Race, Triathlon & Lifestyle Training


Blog 15: From Back of the Pack to Boston

by Chad Champion

I took my first trip to Boston in November 2012. My wife had a work event there, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to fly up and spend a few days with her in Beantown. I remember getting up each morning and running along the Charles River in Cambridge and seeing the famous Citco sign on Kenmore Square. Later on that trip I became overwhelmed as I visited the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street. I remember having dinner one evening with my good friend, Declan O’Beirne and sharing with him that one day it would be a dream to run the Boston Marathon. At that time Declan was CFO of one of the divisions of John Hancock, the major corporate sponsor of the marathon. He told me that he could get me tickets to ANY major sporting event in Boston, BUT there was no way he could get me an entry into the Boston Marathon. I had to earn.

Not that I would ever want a pass into the oldest and most prestigious marathon of all time. However Declan’s statement solidified my dream even further. The standards and the demands to run this race are so high, that you have to earn it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what was I thinking? At that time I had never done a half marathon much less a marathon. To be honest I had never run more than 8 miles at one setting. To make it even worse, the marathon pace that I needed to qualify was faster that any of the 5k race paces I was doing.

My running adventure had just started earlier that year. A few of my buddies and I had started running 5k races every Saturday morning. After running 6 years of cross country in junior high and high school, I was trying to find my stride after a 23 year absence. I had given it all up when I went away to college. But it be honest during that time I was never a competitive runner. I ran for the B Team in the back of the pack. My first “comeback” 5k in April 2011 was a real eye-opener. I finished in 33 minutes. That was really disappointing. I thought I could easily do one in less than 30. But I tried a few more Saturday 5ks. It was really tough at first, but each Saturday got better and better, and I eventually started seeing my times venture down in the 22-23 min range – not bad for a 40 something year old.

In November of 2013 I ran my first marathon in the Outer Banks. I trained on my own, taking the advice of friends and articles I read. Following a Hal Higdon plan, I spent a hot humid summer in Charlotte training for the big race. Initially my goal was just to FINISH, but the competitor in me knew I had to have a time goal in mind. After running my first half in Hilton Head with a time of 1:48 earlier in February, I thought breaking 4 hours was an attainable goal…..It actually was attainable. At mile 23, I was 3 minutes ahead of schedule until I had to climb the Washington Baum Bridge which connects Nags Head to Manteo. Well I forgot my rope and climbing gear. The bridge has a 4% elevation grade for 650 feet. Once I climbed the summit of the bridge, I had nothing left…zero, nothing, nada…..Somehow I found the energy to start jogging for a minute or 2….then walk, then jog, then walk. You get the idea. This continued until I found the finish line. When I crossed the line the clock read 4:03. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to finish my very first marathon. It sure would have been nice to see a “3” instead of a “4”. When I first crossed the finish and saw my wife, my 2 girls, and my mom, I was filled with so much emotion. I cried like a baby. Ten minutes later that emotion soon turned into immense pain……I could barely stand up and found myself in the medical tent getting an IV with fluids. This was due to my inexperience in hydrating properly during a long race

What was I going to do? Check it off the bucket list and go on to the next thing…..If you would have asked me on the bridge, I would have told you ” THERE’S NO WAY I was going to do another”….but as weeks passed, it ate me up inside that I didn’t have a sub 4. So what did I do, I signed up for my next 26.2 five months later. This time Wrightsville Beach. It was a place that I knew well. We had been going there for family vacations for years. The course was flat as a pancake – one of the fastest courses in the region. No bridges in sight…At least none to climb. I continued to train myself. I was running 35-40 miles a week. I felt stronger, better prepared. This time I would go out with the 4 hour pace group. That was a better strategy. Everything went to plan. The pace leader told me that he would even finish a few seconds ahead so we could all break that 4 hour barrier. I felt strong and under control throughout the whole race. I reached Mile 24, and I could feel my energy slipping away. The pace group was a little ahead of me but still in sight. I still had time to catch up…..so I thought. At mile 25 the pace group got further and further ahead of me, and I ended up crossing the line at 4:00:47. Frustration set in. How could I have trained so hard and still miss the 4 hour barrier by less than a minute?

So I told myself let’s focus on another half marathon. The next month I signed up for RaceFest, a popular Half in the Charlotte SouthPark area. I started strong for the first part of the race. At mile 10, I bonked. Totally out of energy, I ended going back to my jog/walk routine. My racing friend, Jeff Linson, who I raced against mostly in 5ks, passed me at the final stretch of the race. Jeff had started beating me at most of the 5ks. Not only that he would consistently beat me on the final stretch. But this was his first half. He wasn’t supposed to beat me at this race. Long distance was not supposed to be his strength. I finished crossing the finish line 1:50 – 2 minutes slower than my first half marathon.

I was so irritated. Was I going backwards? What should I do?

I had just recently found at that I had been accepted into the Chicago Marathon – my third marathon. I couldn’t stand the thought of getting into Chicago, traveling half way across the country and still not breaking the 4 hour threshold.

I realized that if I was going to improve, I couldn’t continue to rely on myself. I needed professional help.

Throughout my training I ran weekly with my friend, Theoden Janes. Throughout the time we ran together, Theoden’s track record was amazing. His times were consistently faster and faster. I was hoping some of the success would rub off. I recognized that he always gave credit to his running coach Kelly Fillnow.   A running coach….interesting. On a whim, I read about Kelly’s athletic and coaching achievements on her website. I was impressed.

I emailed Kelly and she agreed to meet the following week. I gave her my racing story. She agreed to help me get ready for Chicago. Immediately Kelly changed everything. My workouts, my cross training, my race strategy, my mental well-being. Before I would just out and run a set amount of miles that my plan told me to do. With Kelly, my workouts had a purpose. Whether it be speed work, hill work, tempo runs, long runs, and core workouts, there was a method and a plan. Most importantly, it was important that I worked rest days into my schedule which allowed my legs to recover. Also my long runs didn’t have to be nor should they be fast. It was really about teaching my body to endure.

I started working with Kelly in May 2014. Soon my 5k and 10k race times over the next few months started to improve. Kelly taught me the importance of having a plan for every race that I run. She taught me the importance of pacing and negative splitting. I often made the mistake of going out fast too early in the race and falling apart at the end. Now I try to go out slow at the beginning, find my pace, and then have find my kick at the end. In October 2014, I completed Chicago in 3:47 – a 13 minute improvement. At that point in time, I knew that hiring Kelly was the best running decision that I made. Over the course of 2 years I ran the following marathons:

Nov 2014        Thunder Road             3:45

Jan 2015         Charleston                  3:40

Mar 2015         Wrightsville Beach      3:39

Nov 2015        New York City                        3:36

Feb 2016         Mercedes (Bham)       3:34

Mar 2016         Wrightsville Beach      3:30

After my 2016 Wrightsville Beach race, Kelly told me my next race I would be in the 320s. I told her yes, but this time I’m going for my BQ (Boston Qualifying time). Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could come close to a qualifying time. My dream that I talked about 4 years ago was coming close to becoming a reality. But there was still a lot of hard work ahead. For a 45-49 year old male, the BQ time is 3:25. But since there are more qualifiers than entries, you have to be faster than your qualifying time. In 2012 the Boston Athletic Association enacted the “rolling admission” process which allows runners who have the greatest amount of time over and above the qualifying standard the opportunity to register first. In order to run in the 2016 race, you had to have run 2 minutes 28 seconds over and above the qualifying time. To date that is largest cushion you have needed. To give myself enough cushion, I planned my next marathon goal to be 3:20, a 5 minute cushion.

I was excited to find out soon afterwards that I got into the Chicago Marathon for 2016. It was exciting to go back to Chicago. It was the first marathon that Kelly trained me for, and it would be an ideal race for a BQ. Chicago is a fast, flat, spectator-friendly, high-energy race. I needed all the help I could get to improve my time by 10 minutes. The only factor is the weather – the one thing I have no control over. It could be cold and windy. It could be hot and humid. In past races, it has gotten so hot, they had to shut the race down. But it also could be just right – 40 degree overcast weather – which to me was perfect.

My training started by taking 2 weeks off after finishing Wrightsville. No running whatsoever. That was tough, but it was important to start my base off the right way. Kelly made some important changes to my plan. First was to incorporate a weekly spin class that I would do on Mondays. This helped me recover after my Sunday long runs. The classes were tough as my spin instructor, Kim, was intense….but they really helped me with my endurance. Kelly also added more trail runs to my plan. I am fortunate to have Colonel Beatty Park in my backyard. Beatty has a beautiful 6 mile trail loop which I ran at least twice a week. The trails are hard – highly technical with lots of tree roots, ditches, and twists/turns . This slowed me down considerably. My training runs – with the exception of speed work are normally in the 8-9 min/mile range. Running on the trails slowed me down to 10-12 minutes/mile. However running a 6 mile trail run at that speed felt like running a 12 miler on pavement at normal pacing. It was a great workout that worked a whole new set of muscles. One other thing, summer training for a marathon is tough – especially in the south. Running on the trails provided much needed shade and less pounding on the joints.

The one thing that I decided to do in addition is to lose a few pounds. Its not an exact science, and there’s a lot more factors involved, but there is one study that claims losing weight could increase your speed by 2 sec / mile / pound. So a 10 pound weight loss could potentially provide an 8+ min improvement in a marathon. (2x10x26 = 520 seconds or 8.6 minutes)

Even with all the miles I was doing, my weight continued to fluctuate around 175-180 pounds. I’ve never considered myself overweight but there was weight to lose as I’ve never have the best eating habits. I’ve always had the philosophy is that as long as I run, i can eat whatever. In order to lose weight, my philosophy had to change. With a few tips from a dietician I made the following changes to my daily diet.

1) No white rice, pastas, breads, or potatoes. Instead I converted that to whole grain breads and                         pastas, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.

2) No processed foods.

3) More lean proteins – more chicken, turkey, beans, peanut butter, protein shakes

4) More fruits and vegetables with each meal especially leafy greens providing much needed iron

5) In addition to 3 meals, I incorporated a mid morning, mid-afternoon and evening snack each day. Usually          consisting of a fruit/vegetable and a protein.

6) I drank more water throughout the day. No sodas and juices. I even limited my beer and wine                           consumption.

Along with my marathon training over the summer and my new diet plan, my weight dropped to 160. I could feel a bounce in my step and more energy. Summer marathon training continued to be brutal. But I did a couple of long runs at Moses Cone Park in Blowing Rock. The temps were 10-15 degrees cooler and provided great hill training on some beautiful terrain. On my 45th birthday in September, I had a 23 mile long run – my longest training run I’ve ever done. Usually after any runs over 20 miles, I really struggle to finish and feel pretty beaten up afterwards. However this training run, I felt stronger than I’ve felt before. I was ready to take on Chicago.

I traveled to Chicago with my support team – my wife, Chris, my daughters Chase and Abby, my mom and stepfather, and my brother, Casey. My good friend and running partner, Paul Neumann, who has a 3:11 PR, was running Chicago as well and agreed to pace me.

Race day – October 9th arrived. Conditions were absolutely perfect Sunday AM. High 40s/Low 50s. Beautiful day. Plenty of energetic spectators. The plan was to go out 800 min pace the first 3-4 miles and then work my way to a 740 pace. Soon after we started I had forgotten how the skyscrapers and 45k runners will mess up your GPS. My signal was not accurate which forced to go out the first few miles based on feel. After the first mile marker I did a 735. I tried to slow down. At the second mile marker I did a 740. At the 3rd mile marker. I did another 740.

Clearly I wasn’t slowing down much. Soon after the first 5k we found the 320 pace group. So we decided to keep the group in our sight the whole time. And that’s what we did. I felt great the whole way. Very comfortable. I remember at mile 12 telling Paul I couldn’t believe this was almost half way over.

There must have been at least 40-50 in the pace group which was really helpful as opposed to pacing all alone like I’ve done many times before. The pace leader was awesome. He wore “rabbit ears” and kept the group motivated with his cheers. He would often get the spectators cheering. Lots of great music along the way including Elvis at mile 17. At mile 21 1/2 I saw and waved to my family. At mile 23 Paul said that he was going on ahead so he could get 319 which would give him a 10 min gap and allow him a day early to register.

I was headed down Michigan Avenue – the final stretch. I was getting really tired, and I could feel that I was slowing down a bit. The pace group was a little ahead of me. I was almost at mile 25 and then I stopped. I started walking for 10 seconds. Then I remembered what Kelly told me before the race – ” put one foot in front of the other.” I started running with everything that I had. The last mile had signs 1 mile to go…… then 800m to go…….. then 400m to go. I took the left turn into Grant Park and saw the Finish Line. What a glorious sight! I crossed the line with a huge smile!

3:21:16 was my official time, 3 minutes and 44 seconds under my BQ. This also was a 39 minute improvement from the time Kelly started coaching me.

Then it hit me as I was walking down the chute…….I just qualified for the Boston Marathon! My eyes filled with tears and I was completely overcome with emotion. Still am today.

There are so many people to thank: First and foremost my coach, Kelly – who helped me reach boundaries that I never thought imaginable; my run class instructor, Meg – Kelly’s twin sister – who’s positive attitude is infectious; my regular running partners, Paul, Tom, Mike, Dianne, Theoden, Melissa, and so many others; my support crew who are there for every big race- my wife Chris, my daughters, Chase and Abby, my mom and stepfather, and so many other family and friends who cheer for me from afar.

In addition to my 10 marathon PRs and my BQ, I have made the following improvements in other races:

Pre – Kelly                                           Current PR                              Improvement

5k                                22:05                                                      19:26                                       2:39

10k                              48:45                                                      44:05                                       4:40

Half marathon             1:47:45                                                 1:33:40                                     13:05

And I look forward to more future PRs……

The most important thing I’ve learned from Kelly, is to always visualize your results before ever stepping to the start line. Some of the greatest athletes in the world like Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordan visualize their shot before they even take it. Visualization does not guarantee success. It also does not replace hard work and practice. But when combined with diligent effort and proper planning, it is a powerful way to achieve positive, behavioral change and accomplishing your goals. It certainly helped in my case.