On April 20th, after running for just over two hours, Caroline Rotich sprinted to victory at the Boston Marathon. Her win was the result of hard work, preparation, and the ability to focus on race day. Below is a look at some of her training leading up to Boston and how the day unfolded for her. I’ve broken the race up into the key sections as they happened during the race.
Caroline “Caro” spent about seven weeks in Kenya from mid-November to early January. During this period she got sick and showed up for training in Santa Fe (her home in the US) quite a bit behind schedule. Mid-January to early March we focused on building additional base while also trying to add good speed/tempo/pace work. By mid-March she was at about 80 percent fitness when she raced to 4th place at the NYC Half Marathon. Although she’d won this race on two prior occasions (2011 and 2013), I was actually pleased with her performance being that training had been less than optimal. In fact, it was only about one week prior to NYC that I saw the “real Caro” show up at a workout again.
However, in the five weeks between the NYC Half and Boston, everything went perfectly. She started hitting goal times in workouts, volume was good and intensity was high. Basically, everything was on track for a solid race.
Upon arriving in Boston the Wednesday before the race, she did her normal shake out and pre-race runs. At this point in the game, everything that can be done is done. The cliched “money’s in the bank” comes to mind. Now, it was just about getting to the start line healthy, happy and ready to rock.
Boston is a racers race. What I mean by that is that there are no pacers, the course is challenging and every year it’s won in a different fashion. In order to win Boston, you need to have multiple strategies for winning. A singularly focused race and training plan are not going to get you to the finish line in first place, unless you get lucky enough for the race to play out exactly the way you want it…..which rarely, rarely happens. Therefore, we had trained for multiple different scenarios; a fast pace from the beginning, a slow start, a moderate pace, big surges, a kick finish, etc. I felt like she had the tools for about every possible scenario, which gave me confidence as a coach and her confidence as a runner. She was prepared to run whatever type of race necessary to win.
The day prior to the race we sat down, as we always do, and went over the best possible race plan. Of course, we had discussed different scenarios on how the race could play out for many months, but now that race day was here, we could actually plan for the current conditions.
Race day was supposed to be cool (40s to low 50s), rainy, especially as the day progressed, and windy, with a general headwind prevailing. Those are good marathon running conditions. The wind and possible rain was the only thing that would likely affect the times, especially being that it was forecast to be a headwind.
As we sat down to discuss the race plan, I first noted to her that if it does rain, she won’t melt. This is a joke between me and my runners when they don’t want to train due to rain. She laughed, knew it was true, and was also aware that everyone else had to deal with the conditions and that the other Kenyans, in particular, would not be happy with rainy, cold conditions. We also discussed the wind as a factor. With a prevailing headwind, I thought that the pace would be slow to moderate in the early miles. No one would really want to take the lead. Therefore, the plan was to tuck in, stay very relaxed and let others do the work. I knew she could handle the pace that anyone in the race was capable of running, so letting them lead was in order. Conserve energy, be sure to get in nutrition and watch for critical moves. This was the mantra for the first 25k. From 25k to 35k I told her that the racing would start and that paying close attention to moves would be paramount. The goal was to still conserve energy, but be alert to what was happening in the race and burn a match or two, when necessary. Then, from 35k on, pull of the gloves and start fighting. I thought the race would be whittled down to only a handful of runners at most by then. If she was still in the game at that point, I knew that her strength and kick would pull her to a great performance.
See Rotich’s full file here.
0 to 20 minutes; 3.7 miles segment (5:24 pace)
The day started with a light rain that was letting just prior to the women’s start. The wind was very slight at this point and it looked as if it possibly wasn’t going to be much of a factor on the day. As the gun went off the group settled into an honest pace of around 5:24 per mile. These miles are significantly downhill, so that pace was about spot on. Caro tucked in nicely and looked to be in total control. She noted that aside from a bit of jostling around, this was very “controlled”.
20 to 1:03; (43 minutes), 7.7 miles segment (5:37 pace)
Winds remained relatively calm and no one seemed to be chomping at the bit to run too fast. It was really steady through this phase and Caro once again just sat in and conserved energy.
1:03 to 1:23 (20 minutes), 3.7 miles segment (5:29 pace)
The race started heating up just a bit here. In the TrainingPeaks file you’ll notice 5 up and down segments. These were small movements, sometimes coinciding with hills, but you can tell that people were testing the legs out a bit. Anxiety with the slow earlier pace was starting to take it’s toll. Ladies were getting a bit nervous. The pace was still at a pace where none of the key players were getting dropped just yet. Caro came through the half in 1:12:45 (5:32 average pace at 21k). Conservative and in control, just as planned. Caro noted that she didn’t really notice the small surges here. The biggest issue for her during this phase was that she missed her nutrition bottles at two consecutive stations, having to rely on the “normal” aid stations for calories.
1:23 to 1:28 (≈5 minutes), .96 miles segment (5:17 pace)
This is the last big downhill mile of the entire course. Likely not an acceleration, but people were opening up and using the downhill. Once again, legs were being slightly tested going into the critical hills of the race.
1:28 to 2:03 (35 minutes), 6.2 miles segment (5:35 pace)
The hills. This is where the racing started. Pace was a bit slower than the average, but some of the uphills were approached aggressively. Downhills were decent too. Caro stayed tucked in even though the winds weren’t too bad. This is often where big breaks happen. However, with the relatively conservative early pace and the high level of athletes in the field, the pack only went from 11 to 9 during this period. Interestingly, the real racing hadn’t started yet. Most notably, two of the top three Americans were dropped during this period. When asked if she knew that a couple athletes had been dropped, Caro replied “no, we all seemed to be holding tight in the pack at that point. I didn’t notice people dropping off”.
2:03 to 2:08 (≈5 minutes), .96 miles (5:23 pace)
The calm before the storm. Coming off the last hills, the real contenders were harnessing energy. Caro looked and said she felt good at this point. From a coaches perspective, I thought she looked in complete control. I know what she looks like under duress, and she was showing no signs of fatigue. A good sign. Post race she said “when we crossed the 20 mile mark I was surprised to see that we were already that far along in the race. I was feeling very fresh and really felt like we hadn’t started racing yet”.
2:08 to 2:13 (≈5 minutes), .97 miles (5:05 pace)
This was the move of the race. In nearly one mile, the field went from 9 to 3. This was absolutely the most critical moment of the race, spurred on by Mare Dibaba. In all of the training that Caro does, one thing we really work on is throwing in strong surges on tired legs. At this point in a race of this level, there are only a handful of women who can throw down a 5:00 mile. And those women are the ones that win the World Marathon Majors. Caro was ready for this and executed perfectly. “I knew that the real racing started at this point”, Caro said. The game was on.
2:13 to 2:24 (11 minutes), 2.04 miles (5:29 pace)
After the very fast previous mile, the top three women settled into a strong, but steady pace. Each of them were measuring each other up. As the race progressed into the last mile there were small accelerations on top of the already steady pace. Buzunesh Deba couldn’t handle the surges and Caro took control, followed very closely by Mare Dibaba. “I felt very strong but didn’t want to kick too early. I knew there was some racing left, but I had good legs”.
2:24 to 2:24:55 (55 seconds), .21 miles (5:00 pace)
The kick. If you haven’t watched this part of the race, find it online and do so. It was a classic battle of back and forth between Caro and Mare, and one of the most memorable finishes of recent years (I may be a bit biased). As they came down Boylston street, blows were exchanged. But with 100 meters to go, Caro shifted gears, got a huge smile on her face and kicked for the win. Closing speed was at sub 5:00 pace. Caro stated “I didn’t quite know where the finish was, so as soon as I saw the line, I went for it. I knew I would win”.
The race ultimately played out very similar to the way I thought. Though the winds were lighter than anticipated, the pace was moderate and honest for much of the race. It all came down to a few critical moves that Caro needed the fitness and mental strength/preparation for. She came into the race prepared and executed perfectly. As a coach, I couldn’t be prouder. We can do everything right in the prep for a race, but it ultimately comes down to performing when it counts. When an athlete does this, it’s magic.
After the excitement of the finish, the post race press conferences, the award ceremonies, the parties, interviews and TV appearances, Caro and I finally had some time to sit down and walk through the race. We discussed many of the particulars, but it ultimately came down to her doing what she knew she could do. “It didn’t go exactly as planned, but I was ready to race, ready to win. The early miles felt easy and went by so quickly. But when we started speeding up, it got tough. The pace was strong, but I was feeling in control and like I still had good legs. I believed I could win, I knew I could win”. And that is why she did.