Willpower and Grit: Megan Bongartz’s 2018 Boston Marathon Recap

My Boston training cycle didn’t exactly start off the way I was hoping. I had been dealing with nagging hip flexor tightness and pain throughout the second half of my Chicago Marathon training in the fall, and had been telling myself that all I needed was a week off from running and it would be fine. It was not, in fact, fine, and I found myself in physical therapy by November. Fortunately, I was still allowed to run, but my mileage wasn’t where I wanted it to be and fast paces were irritating my hip. With lots of help from Cat at Custom PT, though, I started to make progress and was beginning to feel like I could still target my goal of breaking 3 hours in Boston. Then, in the first week of January, I sprained my ankle while running home from PT. The irony was not lost on me. It was a mild enough sprain that I could keep up my mileage, but running faster than marathon pace now caused both hip and ankle pain. To make matters worse, I couldn’t do a lot of my hip strengthening exercises anymore because I couldn’t balance on my ankle.

Training

With my injuries in mind, I adjusted my training strategy. I generally follow the Whippets training plans, but I always give myself the option of doing a medium long run instead of Thursday short speed workouts if I’m feeling worn down. Now, I cut Thursday workouts out almost entirely because those paces were too painful. Instead, I focused on nailing the longer Tuesday night workouts and incorporating marathon pace miles into my Saturday long runs. Since I wasn’t doing Thursday workouts, I felt comfortable pushing a little harder on Tuesdays and started powering through those runs with Perry and Brigette. Making it through the longer marathon pace workouts together was a huge confidence booster for me. I was also building my mileage like crazy. If I couldn’t run quickly, I could at least run a lot – so I packed in every mile I could, eventually peaking with a 101 mile week. Since I knew I would be facing the infamous Newton hills, I was seeking out the hilliest training routes I could find. I ran constant loops of Harlem Hill and did multiple long runs in the Palisades. On top of the high mileage, I was trying to squeeze in plenty of stretching and foam rolling and at least one gym and one yoga session each week to stave off any additional injuries. By the time my taper rolled around, I was so tired I could barely chew my food and I was really hoping I hadn’t done too much.

My body began to feel better as I cut my mileage down, and my concerns turned to the weather. While everyone else I spoke to was relieved that the forecast wasn’t calling for temperatures in the 90s, I was concerned that it would be too cold. I didn’t want to wish poor conditions on anyone else, but my hands and feet get painfully cold in low temperatures. I accepted that while my fellow runners were going to be happy in shorts and singlets, I was going to need long sleeves, tall socks, and gloves, as well as some really good throwaway layers for the pre-race hours. The forecast got worse as we got closer to the race, though. Matan and Perry (who I was staying with in Boston) and I bought surgical gloves to put over our running gloves to help keep the water out and hand warmers to use before the start.

 

Race Day

On race morning, we were cold and damp long before the race started, despite the many layers of garbage bags that we were wearing. I didn’t want the bus ride out to Hopkinton to end because at least it was dry. In the athlete village, we huddled in muddy tents with thousands of other runners as we waited to start moving. It was impossible to warm up – jogging or trying to stretch would have only gotten us more wet before we had to be. I was nervous because I didn’t know what pace I could expect to do with a 20-30mph headwind, but tried not to let it ruin how excited I was to be in Boston.

Eventually, we were released from the athlete village to start our walk to the starting line. In my start corral, I strategically removed layers in order to remain dry-ish as long as possible. I wasn’t expecting to see Perry or Brigette during the race since they were seeded to start in front of me, but Brigette managed to find me in the corral and we started together since neither of us had any idea what our goal was anymore. We ran the first mile in 6:50 and laughed that no one could say we went out too quickly. Suddenly it was just another Tuesday night workout. My calves and hip were tight from the cold and from sitting for so long in the tent, but since we were running around 10 seconds slower than goal pace I felt good overall for the first few miles. I threw my handwarmers out around mile 6, which I came to deeply regret later. The crowds were fantastic and seeing my boyfriend and teammates Mike and Yoon earlier than expected around mile 7 or 8 gave me a boost.

By mile 10, though, I was beginning to get colder and my stomach was starting to bother me (thanks to some not so great pesto sauce on my pasta the night before). The wind and rain were getting progressively worse along the course, so although my legs still felt okay it was becoming a bit more of a battle to keep going. I was really glad to have Brigette running with me, as company made it so much more bearable. There were water stations roughly every mile, so I never had to worry about being hydrated. This was a very good thing, because I got distracted by dealing with the wind and completely forgot about nutrition for a few miles until I realized that I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I took Gatorade. Luckily, I only had to wait about another minute for my next opportunity to grab some. I ate what ended up being my last shot bloks of the race around mile 17, and by this time I was so cold that I couldn’t get the rest of the pack back into my belt. I tried to tuck it into the band of my shorts but couldn’t get my fingers to do that, either. Eventually, I managed to shove it inside my sleeve, but it took far more effort than it should have. It took me another two miles to get my glove back on, and by that time it had filled with water. I was feeling frantic. In spite of my deep stress about how cold I was getting, I did realize that thanks to all of the hills I’d run in practice, the Newton hills were no big deal. Heartbreak Hill was the least heartbreaking thing about that day.

At mile 21, my stomach finally lost its battle. I told Brigette that I would have to pull off at the next bathroom and that I was unlikely to catch back up. I lost 90 seconds in the bathroom, most of it spent trying to get my shorts off and on again with completely numb fingers. This ended up being the exact amount of time that I finished behind Brigette, which was frustrating because perhaps if we had been able to run together for the remainder of the race we could have pushed each other a little closer to our goal times.

As I started moving again, I told myself that if I could run 6:30s I could still come in under 3 hours. I ran one mile at 6:45, and then the wind slammed me in the face. The next four miles were awful. I could feel hypothermia trying to set in, and tried to keep it away with sheer willpower. I had heard a spectator yell, “You have to want it! You have to need it!” a few miles before, and this became my power mantra. Even though I wasn’t running the pace that my effort should have been producing, I was flying past people, so I knew that I was having a better day than a lot of other runners were. I heard people shouting my name around mile 25 and knew that it was my boyfriend and teammates, but didn’t have the energy to acknowledge them. As I turned from Hereford onto Boylston and the finish line came into sight, I had no idea what time I was finishing in. I only knew that every second mattered and I only had to make myself be okay for a few more steps. Only after crossing the finish line did I realize that I had managed to squeeze out a PR. At that point, I finally let go and let myself cry and shiver all the way back to the AirBnB. I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied with my time. It wasn’t what I trained for or what I feel like my fitness level is right now. But on a day where elites were calling it quits due to the conditions and grit won out? I’ll take it.

More about Jennie Cohen

Jennie is a member of the Dashing Whippets.

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