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The Ashland Hills

This is an excerpt from 4:09:43 by Hal Higdon.

The several miles between Hopkinton and Ashland present a unique challenge for Boston marathoners. The challenge comes from the downhill tilt of these early miles. Boston is a downhill course, dropping from 462 feet above sea level on the starting line to 16 feet above sea level on the final run-in at Boylston Street. Among the steepest areas is the first half-mile, nearly a 150-foot drop in elevation, almost a toboggan slide that can get runners in trouble if they run the slide too fast. As much a problem are the several miles continuing from Hopkinton through Ashland and into Framingham: rolling, but rolling more downhill than uphill. Suddenly, runners find themselves moving way faster than their planned pace, a serious tactical mistake for anyone hopeful of running a time equal to or faster than their BQ, the qualifying time that had gotten them into the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Checking their watches at Ashland, smart runners realize this and throttle back, saving energy for the challenging uphill miles to come later, particularly the four hills that culminate with Heartbreak Hill in Newton. Or maybe they do not recognize their mistake until Framingham. Or maybe Newton, by which time it is too late. They are cooked. The four Newton hills will destroy them. And if not then, the subtle downhill from Cleveland Circle at about 22 miles to Kenmore Square at about 25 miles will pound their quadriceps muscles to mush, making the final 385 yards into the finish line on Boylston Street not happy yards. "If I only had paced myself better," is the cry of defeated runners as they soak in tubs after returning to their hotels.

Among those recognizing the dangers that the Boston course presented was Carissa von Koch. She described the first mile as a crowded mile: "My plan was to start conservatively. I had no desire to weave through the crowds. Passing would have been impossible had I tried anyway. We were packed in tight."

So tight that von Koch failed to spot the sign signifying she had run one mile. Her watch, a Garmin Forerunner 305, beeped to alert her. Glancing at the screen, she was disappointed that the display screen showed a time of 7:58. She had hoped to run between 7:30 and 7:35 for the first half of the race. If her Garmin could be believed, she had lost nearly 30 seconds off her planned pace. More the bother, she had lost it on the steepest downhill of the entire 26.2-mile course! Von Koch quickly realized that, hemmed in by the crowds, she had no choice but to relax and accept the pace dictated by those surrounding her. Days later, when she posted her Boston memories to the Internet, von Koch had rationalized away those lost seconds:

"It's tempting to start the race and go out too fast on the downhill. This is hard on your legs and will come back to haunt you later in the race. I had been advised again and again to start out slow so I played it safe. The next few miles went smoothly. It was still really crowded, but the continued downhills allowed me to hit my paces."

Erica Greene also had been warned about the downhills by her coach Fred Treseler, who had spoken at a Sunday morning breakfast for the charity Team Eye and Ear. Treseler had offered two recommendations for the early miles:

  1. Start off slow.
  2. Do not let the crowd distract you from your pace.

As the runners surrounding Greene crossed the border between the towns of Hopkinton and Ashland at about two miles, those words of Treseler continued to echo in her ears.

Jen Marr described her thoughts during the first few miles in almost a stream-of-consciousness:

It was a hard race from the start.

Mile 1, a side ache:

Are you kidding me? Now?

I remembered from my training:

Blow it out hard.

Push against your ribs.

Don't think about it.

Blow it out some more.

Soon it was gone.

Heather Lee-Callaghan later would recall the spectators: "There were spectators lined completely on both sides, even in the early miles. We ran past kids with hands reaching out for high fives. I high-fived probably 25 people coasting down the first hill. I felt like a rock star."

Lee-Callaghan ran with an iPod, but did not even turn it on until past five miles. "There was enough music coming from off the course. I must have heard the theme from Rocky 20 times." Lee-Callaghan decided that the next time she ran Boston, she would leave her iPod back in the hotel.

She came to the 10-kilometer checkpoint, near the Framingham train depot. Lee-Callaghan knew that friends were tracking her times online, "so every time I saw a chip mat, I ran fast toward it and stomped on the mat." She did not know why. "Not like it would show my status quicker or faster." Her time at the 10-K checkpoint mats was 48:44, putting her far behind Rita Jeptoo and Shalane Flanagan, who had crossed the same mats together in 36:04 and 36:05.

It was approximately 11:12 a.m. when Lee-Callaghan foot-stomped the 10-K mat. At that same time of day, the lead women runners, given their head start, were into the Newton hills, closing on the 30-K mat. The women were in the same race, and yet they were not - but that did not concern Heather Lee-Callaghan. Slapping hands and listening to the music, she was having too much fun.

The hard running for her, and so many others, had not yet begun.

Learn more about 4:09:43.

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