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AFCEC attorney reflects on Boston Marathon experience

Man wearing Air Force uniform stands and smiles at center holding Boston Marathon completion medal.

Major Andy Unsicker proudly displays the medal he received for completing the 122nd Boston Marathon this past April. With temperatures in the thirties, freezing rain, and strong headwinds, these were some of the worst conditions on record for the race. (U.S. Air Force Photo by J. Brian Garmon)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- This year, Major Andy Unsicker, Chief of the Utility Law Field Support Center, Air Force Civil Engineer Center, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, ran one of the nation’s most well-known marathons, the Boston Marathon, in some of the worst conditions on record. His journey to the finish line this year began long before that cold day in April.

Three hundred eighty-five football fields. 40,000-50,000 strides. 26.2 miles. No matter how you define a marathon’s length, it is a daunting task that only one-half of one percent of the U.S. population has completed.

Unsicker has been a runner since high school, where he ran track and cross country. He began participating in triathalons seven years ago, which he competes in alongside his wife, and ran his first Boston Marathon in 2016. While he did not run competitively for his college, he was still an avid runner and cycler throughout.

In December 2017, he ran the Panama City Beach Marathon, and used his time to qualify for Boston. After qualifying, he trained by running an average of 90 miles per week with 20-mile runs on the weekend. His typical weekly training plan consisted of two tempo runs a week in the range of 10-15 miles. Additionally, he supplemented this with specific speed training, usually consisting of several 1 mile repeats, 800-meter repeats and combinations of the two.

The weather conditions between this qualifying race in the Florida Panhandle and conditions in Boston were vastly different. When the qualifying race began in December, it was a comfortable 60 degrees, peaking that day at 70. When he arrived in Boston to pick up his runner’s packet, it was snowing.

Thirty-degree temperatures, freezing rain, and headwinds of over 25 miles-per-hour were some of the conditions this year’s runners in Boston competed against. It was the coldest race in 30 years.

“Around 18 miles in, I was completely worn out,” said Unsicker. “My feet and fingers were freezing and my hips began seizing up. For the first time in my life, I actually felt numbness in my elbows. The rain felt thick, it actually hurt my skin. Running in a headwind that strong takes a major toll. The race felt twice as hard because of it.”

Unsicker wasn’t the only participant affected by these harsh conditions. By the end of the race, all the medical tents had filled and a local church had opened its doors, taking in 2,500 people for hypothermia treatment. Experience wasn’t a factor either, as 23 elite runners failed to finish the race.

When asked if seeing other runners drop out affected his run, he replied, “I saw a few runners drop out along the way, but I didn’t really think about it until it was over.”

How did he endure these conditions and manage to finish?

“My focus was on breaking through the pain and to let the training take over,” said Unsicker. “You do your best to compartmentalize the pain and zone out. I don’t really remember much of my surroundings during the race.”

Unsicker finish this year’s race in the top 5 percent of his bracket. When asked about some of the most memorable events from the experience, he said one particular thing stood out.

“After the race, I was taking the subway back to my hotel and my whole body was shivering. Someone on the train reached over and gave me a set of hand warmers. The kindness shown by the people of Boston to all the runners was incredible.”

Unsicker says he hopes this story inspires others to set fitness goals and live a healthy life.

“It all begins with setting a goal and working hard to achieve it,” said Unsicker. “Anybody can do this, whether it be a small fitness goal or big one. Whether it is your tenth marathon or your first 5K, you should be proud of even attempting it.”