The day before the race
I met up with Megan and Mandy at the expo to pick up our race kits. I had a moment right before I went to get my bib where I nearly teared up a bit. My first marathon race bib! Megan got her half-marathon kit and was able to switch to a faster corral. She has been working with a coach and her dedicated training has definitely paid off!
The expo itself was crowded, and we soon found ourselves sitting off to the side, discussing our plans for race day. Megan asked if Mandy and I were going to run the whole thing together. Mandy and I both agreed that we would start together, and if either of us, for whatever reason, had to take off, we’d do so. Megan said she was getting misty thinking about Mandy and I crossing the finish line hand in hand. We had a good laugh-cry about that. (Admittedly we’re normally a gushy bunch, but pre-race jitters exacerbate that!)
That night, I carb-loaded with pasta (although nervousness made it difficult to eat as much as I’d wanted) and Kevin and I hit the hay with our alarms set for 6:30am. I had nightmares about the race, and each time I awoke throughout the night I was relieved to find that the race hadn’t started yet.
Race day morning
Our apartment is conveniently located right behind City Hall, which just so happens to be where the start/finish for the race was. (This was yet another reason why it made sense for this to be my first marathon!) Because of this, we offered the apartment for Mandy and Megan to use to keep their things instead of dealing with bag check, and also for last-minute bathroom breaks. We all got ready: I moleskinned my feet, filled up my hydration pack with cherry limeade Nuun, stashed a few Clif bars in the pockets, and pinned on my race bib. With the outside temperature a balmy 2 degrees Celcius, I decided on capri run tights, a short sleeve shirt, and a throwaway sweater to wear to the start.
Mandy and I said our goodbyes to Kevin and Megan. Kevin was in the red corral – he was aiming for a zoomy sub-1:40 half marathon. Megan was in the yellow corral, for a sub-2:00 finish.
We took our places in the green corral. I had put 4 hours and 30 minutes as my estimated finish time, but of course, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I sucked back a salted caramel gel at 8:50, readying my energy reserves, and at around 9am, we crossed the starting line. We were off!
The first half
I told Mandy that I wanted to take the first couple of kilometres somewhat slow. That wasn’t difficult, given how crowded the field was. We naturally fell into a 6:30 min/km pace. Around 1.5km in, we had warmed up enough to shed our toss-away sweaters. I hadn’t put on my music yet – at the start of a race, especially, I like to enjoy the sound of all the footfalls on the pavement.
Around 3km we picked up the pace slightly, hovering around 6:10 min/km. We talked about the race, about training, about the signs that we saw people holding. We wondered how Kevin and Megan were doing in their half-marathons.
It’s hard to describe how I felt during this leg of the race. It was just so, so much easier and more enjoyable than I had thought it was going to be. Every time I glanced down at my Garmin, our pace stayed constant. For kilometres 3 through 19, we didn’t vary much more than 10 seconds per kilometre in our pacing. I have never before had a run, let alone a race, that incredibly consistent. But it wasn’t just consistent. It was pleasant. It was fun. It was joyous. It was beyond any of my expectations. Running with Mandy and Megan is always a pleasure, and almost always easier than running on my own, but this was something uniquely special.
Kilometres 7 through 10 were particularly fun and just flew by, because we spent them watching the race leaders run along the other side of the road, having already reached the switchback point along Lakeshore Blvd. We kept our eyes peeled for Kevin and Megan, and managed to see and cheer for both of them. Around 10km in, I made myself take another gel, even though I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed it, because I knew I would be sorry later on if I didn’t.
Around the point where the half marathon splits from the full marathon, Mandy started to have hip and knee pain, aggravated by the pavement and downhill portions. We stopped so she could stretch, and I suggested that we run the uphills and walk the downhills – not exactly a conventional race strategy, but one that would hopefully keep the pain from being overwhelming.
After the half-marathoners turned off to their finish, it felt more like the “real race” began. I had expected it to feel lonelier. Indeed, the field of runners dwindled, though it wasn’t exactly sparse: there were still about 6000 people running the full marathon (although double that number ran the half!). I was all smiles for the volunteers and the faster marathoners who had already completed another switchback. And most people were all smiles back. At this point, most people clearly still had energy. Far from being lonely, it felt like I was joining in on a club.
Kms 23-28 had a number of little hills that I might otherwise not have dwelled on, but suddenly was hyper aware of because they clearly were doing a number on Mandy’s hip, even with the walking breaks. It was around this point that I realized that I was not going to be able to run the whole race with her. I was sad, and a little bit worried, knowing that I would have to say goodbye soon. But I was also just so immensely grateful to have been able to run almost 30 happy and fun kilometres together. Just before kilometre 30, I gave her my love and kept running.
The last 12 km
Now the race felt different. Harder, yes, but I don’t think it was nearly as mentally tough on me as it would have been had I run the whole race alone. My body was beginning to feel the distance, and this stretch was a bit lonely, without much scenery or cheer stations. However, once I got into the Beaches, things perked up – there were lots of people cheering, including children who were giving out pieces of banana to the runners (I didn’t take any, but I did ask an obliging bystander to grab a Clif bar out of my hydration pack for me).
The toughest stretch for me was kilometres 34-38. My body was aching now. My legs were on fire. My hands were freezing from the wind (I’ll point out here that it was NOT sunny, as forecasted. I wished for long sleeves!), and my left arm was going numb from my Garmin. My left foot, the one that has been giving me trouble with numbness for a couple of years now, was not numb but in pain. The funny thing is, I was so grateful that it hadn’t gone numb, and also grateful that the pain hadn’t started earlier in the race, that I didn’t even mind very much!
Mandy had warned me that now was the time when stopping would be the most tempting and the least advisable. Every time I stopped, I realized she was exactly right. Walking then running again hurt so much more than just running. I texted Kevin and asked how his race and Megan’s had gone. I wanted another burst of happiness to ride, and I knew that would be it. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw that they had both achieved incredible PRs.
Buoyed by that, and firm in my knowledge that if I stopped again I’d pay in spades, I settled in to run the last four kilometres without stopping. And, somehow, I did just that. At some points it felt like I was limping rather than running, and I felt like the slowest person on the planet. (Yet, remarkably, I brought my pace down from 7:55/km to 6:46/km over the course of that last 4k).
In the finish chute, I was greeted by cheers from Kevin, Megan and Tim (her husband and a good friend of mine), my mother and grandmother. I crossed the finish line with a time of 4:46 – an automatic PR, of course!
Mandy finished a little bit after, in good spirits as well, despite the pain. I was glad of that, because I had been worried about leaving her. She’s now very confident that there will be more trail races and far fewer road races in her future.
Several people asked me, “would you do it again?” or “what’s next?”. Perhaps I’m still riding the runner’s high, but I think I would do it again. Prior to this, a marathon seemed mythical – something that I really didn’t have much of a reference point for. Now I know that I can do it. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly attainable with training. I loved finding out that I am capable, physically and mentally, of toughing it out for 42.2km. I wasn’t even as sore as I thought I would be in the days afterwards (even my blisters were fairly minimal, all things considered!). There is a part of me that would definitely like to train smarter (not necessarily more!) and see if I can’t get closer to that 4:30 time that I guesstimated when I signed up. I think it’s attainable!
My mother asked if this was it – would I stop here, or would I want to go further? I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but an ultra-marathon is something that I at least have some frame of reference for now. I’m not signing up for anything just yet, but I’m also not ruling it out! But for now, I’m content to enjoy my accomplishment and the accomplishments of my friends.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a triathlete, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and newly-minted marathoner.