepared to do the distance, so it was bound to be exciting.
One new aspect to this race is that it was part of the “Ironman Executive Challenge (XC)”, a special package provided by Ironman at select races that allows you to meet, hang out, and race with similar business owners, partners, and executives and their families and friends. At first glance, I wasn’t sure if it was my thing, but after sharing with a former colleague that I had found it difficult to make friends at races in Europe (especially relative to the USA, where you can be best friends in an hour after the race), he sponsored an entry for me and encouraged me to give it a shot.
I came to Marbella a day early to shlep my bike and gear, and Christi (my wife) and Quinn (my 12-year-old daughter who never says no to a beach/pool) would join a day later. My fellow XC competitors and their families were fun, optimistic, welcoming, and ready to explore, with most of them already knowing each other from previous XC races. They came from everywhere on the globe - Panos from London, Dina was the first Saudi woman to ever compete in Ironman, Todd was from Ohio, Bob from North Carolina, and all brought friends and family. Part of the ease of enjoyment came from the XC team setting up so many extras - bike mechanics on site, breakfast with a pro athlete for course knowledge, tours of the race area, snacks, transportation, and our host, Julia, attending to every need. An instant tribe, and a lot of perks…I can see why my friend enjoyed this! I do also enjoy the rawness of dirtbagging and camping, but it sure is nice to have some help when you have all this triathlon gear. The XC families DEFINITELY enjoyed it, not having to worry about where to stand to see their racers, how to get around town, where to eat, and having plenty of opportunities to get to know each other.
Race day was a hot one (30C/86F), and the ocean swelled up to the rocking beat as we counted down the swim. A fellow competitor, Kion from Dubai, joked with me about my 15-year-old wetsuit being in the “classic car” division, and it definitely looked like it had been in the bottom of a closet for quite some time. But as Bob said, “it fits, and that is 90% of the battle with wetsuits”. True, indeed! Bob and I joined Todd to take the option to start up front behind the pros, whereas the other XC competitors had the smarts to start seeded with the swimmers going their speed (Bob, Todd, and I would be run over by 500+ swimmers before the first buoy). And like that, we were off!
Once we got off of the shore, the 0.5-1.0 meter swells started stacking up, and swimmers scattered everywhere. It was like paddling out for a surf! One had to time your buoy siting at the top of the waves, and not mind a few full gulps of sea water. I slowed down to conserve energy, not being a great swimmer to start with, and finished the swim in 39 minutes right alongside Bob.
Bob laughed off the swim, and demonstrated his Ironman experience by getting through the T1 transition in just a few minutes, while I did a full rookie clothing change into cycling gear. I had opted for my road bike instead of a tri bike, given all the climbing, which Kion and a few others had also done. The tri bikes went right by us at first, but as soon as the climbs started, the roles reversed. And when the descents came with 90-100 kmh speeds, whoa…I was glad I had a road bike!
After the first climb took an hour, it was clear this was going to be a “who can stay on top of their hydration and electrolytes” kind of race. Thank you, ultrarunning, for the heat training instinct! The Spanish mountains were arid, with hot cross winds meeting you at the scenic points. My water bottles were disappearing so fast, it was like a glitch in the Matrix, but I was on it, and there were plenty of aid stations to refill. The pro athletes coming the other way had no problem, descending like fighter jets. Wow! I started to have some “hot foot” issues in the last 20k, but made it to the last big descent before it became a problem, and finished the bike in a steady 3:20.
Once I got my adidas Adizero Adios Pro3 shoes on, my brain was ready for a Boston pace, but my body reminded me I had not done any “bricks” of cycling/running this winter. Oops! After 2km, I loosened up enough to find a good gear on the three loop course along the coast. It was great to see my fellow XC warriors out there, and their families were taking pictures and giving cheers to all of us. Hey look, I have friends! ;-)
I closed hard, and was able to pass 70-80 people and finish in 5:56. It turns out, I was the fastest XC competitor too, so I got a slot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Finland in August (most of my XC colleagues will also be there). Everyone was quite happy with their race (Todd being the exception with an unusual mechanical issue), and enjoyed the challenging course. We hung out and cheered on the other finishers, our little tribe dancing as the sun set. When I went to get my bike at the end (always the hardest part of the race), the XC team had already cleaned and packed it into my bike case and took it back to the hotel, so all of us could just continue our party. Yeah, I could get used to this.
Ironman Marbella 70.3, done. It was challenging, exciting, and beautiful, but it also pointed out a lot of training weak spots. But isn’t it great to get that feedback? I feel inspired to continue this journey, and shape the summer training to give the 70.3 World Championship my best effort. I have never broken 5 hours for the half Ironman distance, after all, and it seems like I could get there on that course. That round number curse, once again!
So am I a triathlete now? Triathlete, trail runner, ultrarunner, cyclist, whatever…I am first and foremost grateful for health, an abundance of opportunities to explore, a community of likeminded warriors who enjoy nature, and the endless physical and spiritual rewards that come from embracing the training process. The XC crew is the same - when I asked about “next races”, I heard everything from gravel races, to hikes, to 24-hour cycling trips, to just kicking back and enjoying nature with the family. Alles gut (all is good), as we say in Austria!
Now that I live farther from trails, and (by luck) being two blocks away from a swimming pool and in a country with buttery smooth bike paths in all directions, I find it fascinating that my environment is shaping my training/race choices more and more. But my 54-year-old body seems to like the variety, and it’s always nice to try something fresh.
That is, until this “fresh” becomes “familiar”, and we change it up again! ;-)
I hope this finds you all well, and enjoying getting outside! See you soon…