Someone in the Crowd: Boston Marathon ’22 Race Report

I don’t know if there are two more opposite endurance events than hiking solo for seven days and nights in the woods, to tearing down a paved course from Hopkinton to Boston for a few concentrated hours, elbow-to-elbow in a sea of runners.

I never heard the starting gun since we were so far back, but I guessed it was time to go when everyone around me in the jam-packed corral started shuffling forward. Glenn darted ahead before we even crossed the start line, jostling to find a tangent so he could hit his planned mile splits. I wouldn’t see him again the entire race.

I had no specific goal pace as I had no idea how well-recovered I was from my FKT on the 348 mile Pinhoti Trail three weeks prior. About a week after finishing the Pinhoti Trail, my body still felt trashed and I was mostly resolved to not running Boston because it seemed like a dumb idea (Coach Karl agreed). My right ankle was still swollen after overworking my shin, I constantly craved sleep and food, and the thought of running one step seemed like a big “nope”.

Everything kind of turned around after that first week. I went for a slow shuffle run with some friends in the woods and felt okay. My ankle receded to its normal size. I went for a few short runs on paved roads, staying within my comfort zone around ten or eleven minute miles. A week before Boston, I ran a 10K with some friends that I had signed up for a while ago. Something clicked and I ended up having a great run, running 6:26 minute miles and feeling good. I started to think maybe Boston could happen after all.

Back to the race: the first mile was overwhelming. It was so packed that the surrounding runners and I, who likely all had similar qualifying times (mine was 2:51:34, or 6:32 minute miles), seemed to be barely inching forward. The sheer amount of runners made everything feel chaotic and a little stressful. I didn’t dare try to stride out, for fear of tripping and falling. I couldn’t see what was happening more than a few feet in front of me, and sometimes the entire crowd would hit the brakes out of nowhere, usually to get around slower-moving athletes–it’s a wonder no one fell and got hurt!

The first four miles had some mega downhills, which allowed for a pretty good view of the thousands of runners ahead. It was nothing short of a stampede. My heart sank a little with the thought of how it was the exact same thing behind me, though I didn’t dare turn around to look. My natural instinct would be to let all the runners go ahead so I could have more space, but there wouldn’t be more space, not unless I waited for hours. There was no escaping the mass of people, though the crowds opened up enough to where everyone could start running their intended pace. I settled into a clip that felt easy and sustainable, which turned out to be way slower than everyone around me. Now I was the one getting swarmed. This trend continued for probably the next ten miles. I got passed and passed and passed. For whatever reason, people had this tendency to cut in front of me after passing, rather than just continue straight ahead–like it has to be human nature or something, because there was definitely enough space to not cut in front of me–so I constantly had to adjust my stride to not trip over anyone’s heels as they skirted and elbowed their way around me.

Mile 1 – 7:26
Mile 2 – 7:26
Mile 3 – 7:13
Mile 4 – 7:55

We ran past the first hydration stations a few miles in. Trying to thread my way through all the panicked runners and clamor for a cup of Gatorade or water seemed way too hazardous. I stuck to the middle of the road and reminded myself I had hydrated well leading up to the race, and there would be more opportunities ahead. Speaking of, I actually really had to pee and figured, better now than later, so I pulled off at the first portable toilet I saw at mile four. Normally I’d stress about wasting precious race seconds to pee, but I figured if I were to have a good or bad day, it definitely wouldn’t come down to whether or not I stopped for like twenty seconds to take care of a basic human need. I thought of all the marathons I’d hit the wall in the last 10K, slowing down by thirty, sixty, or ninety+ seconds per mile. That’s something that would make a significant difference in my race outcome. Not a slightly slower random mile early in the race.

Beyond mile four, I started to pay more attention to my mile splits, just to see. I took them manually at each mile marker on the course.

Mile 5 – 7:17
Mile 6 – 7:14
Mile 7 – 7:13
Mile 8 – 7:14
Mile 9 – 7:12
Mile 10 – 7:19
Mile 11 – 7:13
Mile 12 – 6:59

I fell into a rhythm and got into a sort of zone, or trance, much like I do when I hike. I continued to stick to the center line of the road in my own little world, with the exception of moving to the left to grab water or Gatorade every few miles. Between the mind-boggling amount of runners, the impressive amount of spectators even way far out from Boston still, the music blaring from speakers along the way, the famous Wellesley “scream tunnel“… it was like a sensory overload! While I wanted to ultimately enjoy the experience of running Boston and take it all in, it was easily overstimulating and overwhelming. I honestly tuned a lot of it out and just stayed hyper-focused on my effort, my breathing, and taking care of myself.

I remembered how on the Pinhoti Trail, when I started to feel uncomfortable or my muscles started to feel tight, having a snack and drinking lots of water and electrolytes helped me feel better. I also remember being surprised at how zapped I felt after the long road sections, even if they were easy and flat, from being exposed to the sun for long periods of time. In the past, I’d never placed a ton of importance on hydration and eating during a marathon. Like I knew it was something I was supposed to do, so I’ve always done it sort of haphazardly, but I didn’t quite grasp how much of an impact it has on performance and pain management. When I would “hit the wall” in the late stages of a race, I’d blame it on poor pacing and race strategy before I’d attribute it to not fueling enough.

So in this race, I made it a big priority to take care of myself. I drank an entire cup of Gatorade or water, sometimes both, at every aid station which were placed at every mile (in the past I’d maybe take a couple sips then toss the rest aside). I got really good at pinching the cup to drink out of without spilling all over myself. If I slowed down, it maybe added a few seconds to my mile split–not a big deal–especially when that meant I could be saving myself minutes, or tens of minutes, by preventing myself from bonking later in the race. I took a gel every 45 minutes or so, which I kept handy in my shorts pockets.

I also deliberately wore a lightweight long sleeve, loose shorts, cap, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect from the wind and sun, which can be huge energy sappers. I don’t know that I’ve ever worn a top other than a singlet or crop, and shorts other than short tights or bun huggers for a road marathon. A lot of that is just wanting to have that confidence from “looking the part” of a road racer. This time I wore the exact outfit I wore for most of my time on the Pinhoti Trail, save for my shoes. It had been tried and tested in the elements, including hot and sunny road walks between single track trail sections. So why not wear the same for a 26.2 mile road run?

Mile 13 – 7:11
Half Marathon Split – 1:35:57
Mile 14 – 7:05
Mile 15 – 7:17
Mile 16 – 7:16

I felt uplifted seeing my half marathon mark. I was on track for a 3:12 marathon and felt like I had a lot of energy left. That would be only six minutes off my 3:06 Boston PR from a few years ago. I started to wonder if I could pick it up and run a big negative split and beat my previous time, then I did the math and realized that meant running a 1:30 second half, which meant 6:52 minute miles. With the Newton Hills approaching, I didn’t want to get in over my head. If it happened, it happened, but I didn’t want to risk forcing a certain pace.

Mile 17 – 7:21
Mile 18 – 7:27
Mile 19 – 7:09
Mile 20 – 7:32
Mile 21 – 8:02
Mile 22 – 7:04

For the first time out of my four times running Boston, I felt ready to tackle the Newton Hills from miles 17-22. Not only had I saved enough energy from staying relaxed through the first half of the race, but after all the ultra and mountain running I’ve done over the past couple years, they just didn’t seem as scary. That’s not to say I had it in the bag; I was getting passed by everyone around me. I certainly wasn’t running 6:52 miles as I hoped maybe I could. I’ve never been a fast uphill runner. I definitely slowed down going up. However, I seemed to catch back up and pass people back on all the downhills. I decided my game plan would be to maintain my effort through to Heartbreak Hill (mile 21), then run with everything I had left to the finish, knowing it would be mostly downhill then flat. The crowds of spectators on the way up Heartbreak Hill were absolutely wild. I don’t remember experiencing that much energy and electricity from the crowds in Boston, ever. I think since it was the first true Marathon Monday since pre-pandemic, it felt especially celebratory, like one huge party all the way into the city.

Reaching the top of Heartbreak Hill while still feeling good, and in control, felt like a huge victory. I tore down the backside of the hill and tried to keep my momentum going with only five miles to go. Now I was the one doing all of the passing! I wasn’t speeding up or crushing miles like I had hoped, but many people around me were slowing way down (it’s called Heartbreak Hill for a reason!). In a talk four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers gave at the Tracksmith Trackhouse that morning, he shared his famous quote, “The marathon can humble you.” I’d experienced the “death march” in the last five miles of Boston three out of the three times I’d run it previously. I know what it feels like to be humbled by the marathon, especially Boston. Those Newton hills, especially after the aggressively downhill first part of the race, will chew up your legs and spit them out.

Mile 23 – 7:11
Mile 24 – 7:06

As I continued on, I passed people that were likely way faster and fitter than me on paper, but had been reduced to a shuffle or a walk. I had been there before. I wouldn’t wish those awful-feeling miles on anyone. At the same time, I felt empowered and proud of myself for keeping everything together that far into the race. Sometimes you don’t need to be the fastest or fittest to get to the finish line first. The competitive part of me hoped to catch up to Glenn–we had a running bet with as to who would win between the two of us–but the other part of me hoped to not see him, because that would mean he was having a great race.

Mile 25 – 7:28
Mile 26 – 7:25
Mile 26.2 – 1:53

However victorious I felt coming off of Heartbreak Hill, those last couple miles were still so hard–and VERY humbling. I drank my last cup of Gatorade at mile 23 and thought that would be enough, but looking back, I was really running on fumes toward the end. I thought for sure I would have enough energy saved for a kick to the finish line, but I was wrong. I ran down and back up the infamous Massachusetts Ave underpass, that was in actuality the tiniest of hills but felt like an actual mountain at that point. I made the glorious right turn onto Hereford, then swung wide for the final left turn onto Boylston. After running 26+ miles with thousands upon thousands of runners, I really wanted to have some space to myself in that last, LONG stretch to the finish line. I willed my legs to turn over more quickly, but they did not want to go, and I honestly was okay with that. As I got closer and closer, it became clear that I would finish in 3:12-something, which a couple of weeks ago I never could have imagined. That made me smile. With a big smile still on my face, I continued my steady stride right through the center of the finish line, a perfect way to cap off what ended up being a really fantastic and memorable run.

Finish time – 3:12:32

Official race photo; edited by Glenn Kasin

I walked through the crowded finish chute feeling relieved and proud of myself. I thought about Glenn and hoped he had a good race. Then a minute or two later, everything started to hurt. My muscles, my joints, my feet, my tendons. I also started to get very, very, very cold. It was like clockwork- this same exact thing happened to me every night on the Pinhoti Trail as soon as I got settled into my tent at night. It’s like my body knew its job was done for the day, and let go of whatever had been holding everything together in the first place. My lower back and my calves tightened up. I stopped to bend over and stretch my back, and a volunteer medic immediately ran up to me to see if I was okay. She told me that it’s never a good sign when they see runners bending over. I assured her I was okay and stood up straight. I’m not really sure why I was trying to convince a medic I was totally fine when I was actually not fine, but all I could think about was continuing forward so I could get my free space blanket (it was so cold!), grab my free bag filled with snacks that I knew the volunteers would be handing out a little further down, and find Glenn.

I kept walking and a volunteer put a medal around my neck, and another volunteer handed me a bottle of water. Everyone was saying congratulations to me and I said thank you right back. I downed the water, realizing how thirsty I was, and stopped every few seconds to stretch my back and calves. I did finally get my space blanket, as did all the other runners around me. The wind was gusting, and everyone’s space blankets were whipping around behind them. It was impossible to find a place to walk where there was not a space blanket flapping around in my face–for a moment I felt like I was suffocating. The race was over, but the overwhelming sense of being surrounded by people and stimulus was far from gone. There were helicopters buzzing above, announcements and music blaring on the loud speakers, and people, people, people everywhere.

I found the turnoff out of the finisher chute and onto Newbury Street, a shopping haven filled with boutiques, cafés, and the likes that had been closed off to traffic for the day. Clutching my space blanket to keep it fastened around me with one hand, and my bag of snacks with my other hand, and I started my long, slow shuffle down the street. I had maybe four blocks to get back to the Trackhouse where I’d find Glenn, but it took me a good long while to make my way there. It could have been fifteen minutes or thirty minutes, I had no idea. As I made my way down the street, shoppers and café dwellers alike saw me with my blanket and medal and offered their congratulations. I felt like a celebrity taking her slowest victory lap ever. I was a wreck still, but that part of it made it all really fun. Bostonians really brought the love for all the marathoners.

Just as I reached the Trackhouse, Glenn had come outside to look for me. It looked like he had been done for a while as he had gotten into some dry clothes and seemed to be moving around okay. We hugged and congratulated each other and ducked inside to get into Wellness in Motion on the next floor up from the Trackhouse, where he serves as a chiropractor and where we had stashed our stuff. It turned out he indeed had a fantastic race, in my opinion, though he was being hard on himself for not reaching his goal. I was not doing well physically and had to get right to work by getting into dry clothes, laying down on the floor and getting my legs up on the wall to elevate them, and getting some food down. It was a lot of “needs” all at once, and reminded me of my end-of-day routine on the Pinhoti Trail.

The thing was, I was not by myself on the Pinhoti Trail. Glenn looked at me incredulously as I was sprawled out on the floor clutching my bag of snacks and said, “Here, get on the table.” I protested at first–I was not going to let him work on me when he had also just run a marathon–but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I willed myself off the floor and onto the table and he got right to work on my calves, feet, hamstrings, and quads. It was such a kind and selfless gesture, as he had to have been feeling wrecked too (it’s like he likes me or something).

For the first time since the early bus ride to the start, we were not surrounded by people. We had our own little sanctuary away from it all. The window was cracked open so we could still hear the cheering and announcements from the finish line just one block over, but from where we were, it was all merely in the background.


Thanks for reading. If this inspired or resonated with you in some way, please buy me a coffee! Your support keeps this newsletter going, for which I’m so grateful. My sincerest thanks to those that have done, or have continued to do so- you rock! Another great way to support is by sharing with friends and family that might enjoy it too. New readers can subscribe here. I’m twenty-one subscribers away from reaching 1,000 newsletter readers. How cool is that? Long-form blogging isn’t dead… yet. :)

What’s next: Boston Marathon capped off my spring run/hike season, and I’m excited for a chance to truly rest, recover, and get back into a groove with trail running. My next race will be the Catamount 50K in Vermont on June 25th, and I’ve got a few other very exciting things in both running and music that are bringing me to the east coast this year. Stay tuned! ~Mercury


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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