Friday, April 24, 2015

"How bad do I want this?" Chris Frank Smashes 3 hours at Boston, A Guest Blog

Chris Frank is a amiable, mild mannered, professor of History at the University of Manitoba during the day. On his off-time he trains 2500 miles in a ten month period to prepare for The Boston Marathon. Chris implies his "just one mile" strategy is a metaphor for living. He takes us along for the ride as he smashes miles after mile after mile of perpetual forward motion. He crosses the line with tears streaming and is told "there is no crying in running", but then a kindly volunteer places her hand on her heart, looks into Chris' eyes and says "yes there is" ... and the tears flow.  

SMR is honoured to host this blog post by Boston Marathoner, Chris Frank. See Chris. See Chris run. Run Chris, run.


As anyone who has read Mike’s blog is aware, running is about more than just running.  Watch at the finish line of any marathon and it becomes obvious right away that the runners have physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually experienced something more than 26.2 miles.  The Boston Marathon has a special place in the hearts of marathon runners, and every year produces a number of stories that illustrate the basic truth that the race is about more than the distance.  In the 2015 Boston Marathon gave us the awe-inspiring courage of Rebekah Gregory ( and Maickel Melamed (, as well as tens of thousands of stories of smaller and less dramatic personal victories that nonetheless loom very large in the lives of the individual runners.  I’d like to share my story of participating in the 2015 Boston Marathon and what it meant to me.  20 April 2015 was a very cold, rainy and windy day, but I will always remember it as one of the ten most perfect days of my life.
Before I describe Boston, I will have to bore you a little bit with my background as a runner because it relates to why this experience was so special for me.  I began running in high school where I was fortunate enough to run for one of the greatest coaches and educators I have ever met, a man who made a big difference in the lives of every kid who was lucky enough to cross his path.  He was the first one to clue me into the whole running is more than just running thing.  He always preached that the pain of the race disappears pretty quickly once it is over, but the pain of regret over not have done your best tends to linger and nag at you longer.  However, if the regret over lost opportunities sticks around, so too does the joy and satisfaction experienced when you give your all and manage to overcome obstacles and exceed what you thought you were capable of.  Before most races, he used to say to me “Go out there and make this a day you’ll always remember.”  His message only partially sunk in at the time, because I was young and thought that there would always be another race where I could get it right next time.  Although running was the best part of high school, and I formed many deep friendships, I also had a lot of regrets.  There were so many races where I ran foolishly, or mentally quit, or got out-kicked at the end.  There were so many races I wish I could run over again.  Although I was not by any means a big talent, I had to live with the knowledge that I failed to make the most of what ability I had.  I later walked onto a University team for two years before I broke my ankle.  I was hopelessly overmatched by the more talented University runners, but even here I feel regret at having gotten nowhere close to maximizing my ability.
I continued to run in my 20s and 30s, finding it to be the source of peace and a useful time to work through problems or issues in my mind.  However, it was in my 40s that my love of running was reinvigorated, and after my family it became the great passion of my life.  This change occurred when I decided to run a marathon and joined a clinic at the local shoe store to prepare.  I loved the group of people I ran with, loved to hear their stories and reasons for running.  I enjoyed the community and camaraderie and incredible support.  During my second marathon clinic, with the help of the coaches and the group, I got into good shape and managed to have one of those very special days at the Manitoba Marathon where I ran the best race of my life in 3:10:55 to qualify for Boston.  I was set to experience the marathoner’s dream.
When I arrived in Boston for the Marathon, I was amazed at the degree to which the race takes over the city.  There were runners everywhere: in the airport, hotels, restaurants.  They were easy to spot, in their running shoes, wearing shirts from other races, or Boston Marathon wind-breakers.  They were all so friendly and supportive.   I met many other runners who were also experiencing their first Boston Marathon, and we shared our feelings of nervousness, reassuring and encouraging each other that we would do great.  I also met runners who had run Boston many times, including one who had run it 38 times.  His message was that this is a race unlike any other, drink it in and enjoy every step.  It was a joy to hear the passion with which he described the race and why he had to come back year after year.  I felt an immediate sense of community with the runners I met, because all those who had made it to Boston, from the fastest to the slowest, shared a bond of having made running an important part of their lives and identities that carried great meaning for them.

The enthusiasm for the race comes not only from the runners but the people of Boston who get behind the marathon to an impressive degree.  Lots of Bostonians asked me if I was running and said encouraging things.  I heard “You got this” about 100 times in the days leading up to the race.  Patriots’ Day is a uniquely Boston Holiday that many people in Boston get off from work.  Every year on Patriots’ Day the Red Sox have a rare morning game, and when it finishes many of the fans walk down to the course and join the cheering throngs of people yelling for the runners.  Many Bostonians that I talked to told me that the marathon was one of their favorite days of the year and that they always made it out to be a part of it.  In fact, in 2015, even on a cold, wet, and windy day, they all still came out to be a part of the marathon.  This race belongs to the people of Boston and for many of them it is a very special event.  As I talked with more and more locals about the marathon and what it meant to them it became more and more clear why the tragedy of two years ago hit so very hard. 
The experience of every part of the Boston Marathon reminded me of the scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner’s character describes to his fellow minor league players the three weeks that he spent in “The Show” (“You get white balls for batting practice.  The ballparks are cathedrals.  You never carry your own bags.”).  Everything is so nice and so well run.  There is nice swag and despite the 30,000 entrants there were almost no logjams at all.  The organizers and volunteers seemed prepared for almost any eventuality.  The 9,000 volunteers who make the Boston Marathon happen are truly remarkable.  They were all so enthusiastic, encouraging, helpful and efficient.  They created a really positive and happy spirit for the whole event.
Going into the race I was not really planning for a personal record.  I had heard so many things about the challenging course and the dreaded “Newton Hills” that I thought that I should temper my expectations.  I call my strategy for running marathons the “Just this mile” approach.  I set a realistic goal for my finishing time, and then I memorize the mile split necessary to meet that time.  Then during the race the only thing I’m focused on is bringing the very next mile slightly under that split.  I play a game with myself during the race to see how many of the 26 miles I can bring in under the goal mile split, never thinking of anything beyond the mile I’m running.  By the way, that is probably not a bad way to approach life as well---again, that whole running is more than running thing.  I usually memorize the splits for a few different times so I can adjust according to the race.  Preparing for the Boston Marathon I memorized the mile splits for a 3:20 (7:38), a 3:15 (7:27), a 3:10 (7:15), and on the optimistic side I also memorized the split for a 3:05 (7:05).  I didn’t even bother to memorize the split for a sub-3, because an 11 minute personal record just seemed too far-fetched.  I had a hazy knowledge that a sub-3 split was somewhere in the low 6:50s, but I wasn’t sure, which would turn out to be a bit of problem later on.
The morning of the race involves a lot of waiting due to the challenging logistics of getting 30,000 runners to the starting line.  I was assigned to the last corral of the first wave which had around 7,700 runners (the cut-off for the first wave was 3:10:58 and my time was 3:10:55, so in theory I should have been about the slowest guy in wave 1).  Runners in the first wave had to catch the bus at Boston Common between 6-6:45 am and then get driven to Hopkinton, arriving around 7:30ish.  There we waited in these big tents with all the other runners to get called to the starting line.  It was very cold, windy and it began to rain.  Sitting in the tent I visited with more runners from all over the world.  One very kind man from Orlando gave me some extra hand warmers he had to keep warm while we waited.  Another gloomy man who had run the race before warned me about the Newton Hills, and said with the cold, rain and headwinds “there won’t be many PRs today.”  After he left to go to the bathroom a runner from Ohio who had been listening leaned over to me and began talking to me the way a dad talks to his son (which was funny because I would bet my mortgage that I’m older than he is).  He had run the race before and told me not to let myself get talked out of a race before we start.  He said there is actually a lot about this course to encourage a PR.  It is 70% downhill and there are huge crowds cheering for you every step of the way.  I’d be running in the first wave with lots of fast runners who could pull me along if I ran smart.  He told me that the Newton Hills were not actually that steep, just a bit long and inconveniently located.  Most importantly, he told me, once you finish the hills at mile 22, it is all downhill to the finish, so if you are close to a PR at that point, the only question remaining is “How bad do you want it?”  I felt a lot better after speaking to him.
Around 9:15 we began the long half mile walk to the starting line.  It was all so exciting. When the starting gun went off the scene was incredible.  Ahead of me the road was an overflowing river of runners stretching off as far as I could see, and the sides of the road were lined with screaming spectators.  The first mile was crowded, and I have learned the hard way not to waste energy jockeying around for position in the early part of a marathon, so it was the slowest mile I ran all day, but in the second mile, which was downhill, I clocked a 6:52 and felt very relaxed.  I decided that I would go for a PR and I would see how many sub-7 miles I could run in a row.  The most sub-7 miles I had ever run consecutively before was 13, which I did on a practice run.  At the Boston Marathon I managed to do 23 of the 26 under 7.
The crowds provided such a charge.  In the early miles you run through all these very pretty little towns down what appeared to be their main streets.  It was like a parade.  I was moved by how many people were out cheering and supporting us despite the weather.  Standing around in the cold, wind and rain is far worse than running in it.  These people yelled, smiled, handed out water bottles, GU Gels, or bananas.  They held funny signs or signs that said “touch this for power.”  Little kids held out their hands for high-fives.  The support, encouragement and positive energy was wonderful. 
My favorite section of spectators came at mile 12 when we got to Wellesley College, where for over a quarter mile the course was lined with the most enthusiastic students screaming and yelling and holding up very funny signs that had some variation of “Kiss me…” on them (“Kiss me and you’ll PR!” or “Kiss Me and it will stop raining!” or “Kiss Me, I also have lots of stamina!”).  This mile was the only place where I broke character, blowing a few kisses at the students in order to get a bigger cheer. 
At mile 13 I lost a few seconds due to my weak bladder, but my split at the half was 1:30:26.  I still felt good, and now was determined to PR.  Momentum is so important in running.  Often when you are having a bad race and hurting negative thoughts flood in and slow you down further.  The opposite is true as well.  When you are feeling good about a race it gets easier to pick up the pace.  At the half I felt good, and thought “I could PR at Boston!”  This caused me to speed up, with miles 14, 15, and 16 coming in at 6:45, 6:45, and 6:28.  At mile 17 when I was getting near the major uphill portion of the course I began to have a vague sense that I was flirting with a sub-3, and I maintained 6:40s for the next 4 miles.  By the time I got to Heartbreak Hill I knew that I was on sub-3 pace and I was determined that today I was not going to let this one slip away. 
The man from Ohio was right about Heartbreak Hill.  In truth, it is not even as steep as Garbage Hill, but it is long, and arrives at a moment in the race where it is very tempting to quit on yourself.  I focused as hard as I could and pushed it up the hill.   The hill was lined with Boston College students who rivaled the Wellesley women for enthusiasm and passion, and they really helped me to get up that hill.  I put in a 7:11 at mile 21, losing a bit of time off my pace, but it wasn’t as big a disaster as it might have been.  At the end of the hills there is this big inflatable arch that reads “Your Heartbreak is over! You Got This!”  As I read it I thought “Yes,” and looked down at my watch and did some math in my head (always a sketchy proposition for a history professor) and realized that I was a little behind sub-3 pace and would need to have 4 very good miles to get there.  I remembered what the man from Ohio said about the last 4 miles and thought “How bad do I want this?  I want it desperately.”  Right after the end of the uphill there is a very steep downhill on mile 22, and I gunned it down that hill, running my fastest mile of the day. 

As we began to get into Boston the crowds got thicker and the rain began to increase.  The other runners were picking up their paces as well which helped to pull me through the next few miles.  It was not long before we got to a big sign that said “One Mile to Go.”  I looked down at my watch and saw 2:53, but raindrops were covering the seconds so I didn’t know how fast I needed to do the last mile.  I assumed it would have to be the best mile of the day so I began sprinting with everything I had. 
When we turned onto Boylston Street there was this deafening roar from a huge crowd of people.  That roar is probably the closest someone like me will ever get to feeling what a pro athlete experiences.  It must be like what LaMarcus Aldridge experiences when he steps on the court at the Moda Center (The Portland Trailblazers are one of my other great passions, but that is a story for another day).  I looked down at my watch and saw 2:59 flat, and I could see the finish line a short way away.  Could I get there?  I was pumping my arms and legs like crazy, and when I got within 20 yards of the line I heard the announcer call out “Christopher Frank of Winnipeg!”   When I crossed the line my Garmin said I finished in 2:59:45 (the official time was 2:59:41).  I had done it: An eleven minute personal record and my first ever sub-3 marathon.  And I did it in the Boston Marathon.
After I finished, as I drifted through the chute, I felt myself completely overwhelmed with emotion.  Perhaps some of it was a reflection on the journey to get to Boston, of the 2500 miles I had run during the 10 months since the Manitoba Marathon in every kind of weather.  Some of it was the experience of the Boston Marathon, the cheering crowds, the magic of the race.  Some of it was the pride of overcoming the rain, cold, wind and hills of the race.  Some of it might have been the lack of oxygen to the brain from running a marathon.  However, most of the emotion came from the realization that I had run with everything I had from wire to wire, never quitting.  On 20 April 2015 I had squeezed every last drop of what I am capable of and left it all out on the course.   I reflected back to my old coach and thought better I had learned the lesson late than never.  I had gone out and made a day that I’ll always remember.

When the volunteer put the medal on me all of these emotions became too much and I cracked and got a bit weepy.  One of the volunteers said “Hey, there’s no crying in running!” and another volunteer put her hand on her heart and said “Yes there is!”  The friendly laughter between them helped me to pull myself together.  At the 2015 Boston Marathon there were thousands and thousands of unique stories of personal achievement and growth.  It is such a special race in a special city, with special runners, volunteers, fans and supporters.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I will never stop being grateful for having been able to be a part of it.

It's a good day to be alive, but don't believe me, just look at that above picture of Chris!


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