Boston 2016: Kirleis Drops the Hammer!

by EJN Comments (0) Articles, Guest Post, Racing

We are proud to have a guy like Thor Kirleis running around in a Level singlet on any given day, but even moreso after seeing how he did in the Boston Marathon. What follows is something that Thor posted on his Facebook wall earlier this week and we wanted to share it all with you. Thor had been so sick that he couldn’t even run as recently as February, but he still ended up running a 3:22 and securing himself a spot in next year’s race in the process. Absolutely amazing! 

After 10 months of living with illness and then popping out of the fog just long enough to get in 6 weeks of dedicated training for the Boston Marathon to not only make the starting line, something that was my ultimate goal, but also to nab a great race and a Boston Qualifier on a day that saw many runners tank due to the heat (I mean, who runs a negative split in conditions like yesterday? Now I know the answer), I will start by thanking everyone for the continued support and making this so special for me. I felt the love as I toed the starting line. I felt the love out on the course. And I’m feeling the love now. I am lucky to have so many friends who have helped me along my journey back toward health.

This illness is a curious thing. I have officially been diagnosed with Secondary Sjogren’s Syndrome. Secondary in the title means that there is something else causing these collection of symptoms. I believe, and the doctors think it is possible, the real cause is Lyme Disease from four years ago. Lyme likely triggerd Sjogren’s, and then last May a slew of illnesses in the house, with one coming after another and sometimes two at once (one for each kid), was the trigger to make it even worse.

As 2015 wore on, I slid further into the illness. Stiff, swollen joints, stray muscle aches, nausea, headaches, chronic fatigue, and that’s just the start of the list of symptoms. By August I was so wracked with fatigue that I could not run – at all – in the early morning. It was as if my body was stuck in sleep mode. I would still get up at an early hour to get in my run, but every day was the same: attempt to run with an opening stride down my driveway and, one, two, four, or sometimes 10 paces down the road, my body would shut down on itself. There was no run. I “kept the streak alive” by walking a 2 or 3 mile route.

This happened every day until the end of February when I finally made headway with doctors and treatment. The morning after being put on medication, I ran. Not well. But I ran. Over the next week most of the other symptoms went away or became more mild. I still struggled in the early mornings, but I noticed that the illness would let go as the morning and day moved along. And so with health a little better and an outside shot of toeing the line of the Boston Marathon, I knew my chance to get in training was then or never. And so I gradually built back up my run. I tried to do all of my “quality” runs later in the morning. In fact, I had no choice, because even as I write this, the illness still grips in the morning (just not nearly as bad as when it had me unable to run) when it just does not allow me to push.

Over 6 short weeks, I was actually able to get in two quality runs per week, one on the weekend for my long run, and one short one midweek. My long runs were very encouraging based on the little training I had. I was able to ramp to 18 miles in that shortened span. And since I did those after 9 AM, a time when the illness starts letting go, I was able to run with some pace. So what I did to maximize my training time was to run solo so that I could completely ebb and flow my pace and energy output around my illness, and so that I could get to my marathon effort (call it race pace) and work as much of my long run in that zone as possible. Marathon effort turned out to be a pace right at my qualifying time, which amounted to 3:25. Pre-illness, this would be a time I could do easily, but life has changed, and I need to adapt, and so I did.

Those long runs were not easy, and I felt them in my body. One thing I learned was that although my body would feel pounded in the joints, even just a mile into the run, it was from the illness and swelling caused by it; it was not from the pounding of the road or running hard. In other words, if I could ignore how my body felt, I could run pretty well. This was key. Over the years of hitting it hard on the roads and trails and even triathlon, one thing I am good at is being an athlete – feeling out how you feel and pushing through when needed. This was a time when I needed to push through. Unique was that I needed to do this from the first stride out the door, not just in the last few miles of a marathon. What’s interesting is that sometimes the illness would suddenly leave my body and I would feel great in body through the joints. Though this would only happens on runs that were at noon or later. So while I had some good long runs, most didn’t feel smooth, fast, or easy. But I was able to do a decent pace. And so I was hopeful that if the day proved perfect for me, and maybe a few stars aligned and we had a cool day (yeah, right), I had a shot at running a Boston Qualifier. In my favor was the late morning start. If the race were at 5:30 am, I know I could not do a single mile at the pace required. Push it a bit later and I had an outside shot. Outside shot because I only had 6 weeks to ramp to marathon shape, and while I never got to marathon shape, I did feel my background in endurance events and my knowledge of the course would help.

Fast forward to the Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton on race morning, when I was walking around feeling every joint in the body. I bent down every other minute to stretch the joints because they felt as if I was already at mile 15 – and I hadn’t even started running. I did my very best to push out of my head the thoughts of, “And you expect to run a marathon, and even make an attempt at a BQ like this?” I knew the likelihood of this being a long day was great. No matter, racing over the years has taught me to ignore what your mind says and what your body feels before the race. Once the race starts, everything falls into alignment. Race day adrenaline smooths over all of this stuff. Though I knew that not to be true with the illness and the premature pound in my joints. Regardless, the mile walk to the start would certainly be good for the legs and joints. Or maybe not.

Two hours later the race finally started. While in the excitement of the start and being in the Boston Marathon – like, THE Boston Marathon – and looking for so many people I knew volunteering as part of the Human Chain gang at the start, the first four miles went by rather quickly before I became acutely aware of the pound in the joints from the illness. I had hoped the pound would lift, but I was afraid this would happen, because the truth is that since I came off the kick start medication, a time when my joints felt worldly better, even as if new, the feeling of being pounded due to swelling and stiffness had been gradually returning. The good news was that although it required a lot of heavy breathing, I had no issue maintaining a pace lower than the 7:49 minute per mile pace required to run a Boston Qualifying time of 3:25. Still, the illness was not ready to leave; but I was content in not changing plans, like my attempt to run this qualifying time, just because it didn’t feel great. The illness would have to come along for the ride. If it dragged me to my knees, then so be it. I was mentally prepared for a long day with a lot of walking but not ready to give in. It would have to drag me to my knees. I would not throw in the white towel until it did so.

From Mile 4 all the way through the Scream Tunnel at Wellesley, I maintained effort to give me a pace of just under my target pace. Because of the pounded feeling in the joints and body and none of the miles to this point feeling easy if I went by feel alone (it felt hard, but I was able to physically do it more easily; feeling and being able to do something being two separate things), I made sure to stay away from energy exertions that left me breathing too hard, because that, I knew, would poke the belly of the beast (the illness) and I’d be walking in short time. This, it turned out, was probably the key to my race, though I didn’t know it at the time and I certainly didn’t feel as if I was doing anything but driving the stake in the ground a little further with each mile. But I firmly believe it was my handling of the illness that set me up for what was to come much later, as although it didn’t feel great, I was never truly taxed. By mile 15 I felt as is the next mile would be my last at this healthy a pace. Each mile thereafter was the same, though thankfully I ran by my breathing and my head and heart, not how I felt. Ignore how you feel, I coached myself. You are doing it physically and you are still moving.

To this point I thought mostly about two things: how I was feeling and ignoring how I felt (sounds contradictory, and it is), and my family. I knew Heather and Camden, my boy, would be at mile 15.5 on the long descent into Newton Lower Falls. Boston Marathon insiders say, and it is absolutely true, that this section says a lot about how the rest of your race will go. If you’re hurting as you descend toward the Rt. 128 overpass and first real hill, it will be a long day; but if you’re in control and feeling okay, you are still on track.

I didn’t have much time to think about how I felt there because I was looking for my boy on the side of the road. My body was pounded but my pace was good. But it didn’t matter; I was about to see my boy.

And there he was – sitting in a small blue lawn chair beside the road next to Heather, also in a chair. Emotion came over me. I was so happy to see them and ran right over. Before I got to say a word, my boy said in rapid fashion, “Daddy, daddy!” His face was glowing as he launched into story. “I saw a police car, and a police motorcycle, and a helicopter, and…” After he got his excitement out, I gave him a kiss, told him I loved him and that he would “always be Daddy’s Champ,” and then after giving Heather a kiss I was off back on course.

As I continued on with the descent into Newton Lower Falls, I was a weeping like a little baby as I replayed in my head my son’s words. I could hear his voice, “Daddy, daddy!” and I could see his smile. He is and always will be daddy’s Champ.

By the time I got to the Rt. 128 overpass and, really, the first major hill in the series of four Newton Hills, I was snapped out of my teary sentiments by my good buddy Don, who I saw on the side of the road. I was happy to see him and actually feeling pretty good. The tear-fest helped me forget about the pound in the joints. I was 100% in the moment and enjoying being on the course. It was extra sweet to see Don because he knows most of what I’ve been through the last 10 months and even the last 4 years.

Not long after climbing that hill, now somewhere around mile 17, I was back into the feeling as if the next mile would be my last at this pace. To this point I had successfully kept my pace below 7:49, my target pace, and I had a few miles in their a little lower to absorb the time lost due to hitting a Porto-Potty earlier and stopping to see Heather and Camden. Rough math told me I was still on target, but in this case on target was… I could not afford to lose even a second because I was right on the line of 3:25.

During this time it was important for me to stop thinking so much and get back more into the moment, and that’s what I did. The stretch on the course from the turn at the fire station all the way to up and over Heartbreak Hill is so special for me because although it is tough and spotted with three good sized hills, I know so many people on the course. I don’t go more than a quarter mile without seeing someone I know or hearing my name from someone seeing me. It has to be my favorite 5 miles on any course. And on this day, with temperatures perfect for spectators (but hot for runners), it was as good as it will always be with my buddy Matthew setting me on my way right at the turn. I got into the crowd, made sure my breathing was in check, and ignored my splits because I knew if I saw something really slow on the watch, it might get in my head, and with the pound in the body from illness and now also added on top of that 19 miles of hard pavement, it could have set me back to a walk. It was a mile away, I was sure.

On the downside of the second Newton hill (first hill after the fire station), I was pleasantly surprised that my legs actually started feeling better, that if I really thought about it, maybe the pound wasn’t there. But at the same time, being this far into the race, my legs were getting weak and every once in a while a single stride would falter with my leg tracking out of the hip socket, which I knew was the illness impacting my hip joint, something I never had an issue with before Lyme four years ago. I was too tired to notice that perhaps the illness was letting go.

Something else I didn’t realize until after the race was exactly how the illness impacted this race in a good way. And yes, I mean in a good way, if there really is anything good about it. The illness has acted like a governor in that I can only push so hard, and so in the race I stayed away from pushing too much even though I could not. It prevented me from blowing up. It meant my breathing was almost always in control. This in hindsight was probably the reason for what was about to come, something completely unexpected, especially because I thought this mile was likely my last at this pace.

Over the second to last of the Newton Hills and probably the toughest of them all, I saw my good friend Monica and, woah, she was standing next to other friends, these being Dave, Hank and Jay and Steph and kids and Gina and kids. And then I saw Felecia. I ran over for high fives and then decided last minute to stop, to actually stop, to get a freeze pop some kid was offering to runners. To this point it was very hot, so I knew to stay on top of the ice and cool drinks to keep as cool as possible. A frozen pop works as good as any. Another reason I decided to stop, however briefly, is that I started realizing that stopping, even if for a second, gives my body a break from the illness’s affects not just instantly but also for a short while afterward. It had happened when I hit the Porto-Potty back around mile 8, and it happened again when I stopped to see Heather and Camden, so I wanted whatever I could get to help me over the last 6.2 miles.

Next up was Heartbreak Hill. I noticed right away how tiny the hill looked compared to how it normally does. I was on my horse and charging the hill with breathing on edge but still in control and short stride. I went up and up and up, and even though I could see the top of the hill far up, it didn’t seem to matter, as I continued passing a slew of runners. I was more in control going up than I had ever been. There were so many people walking that I had to dart around them and look for clean pavement.

Over Heartbreak, I started looking for my sister-in-law Kathy and nice Kirsten, and just like every year, there they were. I was feeling pretty spent from the hill and still getting my breathing back so I decided to stop again, just quickly, to show respect back for them being there and also to hope that a 5 or 10 second stop here would give me something back. And that’s what I did.

Now running by Boston College and through Cleveland Circle, like a heavy weight lifting off of my back, my legs no longer felt the pound from the illness. I knew right away the illness had finally let me have my day, or maybe I force it out by being so damn stubborn for 21 miles and not giving in. Reasons didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was running with pace. And I was running faster than I had at any point in the race to where I was. And it felt great! I almost couldn’t believe it. But if felt so natural, I believed it with all of my might. I was doing this.

Running the last 5 predominantly downhill miles, I pushed as hard as I could without blowing up. I could feel in my body that I’d be able to make this pace stick to the end. I thought not about the lack of training, that only 6 weeks ago I could not even run in the early morning let alone do a mile at this pace. And I ignored the fact that even today, in the early morning, I cannot run even a mile at this pace. No, I was pushing hard. I had to focus on form, so as not to trip, because my leg would lose a stride once per quarter mile (due to illness attacking my hip joints), but I pushed and pushed. I had hopped on the unicorn and I was riding that bitch not only all the way down Boylston Street, but I was going to ride this fucking unicorn through Boston College, through Cleveland Circle, and Kenmore Square, past the “Mile to Go” sign, under Massachusetts Ave and back up, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, and all the way down to and through that fucking finish line. And that is exactly what I did. All the while my fist was in the air when I heard my name or when I just felt like it. And as I came down Boylston, I was once again weeping like a little baby. I did it. I know not to ask questions. But damn, I did it. I nabbed not only a Boston qualifying time, but I did it with an extra 2:27 to spare to complete the trek from Hopkinton to Boston in 3:22:33 and continue the journey that is reclaiming my passion from illness.

(Photo credit to Julie Moore. I used this photo because it shows me riding the unicorn down Boylston Street. Thanks Julie, and thanks for sharing them and all of your energy.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but on day that proved hot for most, myself included, where many people crashed due to the heat, I ran a negative split. You can see very clearly the illness leaving my body, or perhaps the illness finally budging out after me leaning on it for 20 damn miles. First half was 1:42:07; second half was 1:40:26.

As I was walking through the finish chute, I could not believe what had just happened. I absolutely crushed the last 5 miles. I had been on barely 3:25 pace, so close that I could not afford to lose a second, and then the illness lifted and I rode that unicorn so damn hard it gave me back 2:27 in time, a cushion that will hopefully enable me to toe the line, regardless of health, of the 2017 Boston Marathon. For the third time this day, I wept like a baby. I did it. After 10 trying months, many of which I could not run in the early morning, I did it. I not only toed the starting line, I believed in myself, in my ability as an athlete, and took a chance at running a qualifying time on only 6 weeks of training, and I did it. Three things enabled this to happen: My background in running (this wasn’t my first rodeo), my knowledge of the course, and my belief in self and having learned to not listen to the body at certain times, such as this time (though generally you do not achieve by doing this, but in this case, with the illness throwing malady at me, it applies)… or maybe it’s that I learned how to work around and sometimes through the illness. I don’t know. I do not even care. I’m just going to enjoy this as if it were a final victory lap. I hope that is not the case, but after what I went through, I really do not know.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading, thank you for the support, for continuing to believe in me, and for all the proactive notes before, during and after in helping me figure this illness out and in keeping me motivated to want more out of life from a personal standpoint. Your words mattered to me, and they still do.

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