When Shalane Flanagan finished bedazzling her water bottles for the 2015 Boston Marathon, she stood back and admired her work. A glittering mix of starfish, dolphins, flowers, rhinestones, hearts, and Pac-Man-like ghosts covered green Gatorade containers. Her artistic inspiration? “I wanted a girlie explosion,” said the elite marathoner from Marblehead and experienced bedazzler.
Meanwhile, down the hall at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, Amy Hastings Cragg went wild with feathers, pipe cleaners, and bright, sparkly blue, yellow, and pink tape. Her water bottles resembled Easter baskets complete with pipe cleaner handles. Explaining the nearly-neon colors, Cragg said, “I don’t want to miss them. That’s one of my biggest fears in the marathon because it’s so important to fuel.”
For elite runners, no part of their pre-marathon routine is quite like readying water bottles for race day. It’s arts and crafts and science. Two days before the race, they get creative with decorations and serious with drink combinations of water, electrolyte fluids, and energy gels. At the eight elite hydration stations on the course, water bottles provide essential fuel for 26.2 miles and must be spotted easily for pick up. A missed bottle can derail race plans.
“You want to do anything to have your bottle stand out,” said Flanagan of her decorating style. “And it’s something to brighten my mood when I’m suffering in a marathon. I kind of giggle to myself about it like, ‘Seriously, I’m 33 years old and I bedazzle my water bottle?’ But here we are doing this really tough thing and it’s this softer side with this really girlie water bottle.”
While Flanagan bedazzled in her room with help from her coach’s 14-year-old daughter Makenna Schumacher, many elites headed to an athletes’ lounge at the hotel for water bottle prep. The room was stocked with multicolor tape and other potential decorations.
Kenyan Wesley Korir wanted mini-Canadian flags to honor his Canadian wife Tarah. So he grabbed a handful from displays in the lounge, then taped them to his bottles. The whole assembly appeared awkward to hold at full marathon speed. But Canadian flags were good luck when Korir won the 2012 Boston Marathon so they were a must-have for this year. Plus, in an elite field with six Kenyans and only one Canadian, there was less chance of duplication. Korir also wrote the motivational Bible verse reference “Phil 4:13” and “I Love Tarah” on his bottle.
“Whenever I pick this up, at that moment when I’m drinking it, I feel like I remember my family,” said Korir. “[The writing] reminds me that I have to be careful for my family, but it also reminds me that I’m doing this for the love of my family and the love of my people.”
The Ethiopian runners nearly cleaned out the green, yellow, and red tape rolls, replicating the broad stripes of their country’s flag on all their bottles. American Adriana Nelson also went patriotic and fashioned a handle for her water bottle with red, white, and silver pipe cleaners. Both Cragg and Nelson consider handles a safety precaution, a way to ensure they don’t drop bottles as they grab them mid-stride.
“I always go for the bottle, but I’ve missed it so many times and caught it the last second by the handle,” said Cragg. “It’s been a lifesaver. So, I always, always have the handle.”
Elite runners aren’t the only ones who want a secure grip on the water bottles. Boston Marathon officials follow detailed plans for checking in, storing, and distributing filled water bottles before the race.
Late Sunday afternoon and into the evening, elite runners checked in their water bottles and submitted an “Elite Athlete Special Fluid Form” that detailed at which stations they wanted bottles. There are elite hydration stations every 5 kilometers with tables for the men on the right and for the women on the left. Using color-coded stickers, officials labeled each bottle according to which runner it belonged to and where it would go on the course.
Overnight, the bottles were locked away in a refrigerated truck with its own security guard. On race morning, marathon officials drive the refrigerated truck from Hopkinton to Boston and drop all 479 bottles at their designated places. With the elite women’s race underway at 9:32 a.m., officials will set up the first stop at 6:30 a.m. and hope to complete the route in less than four hours.
“We put a model table by the athletes’ dining room and set it up like it will be on race day with bottles on it,” said elite hydration manager Matt Carpenter. “So, the athletes start to see it and think about it and know what to expect. These athletes train to take water a certain way, so we try to duplicate what they would do in training.”
Elite runners experiment with different fluids and flavors during workouts and arrive in Boston with very specific hydration plans, knowing to the ounce how much fluid will fill each bottle and how quickly they will drink it. The details help elite runners avoid mid-marathon stomach problems and carry enough energy to the finish.
Until 20 kilometers, close to the half-marathon mark, Desiree Davila Linden will drink a lemon-lime-flavored PowerBar electrolyte mix. Then, for the remainder of the race, she will switch to a double latte-flavored PowerGel diluted in water. The double latte gel provides a welcome caffeine kick over the final miles, and the switch helps Linden avoid flavor fatigue. Flanagan filled her bottles with Citrus Cooler Gatorade and planned to alternate the drink with berry-flavored energy gels. She mixes it up because she has strong flavor associations and certain tastes trigger memories of hard workouts and negative thoughts.
The bright yellow liquid in all of Nick Arciniaga’s bottles is diluted lemon-lime Power Bar endurance formula with plenty of electrolytes. He also attaches a caffeinated strawberry-banana-flavored PowerGel to the top of each container. Arciniaga likes options on the run.
“If I want the gel or the bottle, I have the option to take it or toss it aside,” said Arciniaga. “If I want it and it’s not there, then it’s a physical letdown. And the body is craving that boost that I was going to get.”
When elite runners pass hydration stations on Monday, their bottles will be laid out according to an elaborate diagram. Each runner is assigned a specific position on a specific table. Each station is identical down to the distance between tables. So, Korir’s Canadian flags will always be waiting in first position on Male Table 10 beside Arciniaga’s bottles at the same table. Cragg’s Easter basket creations will always be in second position on Female Table 5, not far from Flanagan’s bedazzled bottles in first position on Table 4. Officials place the fastest marathoners’ bottles in first position on separate tables to avoid congestion among potential front-runners.
Then, after all that preparation, elites drink up and throw away their containers.
“Whenever I toss it, I’m always thinking, ‘I hope someone in the crowd really appreciates this bedazzled water bottle,’ ” said Flanagan. “I hope it makes someone else’s day, too.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.