Pint With a Pro: Uncle Mike (Three Weeks to Boston)

It’s all my Uncle Mike’s fault, this obsession I have with running.

It started on a warm, sunny morning in April 1990. I was standing on some hill in the suburbs of Boston. I was 5. Family members were chatting about how this “Heartbreak Hill” that we’d trekked out to could be such a killer.

Somewhere out there, Uncle Mike Freeman — my godfather, no less! — was hammering out mile after mile between the town of Hopkinton and where we were cheering. When he got to us, I recall him zipping by, looking pretty relaxed all things considered. He even turned and waived!

Mike Freeman, bib 3136, kicking it in for his first Boston Marathon

It was a rush for me. I knew even then that this Boston Marathon had some special lore to it. What I didn’t realize — until I reached out and asked him for tips this past week — is that it was Mike’s first time racing the thing.

And so, with three weeks until we here at RunnerPub make the pilgrimage to Boston, I decided to ask Mike about his running career, his favorite race, and what we can learn from his experiences.

RunnerPub: Thanks for chatting with us today. Growing up, I remember you always being a big runner. But when exactly did you get into the sport? And what got you into it?

Mike: I played team sports growing up but found running a good way to stay in shape as an adult. I got hooked on road racing after watching a friend finish the Freedom Trail Road Race in Boston. I think it was in 1980. In those days I ran alone after work and raced in local Rhode Island races every weekend. On a few occasions I’d race Saturday and Sunday, and once I raced in the morning and again later in the day. There should have been an intervention after that one.

RunnerPub: Hardcore! That’s the sort of obsession we at RunnerPub love. So when was your first marathon, then?

Mike: My first marathon was in 1981, the East Lyme Marathon in Connecticut. I just wanted to finish. I enjoyed the scenery and the company of my fellow runners. I probably should have socialized less and run faster. My finishing time was 4:18.

RunnerPub: Did you have any running heroes in those days?

Mike: Running heroes in those days were Bill Rodgers and Joanie Benoit. They were both New England locals and incredible talents. I’ve met them both and they are wonderful people.

RunnerPub: When was your first Boston Marathon?

Mike: My first unofficial Boston was in 1984 when I paced a running buddy for the second half of the race. He was running sub-6 pace (around 5:40 a mile). I ran a personal best for the half just trying to stay with him. In 1984, Boston was also the Los Angeles Olympic qualifier for many countries. Running at that pace, we were running with some legends. I recall passing Rodolfo Gomez, a three-time Olympian from Mexico at Mile 22. We also ran a few miles with Ingrid Kristiansen. But my first official Boston was in 1990.

RunnerPub: Ahh yes — I recall the day. Before we get to that, can you tell us about your training leading up to it?

Mike: I had qualified the previous fall back at the East Lyme Marathon with a time of 3:11. A lot less socializing that day. My training, starting in January 1990, consisted of base building (averaged 40 miles a week, increasing the distance of the long runs on weekends). By February I was averaging in the high 40s per week due to longer runs of 18 miles. By the end of the month I started double workouts — six miles at lunch, four miles after work. But that quickly took a toll on me and I had to stop the doubles.

While I cut back on mileage, I added some hard runs a couple days a week. By the end of March I was running in the high 50s and added a track workout of repeat miles (4 x mile at around 5:50 pace). Beginning of April I started tapering by reducing my long runs to 15 miles then 11 miles a week before the race.

RunnerPub: Okay, and how’d the Big Day play out?

Mike: Race weekend was awesome. I drove up on Saturday to Fred and Casey’s house (editor’s note: that’s Mike’s parents and my grandparents), went to the Hynes Auditorium to pick up my number and wander around the exhibition hall. On Monday morning, Fred drove me to the start. He clearly enjoyed the whole thing. I can remember how excited he was; one our best rides together for sure.

I was very nervous at the start. They didn’t have waves in those days or seeding, except for the elite runners. The crowd of runners was massive and it took a long time for us to be able to start running. At the mile mark my time was just under 10 minutes, so of course I made my first mistake of the day trying to weave through the crowd to get to a place where I could run my pace. Miles 2 and 3 were both at 6:47 pace, followed by the next 6 miles at sub 7 pace (way too fast for a 3:11 qualifier). I ran the Hills okay, but heading into Cleveland Circle I was in great difficulty running 8’s and then 9-minute miles. I finished in 3:25.

The 1990 Boston Marathon, courtesy of the BAA:

With the largest group of runners ever entered (9,412), the 94th running of the Boston Marathon boasted one of the most competitive fields in the history of the race. Gelindo Bordin of Italy became the first Olympic gold medalist to win the men’s race (2:08:19); Olympic champion Rosa Mota of Portugal became the first official three-time women’s champion (2:25:24); John Campbell of New Zealand returned for a second consecutive win in the masters division, setting a course and world mark (2:11:04). In her Boston debut, Uta Pippig was runner-up.

RunnerPub: Pretty solid! Nonetheless, I recall you looking pretty good on Heartbreak. I seem to recall it being sunny that day, but how’d it feel out there for a runner?

Mike: The weather was warm and sunny. I recall Fred finding me after the race and pointing out that I had a pretty bad sunburn. So my tip, wear sunscreen!

RunnerPub: Duly noted. So let’s cut right to the chase — just how bad was it running up Heartbreak Hill?

Mike: Heartbreak Hill is overrated unless you go out too fast, are really racing and trying to drop someone, or hanging on to someone. It’s actually the last of three hills. None of them are too long or steep but, at 20 Miles, it doesn’t take much. I found the run down to Cleveland Circle after the hills much harder than the climb.

How’s your Italian? Here’s some footage from Gelindo Bordin’s victory that day:

RunnerPub: Ouch. That’s scary to hear! What’d you do afterwards?

Mike: As I mentioned above, it was a tough day for me but it was my fault. Fred found me after the race and we headed back to Milton like a conquering hero. Didn’t do much the rest of the day but watch the Sox laying on the couch.

RunnerPub: Ah, yes, that other Boston sports institution, the Red Sox. Have you done Boston again?

Mike: Yes, in 1994.

RunnerPub: What’s the best part of the race?

Mike: Running down the to the finish line is the most unbelievable experience you will ever have in running, guaranteed.

RunnerPub: Wow, I’ll try to keep that in mind on the dreaded downhill portion toward Cleveland Circle! So what, in your opinion, makes Boston so unique?

Mike: Boston is the biggest race in the sport for runners and fans alike. Personal opinion, it’s bigger than the Olympics.

RunnerPub: Since I’ll never make the Olympics, I’ll go right ahead and agree with you on that. Got any final tips?

Mike: In addition to the sun screen thing, train smart, go out easy and enjoy the day. Even though it’s a net downhill course it is not a PR course. Have fun and look for us out there at Mile 24 — we’ll be there, cheering for you and Les!

Race Report: Philadelphia Marathon

Well, it’s been four months since Mrs. RunnerPub and I ran the Philadelphia Marathon.

We have five weeks until Boston.

What better time — well, aside from the preceding four months — for a full recap of Philly?

With that, here it is:

Pre-Race Thoughts, Goals

Heading down to Philly in late November, my goal was to beat my personal best, which is still 2:49:55 from Paris ’08. Ideally, I wanted to run between 2:44 and 2:48.

In the final weeks of training, that seemed like perhaps a biiit of a stretch. For one thing, I’d been battling a strain in my left glute that had me nervous. For another, my legs didn’t seem to have much “pop” in them during our final workouts.

In particular, I’d bombed our final “marathon-pace” run of 15 miles. That workout’s supposed to be a beast. Still, I hadn’t expected my legs to turn into tubes of cement by Mile 10 and to struggle and strain through the final loop of Central Park.

And so, with Philly approaching, I was hoping that the combination of tapering and “magic of race day” would afford me the necessary boost to reach my goal.

Race Morning

Ready for battle, circa 4:30 a.m.

By the time our hotel’s shuttle bus dropped us off near the start line at 5:15 a.m., the wind was already howling. For some reason, the security guards weren’t letting people into the fenced-off prep area until about 5:45. So we stood there for a while like idiots, shivering from the cold and our pre-race jitters, along with several other early arrivers. I wondered if everyone else had decided to skip the race.

“They probably saw the weather report and said, ‘F— it; I’ll just run the local Turkey Trot on Thursday instead,'” I thought.

Once inside the prep area, Leslie and I sought refuge from the elements in a big tent. Before long, a few hundred similarly bundled-up runners had joined, creating a sense of warmth and camaraderie — and nerves!

At 6:40, twenty minutes before the start, we came outside, checked our bags and found our respective corrals. I was in the “Maroon” wave, right behind the elites. Leslie was right behind in the “Black” wave. She was looking to beat her 3:27 personal best from Chicago ’15.

Les is trying to stay warm in the pre-race chill

After the Star Spangled Banner was sung, I pulled off my two pairs of sweatpants and long-sleeve T-shirts and tossed them in a bin. Marathon legend Bill Rodgers was on a stage, speaking into a microphone, recalling his own victory here in 1974 on a similarly cold and blustery day.

Then the race director gave final commands.

And then, the gun went crack!

Early Miles

The Philly course opens with a lovely stretch to and around City Hall. Since I hadn’t put myself at the front of my corral, I spent much of the first mile weaving in and out of people. I hit the mile in 6:47, pretty solid, and things started opening up.

Around here, we ran by a dive bar called Paddy’s Pub (just like in the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and therefore an early highlight). Then we turned right on North Columbus Avenue, taking us right past our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express — Penn’s Landing (temptation to run back inside and go to sleep: averted).

The sun was rising over the Delaware River and neighboring New Jersey. I was loosening up, picking people off, looking for a group of bodies to hide behind before we’d turn west — straight into the wind.

You could kiiiind of see Independence Hall from the race. We saw it up close and personal the day after the race

First, though, we looped around Philadelphia’s “Old City,” which was nice considering it was still early enough for us to appreciate the sights — including Independence Hall. The crowds were pretty decent in this residential area, including one person holding up a sign that said:

“Run like you’re being chased by _____: a) Voldemort b) Darth Vader c) Steve Bannon.”

It was early enough in the race to laugh — and be frightened.

During this stretch, I picked out a tall man with a bald head and sunglasses to tuck behind. He looked tough, clad in a singlet and shorts, despite the cold. He looked to be in his early 40s. Turning one corner, we encountered a preview of gusts to come and he muttered:

“Every time I get into a rhythm, we hit a f—— headwind!”

At Mile 5, things started heating up. We turned left, heading west up Chestnut Street. This stretch constitutes the “Big City” portion of the race, progressing beneath the downtown’s towers and lined with cheering spectators. It was also straight into the wind. I bunched in with four others, forming a line behind Bald Guy. We clipped off a couple of miles in the 6:20s, right where I wanted to be. I was feeling good.

At one point, Bald Guy veered to the side, as if begging us to pass.

“I’m trying to get out of your way,” he said.

“We want you in our way!” someone called back.

Bald Guy didn’t seem to mind.

Settling In

At Mile 7, we caught and latched onto another group, transforming us into a Pack of 10. This was a rush, like we were elites bunching together for the opening stages of the Olympic Marathon (it was still early enough for me to be imaginative). We headed over the Schuylkill River for the first time, ascending a bridge that was the race’s first uphill. This brought us to “University City,” where we kept climbing past Drexel University’s Fraternity Row.

An annotated course map

This was another highlight, with a collection of frat boys on the sidewalk hooting and hollering, banging pots and pans, blaring “Surfing USA” from speakers. They looked like they hadn’t made it to bed the night before — or, perhaps, hadn’t been up this early in years.

Either way, they brought the funk.

Fired up, I pushed to the front of Pack of 10 on the ensuing downhill, hoping to catch Bald Guy, who’d since pulled ahead. He was, someone had informed me, shooting for a time of 2:45. Rather than catch him, I wound up becoming the Pack of 10’s resident pacemaker, blocking the wind for everyone else’s benefit as we entered the course’s hilliest portion.

Mid-Race

Mile 10 dealt the first body blow, a hill longer and steeper than I’d imagined. I tried slowing things down, shooting for “steady effort” rather than “steady pace.” In so doing, I lost more ground to Bald Guy. A couple of members of the Pack of 10 floated past. By the top of the hill, we’d entered Fairmount Park, where the wind was truly whipping.

Here’s what the wind looked like that morning (credit: Weather Underground)

A note about the wind: according to Weather Underground, Philadelphia that morning had sustained winds of 20 m.p.h. at 7 a.m., 23 m.p.h. at 8 a.m., 30 m.p.h. at 9 a.m., and 26 m.p.h. at 10 a.m. Gusts exceeded 40 m.p.h. It blew mostly from the west, though occasionally surprised us.

By the time I’d gotten to Fairmount Park, my quads and calves were starting to feel heavy. From here, we followed a big downhill out of the park (not helping the legs, that) and cut back along the western bank of the Schuylkill to the halfway point.

Here, we were isolated from the crowds. The road was cambered, making it hard to find flat footing. My left glute was tightening up. I was getting nervous.

I passed the Half Marathon mark in 1:23:40.

Rolling Along

From there, we doubled back over the Schuylkill, passing right by the finish line (so close, yet so far…) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (of Rocky fame). Thus commenced a long, lonely slog up Kelly Drive.

“Easy, boy,” I told myself through Miles 14 and 15. “Keep ticking off these miles. Once you get to the turnaround at Mile 20, it’s smooth sailing, wind at your back, all the way to the finish!”

This, of course, is called “wishful thinking.”

Over the next few miles, I formed a tight unit with a couple of other guys to battle the headwinds up the eastern bank of the Schuylkill. At one point, we began roping in Bald Guy again. Then, out of nowhere, Bald Guy stepped off the course. Then Bald Guy entered a porta-pottie. We’d never see Bald Guy again.

By now, it was a classic “out-and-back,” so that while you trudge past Miles 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, you also pass Miles 25, 24, 23, 22, 21 on the other side of the road. This might have sucked, reminding me of how far I had remaining. But for some reason, it had the opposite effect, making me feel closer to home — including when we “passed” the leaders at Mile 18 (for us) and Mile 22 (for them).

The drawback?

Feeling so close to home, I pushed the envelope.

By Mile 19, reality was setting in. Cresting a 50-foot hill that felt more like Everest, I encountered a gust and quickly lost contact with my two companions. It was a real blow — literally and figuratively. All at once, my legs felt like they’d tripled in weight.

Still, I forged ahead, trying to force myself to relax. Up ahead was the funky suburb of Manayunk, perhaps THE highlight of the race, I’d been told. Following miles of relative solitude, you’re thrust into a party town that goes bonkers on Marathon Day. I imagined miles of college students banging pots and pans, funneling beers, blaring Springsteen hits. They didn’t materialize. Maybe it was too cold and windy. Maybe I was hurting too much to notice.

Either way, I didn’t get the Manayunk Boost while scaling another unexpected incline that brought me to the Mile 20 turn-around.

Looping the set of orange cones, I gazed ahead at the final 6.2 miles and thought: “Uh oh.”

Heading Home

Retracing the rolling hills out of Manayunk, I had a couple of unsettling realizations. For one thing, there was a growing possibility that I would epically “bonk.” For another, the tailwind I’d hoped would propel me home would not, in fact, live up to the hype.

Mentally, I was struggling. Sharing the two-lane road with thousands of runners on the other side of the road was no longer fun. While I was ahead of them now, I was sure that every one of them would catch me — and how they’d laugh! The upside of this fit of paranoia was it distracted me from some of the pain of Miles 21 and 22.

Miles 23 and 24 are best forgotten. Over that godforsaken stretch, we zagged southwest (into the prevailing gales) and ran beneath rocky cliffs that seemed to collect all the wind of the world and unleash it in our faces.

“Where’s the g–d— tailwind?” I inquired of a fellow sufferer as we endured one particularly potent blast.

“What the f—!” he replied.

While my pace hadn’t yet fallen off a cliff, I was entering the Danger Zone in which at any moment you can start losing whole chunks of time — in other words, bonk. I was fighting tooth and nail to stay under 7:00 a mile — not exactly clipping off 6:10s and 6:20s like earlier. I checked my splits. I attempted some mental math. I wanted to know if breaking my old personal best was still achievable. As best as I could tell, the prospects were fading.

At Mile 24, I caught one of the two guys I’d run with from Miles 14 to 18. Evidently, he’d also entered the Danger Zone. We ran together for the next mile. Then, he took off, leaving me in the dust. Minutes later, I reeled him in again and, to his credit, he offered: “Go get ‘em!”

It was now the final mile and I resorted to an old trick.

“New goal!” I lied to myself. “Get your sorry butt to that line of porta-potties and then maybe you can walk!”

Once there, I told myself: “New goal! Get your pathetic excuse for a body to that traffic light and then you can give up.”

Once there, I told myself: “New deal! Just carry this failing pile of flesh to that Japanese flag and then…”

And then, upon reaching the Japanese flag, I realized I was at Mile 26. All that remained was a final quarter-mile “sprint” to the finish.

Digging deep, I unleashed everything I had in the tank. It certainly wouldn’t qualify as a “kick,” but it did bring me to the Promised Land.

In 2:50:21.

Twenty-six seconds slower than my personal best.

Nooooo!

Post-Race

At which point, I nearly cried.

Every time I’ve finished a marathon (four of them, now), I’ve experienced a similar torrent of emotions. Pain, of course. And relief. And pride. This time, I felt frustration, too, for so fleetingly missing my best time. But it was impossible to be overwhelmed by that, for I felt badass, too, for enduring the windy weather. And grateful for the fans who’d cheered along the way. And kinship with the strangers I’d run alongside, whether they’d ultimately pulled away from me or I from them.

Hobbling forth, I felt undying love for the old ladies who wrapped me in one of those metallic blankets and bestowed me with a “Finisher!” medal. Hobbling still further to the food tent, I felt primal joy for the lines of bananas, oranges, soft pretzels and steaming cups of chicken broth.

Checking my watch, I realized Leslie would finish any minute. So I hobbled back to the finish and felt stoked to see her zip past looking like a rock star (see below).

“Tiiiiim,” she said, once she’d spotted me and begun hobbling over.

“It hurt so much…”

Well, she’d shaved 12 minutes off of her personal best, finishing in 3:15.

Reunited now, we hobbled back to the food tent. Then we hobbled to the big tent where we’d started the day, which was now being used for massages. Leslie sprawled on the ground.

We were back in this tent, but didn’t look as chipper as we do in this shot taken hours earlier!

“Hey!” a race official barked. “Medical tent is that way!”

“I don’t need medical,” Leslie whimpered. “I just need to sit.”

“And warm up,” I pleaded.

The official took pity, handing us a collapsible chair. His unspoken message: If you can’t park your butt on this, then drag your butts out of here — all the way to medical.

The man looked stressed. As more and more finishers streamed in, all cold and cranky and aching, they vastly outnumbered the official and his team of masseuses. The situation soon reached its inevitable climax:

“Sir,” the official told one runner, who looked to be in his 20s, “you can’t get a massage if you’re that cold.”

“How the f— do you know my temperature?!” the runner rejoined. “Do you have a thermometer?”

The runner was blue in the face, but he had a point. I’m not sure anyone was warm enough for a massage. Fortunately, Leslie and I had another option. Checking our phones, we learned our friend Amy (who happened to be in town) had found a spot near the finish and filmed our “kicks” with her cell — and sent along the footage.

“LIKE A BOSS,” she’d texted.

Now, Amy, was headed to a highly regarded cafe in the vicinity.

“Should we hobble over?” Leslie said.

“Let’s hobble forth,” I said.

And so we did. Once inside that warm and beautiful cafe, we eased our cold, creaky bodies down at a table. Then we began swapping war stories and inhaling large volumes of recovery latte.

It was, without a doubt, the most welcome caffeine rush of my life.

Boston Countdown: Six Weeks (Go Meb!)

Six weeks to go until the Boston Marathon, and Mr. and Mrs. RunnerPub are pumped.

We’ll be racing this year’s event, and I’m glad to report that, thus far, our training’s gone pretty smooth.

To get psyched to toe the historic starting line in Hopkinton on April 17, RunnerPub’s kicking off a “Boston Countdown” in which we dedicate a post each weekend to someone/something inspiring.

Today, it’s Meb time.

Of course, you know of Meb Keflezighi. He’s one of America’s best marathoners ever, with an Olympic silver medal from Athens. It doesn’t hurt that he ran for UCLA, where Mrs. RunnerPub kicked butt back in her college days.

This guy’s so badass, his book is called “Meb For Mortals”

The Meb Moment that’s seared into my memory (one of my all-time favorite running achievements) was the 2014 Boston Marathon. That’s when Meb, at 38, ran away from the pack mid-race and hung on to become the first American winner in over 30 years.

Not just that, but it came one year after the horrific Boston bombings — I mean, you couldn’t have picked a better time or person for this. I recall watching the race that morning on my computer at work, literally jumping up and down and screaming:

“Come on, Meb! You got this! Hang on!”

I may have cried. I confess to still watching this video every now and then (and crying) to get pumped up for a tough workout.

So here it is, the first of our Boston Countdown: