Sunday, October 18, 2015

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Normally this is a travel blog.  Normally, I race when I travel.  This time I opted for a local race - the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) - so do I blog or not?  I decided to blog about it.  Go ahead, call me narcissistic...

Science and personal experience tells us that the more often one goes through an experience, the less emotional impact that experience elicits. I've been running and racing for a long time. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that running and racing don't tend to generate the same emotional response from me as they once did.  This year, though, things have been a little different.  My marathon in Japan last winter had me jittery with nerves, and this fall it was no different.  I could feel myself becoming more withdrawn as the race drew near. I felt that there was a lot on the line....and there was.  I have never put the kind of intense and long-term training into a race as I did for this.

Since January, I have been experimenting with my training.  More specifically, under the direction of my coach, I have been putting myself through gut-wrenching workouts over and over again. There's no way I could maintain my former high levels of mileage while beating myself up so every Tuesday, but that was part of the plan: quality over quantity.

I, along with all of the other elites, met for the pre-race Technical Meeting at the Novotel hotel the day before the race.  The meeting is mandatory, but the main thing I was expecting to get out of it is having my own bottles of fluid on course.

Beautifully decorated, so I will recognize them when speedily running by.  Or not so speedily in the late stages, but by the late stages of a race the brain doesn't work so quickly...

As the SWTM is now among the elite road races in the world with its IAAF gold label, IAAF rules are strictly enforced among the athletes competing for the Canadian Marathon Championships.

If you can't tell, that's Reid Coolsaet (Olympian, and fastest Canadian in the marathon since Jerome Drayton set his record 38 years ago) taping over the word "Skechers" on the front of my singlet.  You see, the IAAF is convinced that advertising will somehow negatively impact the integrity of the sport, so they limit the size and number of logos that any athlete can display on race day.  (Thankfully, everyone seemed to ignore the fact that the "design" on the front of my singlet is a logo in and of itself.)  They left "Sk" exposed, as that fits within the allowable size constraints.

I went to bed early the night before the race, and slept surprisingly well. I woke up feeling almost good. In the dark hours of the morning I was back at the Novotel hotel to join the elite athletes on the bus to the staging area.  I was on a bus with the likes of Wesley Korir - previous winner of the Boston Marathon, Lanni Marchant - Canadian women's record holder in the marathon, and Eric Gillis - aiming to qualify for his third Olympics. I was one of the elites, and yet the gulf between one like me and one like them is so pronounced.

While most of the runners preparing for the STWM races dealt with the cold outside, a select few of us were granted the benefit of indoor washrooms and heat under the stage in Nathan Phillips Square. As I sat there in the company of running giants (who are, generally, rather small in physical stature), I thought with confidence that it was not a question of "if" I would set a personal best that day, it was just a question of how big it would be. I knew there would be a pack going out targeting a 2:24 marathon, and if I could hold on to them....

Cold, but no wind.  Near perfect conditions at the start line. A few strides, and the race was off. I watched the half-marathoners take off along with the pacers who were supposed to be running 2:24. Never mind them, I told myself.  Run smart, and don't take off too fast. I got into a grove with Nick Sunseri and Brandon Lam, two Canadian runners who were ready to throw themselves into this.

It felt SO GOOD!  The pace came so easily, and my legs felt so fresh!  After two weeks of struggling through taper and months of excruciating workouts, it was paying off! The early kms came so easily, and there was so much support on course. When my step-father cheered me on at 6km and commented on how good I looked, I laughed and said "Only 36km to go". I was so confident and strong.

After about 5km, I noticed that the lead women's pack was actually behind me.  I had been mistaken about the pacers who I thought had taken off so quickly from the start.  Obviously, they were not the ones aiming for 2:24.  The lead women were less than a minute behind us, and it wouldn't have taken much to dial back the pace and join that group. However, I opted not to. I was in a little pack, and the pace was coming so easily. Nick, Brandon and I seemed to be working well together as we chased a 2:23 marathon.

The first half of the marathon was the most perfect race I could hope for. It was uneventful, and the pace felt so measured.  I believed I could do amazing things. The three of us worked together, keeping pace for a 2:23.  I was in such a good mood.

I hit 20km about 45 seconds ahead of target.  I had been a little fast in the first half, but there is a lot of downhill; it's understandable. At 21km, Nick threw down a surge and I allowed myself to fall off the back.  Good as I felt, I wasn't about to be pulled into foolishness this early on.  Though the wind was insignificant, I noticed it as soon as I lost my little pack. I deliberately eased my pace to allow the lead women's pack to catch me.

I've done a fair number of big city marathons, and the STWM course is pretty fantastic.  Most of it, that is.  There is a mile or so along the pot-holed and crumbled south end of Bayview Avenue which leaves a lot to be desired. I had to watch my footing to stay on the unbroken sections, and then I had to dodge the women's lead truck which apparently HAS TO maintain a specific gap in front of the leaders, even if it means taking up the lane where another runner is trying to run. Eventually, the driver remembered that the course on Bayview is a short out-and-back, and so the truck turned off to wait for the pack's south-bound return. Meanwhile, I allowed the pack to swallow me up.

As soon as I was with the pack, it was like new energy was in my legs.  Admittedly, the women are pretty small, so it wasn't so much the wind-break they were providing as the mental reprieve.  All I had to so was stay with them, and they would roll through 3:25/kms on our way to a 2:24.  How long can I hold on?  I felt awesome, and  I was having delusions of what I might accomplish.

As it was with Nick and Brandon, my time with the lead women was bound to end.  The women weren't running for my benefit, and by 29km, one of them threw down a surge to try to break her competitors.  It didn't break me, because I didn't even try to match it.  I was so comfortable at 3:25/km pace that I let them go, wondering when I would start to reel in the ones who pushed too hard and fell to pieces.

One km, two km....and then I was the one who began to fall to pieces.  I saw that I ran a km 10 seconds slower than the last and I hadn't noticed.  My legs began feeling heavier; harder to turn over. The next km was slow again even though I was trying to keep to my pace. I knew the marathon would test me in the final 12km, but I didn't expect this kind of sudden loss of energy. By 32km, I knew it was a game of attrition. As I headed east through the roaring crowds in the Beaches, I tried to convince myself that I could pick up the pace again.  A little more caffeine and a little adrenaline might just do it!  By 35km when I was on the way back, I hardly noticed the crowds.  I did notice that I was still on track for a 2:25 marathon, if only I could hold on to 3:30/km pace. I didn't.

By 37-38km, I knew my chances at a personal best were done. My pace had slowed, and I felt utterly powerless to do anything about it. I was running nearly 4 minutes per kilometre, which wouldn't be taxing in a regular workout. Lanni Marchant, the top Canadian marathoner on the women's side, passed me around 39km.  By measure of PBs, I am faster than all the Canadian women, but as I watched her run by, I could only think that I should have run with her from the start. My cheering friends and family had little more effect on me than the crowds of spectators.  I'm not sure they had any idea how felt crushed and defeated I felt.

The final two km might have taken a week. I glared at the few spectators who proferred an encouraging high five. I was no more receptive to a friend with a camera:

I wanted to be done.  Eventually, I was. 2:29. I normally know my times to the second, but I would honestly have to look it up even now to know this. I didn't want the medal; I didn't want the cheers.  I wanted time alone to feel sorry for myself. As I sat in the area under the stage, I wondered how much time I had wasted training to run another pointless marathon.

Emotions run wild in the marathon, and later on - replenished and rested - I had a little more perspective.  I ran my fourth fastest marathon, and I was the seventh Canadian in a deep field.  I won the Ed Whitlock Award, recognizing the fastest local runner ("the best of the rest"), and I learned some more about the marathon.  I learned that I need more long runs to handle those late race kilometres.  I learned that no matter how good you feel in the sixth kilometre, the next 36 can wreak havoc on your body. I learned that if you think you should slow to join a pack, you probably should. I learned that Nick Sunseri dropped out in the late stages, so apparently he didn't handle the pace any better than I did.

I also learned - again - that the reason people run marathons is because they are a torturous and beautiful foe. Crossing that line always makes you want to cry. Because you ran so fast, because you ran so slowly, or just because you just ran.

After I crossed the finish line, I wondered whether I would ever race a marathon again.  Now I know I will.


A little while after I finished, my 62-year old mother finished her marathon with a smile on her face. She ran the time she was looking for.  The race didn't beat her; she beat it. I'm proud of her.

No comments:

Post a Comment