#tbt 1977 – Boston Marathon’s First Official Wheelchair Division

December 4, 2014

Click image to enlarge


In 1970, Eugene Roberts became the first person to complete the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair as an unofficial, but recognized, entrant. Bob Hall was the first wheelchair racer to get an official finisher’s certificate, in 1975.

Two years later, multiple racers met in Hopkinton to race as a separate division for the first time, and to compete for the National Wheelchair Championship. Also that year, Sharon Rahn became the first woman wheelchair racer to enter, and finish, the race.

Marathon splits at Boston 2014

May 29, 2014

Hold on to your slide rules, folks. My next few blog posts are going to get nerdy.

Here’s a picture:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This chart graphs the first half splits (on the horizontal, or X, axis) vs. the second half splits (on the vertical, or Y, axis) for runners in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

The data covers about 94% of the finishers. The missing results are scattered randomly, so for all practical purposes this chart can be used to represent the entire field.

Any analysis of this data, to be more than just playing with numbers, should be designed to reveal information that might help you become a better runner. But I do like playing with numbers, so let’s start with the basics and go from there, shall we?

The dashed line on the chart represents even splits. Any runner below the line ran Boston with negative splits, faster over the second half than the first. Anyone above the line ran positive splits – slower in the second half of the race.

The first, and most obvious, conclusion we can draw from the chart is that many, many people, most of the field, ran positive splits at Boston this year. This is in spite of the commonly held opinion that to run your best race, you should run even splits, with your first half as close to the second as you can manage.

The solid line is the result of running a linear regression (using Microsoft Excel) on the data to find the straight line that is the best fit. As you can see from the formula, that line has a slope of about 1.38. In other words, for a “typical” runner, every extra minute in the first half means an extra 1:23 in the second half.

R2 is a measurement of how closely the data matches the regression line. In this case, it measures how accurately you can predict a runner’s second half split by knowing their first half split. R2 can range from 0 (not at all) to 1 (perfectly). The value of .79 for this particular regression means it’s a pretty good fit.

How much is of the difference between the first and second halves was due to the course?

Boston’s notorious hills come in the second half, but the last 10K is a fast, mostly flat or slightly downhill roll to the finish.

The splits from an “even effort” pace calculator that allows for changes in the terrain show the second half as only slightly slower. According to the calculator, the  contours of the course will create a positive split of about 2 minutes and 30 seconds for a 3:10 marathoner. Extend that over the complete range of finish times, and the calculator indicates that for our “typical” runner, every extra minute in the first half means an extra 1:01 in the second half. That leaves 22 seconds unaccounted for.

Heat slows a runner down. How much of the difference was due to temperature?

Boston 2014 started out cool. It was near 50 degrees in Hopkinton when the gun went off for the first runners. But it was a bright, sunny day, and temperatures warmed up into the 60’s by the time the last runner crossed the finish.

One study states that the ideal temperature for the average runner is in the low 40’s. At 50, that average runner loses about 1% of their speed, while at 60, it’s about 4%. We have to make a few assumptions here, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that the rise in temperature might turn a 4 hour marathoner into a 4:07 marathoner, or a 2 hour first half into a 2:03:30 second half.

In big, round numbers (we ignored a lot of variables), our “typical” runner lost about two more seconds for every additional minute compared to their first half time due to the temperature.

That still leaves us with 20 seconds unaccounted for.

How much of the difference is because running a marathon is hard? Because normal humans start to slow down after 18 to 20 miles in almost every case? Maybe that 20 seconds is what the typical runner loses in every marathon?

We’ll look into this more… next time!

(Note: I’m figuring this all out as I go along. Comments or questions, especially from people who’ve taken more stats classes, are always welcome!)

Our 2014 Boston Marathon

April 24, 2014

On Patriots’ Day 2014, we took our marathon back.

April 21 was the day we had been waiting for for over a year. When it finally arrived, 32,408 runners were in town to answer the starting gun, a million more lined the streets between Hopkinton and Boston, and millions more watched from home.

expo fridayMy weekend started the previous Friday, at the expo. Every year at marathon time, there’s a lot of energy floating around. It seems like the entire city is filled with runners. A trip to the expo is like dropping by to meet thousands of friends, many of whom you haven’t happened to meet yet.

This year, that energy was even stronger. For the most part, the events of last year, while never forgotten, went unmentioned (Except by the media, of course). Instead, we were all focusing on the race ahead of us. After a year of waiting, we were all ready and eager to take our race back.

One of my goals for the weekend was to get contributors to The 27th Mile to sign my copy of the book while they were in town for the race. Friday, after I picked up my number, I connected with Hal Higdon and Kathrine Switzer at their respective booths.

scarvesOn the way home, I stopped by the Old South Church, where a volunteer gave me one of the blue and gold scarves knitted by people across the country (my mom in Vermont for one). I accepted the scarf and my blessing and hopped on the T.

Last year, I guided a visually-impaired runner in the marathon for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Team With a Vision. They didn’t need me to guide in the marathon this year. Instead, on Saturday I was happy to help out by running the BAA 5K as the sighted guide for John Valpey. John ran the 5K blindfolded to raise money for MAB-VI as part the Blindfold Challenge.

post-finishIt’s hard enough running blind when you’ve had experience dealing with visual impairment. When someone like John is running blind for the first time, that takes it to a whole new level of difficulty. Throw in the fact that we were running packed in with 10,000 other people, in a race so crowded that some people hadn’t left the start chute when the leaders came back for the finish, and running blindfolded had to be terrifying.

The most rewarding thing about guiding is the level of trust your runner gives you. It’s just that – a gift, one that I value tremendously and try very hard to be worthy of.

johnJohn was nervous at the start, so I tried to provide as much guidance as I could, both verbally and physically, via the shoestring we were using as a tether. He gutted it out and handled everything, walkers, oblivious headphone-wearers, and kids dashing across his path, without incident. By the end John was ready to try a sprint for the finish, but so was everyone else. Cooler heads (mine) prevailed and we crossed the line safely in a time of about 31 minutes.

Afterward, we went to a Blindfold Challenge brunch, and then I went back to the expo to get more signatures. Amazingly, the volunteers at the church were still giving out scarves. They started with something like 7000 on hand and didn’t run out until later Saturday afternoon.

amby cristinaAt the expo, I added signatures from Amby Burfoot, Cristina Negron , Jeff Galloway, and Mark Remy to my collection. I was especially pleased to meet Amby and his wife Cristina. Amby’s been very generous with his time via email and I had the great pleasure of helping Cristina publish her memoir. Meeting them in real life was a highlight of the weekend.

All this was very hectic. I was getting a little fried while anxiously waiting at the Runner’s World booth for Mark Remy so I could get his signature, head home, and maybe rest a little before my next event. That might explain why when I saw Jeff Dengate, who I’d met at the Adirondack Marathon in the fall, I started talking to him as though he were Mark. Jeff’s a great guy, so he let me off the hook gently. We discussed his upcoming attempt to recapture the Summit Ave Strava record while waiting for Mark (Jeff’s boss at Runner’s World) to arrive.

After a short chat with Mark, I rushed home from the expo just in time to get in the car with Ruth and our friend Adena to drive to dinner at Gail and Dave Martin’s house in Sharon.

Dave Cockman and his girlfriend Olga were also there, in from North Carolina for the marathon. Back in the day, I used to go to Gail for massages. Years later, after she married Dave and I married Ruth, Gail gave Dave Cockman a copy of my book, Chasing the Runner’s High, before his first 100 miler. Adena , who Ruth and I often run with, paced him there to his first finish (many more have followed since). We all try to get together whenever we get the chance.martins

As usual, we had a great time, with plenty of food, good talk, and lots of adult toys.

No, not those adult toys, massage toys.

No not THOSE massage toys. Oh, never mind….

Sunday, Ruth went to the Arlington Runners’ (our informal local running group) 10th anniversary run while I stayed home to do a radio interview for The 27th Mile. Then it was time to head back in the city for the MAB-VI volunteer appreciation brunch and say hello to a number of the people I met while guiding at last year’s marathon.

Back home after brunch, it was time to get everything ready for Monday’s race. As any runner knows, this is the most important thing that happens before the gun goes off. A mistake here, and you’re paying for it for 26.2 miles (and potentially long afterward). The new rules for bag check this year made the whole project even more nerve-wracking.

Finally I had everything sorted into four piles: stuff to put on in the morning, post-race gear for the BAA bag check, gear to take to Hopkinton (and possibly lose), and gear to take to Hopkinton that I didn’t want to risk losing. The latter pile had to be as small as possible, just my phone and regular glasses (needed because I’d be leaving home before dawn), since I’d be counting on MAB-VI’s Josh Warren to return them to me at the finish, and he would be collecting similar items from all the Team With a Vision runners.

flat rayOnce I’d laid everything out, I took a “Flat Ray” picture of my race outfit and posted it on Facebook. When Josh saw that I was planning on running in my 2013 Team With a Vision shirt, he called to offer me a 2014 shirt instead. He meant well, but that was one decision too many. My brain went into overload, so I quit thinking before I started to make things worse and went to bed to get whatever rest I could.

The MAB-VI bus to Hopkinton had to leave early to ensure we would arrive at the Vision Center in Hopkinton before 7AM, when the streets closed. The bus was leaving the Boston Common at 5AM, so I set the alarm for 3AM. Unsurprisingly, that came all too soon, but Ruth managed to get me going in time to be the first person to leave a bag at the new gear check tents on the Common before boarding the bus.

We got to Hopkinton just as dawn was breaking. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny but cool, for the time being at least.

I had almost 4 hours to kill before 10:25, the scheduled start time for my wave. The new security procedures kept everyone from moving freely around Hopkinton. I tried to get to the start to watch my friend Chris Ahearn and the rest of the wheelchair racers, but that wasn’t possible. Instead, I spent most of the time sitting in the Vision Center (or more accurately, standing and pacing around).

At 10:15, I told the other Team runners “I’ll meet you at the finish!” and left for my corral, #6 in the second wave of runners. I got there with plenty of time for more standing and waiting.

At 10:25, they let the first 5 corrals go. Then they held the rest of us back. Apparently, people hadn’t been able to get to their corrals from the Athletes’ Village in time, so we waited while they fed latecomers into the 5th corral.

I didn’t need the unexpected extra wait, but with timing chips it wasn’t a major problem. When they finally let us go, we shuffled up to the line, and then we were off!

I wasn’t trying for a fast race. While I had plenty of miles in the bank, what little speedwork I had planned had been interrupted by a March cold that lingered for a few weeks and a series of minor aches and pains. While I might have chosen to take a chance and shoot for a good time, this year was more about finishing than racing. I figured that I’d go out at whatever pace seemed comfortable. I was hoping for a respectable sub-4, but I wanted to avoid pushing too hard to try ensure that I’d make it to the finish.

Everyone around me was primed, ready, and looking to make up for last year. Throw in the long wait in Hopkinton, and it was no shock that most of us probably went out a little too fast. My first mile was a 7:40, but even so, plenty of people were passing me by.

After that, I settled in to a pace a little under 8 minutes per mile. That would have gotten me a qualifying time for next year if I held on to the finish. However, early on my quads started to feel the downhills. Misplaced optimism had me holding to that BQ pace for the first eight miles – it didn’t feel hard. Nevertheless, I wasn’t surprised when my splits began to creep up.

I was still in the low 8’s through Wellesley, putting time in the bank that I know I’d be giving back later. For the first time in my six Boston Marathons, I paused there for a kiss or two (or five), but that only cost me about 20 seconds.

Soon after that, when I reached the water station past mile 15 where Dave and Gail Martin were team leaders, it was getting warm and the wheels were coming off. I knew it would be a long slog to the finish.

My first 9 minute mile came when I reached the Newton hills. By then my water stop walk breaks were extending past the time I spent drinking. Some cold Coke and a kiss from Ruth in mile 19 kept me forging on.

heartbreakI ended up walking a little extra between water stops on Heartbreak, though still I managed to keep my mile 21 split under 10 minutes (barely).

After you reach the top of Heartbreak, the last five miles of the course are relatively easy. By this point, my quads were screaming with every step, but I knew that slowing down would just make the pain last longer.

The bright, sunny day wasn’t helping the runners, but it was good for the people lining the roads. This year, more than ever before, we runners were working as a team with the spectators, so I was happy that they had a pleasant day to support their efforts.

I didn’t want to disappoint the masses of people doing their best to carry everyone through to the finish. Instead, I tried to ignore the pain in my legs and feed off their energy as they willed us forward.

I kept my eyes on the road ahead and my mind on keeping my legs going, but at the same time I did my best to absorb the entire scene, waving whenever I heard a shout of “Go, Team With a Vision!”, or less often, “Go Saucony!” (I wonder if they thought Saucony was my town instead of a Team sponsor?)

I ran in at around a 9:20 pace, nothing special, but I was actually pretty happy with it considering how sore my quads were. My second half split ended up about 15 minutes slower than my first half, but the sun and early pace had taken a toll on everyone, so I was probably passing 70% of the runners around me.


At last, it was time to turn left on Hereford and right on Boylston. I managed to get back down to an 8 minute pace for the run to the line. And I finally got my Uta Pippig high-five as I passed the mile 26 mark after missing her in years past. Pro tip from Uta: if you’re giving high-fives to thousands of strangers as they sprint (or “sprint”) for the finish, a closed hand will help you avoid excessive wear and tear.

I finished in 3:47:01, which put me in 14,476th place (yay!). It was about the time I had expected, though I picked a hard way to get there.

2014 split chart

Once I crossed the line, the gorgeous weather started working for me. The warmth allowed me to take my time in the finish area and let everyone’s joy soak in and wash away the remaining shadows from last year.

josh (Small)I congratulated my fellow runners, thanked numerous volunteers by name (an unexpected benefit of the badges required for enhanced security), and stopped for a picture with my friend Gio, the finish line water captain. Then I found Josh and the MAB-VI group for another round of congratulations before walking over to the Common to pick up my bag, get on the T, and head home.

That evening, while I was walking to the MAB-VI post-race dinner at the Fenway Beerworks, there were still runners coming in, doing whatever they had to do to complete the race.

Of the 32,408 runners who answered the starting gun, 3,762 needed medical attention at some point. One person I talked with at the dinner had spent two hours in Medical with cramps before getting up to limp their way to Boylston St. But by the end of the day, 32,144 had crossed the line in Copley Square – an amazing 99 percent completion rate.

Last year, the race ended, abruptly, and with events that were too painful to dwell on for long. This year, we ran as one, and we finished. The party around the city went on late into the night. We may have been tired, but no one wanted the day to be over. Paraphrasing David Ortiz, the Boston Marathon is our fucking race again.

Oh, one last thing: MEB!


Click here to see many more pictures from marathon weekend


2014 Boston Marathon Weekend:

April 18, 2014

More pictures will be added through Monday’s race!


April 17, 2014

On April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Here we are, one year later, overwhelmed with memorial events, commentators, and articles struggling to put it all in perspective. Ready or not, here’s another.

My name doesn’t show up in the results from last year because I was guiding Mike, a visually-impaired runner from Texas. We crossed the finish line on Boylston St. just under 4 hours after leaving Hopkinton. Of course, the end of the race wasn’t the end of the story, not for hours, not that day.

Seven minutes later, at 2:49, we were maybe 50 yards past the finish, freshly bemedaled and moving slowly forward in step with the rest of the crowd, when we heard a loud bang. I turned to see greasy grey smoke rising from the other side of the line. None of us, especially the blind guy, knew for sure what had happened. Gas explosion? TV power transformer? A bomb?

Then the second explosion went off. We didn’t know yet that they were bombs. But we knew.

Much later, after miles of walking and hours of uncertainty, Mike was on a plane heading back home and a flurry of emails and text messages had confirmed that everyone we knew was safe.

My focus that day was on doing the next thing to make sure Mike and, to the extent possible, everyone else was OK. After that, I was overwhelmed by exhaustion. The one thing I knew for sure was that I would be back for the 2014 race if I had anything to say about it.

Once the bombers were caught, I thought it would be like after 9/11; something horrible had happened, but my day-to-day life would soon go back to normal. That wasn’t the case. For weeks following the bombing, I had trouble sleeping and I flinched every time I heard a siren or a loud noise off in the distance.

The problems lasted for a month after the marathon, until we went to see Iron Man 3 at the IMAX theater in Reading, a theater with a powerful sound system  and “butt kickers” built into the seats. The movie’s first few explosions had me fearing that it would all be too much to take. But by the end of the movie, after relentless series of blasts, I was taking them in stride. The worst of my reaction was over after that. Apparently, the immersion therapy helped me settle down.

Since then, denial, or avoidance at least, has been my main tool in dealing with ongoing reminders about the marathon bombing.

It hasn’t been easy to bury the feelings. I’ve skipped reading most of the articles and I’ve only watched snippets of the video from the scene. When I wrote an article about guiding Mike, I left out the aftermath of the bombing, choosing to focus on what in conversation I usually label as, “a great day, until the bombs went off.”

Nevertheless, reminders of the event are unavoidable, especially for those of us living in the Boston area, and especially for me, since even under normal circumstances I’m obsessed by the Boston Marathon.

The stories in the media often seem like people pontificating to get attention, make money, or fill the airwaves with chatter about the latest sensation. For the most part, they’re just people doing their job, often while honestly working through their own feelings. I’m still annoyed by much of it, especially the security theater, but I know that’s just my personal defense mechanism.

That makes it especially ironic that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year discussing the bombing to promote the One Fund benefit anthology (obligatory link) I put together. The inherent contradictions between that effort, and for that matter writing this piece, and the way I feel about other reminders of the bombing aren’t always comfortable for me.

On the other hand, I’ve been genuinely touched by some of the things people have done, starting with the living memorial that arose spontaneously in Copley Square after the race. The sanitized version currently on display at the Boston Public Library isn’t as powerful, but I was still moved, almost to tears, when I turned a corner and saw the crosses memorializing the four who died.

I also get a little emotional at unpredictable moments when something causes me to reflect on how close I came to dying. Seven minutes isn’t much. A blister or one porta-potty break, and Mike or I could have first-hand memories of bloodshed to deal with, or worse, crossed the finish in the arms of a fireman instead of on foot.

My most fervent desire for the 2014 Boston Marathon was that it would be just another race. That, of course, was never going to happen.

Yet Monday, in spite of everything, I’m going back to Hopkinton, this time under my own name as a qualified runner. 9/11 didn’t keep me from flying; the marathon bombing won’t keep me from lining up in Hopkinton. I’m not doing it to prove anything to anyone – running is just what I do.

I can’t imagine ever understanding how anyone could think that killing random bystanders at a public event would ever solve anything. The knowledge that these people exist is nothing new – ask anyone in Ireland or Israel, or in New York City for that matter. But until the marathon bombing, it was all at a distance, something only in the news or on TV.

My nature is to try to explain things and to solve problems by following logical processes to the best of my ability wherever they might take me. That won’t work here. The actions of the Tsarnaev brothers are just as inexplicable today as they were while I was standing in the finish corral with Mike, watching the smoke rise.

So I’m going to Hopkinton a little confused, wondering what I‘m going to feel when I’m standing at the starting line. I know there’s no right way to feel, no one thing that I, or anyone else, should be experiencing in this situation. My denial isn’t strong enough to believe that I won’t feel something. With luck, maybe some sense of resolution. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.

Live! on New England Cable News

April 7, 2014

Here’s a link to my segment on New England Cable News this morning, where I talked about last year’s Boston Marathon and The 27th Mile.  Click to see it for yourself:


The Unicorn’s GOAT

April 4, 2014

In a couple of weeks, the BAA will bring out their Unicorn banners for the 118th time to mark the start of the 2014 Boston Marathon. Those of us running the race are in taper mode, which leaves us time to discuss the issues of the day, and gives us the need to discuss those issues to distract us from the wait for Patriots’ Day.

One question that’s always open for discussion is, “Who’s the greatest Boston Marathon runner of all time?” It’s not an easy choice. There are just too many great runners and too many things to take into consideration. But that never stops people from having an opinion.

Ideally, we can agree on a set of objective criteria to use to help us pick one Boston Marathon runner as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). We all have our subjective favorites. Runners my age are likely to favor Boston Billy, while barefoot running fans might favor Tarzan Brown, who won in 1935, even though his shoes fell apart at mile 21. But marathon racing isn’t subjective – the first to cross the line is always the winner. We should mirror that as much as possible in our search for the greatest marathoner.

First of all, to be the GOAT clearly you have to be the GOOD, Greatest On One Day. You can’t be the best Boston Marathoner ever without winning the race at least once. And it’s Boston you have to win. In this case, all that matters is what you do between Hopkinton and Boylston Street, not what you do in some other marathon.

Some of becoming the GOAT is just luck. You don’t become the GOAT solely via effort. Obviously, you can’t win Boston without training hard, but the runner who works the hardest and gets the most out of his potential could be the runner who finishes in 8675th place. You have to be born with the proper physical gifts.

Unfortunately, that lets out all the women. As great as Rosa Mota, Uta Pippig, and Catherine Ndereba have been, they were never the fastest runner on the course on any Patriots’ Day. Call me sexist if you want, but when a woman beats me (happens all the time!) it counts. When choosing the GOAT, the converse is also true.

That also lets out most of the age-groupers. Come back to me when you win at age 41, like Clarence DeMar did.

I also leave out Ernst van Dyk, Jean Driscoll, and the other fine wheelchair racers. I admire them greatly, but racing in a wheelchair doesn’t compare directly with running.

To me, the choice for GOAT comes down to three people: Geoffrey Mutai, Clarence DeMar, and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.

Mutai at 2011 BostonMutati’s claim to the GOAT title is based on his record finish of 2:03:02 in 2011. For many people, it’s just that simple – the fastest runner is the greatest runner. And that’s not unreasonable.

But a lot of things can affect race times on any particular day. The weather and the level of competition have an enormous impact. And winning race times in general are getting faster, due to modern training methods, equipment, and lifestyle changes. Is it fair to mark Clarence DeMar down because he had to hold a full time job in addition to training for marathons?

Also, when picking a GOAT, shouldn’t we consider not just “how fast” but “how often”? Sustained excellence should count for something.

Clarence DeMarThat’s where Clarence DeMar’s claim is strongest. DeMar won Boston 7 times between 1911 and 1930. 16 men have won Boston more than once, but only DeMar has won it more than 4 times.

However, back when DeMar was winning, Boston was a much smaller race. In those days, the sport of running was much less popular than it is today. On top of that, commercial air travel was still in its infancy – Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing was in 1927. Merely getting to Boston was a major challenge for most runners.

The travel required a significant time commitment in itself, and got in the way of final preparations for racing. And since races were limited to amateurs, the expense of traveling to Boston was often enough to keep a prospective runner away.

So the size of the field when DeMar was winning Boston was limited to one or two hundred runners. His competition just wasn’t as strong as Mutai’s or other modern runners.

Perhaps the GOAT should be someone who fits both criteria – a multiple winner with a fast time.

Cheruiyot at 2008 BostonAll three men who have won Boston four times, Bill Rodgers, Gérard Côté , and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, set the course record in at least one of their victories. Of the three, Cheruiyot ran the fastest and beat the largest, most inclusive, fields.

We could consider other things, like multiple high placements for runners in years when they did not win. Maybe if I had all the data I could do something fancy with trends, standard deviations, and regressions, and develop a formula to choose among these men. I might even discover that the numbers pick someone else as the GOAT. But failing that, and in spite of the solid arguments you can make for all three men, I’m happy with the choice of Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot as the greatest Boston Marathoner of all time.

Who’s your choice for the GOAT? Leave your pick in the comments!


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