Vancouver athlete, Roz Boutin, was the 8th place finisher amoung women in the 2020 Virtual Boston Marathon. She was kind enough to recount her experience, from early in the 2020 through to race day – which she ran on September 12, along with several other M2M Vancouver athletes.
When I made the decision last year to race the 2020 Boston marathon after racing the 2019 Vancouver BMO marathon as my first attempt at the distance, I had no idea what a crazy adventure I was in for. Even writing this a week after running the virtual Boston marathon, it still feels somewhat surreal and like something you would only expect to read about or see in a movie. Every part of the journey- from the actual marathon build, to the uncertainty of if or when the race would happen, to race day itself- was filled with unpredictable twists and turns, highs and lows. In the end though, I am so grateful to have had the experience and learned a lot about myself in the process.
Joining M2M for the build
Like probably most athletes headed to Boston, I started my build early in the new year of 2020. Having come up shy of my goal of racing under 3 hours in the 2019 Shanghai International Marathon in November 2019, I had a fire in my belly pushing me to train more seriously and take the next step towards making that goal a reality. I am an MD/PhD student at UBC, and as added fuel to the fire, I was finishing up my PhD and preparing to head back to medical school for my final 2 years of clinical work, starting in June 2020. The last 2 years of medical school are notoriously gruelling and very demanding/unpredictable schedule-wise, so I knew that training for a marathon would be a challenge in the coming years and that April 2020 would likely be the last time for a while that I would be able to give the distance a serious go. That’s when I joined M2M and started working with Josh and training with the Burnaby group alongside a few other athletes headed to Boston.
Training with other athletes and feeling like part of a team was highly motivating, and I found that I was able to get a lot more out of workouts in the group setting. When the number of Covid-19 cases first started rising in BC and group practices were suspended, I fully agreed with the decision to stop practices and knew it was the best thing to do for everyone’s safety. Of course, I still felt disappointed and knew it would be harder to stay motivated and push myself at each training session on my own, but I still (naively) held out hope that the race would go on.
Reacting to the inital postponement
When Boston was initially postponed to September, I started to feel a bit deflated and de-motivated. I am hugely motivated by big goals and felt like so much hard training, heart and soul had already gone into the build-and I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to get permission to leave medical school and travel to Boston to run the race on the new date. I took a couple of weeks off structured training, and just ran to stay sane and re-discover why I run. Having a coach and a training plan really helped give me a sense of direction when everything was so uncertain, and the M2M virtual membership was also really helpful for feeling a sense of connection to other runners during solo training and finding motivation.
Reflecting on what motivates us
After a bit of reflection and thanks to concurrent changes in my med school schedule due to Covid-19, I realized that while Boston wouldn’t happen as I initially expected, a September race would likely still be possible. With a clear goal in mind and PhD thesis writing to keep me busy, I dug into training again through April and May. By the time Boston was fully cancelled as an in-person race and transitioned to a virtual format, I almost wasn’t even surprised. Although it was another obstacle, I knew it was the safest thing to do and felt like it was less of a blow than the original postponement. I think on some level as the pandemic escalated, I knew that getting an official marathon time under 3 hours likely wouldn’t happen in 2020 and had already started to mentally prepare for a virtual race. Having reflected on what motivates me to run in the first place and after attending some of the virtual M2M Q&A panelist sessions and watching the US Olympic marathon trials, I found that I was still able to find a deep motivation to run a fast race and see how far I could push myself-even if it was just for the sake of having a number to beat for my next race.
The Grind (of marathon training)
I was lucky in that I was able to work from home when the pandemic hit, which allowed me more flexibility in my training schedule and more time to stay on top of nutrition, strength, and even yoga exercises for injury prevention. I also did 1-2 workouts a week with Josh and a couple of other athletes in a social bubble, which helped me to stay on track and continue to progress in training. Having someone to pace me in workouts really made all the difference!! Dayna even joined for many of the workouts-often as her second of the day-which was beyond cool and so inspiring! The M2M virtual race series was also helpful in staying motivated with training in the short-term given that the Boston build was becoming much longer than originally anticipated. While there certainly were days where motivation was low, I was determined to see what I could achieve off of a solid training block.
Coming up to September, I was really happy with the last few long run sessions of the build and felt more and more confident in my endurance as we hit 35k workouts that averaged faster than my previous marathon average pace, even with the warm-up and cool-down. We decided to target a pace of ~4:05-4:10/Km for the race starting out, and see how things went from there. The goal was to use the virtual race time as a way to set a goal time for my next “real” race.
Race Day in Vancouver
Race day itself brought a new set of uncertainties and challenges: I had started medical school on a rural rotation at the start of September so had to travel back to Vancouver the day before the race. I only had 24 hours in Vancouver and given my crazy schedule, I was so grateful that M2M organized a race so that I wouldn’t have to worry about planning a route, aid stations, and other logistics. It was only once I was on the ferry that I found out about the poor air quality in Vancouver from the forest fires in the US. Rumblings of postponing the race started up and even on race-day morning there was talk of waiting until the following weekend to run, but my mind was made up and although it might not have been the best choice for my lungs, I was going to race one way or another.
Team Work makes the Dream Work!
The race is a blur and already feels like it was a lifetime ago-I still can’t quite believe we did it! I learned after the race that the air quality in Vancouver was the worst in the world that day :o. Normally before a race I’m a ball of nerves, but despite everything going on I was pleasantly surprised by how low-stress the start of the race felt. Everything was well organized and I was able to just focus on the race. It also really helped that there were about 5 of us starting off at the same pace (Josh, Nick, Evgeniy, Lee, and me) and 4 of us had been training together-making it feel like just another long run day. The first 12K or so leading up to the 3 loops of Stanley Park went by smoothly and I was happy with how good I was feeling. It also helped that we had an awesome cheer station set up by Verner and the YVR November Project waiting for us at the aid station at Second Beach! But after going out way too fast and hitting the wall hard in Shanghai at around half-way, I knew I would need to keep feeling good until at least 30K if I had any hope of staying in the 2:50’s for my finish time. Once Nick finished his half marathon (and got a huge PB!!) and Josh paced us to just under 25K, there were 3 of us left and I was still feeling good. We each took turns pushing the pace a bit on the 1st and 2nd laps of Stanley Park and I was happy with how responsive my legs were. To my surprise, I found a second wind around the start of the second lap of Stanley Park and started to feel like I might actually be able to maintain the pace and keep my time under 2:55. I started to push the pace a bit more and just kept going.
As we closed in on the end of the 2nd lap of the park though, I started to not feel as good and knew I wouldn’t be able to take in much nutrition at the aid station. Luckily, I had gotten a fair bit of Maurten in during the early parts of the race, so I wasn’t too worried. But my mindset shifted to just focusing on 1Km at a time instead of larger segments. Thankfully Josh jumped in again to run with me for the last lap of Stanley Park just as Evgeniy stepped out-I honestly don’t know if I would have been able to keep things up if I had been left alone! Around 35K I started to get worried that the wheels were falling off, but Josh reassured me that we were still on track and I just focused on thinking about getting to each major point of Stanley Park. Some of those last kilometers honestly felt like they would never end-especially the last 2 when I started to get a stitch in my right side-, but as we rounded the corner towards Second Beach, Evgeniy jumped in again to push me to the finish line. True to the GPS watch struggles I had throughout the training build, my GPS ran short compared to other peoples’, so we had to get creative right at the end to extend the distance. But we eventually got there and Nick was waiting to reward me with the best home-made medal ever (made by Verner)! After the race, I think I was in shock after looking at my watch and seeing that I had actually stayed on track and hit my goal pace of 4:07/Km exactly. And (even more shockingly) I could still walk-it’s amazing what proper training and pacing can do! I finally now truly appreciate why Josh was always telling me that my old banking time at the start of a race strategy is not a good one! ;p The top 10 finish was an added bonus of the virtual race format and the cherry on top of a successful race.
Capping off the day and making it truly one for the books, I rushed to the ferry right after the race and got back to my medical school rotation in rural BC just in time to help deliver a baby for the first time.
I am still struggling to find the words to express just how grateful I am to everyone who helped me reach this goal and beyond excited to see what the future will bring. I owe my success to the team of people behind me and see the race as a team win. Huge thanks especially to M2M and my coach Josh Seifarth, Saucony Canada for the Endorphin Pro shoes, and my training partners and pacers Nick Williams and Evgeniy Panzhinskiy. Although it was not the Boston Marathon I thought I would run, I will never forget September 12th, 2020 and the time I ran a virtual marathon in the middle of a pandemic to make it to (unofficial) 8th place in one of the most well-known races in the world! (I still write that and think I must be writing about someone else!)