Let’s start with something positive: I finished. The sun shone. The wind, which as Canadians we sometimes fear for its chilling effect, stayed in check. The air buzzed with excitement the way it does on race day. Spectators cheered us on for the entire route. I had my picture taken with Batman. The Grim Reaper failed to take me down.
And yes, I need to say this one more time: I finished.
That means I ran 30K on Sunday, further than I’ve ever run before. With 9,000 other people.
The Around the Bay 30K is the oldest road race in North America. As the race organizers love to remind everyone at every opportunity, it’s Older Than Boston. See the back of the boldly coloured race shirt:
It’s also notoriously tough. 30K might sound a little tame for the seasoned marathoner. But this race challenges even the best of them. Most years, it ends with a brutal hill. But this year road construction changed the route to take that one out.
But don’t think that means no hills. The first 10 kilometers have a few overpasses and a highway ramp. At least five of the last 10K is all rolling hills.
My race training for the Around the Bay started back in November when I joined a Running Room clinic designed specifically to get us ready for the big day. I soldiered through a rough winter of frigid wind chills and treacherous sidewalks and pathways. A tight IT band led to intense knee pain at one point, forcing me to back off of my training and then ease back in. So I never did get up to the 30K distance in training and I followed my physiotherapist’s advice to avoid hill work.
Nevertheless, I woke up Sunday morning at 5 a.m. ready for race day. After much obsessing about how to dress for the conditions, I settled on my lightest weight winter tights, one base layer t-shirt under a lighter winter top, my neon pink convertible jacket/vest (the sleeves attach with magnets and I can easily remove them and tie them around my waist or stuff them in a pocket), gloves, my Buff, and sunglasses. As just-in-case clothing, I had packed my thicker tights, my winter running cap, and a warmer top.
Not wanting to wither part way through the race, I had a careful plan for nutrition as well. I took a muesli-type breakfast on the bus with me that I prepped the night before and a decaf tea. I toasted a breakfast pita that I ate in the car on my way to get to the bus in time for our 6:30 departure. I packed a package of Clif Shot Blocks, one Vega gel, and a baggie of almonds, dates and dried pineapples as my race nutrition.
Hamilton is about 90 minutes from London. Tom, who has been running the race for decades, organizes a bus every year. He goes to the Expo the day before to collect the race kits. As each person boards, they collect their kit with the t-shirt, bib, and timing chip. Then we just sit back and relax until we get to Hamilton. The bus parks just a minute from the starting line and five minutes from the race expo and finish line at the FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum). It couldn’t be more easy or convenient.
Or more fun. Four women from my triathlon club and at least eight or ten of us from the clinic took the bus too, including my main training partner, Julie, and our fearless leader, Angie. Everyone was smiling and revved up, chattering away about the winter we’d endured, how many layers to wear for the run.
We got to Hamilton 90 minutes before the start of the race, with plenty of time to worry and fuss, take group pics, and make multiple trips, some necessary and some not, to the washrooms in the FirstOntario Centre in the hopes of avoiding having to use the port-o-potties along the route.
The forecast was for sunny but cool, with a north wind for at least part of the morning, temperature starting around -4C and climbing to 4C but with a possible windchill. I donned my just-in-case winter cap and pulled the Buff down around my neck.
The race director had visited our clinic a few weeks ago and recommended that we divide the race into three separate 10Ks. My strategy going in was to do just that and to stick with 10-1 intervals for the entire race. When Anita and I did the Scotiabank half marathon back in October, we felt good and fresh at the beginning and skipped a few of our walk breaks. That caught up with me by the end.
So this time, I wasn’t about to skip any of those. I set out with four other women who had the same objective — to take the walk breaks every ten minutes. Julie and Angie were among them. We’d been assigned to the last corral. For Around the Bay, I was hoping to finish in 3:30, keeping the 3:30/10-1 pace bunny in sight.
Problem number one: not once did I see that pace bunny. So that part of my strategy failed even before I crossed the mat. Never mind. We all crossed at the same time and starting our GPS’s together. I had my Garmin set for 10-1 intervals, and the three-way display was set to give me average pace, overall time, and distance.
On a sunny day when you’re running with thousands of other people, that first 10K feels so light and happy. I ran along on pace with Angie and Julie, Amanda and Karen not far behind us. We chatted but not much — I had already announced that I would be keeping my chit-chat to a minimum because that was the only way I could make it 30K.
We ran through some depressing residential areas that spilled over into industrial areas. Before our third walk break, I’d tied my sleeves around my waist and stuffed my gloves into my water belt (I forgot to mention that I had one small water with me which I refilled a few times so I could be more independent about my hydration). I already had my cap in my pocket and my Buff around my head, sleeves rolled up.
It was around that point that we ran into Batman and went for the photo-op:
So you can see that it’s still fun. Then the overpasses started, those slow long climbs that then level off just before going down again. And then another. But no problem. It’s still early in the race. They hardly affected our pace even.
Here’s something: Angie and Julie are both faster and younger than I am. I can usually stick with them on training runs, but they have a bit more juice on race day. I’m sure my undoing started early on when I kept up with them instead of backing off of my pace a bit to conserve for later.
Amanda and Karen fell out of view somewhere behind us not too long after we took our photos with Batman.
The race organizers really go all out for this one. Each kilometre is clearly marked with a big sign and a different motivational saying each time. They’re all about “no pain, no gain” and toughing it out and the rewards of being able to say you finished. I wish I could remember more but they all blend together now.
We climbed up a ramp and there it was — the sign telling the 3-person relay teams that the relay transfer area for the transition between the first 10K runner and the second 10K runner was just up ahead.
Still feeling fresh and fast. I drank small sips of water every walk break and took a shot block or two every twenty minutes or so.
With the first 10K behind us we were still on pace to a 3:30 finish, which was my main goal for the day. If my first 10K mistake was trying to keep up with the younger and faster, my second 10K mistake was stopping with them for a bathroom break.
I almost never need a bathroom break during a race, and I certainly didn’t feel the need for one then. But at about 12K or so, just before the water station, there was hardly a line-up at the loo and we stopped. I didn’t really have to go but I went anyway. That set off a chain of events that resulted in me falling behind.
Remember I had my sleeves tied around my waist? Well, shortly after the bathroom break I didn’t need, I realized that something was amiss with my jacket. Between the water belt and the race bib belt and my phone holder belt and the sleeves tied around my waist, there was a lot to deal with and it was all twisted up, my jacket not pulled down properly, and who knows what was going on with my two layers of tops?
So I reached around while running and started to try to sort that all out. And then my sleeves dropped down around my knees, like shackles, and just about took me down. Of course by now the knot was so tight I couldn’t loosen it. As I tried, they dropped down again and again I almost tripped. As I battled with that, the space widened between Julie and Angie up ahead and me struggling to deal with my clothing.
I got it all figured and then we had to run across a metal bridge that was not happy on the feet one bit. Shortly off the bridge it was time for a walk-break. Up until then, I’d been keeping them on task with the breaks, but I could see that they weren’t stopping. I took my break anyway, sticking to my plan.
When that minute came up I hit my stride again and in fairly short order I caught up with Angie and Julie, who had by then realized they’d missed a walk break and decided to take it. I came into the two-person relay change point with them at 15K and continued with the for a few more kilometers, but by around 18K I had to let them go.
I still felt pretty good. I remember hitting 18K and thinking, “Only 12K to go! I do 12K all the time.” I opted for Gatorade at the water stations at that point.
The sign said 250 metres until the three-person relay transition point at 20K. I felt fairly strong still. Maybe a bit tired. I knew my pace had slowed, which is why I lost Angie and Julie.
But with only 10K left, I wasn’t worried. Then I overheard someone behind me say to the person they were running with, “And now the fun begins.”
Yep: the rolling hills.
The race route took us into a charming residential area with long, gentle, wooded slopes up and down, up again, down again, for what felt like forever but was probably just about 5K or so. My legs still had some spring in them up to 23K because I have a vivid recollection of feeling proud of my accomplishment at that stage because I felt better than I did at the end of the Scotiabank half marathon and yet I’d already run further than the half.
23-27K were just a blur of 10-1s, small sips of water, shot blocks and Gatorade. I think I high-fived a police officer at 25K. At one aid station they had quarter pieces of banana in the peel I grabbed one as I went by and as I tried to pull off the peel I’d lost all dexterity in my fingers.
The last 3K just went on and on and on. By now, church was getting out or something that there seemed to be traffic everywhere. The police were out in force doing a stellar job of directing traffic, but that just meant that the motorists had to wait and wait and wait.
I overhead a runner say to her friend as they passed the 3K mark, “Only 15 minutes to go!” I did the math in my head. I can’t even do a kilometre in 5 minutes when I’m doing the sprint stretches on a fartlek day. If I could maintain a 7-minute pace, which I wasn’t sure I could (I had stopped looking at my watch way back at around 25K after the high-five with the cop), I could make it to the end in 21 minutes.
As I approached the stretch beside a graveyard, the Grim Reaper stood at the top. He yelled at me to stop smiling. In point of fact, I had stopped smiling quite some time ago and it was just the absurdity of seeing the Grim Reaper that brought on a brief chuckle before I bore down in earnestness once again. It’s not that I doubted I would finish. I just wanted it to be over sooner.
The thing was, it’s not like I was exerting myself cardiovascularly or anything. My breathing wasn’t even laboured. But my legs had some mechanical issues. They didn’t want to move anymore. I had an extra package of shot blocks but if I eat more than a package of them I feel ill. So I reached for the Vega gel and tore it open with my teeth (fingers not working anymore, remember). This was the only time in the race that I lingered over a walk-break, with less than 3K to go.
This is around the time that I started to ask myself what the heck I thought I was doing and why did I sign up for this race and is this supposed to be fun or what the hell?
Okay, 2K to go and a walk break just behind me, I pep-talked myself into picking up the pace and skipping any remaining breaks. 3:30 had come and gone.
I had my Garmin set for 20 10-1 intervals, and I was on 19 with just over 1K to go. I ran through the next walk break, just minutes from the finish. I rounded the sharp corner to head down the ramp into the FirstOntario Centre and someone shouted, “Just 150 steps to go.”
I started to count my steps and couldn’t keep track. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other repeating to myself “perpetual forward motion, perpetual forward motion.” I could see the finish and I wanted to burst through with a triumphant surge of energy. Not so much. I crossed the mat and kept going off the arena floor to the food area.
A guy handed me a plastic bag and I opened it as I walked past the assembly line of apple juice box, granola bar, and crates of green bananas (like I mean bright green; I declined). At the end of the food line a woman congratulated me with a finishing medal and I sort of staggered over to a photographer who was taking post-race pictures against an official back-drop.
My legs wanted to stretch so badly and I saw lots of people on the ground stretching it out, but I knew that if I went to the floor I would never get back up again. I saw a chair and made my way over. Just before I got there someone scooped it up and took it to a woman who needed medical attention.
I ran into Sherry from my clinic. She’d run with her brother and they’d come in just a few minutes before me. I can’t remember what she said but in the middle of her talking to me I felt light-headed and needed to go. Granola bar. Bathroom break. Chair.
I took out my phone and asked someone to take a picture of me post-race. As you can see, I’m looking a little frazzled and wild but happy.
Chip time: 3:42:08