When you are herded through bib pickup and the expo at Boston Marathon, the staff do not say “good luck,” they say “congratulations.” At one point, I even asked “for what?” It’s because to many runners, Boston is the holy grail of marathons. It is the only major marathon in the world where runners must complete a qualification time to enter, which adjusts depending on your age group and gender. Only around 5% of marathoners can pull off a “Boston qualifier” or BQ and it sure was a journey for me to finally nail it. If you’re not already up to speed on my trip through the world of qualification, get caught up here.
You’re back? Good.
Okay, so by now you realize how much it meant for me to cross the blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street, but there was still much to be done. One thing you realize when you run enough races is that the moment you finish, the glow of the race itself fades faster than you imagined it would. I’d love to type up a blog with vivid imagery where my readers step inside, lock the harness down, keep their hands and feet inside the ride at all times and cruise up and down the Newton Hills from the lens my sweat-covered brow, but frankly when it’s all done and dusted, the 32,000 steps I took on the course are incredibly short. I’ve seen Summer take longer to eat hot pot than I took to do the actual race. But that’s because Boston isn’t a race. It’s a victory lap for the hundreds of times you laced your shoes when you didn’t really want to, the intervals, hills and speed work you practiced until you were so tired you struggled to pull your sweaty shirt off when you got home. It’s the black toenails, bloody nipples and angry girlfriend who doesn’t understand why you can’t have brunch on Saturday with her mom. But that’s because you don’t just get the medal when you cross the finish–you also get a protein bar, bottles of water and wrapped in a foil blanket, but I digress–you get the chance to tell your kids your fastest marathon time when they are watching the Olympics some day.
This was my impression at first. I was coming to America to do well at the race. I had a few schemes planned for what would happen while we’re there, but I’ll get to that in just a second.
Like I said, it begins way before the start line, so let’s rewind to March 11th, 2018: I kept my pace even along the bobbing elevated highway of the Taipei Expressway Marathon, gliding into the finish with 30 seconds to spare before the clock would tick to 3 hours, thereby safely securing my spot to Boston. For those unfamiliar with the technicalities: In order to submit my application, a 29-year-old male like myself needs to run a 3:05:00 or faster. From there, the field is cut down to allow just the fastest 28,000 applicants. In the past, you needed to run 2 or 3 minutes faster than your qualification time, and it’s generally accepted that 5 minutes faster than your qualifier is a guaranteed entry. Basically, I nailed it.
Or so I thought.
On September 28th, 2018, B.A.A. had still not announced what this year’s cutoff would be. It was the longest that entrants had ever had to wait to find out whether or not they were accepted. Social media exploded with overwrought runners slamming the refresh button on their inboxes, questioning why they still haven’t arrived on a decision. I knew I was in, but I just wanted to hear it for sure. That’s when this arrived in my Gmail:
I had failed to qualify. Gravity increased its strength. I tumbled deeper into my chair. When I finally worked up the nerve to read past the first paragraph, I noticed something important:
Entries in all age groups were accepted through and including those who ran 4 minutes and 52 seconds (4:52) or faster than their respective qualifying standard.
For me, that means 3:00:08. I ran 2:59:31. I was within the qualification standards by 39 seconds.
What the hell is going on?
I emailed B.A.A. and automatically received a rejection to the tune of “All decisions on the qualification of Boston Marathon are final. Do not contact our staff again.” My head spun like the possessed girl from Blaire Witch Project. I took the fight to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even Strava. I was retweeted, reposted, and caused enough of a stir that 2 days later I was contacted by the unicorn itself, B.A.A., via Facebook message.
A few personal emails later, PDFs, proofs and conversations and I finally got my acceptance email.
Turns out my results from Taipei Marathon were hosted on the same site as Taipei Expressway Marathon. The individuals researching my case were having trouble with Chinese all over the page, the two races being held by the same organizer, and it being easier to search Taipei Marathon than Taipei Expressway Marathon results. Confused yet? So were they.
Either way, I was in.
Oh shit, that means I’m in.
And I’m not just going to come there as a tourist. If we’re going do Boston, we’re going to do it right. I started training on flat ground and my trail shoes gathered dust. This forest animal learned to love asphalt. I bought copy of Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning and followed the famed 110k/week 12-week program to a tee.
Having such a set structure was new to me, but it was welcomed. In trail racing and ultramarathon training, you follow a balanced diet of long runs, speed, hills and recovery, but ultimately what you do is up to how you feel. Now, I had iron guidelines telling me exact distances and pacing I needed to hit and when to recover to stay on track. It took all the worry out of training, knowing that people smarter than me had empirical evidence that what I was doing would help me improve.
January, February and March came and went with consistent 100k+ weeks. Small injuries flared up, exhaustion set in, aches and pains, sickness, popping and cracking, but I’m proud to say I managed to show up for every workout. Sometimes I felt bulletproof, doing my workouts faster pace than required or running a few extra intervals. Sometimes I was bent over hitting the guard rail along the track knowing my pacing wasn’t good enough. But every single morning those shoes got on.
In the past, people might strike up a conversation with a joking, “why are you so fast?” I would brush off the question in some faux-humble aloofness. “Me? Oh I’m not fast.” Or I’d claim it’s all the beer I drink that I need to run off. Then, I realized it’s a chance to tell them the truth. My only skill is that I show up every single morning. I might not be a sponsored elite, born as a running prodigy or have some mastery of athletics, I just know how to get my headphones on, get my shoes on my feet and my ass out the door even when I don’t want to.
And that’s what I did, right up until the gun went off in Boston: I was training.
We landed in NYC a week and a half before the race. The last of my workouts were done at the beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I managed to snag an AirBNB a few blocks from the entrance. I told Summer it was because this area had the best bagels in NYC, but really it was because I wanted to nail my last few training runs down. Also, because they have the best bagels in NYC. Later that day, we walked around in the park and Summer said she wanted to pet a squirrel. It became entertainment for both of us to watch her chase the poor squirrels around the trees while she coaxed them with soothing words to come accept her love.
But, I had more planned than just my training for Brooklyn. And this is when the story gets interesting.
Six months ago, when my mom came to visit Taiwan. While we visited Sun Moon Lake, I told her I had made a big decision and her and I began scheming the best options to (legally) make Summer Lee: my best friend, roommate, and partner in crime into Summer Lewandowski: my wife. She worked her butt off to help me to develop our race series, Beat The Sunset, she supported me while I ran The North Face 100k in Thailand, Coastal High 50k in Australia, Wings For Life, Hong Kong 100k, Formosa Trail 100k, and countless other endeavors. I finally felt it was the right time to tell her I want to support her the rest of my life.
Before our trip, Summer mentioned that she wanted to visit the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, so with my mom, my sister and my aunt Judy in tow, we waited in line at the gate for tickets to enter. Summer was worrying over the dog bite on her finger she incurred minutes before we entered, completely oblivious to my mom worrying over the GoPro I handed her earlier, and me worrying over the box containing the plastic ring prop in my pocket. Under my mom’s suspiciously firm recommendation, we shuffled under the the most bloated Prunus serrulata in the park for a “cute photo.” While we posed, I asked her if she’s enjoying traveling around the world with me. She said she is, then told me to shut up because my family is taking photos. Then I asked her if she’d like to spend the rest of her life traveling around with me and showed her the ring in my pocket.
The next few days were a whirlwind. Later that afternoon, our friends picked us up in a rental car and we watched the New York Redbulls lose 0-2 to Minnesota United. New York played like trash but it was a ton of fun.
The following day we headed to my hometown in Spencerport, New York and went to the courthouse to have the town clerk approve our marriage license. While they were dealing with the paperwork and legality of trying to marry a Taiwanese girl with no birth certificate or documents in English, we went to Niagara Falls to step away from all the craziness. On the bus, Summer said she has never seen snow before. I told her it probably won’t snow in April, but she said she hopes it does.
Around 5 am, as the sun was rising and my jetlag wasn’t letting me get enough sleep, I received an email from my school in Portland saying that they accepted my application and I’d begin my classes in August to get a Master’s in Education. Summer had already been accepted to Portland State University to get her Master’s in Finance, and this was the last piece of the puzzle we needed to secure our future together.
And sure enough, as we were leaving the butterfly conservatory, despite being a 0% chance of snow that day, heavy, puffy snowflakes started falling from the sky.
This was turning out to be quite the vacation.
The morning after our return from Canada, with my stepdad’s minivan packed with our luggage for our foray to Boston, we ran into my mom’s muddy backyard and in front of my family, said our vows. While the car backed up, I dropped the stamped envelope carrying our marriage license into the mailbox. I flipped up the flag, hopped in, and said goodbye to NY.
There was so much going on that I almost forgot that this caravan was heading down the highway at 75 miles per hour into Massachusetts for a race I had been dreaming of for years. I watched out the window, my new wife asleep under my arm, while the signs for Newton, Welsley and Boston passed by. My brother asked what’s for dinner and without opening her eyes, Summer said she wanted to eat an entire lobster, and she wanted to hit it with a hammer, waving an invisible hammer in the air.
My brother, stepdad, mom, aunt and new wife arrived 6 hours later to a gorgeous 3-bedroom AirBNB in Quincy.
We headed downtown to see the finish line in person and met with Stan, my mom’s old coworker and good friend who happens to be Taiwanese. He came with his sister, mother and father to the race. Everyone except for mom would be running, so it was great that Summer had a Taiwanese friend to keep her company while she, my mom, brother aunt and stepdad all stood along the railing along the 1 million spectators on the course for 5 hours.
Stan and I chatted about our target times. It seemed to be the hot topic to talk about before the race. I had originally said I wanted to run a 2:52 in order to qualify for New York City and all the other Marathon Majors avoiding the lottery system, but I was warned against having too ambitious of goals. More than one person I met told me to add 10 minutes to my usual target, and that running a Boston Qualifier at Boston was tough.
Why though? Boston is net downhill. As a ultramarathoner and trail runner, my impact load and ability to handle downhill without fatigue is my forte. I was laughing at how small the bumps on the map were, but apparently, these Newton Hills are no joke.
You might think that initial downhill at the start would be helpful, but it’s so steep that you can’t actually build speed off it, and you have to spend a lot of energy holding your pace back, building fatigue in your legs that will come back to haunt you later.
But before we could worry about the start line, we needed to get to the start line.
Our alarms went off at 5, but jetlag meant I didn’t really need to worry about that. I was up making my oatmeal in the dark with aunt Jenny while the rest of the AirBNB was asleep. She said she doesn’t sleep very late these days anyway and she is usually up at this time. Jenny helped me make my breakfast and get my gear together quietly through the light of her headlamp. Her and Summer took me to the bus stop by Boyleston street. Getting into the train in Quincy, it was beginning to sprinkle a little and the air was cooling fast.
We had been warned that rain was in the forecast. 100% chance of thunderstorms, in fact. For weeks leading up to the race, the news was singing the chorus of “just as bad as last year.” Summer claimed that she thought it was going to be fine. We laughed at her. Here is last year’s Boston Marathon, for reference:
45 minutes later, the doors of the train opened, and to our surprise the platform was crammed with runners panicking, throwing rain ponchos over their heads, blocking the exits. After pushing through the crowd up the stairs, we immediately saw why. The sky had opened and was pouring down while the clouds rumbled with thunder.
With pre-race nerves and concern for aunt Jenny and Summer getting soaked, I tossed my bag to them, told them I got everything I need (gels, gps watch, rain poncho) and took off into the storm to catch my bus. Forgetting my breakfast and visor.
The steamy bus ride took almost an hour to get to Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton Middle School, but it was worth the wait. I found a seat next to a really interesting dad from Missouri who works in the medical industry and was very curious about Taiwan’s health care system. We were dumped off while the rain was still coming down, and headed into the “village.”
While we waited for the runners to be called to the starting area, I sloshed through the mud into a carnival tent and had a fresh cup of coffee, a warm cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese, then thumbed through the selection of gels they had available free from Gatorade and Clif Energy. A man raised in the air with a microphone announced instructions to runners on how to file orderly into their pens and begin their walk from the village to the start line.
The rain had let off and now heavy, muggy clouds hung overhead. I lined up in wave 1 pen 6 with people I assume ran the same qualifying time as me. It struck me that I was surrounded by thousands of runners, at least 4000 of which had completed a sub-3 hour marathon before. At Expressway Marathon I had won my age group. This would not be the case today.
Jump to 0:45 to see the jets. ^
Following the National Anthem, two jets flew overhead, cruising along the entire Boston course in what must have taken less than a minute for them. The ground shook and my pen of runners erupted with a cheer. Someone nearby bellowed “We’re running the fucking Boston Marathon!” and we cried out one more time.
That’s when the gun went off and the race started.
Out of the entire race, the second kilometer was actually my slowest, simply because I had to dodge around within thousand and thousands of bodies all trying to catch themselves and we pummeled downhill. Even here, in the town of Hopkinton, miles and miles from Boston, families stood outside cheering us on. I saw fewer gaps of fans than I could count on my fingers through the entire course.
I tried to keep my pace even between 4:00-4:05 km/min careful not to get swept up in the excitement, but to be honest, I must have glanced at my watch to measure my pace fewer than 4 times the entire race. I passed a woman holding a sign that said “Don’t count miles. Make miles count.” That became my mantra. The only way to fail at this race is to take move your focus from what’s going around around you. I tapped all the “hit here to power up” signs, high fived kids, made jokes about the signs I saw. It was a blast. And even better news, the clouds were parting. We were seeing bits of blue skies and sun.
The fatigue set in earlier than I anticipated. By 18k I was feeling my legs get heavier than I was used to. Water and Gatorade stations lined the course on both sides every mile (yes, there were a total of 26 aid stations all day) so I had no trouble taking a gel every 40 minutes and drinking plenty of fluids.
I passed Natick, rounding the lakes and streams and checked myself back to conserve energy for the long haul. I crossed the halfway marker at 1:27, slower than I felt I had been running, forgetting that the first 3k had been so slow trying to get out of the crowds. I tried picking it up, but the gradual uphill into Wellesley College and to the famed Wellesley Scream Tunnel held me down. You could hear the girls screeching from a mile away. I watched as photographers captured the runners kissing the college girls, a tradition dating back over 100 years. One that I knew better than to partake in, as my wife would castrate me like a character in Game of Thrones.
At a certain point, I needed to tune out the constant screaming. It felt wonderful to be a rock star to the families, running teams, bands and universities lining the course, but as I fell into my low point at 28k, I needed to focus on the task ahead: Heartbreak Hill.
It’s called Heartbreak Hill because although it doesn’t look terrible on paper, it’s auspiciously located at a point where runners are usually “hitting the wall” meaning their gylogen stores are completely depleted. Your pace and your brain slow down, legs stiffening from having to convert lactic acid to continue to pump. I slowed my pace, quickened my steps and climbed. I knew that somewhere ahead was a mountain that I would need to battle both with my legs and my heart. Lore of these hills had been ingrained in my mind in the year since qualification, and I had practiced my interval training on inclines t-
Wait it’s over?
I checked my watch to be sure. Yup, I’m 33k into the race now. You’re done. Nothing left but downhill. I checked my watch one more time. It said by now I’m doing an average of 4:30 pace. Oof, you really lost some time there.
One kilometer later, my watch still said 4:15 when I felt like I was running 4:00. My average pace was now 4:14 and I needed 4:07 in order to accomplish my goal. With only around 8k remaining in the course, I needed to hold 4:00 pace or faster in order still have a chance at my elusive 2:52 finish. I tried kicking it into high gear but quickly felt my legs depleted to wet noodles, fatigue set in from the damage we had done for the past two hours.
I was told to look for a Nordstom to find where my family and adopted Taiwanese ah-yi would be watching, but I couldn’t devote the energy to reading the signs around me to see where they’d be. Turns out they were a few km earlier than that, and saw me zip down the opposite side of the road.
With 2 km left I knew I just needed to drain everything out of the tank and force myself hold my target race pace for as many kilometers as I could. I couldn’t even work up the strength to lift my arms to give high fives. Poor kids.
Then I finally saw the turn.
“Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.”
That was it. It was finished. Two years of work, over in 2:58:30. I managed to get a personal record but I was way off my goal.
I still needed to be herded around 2 blocks past medical professionals, finisher bags, and get my drop bag. A kid in the window of a yellow school bus with the window labelled 5100-5199 saw my bib and hollered if I have a bag. I told him I do and he disappeared then out came my drop bag, handed down to me with a smile without me ever having to break my stride. They really had this place streamlined. All I really wanted though, was to see my family.
I navigated the maze of streets, chasing the bubble of Summer’s ‘live location’ accidentally stepping into the elite tent, suddenly noticing my own stink. I asked to use their toilet and was honored to be a guest of the same portapotty that Jared Ward and Kipchoge use to wipe down in baby wipes. Nobody raised an eyebrow as I marched through with fresh clothes, bib and medal on my torso. An EMT actually congratulated me as I was exiting the tent.
We met up and to avoid stiffening up, took a long walk through the park. I rattled on and on all the amazing things I had seen on the course. I again told Summer to go pet the squirrel. To everyone’s surprise, she succeeded.
Her luck wouldn’t end there. Later that night we had lobster. She even got to hit in the head with a hammer.
After our goodbyes, we got into our Megabus heading to JFK Airport. Our marriage still secret from our friends. I was getting questions about how the race went. It felt a bit awkward to answer. With how much had happened in this past week and a half, the race itself seemed insignificant. We danced in the snow, ate bagels and lobster, pet squirrels, drank beer in America’s oldest tavern, walked under the Niagara Falls, watched a live soccer game, signed a piece of paper to change Summer’s last name to mine and bought rings. We found out that we’d be opening a new chapter of our lives in Portland Oregon this fall. I reconnected with my brother, his wife, my aunt Judy, aunt Jenny, my stepdad, my grandmother, my uncle Dave, my aunt Debbie, my sister Jessie (forgot those two in my first draft of this) and all 5 nieces, whom I haven’t seen in over 5 years.
Throughout all of these adventures, if you look close at the photos, you’d see I was wearing my new palladium wedding band while our friends in Taiwan stayed oblivious. When we returned, we insisted they come out to dinner with us and we broke the news that we were married and would be leaving for Portland Oregon in August.
I always felt like if I could run the Boston Marathon, it would change my life. I had no idea how right I was.
My Strava from the race: https://strava.app.link/Wfkr6ird7V