The Harriet Tubman Medal and a Whole Lot More: A Charmed Weekend at the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon

From right to left: Rebecca, Anita, Julie, Helia, Violetta, Tracy. Bite that medal!

From right to left: Rebecca, Anita, Julie, Helia, Violetta, Tracy. Bite that medal!

Call it one of the best weekends EVER. I had the most fabulous time at the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon on Sunday with a small crew of the most awesome women! You can see our pre-race reflections here. It’s a well-run event that caters to women in (mostly) positive ways. Yes, there is some gender stereotyping–from the flowers in the port-a-potties (but I’m actually not going to complain because the two times I went before the race, they were the cleanest, least disgusting port-a-potties I’ve ever taken a pre-race pee in) to make-up and wine in the swag bag. Excuse my apparent need to comment on the port-o-potties, but I’ve never seen pink ones before.

popsWhen we do a pre-race collective reflection, I like to follow it with a post-race collective reflection. I hope you get a fuller picture from reading the collective thoughts than you would from my report alone.  I apologize in advance for being in an embarrassingly large number of the photos in this post.

Rebecca

The race was charmed, as far as I am concerned, and lulled me into what is surely a false sense of what I can accomplish. Coolish  cloudy weather, with the rain letting up for exactly the length of the run, a flat, beautiful course, great company, and well-managed sleeping and eating all added up to my beating my ‘hoped for but probably unrealistic’ time by almost four minutes, and finishing the race without ever feeling like I was pushing my limits. I keep having to remind myself of all my terrible, painful, ragey, slow running days so that I don’t run off and sign up for a full marathon. The most glorious part was that I was running along thinking, “I’m taking it easy and not pushing it because I need my strength for the later parts, keep it cool,” and suddenly I realized I was at 15 km and only had a bit more than a 5K left to go! So I did that last 6.1 km with almost all my strength left to use, and burned through it, passing multiple ‘pace bunnies’ along the way (more on that below). I even sprinted the last kilometer, and sprinted across the finish!

Rebecca at the finish, after busting out a faster result than she'd expected.

Rebecca at the finish, after busting out a faster result than she’d expected.

All of us carbo-loaded the night before in a fantastic and hospitable Italian restaurant – a gem among a sea of all-you-can-eat bland buffets and chain restaurants filled with miserable families. I am used to having to weigh in before competitions, so for me, running while full, carbed up, and properly hydrated and nutrition-filled was a unique wonderful treat… until the 12th kilometer, when I ended up wasting just a hair under four minutes in a disgusting port-a-potty, miserably watching the seconds tick by. Screw you, body. There. Now you all know my grossest and most personal moment.

Did you know about ‘pace bunnies’? I didn’t. They have actual giant bunny ears and run the race with a big sign saying how long they will take, so you can just pick your pace and stick with them and not worry about modulating. What a great service! And here is the actual secret to my quicker- than-expected finish: After I passed the 2:20 pace bunny I got excited and started trying to catch up with the 2:15 bunny. But no matter how much I sped up, I couldn’t find her! One the one hand, I was thinking, “That’s fine, I can’t catch her – I will come in at 2:17 or 2:18, which is slightly better than I expected.” On the other hand I was going faster and faster, frustrated that I couldn’t find the f**ing bunny. Then I crossed the finish line at 2:11 and was told I had passed her several kilometers back and hadn’t noticed. So the disappearing bunny did great things for my run time in the end, though not by functioning as intended.

I know it sounds hokey, but truly, the greatest moment was reconvening with the gang on the other end, realizing we’d ALL had a great race, and feeling jointly on top of the world. For months I have been saying that this is the ONE time I am doing a half, just to say I did it, but…

Violetta

Wow, I finished a half marathon!  And I’ve got a Harriet Tubman medal to prove it! 12 weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.  Though I’m a little stiff and sore today (the day after), I’m amazed at what my body can do.  I had similar thoughts after giving birth to my daughters.  It makes me realize that I spend way too much time being critical of and ungrateful for my various accomplishments.  So in that spirit I am allowing myself to revel a little in this achievement.  When I first committed to this race, my initial goal was merely to finish (and not get injured).  The great thing about running your first race is that no matter how long you take, you achieve a PB (personal best).  Well, I finished in 2:12 which far exceeded my hopes.  Part of that is thanks to my amazing training partner, Diana, who motivated and pushed me along the way.

Violetta and Tracy showing off our Harriet Tubman Medals at the finish line.

Violetta and Tracy showing off our Harriet Tubman Medals at the finish line.

The event itself was a great experience–seeing 2000 women of various ages at various levels of fitness enthusiastic and ready to embark on an incredible physical feat.  Our spirits were tested at 6:30am on a cool, windy and rainy morning.  But that wasn’t going to get us down!  Once the race started I quickly warmed up and focused on staying mentally and physically strong.  I got a boost when I saw my sister and two cousins at the turn around at Clifton Hill just past the Falls (thanks for the support and the “Igneskis rule” sign!).  You couldn’t ask for better scenery—running past the Canadian and American Falls, along the Niagara River, taking in the beautiful flowers and trees.  By about the 18k mark, I started talking to myself A LOT—things like “you can do it” and “just take it 1 km at a time”.  The last few kilometers were certainly a challenge but I didn’t expect it to be a walk in the park.  All of that contributed to the sense of accomplishment I’m feeling.

Thanks to Tracy for the encouragement!  It was great to have a chance to talk about my pre-race jitters and revel in the post-race success with the great group of women Tracy assembled (especially Anita, Julie and Rebecca).  The camaraderie of the entire event was quite remarkable as the participants cheered each other on the whole way.

And while it is little early to commit, I am thinking about doing this again.  I’ll take a little break for now and consider another race for the fall. I love the feeling of being proud of myself and having my family proud of me, especially seeing my daughters being amazed at what their mother can do (though they did ask if I finished first or second!).

I’d like to end by encouraging others to try something they think they could never do—sometimes you just surprise yourself.  And that is a really great feeling.

Anita

The Niagara Women’s Half Marathon was an extremely organized event with a great swag bag that included local wine and other goodies. More than that, it has somehow cultivated just the right amount of spirit – just enough rah rah rah without being over the top embarrassing. Along the route there were local bands (and a harp player!), orange slices and a make up station for the final sprint and picture (ok that was a bit weird).  And this year I noticed more people on the sidewalk cheering us on with great signs (“who ever said long and hard was a bad thing?”). I hope it never gets to be too big because the size is just right too. About 4,000 women, with a large contingent from the US, keeps things friendly. The vibe is supportive, with everyone calling out words of encouragement (“you got this, Tracy!”).

For me, a personal best has little to do with time. Every race I do is about training better regardless of outcome. It’s more about better running-focused health. When I first started running I simply want to move ‘the wall’ further along; I didn’t want to feel dead at the 16K mark, or the 18K mark, or the 20K mark. Or I wanted to add other elements to my training. So for this run I did hit a personal best because I incorporated more cross-training in my workouts, e.g., I did a capoeira class, I discovered yin yoga, etc. Of course I’m pleased that I was very close to my actual PB but I’m downright thrilled about my training improvement. Perhaps for the next half marathon I might focus on better nutrition. Honestly, I don’t care much about the actual time.

Anita and Tracy high-fiving after crossing the finish line ahead of the 2:30 pace bunny!

Anita and Tracy high-fiving after crossing the finish line ahead of the 2:30 pace bunny!

What stood out for me in this race was how helpful the pace bunny actually was. I am not a data girl, which means I don’t have a Garmin but rather I depend on how I’m breathing or feeling to gauge my performance during a run. Unexpectedly we ended up beside the 2:30 pace bunny at the start of the race. At first I didn’t think much of it, but about halfway through she got me to step up my game as I realized she was passing us (more likely, I was slowing down without noticing). So yeah to the pace bunny!

I can’t go without mentioning our running squad. These ladies were amazing. They made everything so FUN, even when we were being over-analytical about every possible detail that could go wrong. From the pre-race meal, to waiting for the start time, to the actual race and then the post-race de-briefing over breakfast, these ladies are the best. They bring the joy.

Helia

The Niagara half marathon, a lovely and memorable race.

I must admit I didn’t have very high expectations for the race when my alarm went off at 5:20 am. I was unusually nervous and felt tired and sluggish.However the minute I saw the pink port-a-potties, at the start, my mood changed. I found them to be hilarious and strangely inviting.

I started the race with the 2:10 bunny and quickly wished for Anita and her amazing ability to set ,and keep the pace. The pace bunny, albeit a very strong runner, wasn’t able to maintain a steady pace.  I knew I wasn’t going stay with her too much past 10 KM. As it would happen we parted ways way before, at the 6 KM mark. When I came across a runner who had fainted and was unable to continue. I must say my initial instinct was to keep going. I was on pace for a PB.  There were a lot of people around, I was sure (or hoped) someone else would stop and see to her. So I carried on.  Then I guess I had a moment of truth and turned around and called 911.  It ended up being a very frustrating 12 minute conversation with the operator as I tried to convey our location. However,  an  ambulance did come ( eventually) and I was able to carry on.

To start again after a 15 minute break was harder than I would’ve thought. My legs felt stiff and, I had forgotten to stop my watch so I had lost track of time. This was surprisingly upsetting and demoralizing.  That all changed when I saw Anita, Julie and Tracy way ahead of their 2:30 bunny.  They looked so strong and confident, that I started running faster to catch up to them. I managed to surprise them, and vented a bit of frustration before setting off to try to recover some of the lost time.

The remainder of the race was a mental game for me.  I set 5 minute  goals for myself so I wouldn’t slow down. The last 100 meters was unusually difficult.  I like to sprint to the finish, but not this time, I was spent. Hearing my name over the loud speaker was the perfect distraction to get me across the finish line.  I had no idea what my time was, but at that moment I didn’t really care. I was just so delighted to have finished the race. I love the feeling as you cross the finish line, it’s as if nothing else matters. It’s the most incredible sense of accomplishment.

Niagara women’s half marathon is one for the books. Thank you to the fantastic ladies who shared this day with me.  Anita, Tracy, Julie, Violetta and Rebecca I am in awe  of your results.

You are amazing!!

Cheers!!

Julie

So first a bubble of positivity! Another half marathon under my belt and this is absolutely amazing so yay me! I need to say that my partners in crime Anita and Tracy you two are an amazing inspiration and if you don’t think of yourselves as extreme athletes well you need to re-evaluate! Both of you carried me through, kept me going and carried me to the end! Rebecca – out of my league, and I learned another valuable lesson that in spite of the fact that I can, doesn’t mean I should (seems to be a pattern in my life!) However, I was grateful to be able to run and challenge myself with another amazing athlete.

Julie at the starting line. That's Rebecca with the ear buds, Anita with the grey shirt and white cap.

Julie at the starting line. That’s Rebecca with the ear buds, Anita with the grey shirt and white cap.

The Women in this race were of every race, shape, and age. There were Women from across the continent all there to celebrate and challenge themselves with such energy that at times I was overwhelmed and in fact I still feel a bit teary thinking of how all these women were supporting and carrying each other. I also must add I was able to learn a bit about Harriet Tubman and her amazing heroics with the underground railroad. I reflected on this during the race and the courage and fear that must have filled this woman as she followed her heart and tried to save people who were complete strangers.

The weather was perfect and the Falls, well, they performed the usual grand finale!

The downside to this race was me! I felt more anxious around this race and the travel, early time and lack of a fridge was not helpful. Add in an essay due and a busy work week coming up I was left a bit more stressed than normal! However, I did get up and did get there on time and in somewhat good form!  Starting off strong and feeling good I took off like a bolt of lightning and moved well past the pace bunny, ill-advised for the future. Rebecca kept me going strong and I was up past the 6 km mark in good form and decided to let Rebecca move on ahead, fearing that I had used up all my reserves on the front end. My feet started to hurt and I truly needed to use the washroom, early morning runs have never agreed with my system and I have not been able to figure that out. I kept on plugging and had some water at the stations and attempted to stop once for the ‘potties’ but the lineup was long so I moved on. I believe Anita and Tracy came up behind me around the 12 km mark and I was grateful for their company. Then Helia came up with her amazing spunk and energy to share the story of her 15 minute delay and the inability of the 911 operator to understand location. All of this was a well needed distraction.

However, by the 18 km mark I was struggling and really needed a washroom. My feet were hurting in a strange way and this was not helping my plight. Anita and Tracy moved on ahead and I kept up a strategy of run walk just above the 2:30 pace bunny! This worked but I will be honest I did not finish strong and was not feeling well at all. Not my strongest race, I was proud of my 2:29 time, my goal is always just to finish.

What I was grateful for were the amazing women, strangers to me, that told me I was going with them and encouraged me and when I slowed at the 100 meter mark in the wind tunnel of death (because that is what it was with no exaggeration) another woman touched my arm and said ‘we are doing this together don’t stop you’ve got this!’ I don’t know who she was but I know I have been that person. So in the end it was amazing – I know that Running is a community of people who often pass each other on the path with ‘good mornings’, smiles or waves. This race reminded me that even in my hard and most challenging times in a race, or in life, there is always someone there to carry you through. It doesn’t matter if its your amazing run buddies (Tracy and Anita I mean you) or Random strangers that pull you through. Running is a parallel to life and in spite of the challenges it’s what you get out of it and learn that truly counts!

Tracy

I’m a sucker for events with other women, especially when I get to go with a little posse of my very own — built in support and inspiration from a group of women I feel privileged to know and get to spend time with. Lucky me. From Rebecca and Violetta knocking it out of the park to surpass their own expectations, to doing an event with my amazing training “homies” Anita and Julie, to the heroic Helia (who sacrificed her own likely personal record waiting with a collapsed runner and trying to explain to 911 where on the course they were), the women I was with made my day. That’s what it’s all about.

But enough about them! People, I got a personal best on Sunday! Woo hoo! I felt totally relaxed going into the event. I worried that it might keep raining. We had a few drops before the race started. But then it held off for the duration, resuming again only once we’d all crossed the line.

Waiting to start -- 2:30 pace bunny in view.

Waiting to start — 2:30 pace bunny in view.

I started out with the 2:30 pace bunny in view, and the goal of keeping her there. That was the time we’d discussed in advance and that Anita and I committed to. But then, I got caught up in the moment and for the first few kilometers, I stuck with Julie and Rebecca, who slowly pulled ahead of the 2:30 pacer. Anita wisely stayed with the bunny. And at the first turnaround, only about 4K into the course, I dropped back to join her. I had no intention of spending myself so early in the game.

We eventually caught up with Julie just past the halfway point. Rebecca was nowhere to be seen. Violetta I knew was well ahead of me. We’d lost Helia after the first turnaround.  Then we heard her coming up behind us, which made no sense because she’d set out for a 2:05 finish. That’s when she ran with us long enough to tell us about her 911 delay. Then she trotted off ahead to lay it out so she could make up some of her lost time.

I felt strong for the first 18K, sticking diligently to the 10-1 run-walk intervals that I’m used to from my training. I neither shortened the walk breaks in the early part of the race nor lengthened them towards the end (which can happen if I go out too fast). In the back end of the long out and back of the second half of the race, I had enough energy to call out to the women who hadn’t yet reached the turnaround and looked to be struggling. I love races with people’s names big on the bib so you can cheer them on and encourage them.

Tracy, already about to explode with excitement, sets a personal record for the half marathon distance!

Tracy, already about to explode with excitement, sets a personal record for the half marathon distance!

But then at 18K I felt the need to conserve my energy. At 19K, Anita put on her music and I went into a focused zone where I hauled out the encouraging self-talk so I could power through the last 2K without another walk break. I didn’t feel capable of going into high gear for a final sprint, but I felt set on coming in ahead of that pace bunny.

I managed a little burst for the final 100m or so. Anita and I crossed the finish line together at 2:26:35. For me, that was a personal best that told me my training has paid off.

The exuberant camaraderie at the finish line just added to the awesomeness of the day. And now we’re scheming about Toronto or Prince Edward County in October, the Florida Keys in January, and the Ottawa Race weekend next May.

Yes, we had a fun day -- can you tell?

Yes, we had a fun day — can you tell?

 

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

13 thoughts on “The Harriet Tubman Medal and a Whole Lot More: A Charmed Weekend at the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon

  1. Oh, I’ve sworn I’d never do a half. But you guys had so much fun. My friend Mary also had her personal best time. Ooooohhhhhh. . .I wanna, but. . .I hate running. . . .ahhhh, conflict!!!!!

    Like

  2. Megan says:

    Congrats to you all! Looks like such a fun experience!

    Like

  3. rebeccakukla says:

    I was going to say, everyone was so positive! But in fact, everyone but me was so positive. Everyone else was like, this will be so fun! We will all be awesome! And I was the one going, “I am made of nothing but rage and self-loathing. I will die.” So, er… thanks for lifting me up ladies! And I hope my dose of pessimism and self-doubt didn’t bring anyone down. 🙂

    Like

  4. catherine w says:

    What a great post to read, and what a great day y’all had! Sorry to have missed it. Maybe I’ll train for swift-walking it next year. Sam? Would you do it with me?

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  5. I read your blog on the NFHM site! Wonderful! I wanted to come give a shout out to Helia!! I also stopped for the downed runner (I was the Emergency Room Physician Assistant from the US at her head cooling her down). Although we both gave up our PRs, we helped our fellow women, and that’s what this race was about! Great job ladies!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Emily says:

    I don’t know if you check the comments on old posts, but I just wanted to say that I’ve been reading through the Fit and Feminist archives, and your accounts of this race have inspired me to sign up for it this year! I’ve been slowly increasing my running distances over the last few months (from 5k to, most recently, 16k) and am really excited to have an event – my first ever half-marathon – to train for!

    Like

    • Sam B says:

      Nice! (And we don’t check them but we do get notifications.)

      Like

    • Tracy I says:

      Fantastic! And I heard they’re featuring Harriet Tubman again this year, which is great too. You will have so much fun. It’s a great first race to do because of all the different levels of runners and even walkers. More about fun and finishing than competition. Have a great race and enjoy the training! Let us know how it goes.

      Like

      • Emily says:

        I’m back with an update – it went well! Despite some digestive issues (not sure what the problem was – maybe I pushed a little too hard, or drank too much water/powerade at the stations?), I finished in 2:07:02 – three minutes faster than my ambitious goal time of 2:10. It’s funny – for the past couple of weeks, I was feeling ready to be done with training for this event (I like running, but those long Sunday runs were taking big chunks out of my weekends!). Now that I’ve seen how well my first race went, though, I’m already tempted to try again! For this race, I didn’t really follow a structured training plan or do any dedicated speedwork. With the right training, I feel like there could be a sub-2:00 half marathon in my future.

        We were promised rain (it turned out to be more of an occasional sprinkle), which diluted the party atmosphere somewhat – no drum line or marching band for me! – but made for great running weather. The not-too-serious vibe of the race was still pleasant, even if there was less music en route. And while some of the women’s empowerment messages felt a little over-the-top (this year’s race shirt literally has “EMPOWERED” written in big letters across the front), I did feel very special and excited to be a part of this event. In many of my sports (I also play ultimate frisbee and go indoor bouldering), I look to strong, athletic women for inspiration, so it seems appropriate that I ran my first half marathon in a race that celebrated women of all ages and ability levels.

        Liked by 2 people

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