Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How it Went - My #BostonMarathon2016 Recap

All these weeks and months of training and preparation, I was feeling so good, so ready, so strong and so fast. I was prepared for my best run ever, even holding out the possibility of a personal best time - faster than what I'd pulled off fourteen years ago. I was ready to finish the day feeling exhilarated, powerful, time- and age-defying-ly fast, ready to return again in 2017, for the first time ever, as a Boston qualifier.

In the end, I had an amazing experience.

But also a very different experience than the one I'd picture in my head.

By the time I crossed that finish line on Boylston Street, my heart is full. Between miles 21 and the finish it just about burst. And, instead of power and speed, it was humility and humanity and my limits and pain, and me barely holding it together at multiple points, and just one foot in front of another, and another. And then it was over.

The day came together something like this:

All week, I had been so keyed up for this race, I wasn't sleeping well.  Race day was no exception. Awake for good by three something. Lay there until 4:30 AM. Then just got up.

In the spirit of gratitude, I'd just written about here on this blog and knew would go live just as my race began, I wrote a pair of thank you notes for a pair of Dream Big! gifts that came in at the 11th hour, propelling me beyond the $10,000 mark - and with more still trickling in.

I checked my messages and found a word of encouragement from a friend and running partner, including this quote by Harold Whaley:

"Just do your best, it is all you can do.  Don't ask how, just begin and do it now. The world waits for you"

The perfect word for the day.

Coffee. Breakfast, and unhurried, cheerful time with my family over the next few hours. Final preparations and gathering of gear. And a little before 8, they all walked and ran and sang me down the hill towards the T.

Clear blue skies. Sun shining. A beautiful day for a Marathon.

On the Orange Line, it was easy to pick out the other runners. I sat across from a woman from New York, running Boston for her fourth time. More joined at each stop, until we all spilled out at the Chinatown stop and, a block away, joined the masses queuing for buses at Boston Common. A scene to make one think everyone in the city was a marathoner. Wave after wave after wave of yellow school buses. They pulled up two abreast, twenty rows back. Each filled up with giddy runners, then pulled away. Replaced by a new wave. And on again.

And off we went, in a grand caravan, police officers waving us by at every intersection, people waving at us and us waving back, cars honking - so much joy directed our way and beaming from inside each bus, as we pulled onto the Mass Pike and pointed West towards Hopkinton.

"Don't look out the window from the bus," our coach had quipped, "You'll get a sense of how far 26.2 miles really is."

And the ride did feel long. But soon enough we pulled into the parking lot of Hopkinton High and spilled out into the Athletes Village. Already the temperature was rising to where I dumped my $1 winter coat from Boomerangs in JP - though I kept my Edgartown Yacht Club INSTRUCTOR pants on until I found my way through the throngs into our (what a gift!) charity VIP indoor staging area at the Brown Gymnasium - the private cluster of porta-potties reserved just for us the most treasured luxury, as the great masses queued up 15-20 deep out on the flaying fields behind the school.

A team photo. Some stretching. Vaseline under arms and between legs against the chaffing miles ahead. Pre-race snacking. Sipping water and Powerade.

One of the volunteers working the gym stopped by to advise us that, given the rising heat outside (already in the 70s) with no cloud cover, and only very limited tree cover (still early early spring in Boston), to be sure to drink Gatorade along the way, to keep our electrolytes up. With water only, they'd flush right through us and we'd cramp bad. I hadn't planned to drink any - I can't really stand the sticky stuff mid-race, but thought, OK, maybe a few sips every once in a while.

Then, at 10:30, it was time for the charity wave to queue up, which we did first at the edge of the Athletes Village, and then again, after a 1/4 mile walk, at the start.  I sucked down a sticky-sweet, chocolaty goo for a last jolt of energy before we got going, and shimmied my way as close to the rope at the front of our corral as I could get.

I noticed that, even though I'd guzzled that whole Powerade and bottle of water, my mouth already felt dry.

Counting down to the start, I took note of the thick crowds ahead of me in the three earlier corrals of my wave. The runner next to me looked fast, like a veteran. Turned out he was. Expect to take 3-4 miles to clear through the traffic and run your own pace, he advised. Ready to go fast, to run the race of my life, I couldn't quite accept that, and didn't.

When the Go! call finally came, I snaked my way up the edge to the left, as advised by a running friend and experienced Boston Marathon runner. Then I dodged and weaved, and occasionally jumped up on a sidewalk. And though that was all counter to the sage advice of our coach, by a mile or so in, I had cleared through most of the traffic and settled in to what felt like my pace. Not pushing too hard. Focused on cadence. Soaking in the scene.

At the 5K mark, we crossed the first chip-reading sensor, sending data on our progress immediately to all those following us via text or the app or the website. I thought of all those I'm running for, and those I knew would be tracking me, and said, "Hello everybody."

I learned later, I'd run that first 5K in sub-7 minute pace; 25/seconds a mile faster than my personal best marathon pace. I didn't feel as if I were pushing it. Felt really comfortable and, in my mind, as if I was even heeding our coach's advice to hold back at the start.

Those next few miles were great. A total blast. The crowds weren't thick that early in the race, but present and full of encouragements. Kids reaching out their hands for high fives. "This way to Boston?" I asked now and then to one of them who caught my eye. "That's right!" they said, "You're headed the right way."

"You got this, Dream Big!" many shouted for me.

I danced as I ran to music blaring along the sidelines.

I saw a first familiar face around mile 12 - a colleague at a front yard BBQ. He shouted my name and ran with me for 50 yards (beer in hand). "You're doing great," he said, "Fast!" And I felt it. And a jolt of adrenaline from from his company and good cheer.

Then into the woods and towards the roar of the famous Wellesley College Scream Tunnel, where I resisted the many offers of kisses and proposals of marriage, and wondered what, if anything, was behind that sign held by the bare-shouldered, bare-legged coeds that read, "If you run fast enough, we'll drop this sign!"

"Dream Big!" yelled one of them. "You were in my big dream last night!"

Then further into the woods.

Near the half-marathon mark, I spotted Linda Driscoll, Founder and ED of Dream Big! and mugged for this photo. Me in my yellow, Wave 4 bib, now deep into the Wave 3 blues.  Feeling great.

In the miles ahead, as we rolled along the relative flats before plunging down into Newton Lower Falls, the headwinds really picked up.  At the water stations, the discarded cups chased and bounded and raced past us in the breeze.

"I tackled all the Kenyans," said one poster, "You still have a chance!"

"Beer 10.5 miles, right this way." said another.

"Stefan Lanfer!" called a grad school friend from amidst the crowd. Another jolt of cheer and energy.

Climbing up out of Newton Lower Falls for a first long ascent to Newton-Wellesley Hospital.  My legs started feeling a little tight. But then I spied the firehouse and recalled our coach's words - "Where you turn towards home."

That's also where we turned to the famous Newton Hills.

I ran through the water spray tunnel outside the firehouse and raised my arms high above my head to psych myself up for that first big hill.

A cry of "Dream Big! Go Stefan!" from the left-hand side. And I turned to spot one of my wife's teammates.

Brought a smile to my face and jolt of energy for my legs.

But as I crested that first hill and started downwards, all of a sudden, something was decidedly off.  My right hamstring seized up - and had me hopping for a few momentum strides, until I slowed to a walk, and kept walking to stretch it out and let it calm down enough that I could shuffle onward. Like an old lady on a frozen lake, I thought.

Come on, old lady, let's go.

Not long after, I heard "STEFAN LANFER!" and turned to see another colleague and his whole cheering family. I waved and smiled and gave a thumbs up and kept going.

I had no idea what my time was at that point. But I knew my various power- and strength- and speed-goals were slipping away, and that a different test of endurance was taking shape. Now, I just wanted to get to the finish.

I  started walking through every water stop, and gulping down a whole cup of Gatorade at each one.

Down the hill by the BC reservoir, and a left turn onto Beacon St., into a stretch where I expected to see the greatest number of friends and family and more colleagues and the biggest most boisterous crowds of the whole course.

To be honest, I had imagined that, at that point, they'd see me and think, "Wow! He barely looks like he's working at all! How effortless. How fast."

I knew then they'd see a very different version of me.  They'd see me and think, "Ouch."

That's when I spotted the sign, "When your legs give out, run with your HEART!"

I don't know what it was about that sign. But it so spoke to where I was at that very moment. And I was overcome. I started crying. And shuffled on.

More colleagues spotted me and shouted for me near Coolidge Corner. Another jolt of gladness that checked the emotional and physical overwhelm.

Then I passed a whole crowd of Jamaica Plain running friends and their families.  I knew they knew how rough I looked, how much slower than planned I was going, how I was crashing. But their cheers and smiles made me smile, brightened my spirit, spurred me onwards.

And then I passed the temple in Brookline where, in 2010, while watching the marathon, Ashley and I went in to participate in a donor drive for Leukemia. A picture of a smiling young baby on a poster out front, with some version of, "Please, help save me!"lured us in. Our oldest two children were 3 and 1 at the time at the time, and we thought, "If that were our child, we'd be praying for people like us to stop in."

A year later, in 2011, my college roommate, a father of three, died only days after being diagnosed with Acute Leukemia.

Three weeks ago, I got a call of the Gift of Life Donor registry that I'd been identified as a possible match for a 37 year old man suffering from the same disease.  The next week I went into Mass General for a series of blood tests to find out whether I am or not.

Passing that Brookline temple again, I lost it again, was completely overtaken by emotion - and still was, a quarter mile later when I spotted my family with their homemade Go Daddy! signs and bright pink Dream Big! t-shirts.

Just get to them, I had been telling myself for miles and miles. They'll get you to the finish.

I stopped to hug each one of them.

"I'm hurting real bad," I said through tears to Ashley.

Then kept going.

Up that last real hill on the overpass by Fenway Park. Mile 25.

Down into Kendall Square.

Across the "Last Mile to Go" sign freshly painted on Beacon Street.

Under the Storrow Drive exit overpass painted blue with yellow letters reading, "Boston Strong!"

Down the underpass under Mass Ave.

Up again and right on Hereford.

That banner again.


I held my arms above my head for whatever jolt of adrenaline and testosterone I could muster from that power pose.

Left on Boylston.

And there was the finish - 1/4 mile away.

I raised my arms above my head again, held them there for a count of twenty, then brought them down slowly, holding them straight out to my sides like I was flying.

And I was,

sort of

(not really).

Shuffling on.

Then I raised them high again one last time.

And crossed the finish line.

And that



A long journey finished.

Not the one I planned.

The one I got.

The one I'll always remember.

I wonder what will come next.

But for now, I am simply savoring every step of this journey.

A little sad that its over.

So thankful that it happened.

And to everyone who helped in ways uncountable along the way.

Monday, April 18, 2016


On your marks.

Get set.


I scheduled this post to go live the moment my Boston Marathon wave is set to set off from Hopkinton on Marathon Monday - 11:15 AM EST.

If you happen to check this between now and 2:30(ish) PM, text RUNNER to 234567 and then reply with my bib number: 27338, and you'll get updates as I run, and run, and run. Or, after Monday, visit the B.A.A. marathon results page to see how it went, and back here for the race recap I'll post at some point soon.

If you're somewhere on the course, watch for me in my red Dream Big! shirt, with Dream Big! on the front, and the names of all of my supporters and their honorees on my back.

Over the next 26.2 miles and 3 1/4 (ish) hours, as I soak up the scene, and savor every step, my mind will no doubt wander near and far, and across this whole experience. I'll be thinking of...

- Stepping to the starting line again after failing again and again to get there.

- The power of team and its impact on this scrappy little nonprofit doing big things for girls through sports.

- My daughter's grit ("She's a warrior," said her coach at the team banquet that capped this season).

- My wife crushing it.

- The difference a coach makes (and how to run fast).

- Running like "an old lady on a frozen lake."

- Whether I am passing or being passed, the importance of running my own race.

- The incredible generosity of friends, family, and colleagues to Dream Big!

This past Friday morning, I had my final training run (809 miles since I started logging it all back in November). Under clear blue skies, after dropping the kids at school, I ran in to work - including along the final mile of the race course.  For the first time, when I went right on Hereford, and just before that famous final turn onto Boylston Street, I looked up and noticed this banner:

How right that is. It must have been placed there, I thought, by someone who has run this race before.

I know that, when I see that banner again on race day, my body will be running on empty, but my heart will be full - and, after all the words spent here on this blog and elsewhere to describe this experience, there is one and only one word that will draw me up the final little ascent, and fuel and focus me for the final strides from there to the finish line. And that word is:


Monday, April 11, 2016

Race Fans, Take Your Marks! (How to Watch the Boston Marathon)

One week until race day. If you'd like to follow the action live or from afar, here are three ways to track me (and other runners) on Marathon Monday:
  • Text RUNNER to 234567 and you’ll be asked to reply with runners bib numbers. Mine is 27338. You’ll then get text updates with the pace I'm running and the time as I pass the following points:10-kilometers, half marathon, 30-kilometers, 35-kilometers, 40-kilometers, and the finish line.
  • Download the free Boston Marathon app via iTunes. Click "Participant Search" then find me by first or last name. During the race, you'll be able to see the same info as via text, in addition to a projected finish time at each mark. You can also follow the elite runners and up to 10 others - as well as access maps of the course and other race info.
  • Visit the Boston Athletic Association website at: www.baa.org. They change this up on race day in a way that’s supposed to be easy to figure out how to follow
Runners set off from the starting line in Hopkinton in four different waves – beginning with mobility impaired athletes at 8:50 AM.  I'll be starting in the fourth and final, charity-runner wave, which sets off at 11:15.

At the advice of our coach, I am going to run this race without any technology on my wrist to track time or pace - so I can just pay attention to how my body is doing, rather than getting stressed out about whether I'm going too fast or too slow on any given mile. That means, if you're tracking my progress via any of the means above, you'll know better than I how I'm doing. To gauge what you're seeing, here are some ways I'm thinking about goals and pace...

  • If I beat 3:13 elapsed time, I'll be ecstatic. That would be a personal-best marathon time - ahead of my 27-year-old self.
  • If I beat 3:15, I'll do something I've tried three times and failed three times to do, which is to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time. Perhaps a little melancholy about getting slower with age, but still ecstatic.
  • If I beat 3:25, optimistic about a future qualifying run - as that is what my goal will jump to at my next age-break point (45 years).
  • Any slower than that, and I'll just feel ecstatic for having run the Boston Marathon.

Starting so far back in the pack, I don't know how long it will take to clear through runner traffic to where I can run at the pace I hope to run. But, we'll see on race day. And so will you if you're tracking me. The starting line logjam may drag me down. Conversely, the starting line adrenaline and downhills (see elevation map below - those first five run down, down, down) speeding me up so much I'm likely to crash later in the race,. Or maybe I'll find that right gear, and hold my pace steadily right where I need to be - or even pull off the elusive "negative splits" (a second half faster than the first).  The chart below takes those various distance milestones you'll see via text or the other alerts of, and plays out my future and current qualifying times, and personal best - 45 year old qualifying time in green, my current qualifying time in orange, and my personal record in blue - with elapsed time along the Y-axis, and distance and estimated clock time (ranges) on the X-axis:

Here's the course map (with more details on the course here):

If you're out there, be sure to let me know where to look for you.

Now - runners, take your mark, get set...

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Difference a Coach Makes (or, How to Run Fast)

As the girls of the Lady Tigers softball team shared in the video I posted a few weeks ago, a coach can be so much more than a coach, so much more than a teacher and trainer in the nuances of sport.  A coach can be a mentor, advisor, counselor, friend, encourager, and - as the Lady Tigers say - "like a Father." Clearly, coaches are a big part of why Dream Big!'s efforts to empower girls through sports can be so impactful.  A good coach can change the way we see ourselves, how we understand our capabilities, our strengths, and what kind of goals we set for ourselves.

When I signed on to run Boston and fundraise for Dream Big!, I had never heard of the Marathon Coalition. I had no idea I would become part of a community of hundreds of charity runners training together, encouraging one another, and working together towards our fundraising and race-day goals. I also had no idea we would be supported by a team of talented coaches or that, after all the years I've been a runner, one coach would completely change the way I run.

When I wrote about Dream Big!'s annual banquet last November, I focused on the cause, and what I learned there about this little charity doing big things for girls, and how much it depends on its Marathon team to fuel its work.

The story I neglected to tell was of meeting Rick Muhr, head coach for the Marathon Coalition, and sitting with him at dinner.

"So, what do you tell your runners?" I asked - maybe more than halfway expecting I'd have heard it all before.

But I hadn't.

"Cadence," said Coach Rick. "The most efficient way to run is 180 strides-per-minute." (and later, he added the image I wrote about, of picturing ourselves as an "old lady on a frozen lake.")

I had no idea what my typical cadence was. Can't hurt to try, I thought.

On my next run - a speed workout - I did. On a first fast interval, I ran as I always do, and counted for 30 seconds. I discovered that my natural cadence was about 140.  And I noticed that, as Rick had pointed out, the way I went for speed was by trying to muscle my way forward, with a longer, surging stride - instead of, as he advised, sending your speed "out the back."

As I jogged out the break before the next round of fast, I shortened my stride, consciously increased my cadence. And even though that day I don't think I ever cracked 170, the impact blew my mind.  It felt easier, lighter, smoother. And my splits dropped. Even on what were meant to be easy jogs between fast miles.

What was going on here?

It called to mind a frequent experience in college when our lightweight crew team raced practice pieces against the heavyweight squad.  Even though they were, on average 5-10% taller (with more length for each stroke) and 30-50% bigger (more raw power), the days we rowed cleaner, more in sync with each other, and more efficiently, we beat them every time.

Over the weeks and months of training since then, I have been obsessed with cadence.  And as I have calibrated closer and closer to 180, my race-day goals have also risen. I started out aiming just to run and finish strong, maybe to beat the Boston Qualifying time one bracket older and slower than where I am now (as my current target time is one I already missed five and a half years ago - and then the BAA made all the times five minutes faster).  Yet, now I'm aiming at my own personal best, which I ran years ago, at 27.  I am doing my best to hold lightly to that goal - knowing that race-day weather, or health, or starting-line traffic way back in the charity wave may all work against me.  But now I know it's possible. A reach. But possible.

What a difference a coach can make.