Biting into my medal at lunch after the race.
Everyone always says there is no point if it’s not fun. But seriously, “fun” is an odd demand to make for endurance races. There are lots of great things about the challenge of endurance events. They’re satisfying. They create that adrenaline rush. They show us what we can do.
But fun? I don’t know. Before Sunday I might have thought that to expect it to be fun might be, well, a bit unrealistic.
But fun it was. Here’s my race report for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon.
The Night before the Night before
Anita told me that her coach told her what apparently is a secret that escaped me until now: the night before the night before the race is more important than the night before. Since this little gem fell into my possession in time enough for me to plan appropriately, Renald and I had a quiet night in on Friday, two days before the Sunday race.
I cooked an elaborate meal (Spaghetti Squash Mexicana with Pineapple-Avocado salsa) and baked a coconut-lemon cake (because I promised to bring a vegan to the family gathering in Toronto in celebration of my 50th birthday the night before the race and Veg Out was unable to cater it for me by the time I called them). Cooking complicated things from scratch is a thing I do when I want to relax and empty the mind.
By the time I took out the cake, the stress of the short week behind me had dissipated. I crawled into bed and pulled off one of the best sleep’s of the year–as challenging a feat at this time of life as a half marathon.
One Day until Race Day
Rob and Anita picked me up for the 2 hour drive to Toronto. Anita kept us occupied by reading the “Race Etiquette” sheet that she’d printed from the website. There were lots of rules, from things like “Run or walk no more than two abreast” to “Don’t put loose change in your jacket pocket — it is very distracting for other runners around you.”
There was a detailed account of how to approach hydration stations, for example, “Throw your used cup to the side of the road as close to the hydration station as possible. Drop your cup down by your waist so you don’t hit/splash another participant.”
Rob dropped us off at the Race Expo so we could pick up our kits. With 20,000 participants in the race and mandatory pre-race day kit pick-up, the expo gave us a sense of what the starting line would feel like the next day: crowded.
The cake and I survived.
Onward to meet my god-daughter who drove me to the family get together where I got to spend time with loved ones whom I see all too infrequently. After a few hours of fabulous company (I’ve got great relatives) and an abundance of excellent food, my cousin dropped me off at my hotel, where I arrived just at the same time that Rob and Anita were getting back from dinner. I got my cookie (Doubletree), room-key, a late check-out, and by the time I was done at the front desk Rob had brought my suitcase up from the underground parking.
Anita and I made a plan to meet at 8:20 a.m. to get to the start line for 8:45. I had the time etched into my mind when I got up to the 8th floor. When my room key failed to open up room 820, I checked for my room number again. 817. Oops.
I like to lay out everything I will or might need the night before a race, from clothing to race bib to accessories to breakfast. I never ever rely on a hotel for breakfast on a race day.
I spent a little while after that obsessively checking the weather. The forecast was partly cloudy and a cold 3 degrees Celsius in the morning. I missed the memo about bringing throwaway clothes to toss to the side of the road (later to be picked up for charity) as conditions warmed up through the race. So along with my capris I had a tank, two long-sleeved layers (to be tied around my waist, not thrown aside, if necessary), gloves, Buff for keeping my ears and head warm, and gloves. Other essentials: Garmin Forerunner to give us our 10-1s, water and fuel belt, new belt for phone so we could take some pictures, shot blocks and gels, sunglasses.
Some of my stuff — in the end the cold temperatures determined that Buff would come with me and the hat wouldn’t.
Bedtime. Alarm set for 6:30 a.m.
My stomach is the only way I can tell I’m nervous on race day. Even if I feel totally calm, I have to force down whatever food I need to eat and I need to spend a bit of time in the bathroom. Sunday was no different. I made up my cereal and even drank a real coffee (I only ever do this before races, and even then, only sometimes).
I kicked around the hotel room for about an hour and a half after my shower. It gave me enough time to eat, drink the coffee, journal, meditate, stretch, shower, and go into a state of frantic indecision about how many layers to wear, whether to wear the cap or the Buff.
Anita (in her throwaway hoodie) and I (in my Buff and not throwaway top) at the starting line. As someone remarked when they saw this pic, we are the only two who are smiling. Yes, it was COLD.
At 8:20, with my three layers and the Buff, I met Anita in the lobby and off we went to find the purple corral. That was the corral we were assigned to based on our estimated finishing time of 2:30. Yes, it’s not overly ambitious, but hey, running 21+ K is ambition enough for me. The streets were teaming with people. Our corral was near the end, way back from the starting arch. You couldn’t even see it from where we were standing, shoulder to shoulder with others who planned to run a similar pace.
We knew we were in the right place because we were very near the 2:30 continuous pace bunny and the 2:30 run-walk (10-1) pace bunny. Though we didn’t choose to run alongside the run-walk pace bunny, we did keep her in view for the whole race.
It’s tough to wait around on a freezing morning when you know full well that you’ll be warm enough soon, but there’s nothing you can do to warm up right then. Start time was 8:45 a.m., but the purple corral was far enough back that we wouldn’t hit the starting line for another 20 minutes after that.
We began to move forward, walking then stopping, walking then stopping. The red and white balloon arch came into view. Walking, stopping, walking, stopping. And then we crossed over the timing mat, I hit start on the Garmin, and we began to run.
Anita and I had agreed to keep to a 10-1 system for most of the race, aiming for a 2:30 finish. That meant that we need to sustain slightly better than a 7 minute/kilometre pace to accommodate our walk-breaks. She is a self-described pace dominatrix. I, on the other hand, get carried away by the moment.
Running through the streets of a major city with thousands of other people is just the sort of “moment” that gets my energy up. Enthusiastic spectators lined the side of the road. When we ran west on Bloor Street past Varsity Stadium, the University of Toronto cheerleaders waved their blue and white pom poms as runners sped by. The crowds on the side of road thinned out a bit as we headed south, but there was never a quiet stretch with nothing. We passed reggae bands and showgirls, people holding up signs telling us (well, not us specifically) how awesome we were, and a few stunned pedestrians trapped on one side of a road that the constant stream of runners rendered impossible to cross (I guess they forgot about the race).
Anita and I chatted and checked with each other as we went. We skipped the first walk break, still finding our stride and not quite yet settled into the right pace. We passed by the first hydration station as well. The first 5K just whipped by, hardly even noticed we were running. We passed by the Princess Gates at Exhibition Place (that’s where we saw the showgirls) and headed west along towards the waterfront. By the time we got there, people ahead of us were coming back the other way on the lake side of the boulevard.
Impatient runners shuffled from side to side as they withstood the long line-ups at the banks of port-o-potties at regular intervals on the course. You have to know that if someone is lining up in the middle of a race, they really need it. Anita and I ran on, thankfully neither needing a potty break at any point during the race.
I felt strong and happy. Anita was also having a good run. The signs for each kilometre just kept on coming. No sooner had we passed 10 than, hey, there’s 11. We stayed on pace. The run-walk pace bunny had a crowd around her. We would pass them as they took their walk-breaks and then they would pass us as we took ours. After skipping the first two, we settled into 30 second breaks for a few rounds. From about 10-16 K we stayed fresh by taking the full minute.
It was in that stretch that I started reaching for the Gatorade when it was offered. On our walk breaks I popped a couple of shot blocks. But still, I felt strong. I can’t tell you what we were talking about, but Anita and I kept chatting. We sometimes ran into others from her running group who’d been training for about the same pace. With them, the spectators, the happy pace bunny and her crew, the perfect pace, the lake — you could feel the love.
And then we hit a bottleneck at about 18K where the marathoners split from the half marathoners and everyone seemed to get crunched into a lane that was too small. The congested roadway was just one source of distress. I felt immediately exhausted when I thought of the marathoners who still had more than half their race to go.
The energy began to drain from my legs. At that point, I had to stop talking. My smile was well and truly gone. I know this from the professional race photos that I have the option of purchasing if I want — no smiles.
Where earlier, the kilometers seemed to collapse into one another, now, the final stretch felt endless. At about 2K to go, Anita said, “We don’t have to talk anymore,” which I’d already stopped doing anyway.
We had been opting for shortened walk-breaks for a while, reducing them to 30 seconds so we could keep to our pace. We still had the walk-run pace bunny in view, and when we dropped down to the 30 second intervals we passed her and she didn’t quite catch up.
Approaching Queen’s Park and City Hall, Rob called out from the side of the road. He waved and snapped some photos of us and urged us on.
Anita and I coming to the last few hundred metres. Okay, so I had a little smile left. Photo credit: Rob Stainton.
Just after we saw Rob, the sign said “500 metres to go.” Then 400, then 300, then 200 and 100. The last few kilometres my breathing got more labored. Anita said later that it wasn’t obvious that I was struggling, but I honestly had to talk myself through those final hundred metres.
And then we crossed the finish line in just under 2:30. We kept walking as we passed through the finishing chute (that was one of the rules–keep moving when you get to the end). I had no idea we were getting medals from this race, but we did get the best finishing medal I’ve seen so far in my short racing career. We grabbed a foil blanket, a cup of Gatorade, and a bottle of water.
The temperature hadn’t got much warmer, so as soon as we stopped running we felt the chill. The foil blanket blocked the wind and made a remarkable difference. We kept following the crowd–and it was a crowd–to the food. We exchanged the voucher at the bottom of our race bibs for a plastic bag that contained a banana, a few pieces of flavored melba toast, some gummies, and a breakfast pita. Nom nom.
After the race, with foil blankets and food bags.
We tried to find Rob in the swarms of people but had no luck. Rather than stand around and freeze, we pulled our foil blankets around us and walked back to the hotel.
Thank heavens for the late check-out and a hot shower.