Boston Marathon 2017

I don't know. What is it about Boston Marathon and me? It is like an ill-matched couple that were never meant to be. Fire and ice. Irreconcilable.

So. It was painful. And disheartening. Like an inevitable break up of marriage. Tried. And tried. 4th attempt. But it is hopeless. I am beginning to understand: There are races that one simply relishes in. But this is not one of them. This will forever be my nemesis.

I have always thought I could one day tame this beast. But Boston defies my every attempt. And most of it were simply out of my control. And to think that coming from a recent sub 3 in Japan, one would be in the position to bargain. But nope. Boston is Boston. She is brutal. And merciless.

Came in on Saturday 15/4/17 after the usual long haul flights. But slept like a baby that night due to sheer fatigue. Unfortunately, pre-race night was another story. Only managed a 2 hour sleep til 12 midnight. And after that, I was wide awake. It wasn't even the nerves. But the brain simply decided to go for a joy ride. Couldn't sleep a wink.

Never experienced this jet lag before on previous Boston attempts. What could one do? 'Woke' at 5:00am and decided to head in. The heck with the sleep. Just get into the excitement of the event and hopefully, the mind can't tell. Hopped on the bus and reached Hopkinton with ample time to load and relax before the race. Weather was heating up but it was a beautiful day at Hopkinton. A bit windy for my liking but it was almost perfect for a run into the city.

Training for the past weeks following Himeji was structured with lots of emphasis on hill intervals, hill tempo and also hilly LSD. Did a time trial 2 weeks before Boston and was happy to cruise in a 59:20 for a 15km. Felt strong. And as for taper, I thought it was adequate. But on hindsight (but of course!) I couldn't help feeling a bit tired coming into the race. Thought that it was just a tapering thing. Little did I realize then that I had already experienced some symptoms of OTS (over training syndrome). One of the clearest signs was an elevated resting heart rate. My sleep was also rather interrupted at times. And there was constant muscle fatigue which I attributed to the training and simply brushed it off. But more so, I was sweating more profusely than usual. This, I just blamed on the Malaysian weather. All in all, I am realizing now as I write, there was OTS present and I have failed to recognize it.

And when you fail to diagnose, you are heading for disaster. Yet, oblivious, I was still eyeing on a sub3 attempt! If I had the benefit of hindsight, I would not have come. Serious. But such is life lesson. It is always too little too late.

At 10:00 am, the heat was becoming a concern. I remember with some concern the 2012 Boston where the sun baked tan took more than 3 months to disappear. Looks like we are heading into heat again this time. It wasn't just the recorded 23 Celsius, but the scorch of the sun was quite a challenge for most part of the way. Dries you up like a prune. You risk overheating. And dehydration.

At gun off, the atmosphere was the signature Boston as I recall. The vibrance was tangible and electrifying. And spectators seemed uber excited (at least vocally) than the actual runners. The crowd roared as the elites were let off. That was followed by a rush of waves of runners cascading off to a downhill start towards downtown. And we are off! This, is Boston Marathon 2017!

I silently prayed and committed to God, that come what may, I only asked for His presence. I was calm and collected. I have done this 3 times before. I could do this!

The crowd seemed more congested than previous years. I think there has been an increase intake of registrants in recent years. Well, if it takes more than 10km to run with relative ease and leg room, I would say it is crowded. I have never experienced this kind of congestion in previous nor other races. This is likely due to Boston's Corral system where runners of similar paces are grouped together. Hence, such waves don't break easily.

At 5km my pace was still spot on for a sub3 attempt. But by 10km, I knew something was wrong. I was slowing down and for the life of me, I couldn't understand why. The heat had something to do with it. But I felt there was something else. I was just feeling restless. And this was a far cry from the control and ease of pace in Himeji. I asked God to please stay with me as I frantically up the pace to try to make up for lost time. But even if I wanted to, the legs were just not obeying. To make matters worse, by the time I reached 15km, I was already feeling tired! This can't be good! 

Fear crept in. I was getting worried. There was absence of Peace. Something's awfully wrong. Something's amiss. What is going on? I inquired of God. Silence. Plodded on and cleared 21km in 1:34. I knew that sub3 was already gone. Now I was forced to reset the goal onto sub3:10. But even so, as I cleared 25km, the fatigue grew. At this point, I was increasingly agitated and confused. I doubted that I could even hold on to a sub 3:30 finish.

Hitting 30km, the dread mounted. I was no longer trying to sub-anything. I was already in survival mode. The thoughts of stopping and walking and DNF was floating in and out of consciousness. I already knew it was a matter of pulling through for just a finish. Or die trying. I couldn't care less. Felt abandoned. Amidst a sea of people. Amidst the flood of cheer and noise. Yet the sense of loneliness couldn't be more piercing. I felt hollow. Like something within just died.

Clearing of Heart Break Hill at 32km brought no reprieve. Some spectators shouted: It's all downhill from here! Somehow, that too brought no relief. I was too far gone to feel anything. It would only matter if the finish is NOW. I wanted to stop. Just stop this madness. I had no more will to carry on.

You read about these things. You train just to make sure you will never have to encounter it. Yet the cruel irony of it seizes you when you least expect it. After all the highest elation just 6 weeks ago, this was perhaps the deepest trough. The valley of death. And where O Lord is your staff and rod? Why have You abandoned me?

23-24 miles...still, I moved. Shuffled. Excruciatingly. This, is the taste of pain. Its an absolute emptying. Body, mind and spirit. Purged. Desolate. Where is Your glory in this, Lord? Is this what You wanted me to see? The fellowship of suffering? Have you actually thought me worthy to bear this?....

25 miles. Cramps. Full on, as though still lacking affliction. Felt faint. The chest heaved. Tight and breathless. Yet, incredibly stubborn, I kept pressing. Shuffled through with clenched jaw and fists. Last act of deliberate defiance. I'd rather die! I will not walk! This pain was 'personal'. Lord, even if you kill me now, I will not blame You. It is fine. I will finish this race if it is my last.

I hobbled through with both cramped legs with the awkward gaits of a drunkard. For what seemed like an eternity between 25-26 miles, I eventually ended the agony with a 3:27:58.

For the record, my worst Boston. Most painful run to date. I don't think anything tops it. The higher your climb, the greater the fall, gravity reigns.

So what happened?

A friend asked me about my previous post. Why there was a lack of mention of the most important aspect: God. I told her, almost prophetically, that it will be clear in Part 3 of the saga. Starting from the Himeji experience. Ending in Boston 2017. And quite accurately and almost providentially, God delivered the script, poignantly, without missing a beat.

In life, we can choose to do everything and anything without God. We can most definitely attribute it all to our ingenuinity, hard work and dedication. When I pen down those suggestions in the last post, they were all technically inclined. For most, it makes easy reading and leaves little to the imagination nor commitment to an invisible God, Who in actual fact, is behind all things.

My deepest conviction remains: God is at the center of it all. You may say: but you failed miserably! How could a good God allow this? The deeper I step into this, the more convinced I am that success and failure cannot diminish God. He is eternal. He is the Author. He writes me into existence. And He is timeless. And He is weaving all things together as the Master Weaver. He knows what He is doing even when it makes no sense to me.

I have been tempted to see this as merely a technical hiccup. Blame it on anything, even God if necessary. Just to make some sense of it. But truth be told, God remained silent for a reason. A reason far too wise, significant, important and weighty than merely granting my every whim and satisfying my sense of entitlement. Think, don't we make God our slaves? The means to our happiness, at all cost? And how wretched is that?! Who do we think we are?

Then I ask myself, how does God glory in this kind of sub standard result? In a society that has only taught itself to bother with results and achievements, we have only trained our eyes, senses and minds to zero in on these 'absolutes' with little discernment for the true beauty and glory of what life has to offer. Next time, learn to look more carefully. Look beyond 'results' and the exterior and you will be surprised by what you see. Adjust the lenses. Seek to see beyond the shallowness of our hearts. You may just realize that there is glory in suffering. Beauty in ashes. Joy in the pain. Hope in despair. Strength in utter weakness. Life has got to be much more, right?

I had a lot of time on the planes to contemplate about the whole Boston escapade. Why this, Lord? Why failure of such magnitude? Then it became crystal clear to me. As hard as it is to swallow, this bitter pill has served as a tremendous reminder. One which is more far reaching than what 'success' can ever offer. I see an outer shell, falling off, birthing an inner life. Breaking free unto liberty. This one can only be born of failure and death. I am just glad that His hand is on it. I won't trust another.

It's all good. He knows what He is up to. In Him, I am reborn. 

Travel Companion and fellow BQ Lim Huat

Looking forward to the Day!

A Post race gathering at Cheers with Jessie and husband & Lim Huat


  1. Dear Francis,
    Great sharing from your heart about God's role and presence in your Boston 2017. As i read it word by word, i could envision your agony and pain (as what I went through myself last Sunday at Route 68). Hey.. 3:27 was awesome timing. Might be your Boston worst out of the 4 times I raced there. But definitely 3:27 would be something I could only dream of and might not even happen to me. So be proud. It ain't bad at all. You still deserve a big big applause for giving your best. But what touched me most is about God being the centre of it all. He gives and takes. As u said there is beauty in ashes. U r reborn. I believe greater things faster times to come for u. Tqvm for helping me to put life into right perspective. A very moving sharing.

    1. Thanks Vincent. It was a necessary lesson. More than merely a good metaphor, marathon has always been God's favourite tool to teach me about life. And I thank Him for His mercy and wisdom. And I won't have it any other way.

  2. Heartfelt sharing, sparing no veneer of excuses or self pity. Always encouraged to see your sensitivity towards the various harbingers God plants in the race - as you rightfully said; each race is a metaphor for life, and what our Father wants us to learn, grow as well as savour. You are highly blessed, beloved! Cxx

    1. Its a humbling process. Some may think it is just a race, why make such a 'fuss' about a poor performance. Anyone could have such a day....But anyone true to marathon could understand that it is more than that. Nevertheless, God came through. Eventhough at first I was just so frustrated that I could not hear Him at all. The greatest fear was that I could not sense His presence. More than anything. I could perhaps very remotely relate to how Jesus would have felt on the cross. Utter abandonment. It felt horrible. I don't ever want to lose that fellowship with Him again. But you are right, as odd as it seems to some, this is growth. He has His reasons. And I think I know why. But more importantly, I am made stronger through this.

    2. AMEN, AMEN! Praise you for your earnest yearning for Christ and your humility. He is our vine, we are His branches. Without Him we can do nothing. p.s. if it's any consolation, Meb had a bad day at the "office" too. ;-)

  3. You gave it your all, man and 3:27 is something I couldn't even dream off on a good day! I believe we can't have everything going great all the time and with a stumble once in a while, we will rise up stronger, as cheesy as that may sound, I passionately believe that it's true. I'm more than sure, you'll come back stronger from this. An amazing effort nonetheless Francis!

    I've been having lots of self doubt with my training at the moment and things are a jumbled mess in the mind, am totally doubting myself but I've always looked to your achievements and I'm hoping to use some of that determination and grit you're famous for to give some semblance of calm and direction in my training.

    1. Nick, anyone who is ever serious about marathon will have doubts. It is a healthy process that will make us work harder, and smarter. Don't be afraid of it. In fact welcome it but work through it. This is a tension that one must maintain in order to advance. I would actually be a bit worried if you have no doubts at all. :) Keep at it!


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