Thursday, April 28, 2022

Race Report: Joost's Long Road from NYC 2019 to the 2022 Boston Marathon

Article by Joost de Raeymaeker

After NYC 2019, I was on a high. I’d just run a 2:26:10 PB in Berlin 5 weeks earlier. At age 51 and going on 52, I was able to wring out a 2:28:16 in the NYC marathon. It was early November, and after a little rest, a minor foot injury and the Christmas holidays in Belgium with my family, I picked up training in Luanda, Africa where I live in January 2020. My sights were on the Abbott Majors World Championship in London. At 52, there wouldn’t be many younger runners in my age bracket to challenge me. Everything was set and booked.


Then of course Covid hit. When they declared a state of emergency in Angola, restricting basic rights like freedom to leave your house, I still had some hope that the two weeks of “flattening the curve” would be sufficient. Vain hope, of course, as we now all know, but I kept on training, paying the guards at one of Luanda’s soccer stadiums to let me and a friend into the closed parking lot to train.

We would drive there in the hope of not being stopped by the military or the police on the way and run a bunch of 1km laps on the stadium grounds.

After a while, we were allowed out for 1h30 each day, at a fixed time, but limited to a 2km radius from our home, so I would run with a printed copy of the paragraphs about working out in open air from the presidential decree and a Google Earth printed map of a 2km radius on the back to be able to show that I was indeed within my very limited rights. 

I would try to get 20 to 21km of running into the time I had, no longer under any illusions that I would run an international race soon, even though I thought fall races might still be on the calendar, so I had to maintain a good base.

By the end of 2020, and with no races on the calendar, possibilities opened up for doing some different training than my usual marathon block, so a couple of my friends and I set out to do a decent 5-10k block of training to see what sort of fitness we could gain. 

At the end of that block, I was able to run the 7.2km leg of the virtual Asics World Ekiden for RoadTrailRun International Team A in 23 minutes and change. 

My splits got faster as I went through the kilometers. This was run in Luanda’s tropical morning weather: warm and muggy. I was in shape to run a 31 minute 10k in a cooler setting.


A couple of weeks later, I started feeling my right hamstring tendon becoming ever more painful, and after a particularly agonizing new year’s day run, I decided to take a two week break. On my first run afterwards, it was still very sore (it still is, up to this day), so I went slow for 30 minutes. The last 10 minutes, the metatarsal head of my second left toe started to hurt quite badly. Over the next couple of days, things would get gradually worse. I had myself a case of capsulitis. An x-ray didn’t show anything extraordinary, except for the fact that my toe had all of a sudden gone more crooked than ever. My feet were quite ugly to start with and this definitely didn’t make it any better.

This was the start of a series of left foot problems over the coming months. While hoping for races in the (northern hemisphere) spring of 2021, I tried to continue training, but it was increasingly hard to find any pleasure in torturing myself to tears of pain on every run. I wanted to stay fit, though, but covid restrictions still meant that gyms were closed as were swimming pools. The beach and sea swimming was completely off limits as well, so in despair, I asked a friend of mine to lend me his bike. 

Two weeks later, I had a nice racing bike (sans back wheel, since my friend deemed it too dangerous for me to go cycling around Luanda’s chaotic traffic) and a Kickr smart indoor trainer.

After my initial saddle pains (I hadn’t done much cycling since leaving Europe almost 10 years ago), I really started enjoying riding the bike inside to the rhythm and sense of humor of the Sufferfest app (now Wahoo SYSTM). 

My friend even gave me the back wheel and after a while I would ride the bike to the track for one of my barefoot grass running rehab sessions. In the meanwhile, I’d signed up for Boston and Chicago 2022. First we still had to get rid of Covid, though. My wife caught a bad case of the delta variant which took her months to get over. Quarantine was ordered and a week or so later, a man in a white space suit arrived at our front door, telling us with a straight face that we should drink traditional herbal tea and listen to hymns to get better. He didn’t seem to notice that I was dripping with sweat from a run in the condo (I would go out at times when nobody else was outside, like right in the middle of the day in the blazing midday sun). I didn’t get very sick myself, but for the remainder of 2021, I could feel that my lung capacity was somewhat affected when running.


With no races on the calendar, or the few there were a logistical nightmare of quarantine and testing for someone coming from my part of Africa, I decided to do something that had been on my mind for quite some time and where covid actually helped. Getting a USATF level 1 coaching certification was now possible with Zoom classes instead of a weekend on-site in the US, so when I found out, I signed up immediately, took the classes, the exam, and got certified.

The reason I wanted something official is that I wanted to set up my own business as a running coach and being certified would add to my credibility and allow me to steer clear of the inevitable rocks that would appear in my way, while coaching in Luanda. My idea was to set up a paying business, but apply part of my revenue to take on a couple of local athletes who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a coach. 

There’s an abundance of immense local talent that’s not being given the right opportunities to be able to reach their full potential. I’m not looking to be the Angolan father Colm, but I hope to be able to give back a little to the country I’ve been living in since 2013 and maybe light the spark of something bigger.

I now have a mix of paying international and national athletes and an initial group of non-paying local runners at Kufukula

Things have started to grow a little bit faster than I expected and my guys have been winning local races, so my initial plan to operate in the shadows for a while didn’t really work out. Currently I’m looking into creating a more organized local structure like a school. That would then enable me to go and hit up (local) sponsors for the project and register athletes in the national federation.


But back to Boston training. At the end of 2021, we finally went with the whole bunch to Belgium for the holidays. Two years after our last trip abroad and not having been able to attend my father’s funeral at the start of Covid. It was an emotional time, seeing my family again, and especially to be with my eldest and my mother after all this time. My training took some hits as I gave priority to family moments. Training in the Belgian winter along the rivers, canals and cycle paths was very gratifying, but I was emotionally and physically not really able to really push myself to go hard.

Around the same time, an email arrived from the Boston marathon. I had been selected to figure on the pro starting list. 

This only became official when we were already back in Luanda. Being on that list, albeit the last and slowest one, but also by far the oldest by 8 years, put some extra pressure and stress on me, mostly because of the fact that my preparation wasn’t going to plan at all. I was way behind and continued to be unable to push myself hard mentally and physically. The physical side of it was pretty straightforward. My hamstring would be very stiff and painful for a few days after faster or much longer training. Mentally, I was just having a hard time, feeling depressed. It was increasingly hard to motivate myself to do all the hard work.

By the end of March, I’d run a few postponed local 10 and 5ks and had a couple of long runs under my belt. 

I even beat my own PB from 2017 at Luanda’s main 10k and ran a decent half marathon on April 4th, but I knew there wasn’t enough long hard work in my training block. I just wasn’t feeling it. Boston was going to hurt a lot. I started doubting myself even more: what right did I have to still even be on the pro list? All my willpower would be needed to get to the starting line and then finish the race.

Boston Marathon

Luckily, RoadTrailRun editor and genuinely warm, sweet and all-round nice guy Sam had invited me to stay at his place for “as long as you want”. He picked me up at the airport almost a week before the race and we drove off to his place in New Hampshire, where his equally sweet and loving wife Dominique welcomed me into their home. 

The next couple of days were filled with rest, local shake-out runs, great company, fine food, beer, coffee and wine. 

The marathon seemed very far away, except for the day we went into town for the expo and a tour of the running stores on Newbury Street, the finish line on Boylston Street and the Boston Common.

On Sunday morning, Sam dropped me off at the Seabrook bus station and I was now well on my way to the Boston Marathon. After the pro athlete briefing, shoe check and number pickup, I headed for my hotel, where I spent the remainder of the day resting, fueling and hydrating.

Monday morning 5AM. Out of bed and into my running gear (with my first ever offered TrackSmith singlet - thank you Matt, I’ll be pitching an idea as promised) and backpack on. A quick ride on the T got me to the official hotel, for a final gear check before we were appointed one of the 4 buses heading to the starting line in Hopkinton. The ride with all the runners, some I’d been admiring for a long time, was escorted by state police on motorcycles. They would race to all intersections and freeway on-ramps in order to stop traffic from interfering with our smooth ride to the 126th Boston starting line. This was starting to feel real.

We were dropped off at the Korean church in Hopkinton and most of the elites who had been there before quickly went for the gym mattresses and warmest places in the cold church. It was 7:45 and I was freezing. 

I got myself one of the towels as a sheet and found a place in one of the rooms upstairs, next to Scott Fauble. He was very silent and concentrated, so I only wished him good luck and told him I’d enjoyed reading his book just before we headed out to the starting line.

Around 45 minutes before the official start, I headed outside for the warmup. All athletes were slowly jogging up and down a small street behind the church. Soon it was time to head to the mythical starting line. 

With around 5 minutes to spare, we were walking and jogging back and forth and then, before I fully realized it, there were 30 seconds to go and then 10, 5 and boom, we were off.

That’s me far right at the back of the start

Well, they were off anyway. As expected and the official slowest of the group, and knowing that my training hadn’t been optimal, I tried to control my pace by effort, and not on my watch. Soon, I was alone, and that was what I would be for the rest of the race. It’s a good thing the famous Boston marathon crowd support was already well present and didn’t seem any less enthusiastic to cheer on a middle aged guy with a white beard, gloves and a beanie. Running this race by myself would have been a lot harder than it was without them. Thank you Boston marathon crowd!

I passed 5k in 17:15 and I was feeling ok, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for the whole race. After a while, I started catching up with some of the wheelchair and pushcart racers who had started earlier. In the distance, I could see two other master runners from the elite starting group. At least I wasn’t losing ground to them, so things could be worse.

At 20k, the Wellesley screaming tunnel was incredibly loud, but also welcome: I knew I was almost halfway, although I was gradually slowing down. At 25k, a couple of Sam’s friends were “guarding the clock” and it was around that time that the first elite women passed me and the clocks on the way started to indicate their time and not mine.

When I run long, after about an hour and a half, things start going by in a blur. Afterwards, I can generally only remember individual events and not the order or the exact moment they occurred. So, I don’t really know when I caught up with the first of the other master runners and then the second, or when Charlotte Purdue, Nell Rojas, Steph Bruce or a couple of the other female athletes went past me. The only one I’m sure about is Des Linden, because that was not far from the finish line. 

I can also vividly remember the first of the Newton hills and the way my legs and groin felt by the time I got to Heartbreak Hill. By now, I was barely hanging on, but giving up was never an option.

I knew it was going to hurt and hurt it did, but soon there was the left on Boylston and I had the street basically to myself. 

2:37:09 and there was Sam at the finish line. A third master athlete had come in just before me.

I hobbled to the race hotel, got myself a cup of coffee and a banana, got my backpack back, put on my jacket and headed for the T. Before I got to the hotel, I went into an Irish pub, where a couple of locals struck a conversation with me and paid for my Stella (I’m Belgian after all and was born in the beer’s home town of Leuven). Back then to my hotel for a shower and off to the airport for a flight to Europe, where I would visit my eldest in Amsterdam before flying back to Luanda. At 54, without a decent training block, I only managed a 5th place in my age group. Lots of lessons to be learned, and I will definitely be back to go for that victory in the next age bracket. Boston is definitely one of the greatest races out there, so I’m already looking forward to tackle the course again.

For the shoe geeks out there: I raced the Boston marathon in an old pair of Nike Vaporfly Next% 1 that was waiting for me in Belgium since 2020. During my test run with them, the upper came loose on the medial side, probably from being stored for so long. A quick ride to the local Walmart with Sam got us some glue, which didn’t hold, but luckily things didn’t get worse during the marathon itself.

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Mike said...

Joost, what a brilliant write-up. Quite inspiring. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great write up. "only" 5th in age group? Quite an accomplishment given the journey you took to even get to Boston.

BTW, how did the singlet work out for you?

Kufukula (Joost) said...

The singlet was great and being well ventilated at the back, it will be even better here in Luanda. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed TrackSmith gear and have bought a number of Reggie half tights, twilight shirts and singlets and a couple of other items. Highly recommended.

SMirarchi8157 said...

I was 106th in our age group, Joost, but I wouldn't have been there at all if it hadn't been for your inspiring example of the past few years. I hope to meet you there in person next year!

Joost De Raeymaeker said...

Thank you for your kind words SMirarchi8157. Looking forward to it!

Hernan said...

2:37 is mind-blowing. Congrats on this new accomplishment! And thanks for this recap.
As a 53 year old runner myself, you're a daily inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Extraordinaire performance Joost ! Et la force de ton mental est exceptionnelle, pour surmonter les blessures, confinements et autres difficultés !
Mille bravos👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽