“It’s a choice, not a chance.”
Even though this mantra had passed through my brain a few dozen times over the last two hours or so, it wasn’t losing any of its muster.
“It’s a choice, not a chance.” I repeated emphatically, this time out loud, to make sure my ears truly heard it.
These words had only come to me the day prior, but had woven their way deep into my brain. They’d been spoken by Eliud Kipchoge, perhaps the greatest marathoner of all time. My coach had sent me a short film on the Kenyan great, chronicling his training camp and the philosophies that make him not only an icon of the sport, but one of the wisest, most humble athletes of our time.
“It’s a choice, not a chance.”
My feet were raw and tender as they pounded the hot pavement, surely blistering and likely bleeding inside my new Nike Vaporflys. My singlet and shorts were drenched in a combination of sweat and water, heavy and sticking to my skin. I wiped away a pool of sweat from my brow and glanced down at my Garmin which read 178 in large bold font, taking up the entire watch face. This was my heart rate, a number that had gotten too high too early, once again a byproduct of the inopportune race day sun and heat.
Eliud’s strong words rang in my ears and had morphed into my mantra for the day. “It’s a choice, not a chance.”
I had chosen this. This path was mine. This race was mine. This pain was all mine. I had chosen this challenge and I had chosen this audacious goal. I knew who I was and why I was here. In fact, I’d been here before. Here was mile 24 of the Boston Marathon.
Three years prior, I’d found myself sick and dehydrated, dragging my depleted body along the rowdy streets of Brookline, two miles from the finish of the 2016 Boston Marathon. I was in a special kind of hell at the time, praying for it all to be over soon. I’d soon see my family in Kenmore Square, hiding behind my dark sunglasses and low cap, an encounter that I wouldn’t end up remembering, before making that famous right on Hereford and the left on Boylston where I’d zombie my way to the finish line, unable to appreciate or soak in one of the most incredible moments of my life. I was too far gone at that point.
That was why I was here. I was here to get back what I’d left behind in 2016. I ran hard that day and proved to myself that I had grit and toughness to finish that race standing up. I also proved that the marathon is a nasty beast who doesn’t bend for anyone, especially those who think that their mediocre training and foolish race tactics would survive the 42.2 kilometre journey from Hopkinton to Boylston. That day, the marathon showed me what it was made of. Later that week in 2016, I’d conclude my race day recap on this blog with the following:
So here I was, three years later, in the same spot where it all went fuzzy, grinding it out on another hot and humid day in New England, back on Beacon Street with 2 miles to go to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, determined to grab what I had left behind and never let go.
It’s Raining, It’s Pouring
I awoke before my alarm to the sound of rain hammering down outside of our Airbnb in Sommerville, a suburb of Boston. It was 5-something in the morning and it was race day. I bounced out of bed, threw on a pair of shorts, and helped myself to a fresh coffee and some warm steel cut oats which had cooked overnight in the crockpot. Whatever nerves had been present over the last few days were all but gone. My mind was focused, my legs well-rested and my heart burning with a hungry passion to chase down the Boston Marathon that I’d always dreamt of - the one that had eluded me in the past.
After bundling up in some warm throw-away clothes and a dollar store poncho, I grabbed my bag for Athlete’s Village, which contained a cheap umbrella, an extra garbage bag, toilet paper, a banana, two bottles of Maurten 320, an extra pair of gloves, fresh socks and my dry racing shoes, and headed out the door. Katie, her Dad, and I grabbed an Uber to Boston Commons where I’d be catching my bus to the start line.
The three of us have done this early race morning ritual several times before. In Boston. In Chicago. In Cornwall. In Ottawa. And now back in Boston. We don’t speak too much, sipping on our coffees in the early morning darkness, but we’re all thinking the same thing. It’s race morning. We’re excited. We’re nervous. We can’t wait for it to start. We can’t wait for the beer afterwards.
We arrived downtown to find that the skies had completely opened up. As we found our way to the bag check area, we got hammered with buckets of rain that swept across the streets with force. Anxious runners scurried about, each with their own system for keeping warm and dry. Some had rain jackets, others had umbrellas. Many had plastic bags wrapped and taped around their shoes in an attempt to keep them as dry as possible. It was an absolute monsoon. Before I knew it, my cheap umbrella was inside out and cracked. That didn’t last long.
“At least it’s not hot and sunny!” Katie jokingly shouted over the sound of the pounding rain drops and thunder in the not too far distance. We all laughed. “True” I thought. At least it wasn’t hot and sunny. I can handle rain. I can handle cold. I can handle snow. But I knew - I was convinced - that I just can’t handle the sun and heat.
After checking my gear back, I received my final well wishes and hugs from the family and headed towards the busses, one of the coolest experiences of race day. Onboard was sixty some odd other runners from all over the world, anxious for the hour-long drive to Hopkinton to where it all starts. Some like to chat while others try to nap. I like to chat and sip on my water - anything to distract me from the fact that I will need to run the whole way back from where we are being driven.
After arriving in Athlete’s Village, it’s every runner for themselves. Some seek out a nice spot to sit in the grass or under the tents for shelter, while others get in the bathroom lines right away. After nearly an hour in line I finally made it to the front, did my final business, then changed into my dry socks and shoes, shedding my extra layers. The rain had stopped by now, but the clouds still hung overhead. Before I knew it, my wave and corral was being called over the loud speaker. It was time. Time to make the nearly mile-long journey from Athlete’s Village to the actual start line.
As I made my way into my corral, I went over my months of training and my race plan in my head. I’d had a great, albeit relatively short, training cycle. Since arriving home from South America in the new year, I’d put in 15 solid weeks of focussed hard work under the guidance of my new coach, Hugh Langley. I thrived under Hugh’s program, seeing massive gains in my strength, speed, endurance and confidence during my training cycle. We were both confident that I was in good enough shape to run under 2 hours and 50 minutes, no small feat, especially on a challenging course like Boston. But I trusted him. I trusted the training. I trusted the process. I trusted myself.
So that was the race plan. If everything goes according to plan, and the weather cooperated, I was going to run the Boston Marathon in under 2 hours and 50 minutes, a result that would be a massive breakthrough for me. I could do it. I knew I had it in me.
After the elite men bolted off the start line at 10 AM sharp, my wave was next at 10:02. You could feel the electricity in the air. As I shuffled across the starting line with a few other thousand runners in close quarters, I started my watch. Those first few kilometres were tight, jostling for position amongst the swinging arms and kicking feet. Usually I go way too fast out of the gate, but this time I was going too slow - there was no room to move. Around the 3km mark I heard someone shout my name.
I turned to my left and it was Mathieu Dore, a friend from my run club in Ottawa. I hadn’t seen him in over a year as I’d been travelling and he’d recently moved to Australia. We ran together and chatted for a kilometre or two before going our separate ways. It was only then, around kilometre 5, that I began to notice the muggy, humid heat that had settled in. The clouds were beginning to break and the sun was peeking through. My skin was damp with sweat and my body temperature was already uncomfortably high.
I focused in on my breathing and controlled my reactions. “I can’t run in heat” I’ve always said. Sure, I’d had some bad experiences in the past, but why couldn’t I have a good race today, even if there was some warmth and sun? Maybe if I change my race plan now and run to the conditions, I could still have a pretty damn good day.
Katie and I had made a deal in the week leading up to the race, just as we’d done in Cornwall the spring before. I’d put an alarm on my watch to notify me if my heart rate exceeded 180 beats per minute. When it’s hot and sunny, my heart rate tends to skyrocket. Upon feeling warm at 5km, I flipped my watch over to heart rate mode. 178. That was too high, too soon.
As I crossed the 5km mark in about 20 minutes flat, right on pace to run a sub 2:50 marathon, I contemplated the dilemma that was presented to me. I knew I had 2:40:something in my legs. But I also knew that I can’t control the weather and it was turning against me. It was still so early in the race, but I was reading the tea leaves and knew how this could end - how this likely would end. I’d done it before, more than once, and I still have some of the emotional scars from those bad experiences.
So I made a choice. I wasn’t leaving this one up to chance. I chose to run based on feel. I chose to run a smart race. I left my watch on heart rate mode and decided that I had to keep that thing under 180. I wouldn’t look at paces. I wouldn’t look at distances. My only indication would be the mile markers and the pace notification every kilometre. Gulp.
Just as I had done in 2016, I notched relatively even splits at the 5k, 10k, 15k and 20k marks - 20:14, 20:00, 19:50, 19:58 - and crossed the half marathon mark in 1:24:15, right on target for a 2:48:30 full marathon. But as I came down through the chilling scream tunnel at Wellesley College towards the half marathon mark, I wasn’t revelling in my time. I wasn’t thinking of my future sub 2:50. I wasn’t floating and riding high on the vibes of the shrieking college students. I was keenly fixated on that heart rate. Obsessed. Over the last 15km it had hovered in the 170s, not once dipping into the 160s, but a few times had exceeded 180 causing me to recalibrate my breathing and my stride.
By the 25km mark, I’d once again had a pretty spot-on split for my ultimate race goal, notching the last 5km in 20:08, but I knew that would soon change. As we barrelled down the steepest hill on the course from 25-26km, I prepared myself for what was to come.
The Newton Hills
At the bottom of the hill, we made a sharp right at the Newton Fire Hall when it hit me. The clouds opened right up above us, revealing bright blue skies and a piercing, hot sun.
“Oh come on!” I said out loud in disbelief. While the sun had been making a few appearances over the last hour and forty minutes, we had benefitted from some cloud cover meaning that my biggest challenge was the sticky humidity that was lingering in the air.
Catching my outward negativity, I retorted back to myself and others around me, “Let’s do this, Newton. Bring it on. Come on!”
Just prior to beginning our first of four climbs in Newton, we passed through hydration station. Just as I had done at every mile prior, I took two Gatorades to drink followed by two cups of water. This first cup went directly into my forehead and the second into the back of my head. And if I managed to grab a third, that one would go down my throat. Stay hydrated. Stay cool.
I shortened my stride and ran on feel up that first gruelling hill. My paces slowed, but my heart rate remained steady. As I crested the first hill, I let out a big purposeful breath, a technique I’d stolen from my yoga practice, which has served me quite well in my running. I repeated this process for the following hills, running controlled up and resetting on the downhills.
That final climb up Heartbreak Hill, the fourth and most challenging of the Newton Hills, was truly a grind. I had more in my legs and so badly wanted to hammer up to the summit, but my brain said no. Run this one smart. I was passing runners left, right, and centre at this point, despite my pace on that final hill slowing to 4:25/km, nearly 30 seconds slower that my goal marathon pace. The heat and hills were taking victims mercilessly as they always do in Newton.
When that number - 4:25 - popped up on my watch face at the end of kilometre 34 marking my latest split, I smirked. In the past, a split like this would have thrown me for a loop and gotten in my head. I’m falling apart! I’m bonking! But not this time. I smirked because I knew everything would be okay. I smirked because I had chosen to run that pace. I was in control. As I rolled over the top of Heartbreak the fans were going bonkers. I let out a triumphant shout and pounded my chest a few times with my fist knowing that this time I had conquered the hills, rather than the other way around.
I barrelled down the backside of Heartbreak towards Brookline notching a 4:03/km split, rediscovering my stride. Even though I only had 8 kilometres left to go, I thought only about the next mile. I’d broken down the remainder of the race into one mile increments, marked by the Gatorade and water stations that had been keeping me afloat. I’d been focussing so much on my heart up until this point and hadn’t checked in with my body or my mind too much. My posture was tall and my stride was strong. My quads felt great - unstoppable. Feeling like I could run forever on these hills gave me a huge confidence boost. It would be the heat and my heart rate that would hold me back today, not my legs. They were bullet proof from the consistent 100+km weeks of training throughout the cold, Ontario winter.
My feet were another story. They were on fire. They’d gotten completely soaked pre race, causing my toes and soles to soften and wrinkle like they’d been in a hot tub for a few hours prior to putting on my fresh socks and dry Vaporflys minutes before the race. And then they’d gotten wet again from the pooled water on the course, my excessive sweat, and the constant water showers I was giving myself. But I stuffed all that pain away to deal with post-race. For now, they would need to hold up for the next 30 minutes.
What about my mind? When the going got tough in past races, I’d buried myself deep down into the dark corners of the pain cave. I was running, but I wasn’t present. I wasn’t there. So I decided to check in. “How we doing?” I said out loud to myself. “Are we here?”. I smiled once again knowing that the answer was “Yes. I am here. I am present.” That presence was crucial for me. It helped keep me even-keeled and running smart that last half hour, still pacing on my fickle heart rate. I knew my pace had faded, but it somehow didn’t concern me. I knew I’d run at 2:48 marathon pace for 25km meaning that I had some solid time in the bank to still run a great race, maybe even a personal best. But I refused to worry about that right now. I would run what I would run. I wasn’t about to start doing math and calculating splits on the go. I had too much else to focus on.
This brings us back to Beacon Street, the never ending road to Kenmore Square, marked by the famous Citgo sign which runners can see for far too long before arriving at. In 2016, Citgo was a mirage. It never seemed to get closer and I began to wonder if it would ever arrive. Today was different. I acknowledged Citgo in the distance, but focused in on the present. How’s the heart rate? How’s my stride? How’s my posture? What does my next mile look like?
The answer to that final question was: family. They were waiting for me in Kenmore Square, under the Citgo sign, in the exact same spot where I don’t remember seeing them last time. I slowly made my way to the left side of the course in anticipation for our encounter. As I approached, I scanned the crowds of fans for the Canadian flags I knew they’d be waving. I spotted them first and threw my fist up in the air to signal them. They saw me and went absolutely berserk. I thrived off their love in that moment and it was only then that I realized that I had one mile to go in the Boston Marathon and I was feeling pretty fine. I was going to run down Boylston Street, feeling strong, and cross that line with a personal best. I exploded out of my structured stride and sprinted towards them letting out a wave of emotion that I’d been holding back for the last 25 miles.
What an incredible feeling that was. Katie would later tell me that even though I was a sweaty mess and that she’d seen my splits start to slow down, she knew deep in her heart that it was because I was running smart, not because I was falling apart. And then when they saw me, they knew. He looks strong. He looks confident. He’s got this.
“7 minutes to go!” I told myself. Keep your stride strong and that heart rate in check. Don’t kick too early!”
I made the right on Hereford, which as it turns out is a sneaky hill. I smirked once again at the deviousness of this course. As I approached the left hand turn onto Boylston I pointed up at the street signs and let out a war cry. The fans at the corner responded with their own booming cheers.
And then there it was, 600 metres off the distance, that finish line. But I stayed in the present. I focused in on every single step. I was running on Boylston Street in the final stretch of the freaking Boston Marathon and I was going to soak this one up for all it was worth. I picked my pace back up and emptied the tank in that final half kilometre, pumping my fist and throwing my arms up in the air to the crowds. The cheering, the roars, the passion. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I get chills just thinking about it.
I flew across the finish line, tall and strong, for the second time in my life. But this time, it was different.
Two. Fifty. Two. Forty. Five.
I had just run a 2:52:45 marathon on one of the most challenging courses, on a shorter than ideal training cycle, in the sun and the heat. As it turns out, I could run a good race in the heat - I just needed to learn how.
It was a four-minute personal best and a full eighteen minutes faster than my Boston time in 2016.
I exploded with emotion after the finish, high-fiving and hugging all sorts of random strangers - runners and volunteers alike. I was on cloud nine.
I had done it. I had conquered my Boston demons. I had conquered that notorious heat. I had gone back and firmly grabbed a hold of what I had left behind three years earlier. And I held onto it hard.
After receiving my race medal and chugging every bottle of water I could get my hands on, I made my way to the family meeting area and stood anxiously under the large “F” sign, awaiting my reunion with the family. The waiting was brutal and I tried to stay as patient as possible. After all, they had to walk all the way from Kenmore Square to the finish line, navigating the hoards of crowds and police checks. I was too anxious to even stretch, so I just paced back and forth. And then I saw her. Katie walking briskly through the crowd, trying to find her way to me. I shouted her name and sprinted towards her. She met me half way and we engulfed each other in our arms for the most epic embrace of all time. God, I love her.
We then reunited with the rest of the family and friends where the celebrations (and beer) continued throughout the afternoon.
An enormous amount of thanks are due to so many people. My amazing and supportive family who are there through it all, from having hot coffee and breakfast ready for me after an early morning winter training run to constantly showing up on race day. My awesome friends who always make a point of asking me how training is going and endlessly support me along the way.
My run crew for leading by example out there on the streets, trails and track, and always there to build me up and support me in my big moment. Most of all, my main man Scott Henry. A friend, a running partner, an inspiration. This guy gives so much of himself to me as a friend and as a runner. Fortunate to have you in my corner, buddy. And I can’t forget to mention so many other amazing athletes and friends in my life - Chelsie, Darren, Mathieu, Kayla, Kelsey, Farees, Jade, Meredith, Dustin, Emily, Alex, Chelsea, Andrew, Mark - there are honestly too many to name. But just know that you guys all mean much more to me than you probably think. You’re all incredibly inspiring and supportive people whose friendships, even if they’re just over Strava, I appreciate so much.
Huge thanks to Coach Hugh for believing in me and taking me on as an athlete with no hesitation, even though I was travelling on the other side of the world, not running at all, when I first reached out to him. He gave me structure, discipline and guidance. He gave me the courage to set and go after audacious goals. He showed me how to push my bounds without breaking, and how to get stronger with each passing day. He gave me confidence in myself and trust in my training. He has taught me more about the sport in the last five months than I’ve learned in the last five years. He brought me from someone who was terrified of the marathon distance to someone who now has the guts to go after it on a tough course on a tough day. While we’ve made some serious gains together, we still have a lot to accomplish. Let’s go get that 2:45 this fall, buddy!
Katie. Always last, but never least. I say this every time, but you really are my rock. My heart and soul. None of this - NONE OF IT - could be done without your love and support. You’ve always seen the potential in me that I couldn’t and found a way to help guide me to being the best version of me that I can be. You’re a passionate, loving, honest, empathetic and encouraging soul. You pump me up when I’m down, but challenge me when I need be put in my place. You know how hard I work at this and you always support me in any way you can. And to be honest, the best version of me isn’t someone who runs some arbitrary distance in an arbitrary time. The best version of me is the man who is lucky enough to wake up next to you every day. Thanks for being my partner in this incredible life of ours.
As far as running goes, what’s next? Well, you heard me say it above. I’m going 2:45 in the fall.
Let’s get to work, coach.
Peace and love.