Race Report: Boston Half Marathon (Guest post)

For many runners, the Boston Marathon is the “holy grail” of marathons. Those of us for whom qualifying for Boston is a pipe dream must settle for something else. In my case, that something else was the Boston Half Marathon, which took place on Sunday, October 11.

While there is no qualifying time for the Boston Half Marathon, registering for the race was not a straightforward process. There were only 5,000 spots available through online registration—the first 2,000 participants were accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis and the remaining 3,000 were selected by a random lottery. I had noted the registration date in my calendar months ahead of time. By 10:00 a.m. on the day of registration, both my husband and I were sitting at our computers, fingers and credit cards ready. He completed his registration in four minutes and secured a spot in the first 2,000. The three extra minutes it took me to complete my registration landed me in the random selection pool with the rest of the slow-typers and double-checkers. But as luck would have it, my name was drawn in the lottery and we were off to the races!

Going into the race, we knew that it would be a hilly course so we incorporated a lot of hills into our training. The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes both the Boston Marathon and the Boston Half Marathon, provides a 12-week training program on their website with different versions for beginner, intermediate and advanced runners. We didn’t follow their program exactly but we did use it to set the distance for our weekly long runs and decide whether we should do hill or speed training (or both) that week.

For our runcation in Boston, we used AirBnB to find a place that was within walking distance to Franklin Park where the race starts and ends. After arriving on Saturday morning, we set out to the park to figure out where we would need to go for the race the next day. The walk from our AirBnB to the starting area turned out to be much shorter than expected! After lunch, we headed downtown to the Boston Marathon Adidas RunBase store to pick up our bibs and race shirts. The pick-up process went smoothly but I was disappointed that the shirts were unisex and a rather boring shade of grey. I had initially wanted to take it easy on Saturday by minimizing the amount of walking and maximizing our hydration and food intake. After an afternoon of exploring and shopping, we had covered almost 15 kilometers—so much for “taking it easy”!

The morning of the race we woke up, ate breakfast and got ready in time to make it to the starting area half an hour before the race began. The line up for gear check was long and chaotic so we didn’t have a lot of spare time to get to the start line and find our corrals. Unlike most races I’ve run in Canada, the Boston Half Marathon does not pre-assign runners to a start corral. Instead there were markers at the starting line indicating different paces (for example, 7:00–7:59 minutes/mile, 8:00–8:59 minutes/mile, etc…) and runners were expected to line up in the right corral according to their expected pace. That shouldn’t have been a problem except I always calculate my pace in minutes per kilometer. So I frantically tried to do some math in my head and slotted myself in with the 7:00–7:59 min/mile runners. It turns out that I’m not so good at doing math under pressure. With my normal pace of roughly 5:40/km, I should have actually been way in the 9:00–9:59 min/mile group. Oops.

Standing there waiting for the gun to go off, I reminded myself of my goals for this race: have fun and not get injured. I had been experiencing some pain in my left knee in the weeks prior to the race so I took a break from running in the week right before we came to Boston. Even so, I was nervous about how my knee would hold up with all the up- and downhill parts. Having accidentally surrounded myself with really fast runners and knowing there would be a big downhill in the first mile, I knew I would have to hold back to avoid going out too fast in the first part. I needed to save some energy for the second half of the race, which would be a slow, steady climb all the way to the finish line.

The course itself was very scenic, looping through the Emerald Necklace park system. The route took us through picturesque neighbourhoods, parks, ponds, a golf course, an arboretum and even a zoo! I also loved all the beautiful fall colours in the trees lining the route. There was a marker at every mile with a clock so I was able to check in on my pace regularly. There were also hydration stations roughly every two miles and a Clif Shot Energy Zone at mile six where volunteers handed out energy gels. Instead of downing my energy gel in one go, I held on to it and took a gulp every one and a half miles. That really helped me maintain consistent energy levels and a constant pace throughout the second half of the race.

Maybe it was the adrenaline or maybe it was all the hill training we did but the hills on the course were not actually all that bad. Sure, there were a lot of them but for the most part, they were short and not as steep as I had imagined them to be. About eight or nine miles into the race I suddenly realized that I hadn’t experienced any pain or discomfort in my knee, which was a huge confidence boost. At that point, I started thinking more about speed and beating my previous half marathon time. During the last two miles of the race, there were some downhill portions where I felt my toes jam against the front of my shoe. Thankfully, it wasn’t serious and I was able to ignore it and keep going.

The final kilometer of the race was a long downhill leading to the entrance of White Stadium where spectators were waiting and cheering in the stands. Heading into the final stretch, I knew that I was really close to matching or beating my previous time so I went full balls to the wall and sprinted all the way to the finish line. I finished in 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, beating my previous time by 1 minute and 24 seconds and setting a new personal best.

Overall, both my husband and I had a great time at the Boston Half Marathon. Everything in the lead up to the race and during the race was fantastic. The post-race refreshments made up one of the best spreads we have ever seen at a race. In addition to the standard bagels and bananas, there were full-sized Clif Bars, chips, pears and dried cranberries. There were even mini burgers and smoothies! Our only complaint was that gear check was too disorganized and not well staffed. There was a huge bottleneck at the start of the race with everyone trying to get a bag and tag from a volunteer. After the race, runners had to dig through a large pile of bags to find their gear because there were no volunteers to help retrieve your belongings. Even though everyone was trying to be really careful and tiptoe through the piles, we saw bags being stepped on and tossed around.

Has this race satisfied my desire to “run the Boston”? For now.

As elusive as it is, I would still love to run the Boston Marathon one day. Assuming that the qualification times don’t change and I can maintain my current pace for the next 22 years, I should be able to qualify for the Boston when I’m 50—something to look forward to!

betty

Betty is a science communicator living in Toronto. Her two proudest accomplishments are completing a full marathon without barfing and obtaining her Ph.D. She has an unhealthy obsession with pancakes and good deals. Luckily, her husband is very good at eating pancakes and finding creative storage solutions. In her spare time, Betty blogs at Eat, Read, Science where she writes about the latest and coolest science papers in a way that won’t make you fall asleep. You can follow her on Twitter at @BisousZou.

Race Report: Nike Women’s 15K Toronto (Guest Post)

Remember how excited I was to run the Nike Women’s Toronto 15km race? Well, I ran it on June 14th and boy, was it exciting! Let’s recap, shall we?

Pre-race

Can I start off by taking my hat off to Nike’s marketing and PR team? I think they created an excellent campaign to promote not just the race, but also the city of Toronto and the sport of running. A key part of this campaign was the Crystal Coliseum, a custom-built studio barge on Lake Ontario. That’s right. Nike built a floating training studio. During the race weekend, Nike’s Master Trainers were offering free classes to help runners get ready for the race. The Nike Womens Village also took over Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre next to the Crystal Coliseum. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it down to either the Crystal Coliseum or the Nike Womens but my research on Instagram tells me that there were plenty of sponsor stalls and Nike-branded photo opportunities.

I took advantage of the early packet pick up and was able to get my race shirt, bib and ferry ticket a week before the event. Since the race was taking place on Toronto’s Centre Island, all participants had to take a ferry from the “mainland” to the island. Our ferry assignments were based on our wave and start times so I couldn’t complain much about my 7:00 am ferry ticket.

The day before the race, I did my best to stay hydrated and load up on carbs. I realize that you probably don’t need to carbo-load that much for a 15 km race but it also happened to be my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday party that day. Eating a lot (of cake and pie) just seemed like the right thing to do, especially since I wasn’t drinking any alcohol.

In a break from tradition, I decided that I would wear the Nike race shirt for the actual race. I usually wear the race shirt from the last race I ran but for reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt the sense of community was stronger and more important for this race than for my previous races. Maybe I felt this way because it was my first women’s race or maybe Nike’s clever marketing campaign just really got to me. I also decided to run with my husband’s Garmin watch to help me pace myself. In the past, I’ve relied on either the Nike Plus app on my iPod, the loudness of my breathing, my husband or some combination thereof for pacing. I had done a few training runs with the Garmin and found it helpful so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Race morning

The morning of the race, I woke up at 6:00 am to get ready. That involved toasting a bagel and coating it with peanut butter, putting in contact lenses and changing into the race outfit that I had laid out the night before. Luckily, I don’t live too far away from the ferry terminal so I was able to bike there in about 20 minutes. After some initial confusion about whether my ferry ticket was grey or mint, I got into the right line and boarded the boat. Despite the crowds, everything was super organized and on time. While on the boat, I enjoyed a lovely breakfast with my peanut butter bagel and a spectacular view of the Toronto skyline.

I arrived on the island a full two hours ahead of my start time. Luckily, there was a lot to explore. I meandered by the food trucks selling breakfast and coffee (pre-race crepes, anyone?). I waited in line to take photos next to inspirational quotes about running (who doesn’t love a good inspirational quote?). I wandered around looking for free heat sheets and tattoos (found the heat sheets, no luck on the tattoos). The heat sheets were a great idea because the sky was overcast and there was a cool wind coming off the water. Because the island is a popular city-run recreational spot, there were lots of real washrooms which means I didn’t have to use any porta potties. I thought it was great that there were two lines formed at the washrooms: one line of all women for the women’s washroom and another line of women with a couple of guys mixed in waiting for the men’s washroom. There was also a warm up area where Nike trainers were leading warm up exercises to get everyone ready. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it over to the warm up area because I forgot about it and decided that I should conserve my energy and my legs.

Forty-five minutes before the race started, I checked my coat and bag, ate my energy bar and headed over to my start corral. After some dynamic stretches, I found a spot near the start of my wave and plopped myself down on the grass. And that’s when the rain started. In an effort to stay somewhat dry and warm, I opted for the futuristic space turtle look—wrapping myself completely in my silver heat sheet with just my face showing. As the rain grew from a drizzle to a downpour, I started to get nervous because I really really don’t like running with wet feet. There is nothing worse than the squelching noises wet socks make as water gets squished out of them with every step. Instead of thinking about all that unpleasantness, I focused on the Nike running coach giving a pep talk and the announcers, who were introducing the elite athletes that would be participating in the run. These included Paula Findlay, a Canadian triathlete who is the only woman to win consecutive world championships; Marlen Esparza, the first American woman to qualify for women’s boxing at the Olympics; and Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champion. Knowing that I would be sharing the course with these phenomenal athletes and 10,000 other runners from 24 different countries really got me pumped up and ready to go.

The Race

The 15 km course took us along the edge of the entire island so we always had Lake Ontario in sight. There were some really beautiful spots along the course where literally, the entire city of Toronto was behind us. We were running on many different types of terrain—paved road, sidewalk, boardwalk, beach, grass, and oh yeah, airport runway. Three kilometers into the race, we turned into Billy Bishop Airport on Centre Island and ran the next 1.5 km on an actual airport runway. Two planes took off while I was out there. It was exhilarating and terrifying. We also got to run through the little neighbourhood of Hanlon’s Point where people live year-round on the island. With the exception of a small bridge, the course was flat and fast. There were lots of volunteers and signs directing us which way to go. Some parts of the route were pretty narrow compared to running on the road for a typical race. There were spots where giant puddles narrowed the course even more. Passing was definitely a challenge on this race. I found myself weaving more than usual and occasionally having to really slow down because I couldn’t get around another runner. Due to the number of runners and the narrowness of the paths, we never really thinned out. But I didn’t feel crowded either so it was ok.

Luckily, the rain stopped shortly after my wave started and the skies stayed clear for the rest of the run. There were also a lot of spectators and volunteers cheering us on. I definitely fed off their energy and picked up my speed as I approached cheering stations. I think my favourite cheering station was the gospel choir that was singing upbeat and joyous hymns outside a little chapel. There was also a confetti canon close to the end, which sadly did not go off when I ran by.

My initial plan was to power through the entire race and not lose time at water stations. I skipped the first water station at 3 km and realized a few minutes later that I was thirsty. By that point the sun had come out and the humidity was setting in. Remembering my not-so-great performance at the hot and muggy Sporting Life 10k earlier in May, I opted to visit each of the remaining water stations at 6k, 9k, and 12k. Despite the water breaks and weaving in and out, I maintained a pretty consistent pace, thanks in part to the Garmin. Five hundred meters before the finish line, I started to pick up my pace for a sprint to the end. Then I saw my husband with the camera up ahead so I slowed down for pictures. I still sprinted across the finish line though.

Post-race

This was the first race in which I’ve participated where there was neither a bagel nor a banana waiting for me at the finish line. That is my only complaint about the event. My recovery snack bag consisted of an apple, a snack size bag of potato chips, a granola bar, some trail mix and a little bag of dried cranberries. Maybe Nike’s target group is predominantly gluten-free and low carb but I am definitely not one of those people, especially after running 15 km. My bagel disappointment was quickly forgotten, however, when I saw the unmistakable blue boxes being handed out to the finishers. As promised, all finishers received a specially designed Tiffany and Co. necklace engraved with “Nike Women’s 15k Toronto 2015” on the back. The pendant is actually something that I would wear on a day-to-day basis unlike the rest of my finisher’s medals, which have been relegated to a shoebox.

After taking some photos, we left the island quickly because it had started to rain again. Biking back in the rain was not very fun but we made it home in one piece.

So after all the hype and the expensive registration fee, was the Nike Women’s 15k Toronto worth it? Yes! It was fun, well organized and really brought out a sense of community. Would I do it again? Yes! Hopefully, in a different city.

While I was huddled under my heat sheet waiting for the race to start, the Nike running coach said something that stayed with me for the entire race: run this race not just for yourself, but for all the people who can’t run and for all the people who think they can’t run. I used to be one of those people and now I’ve just completed a 15 km race while setting a new personal best. Take that, old me!

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Betty is a science communicator living in Toronto. Her two proudest accomplishments are completing a full marathon without barfing and obtaining her Ph.D. She has an unhealthy obsession with pancakes and good deals. Luckily, her husband is very good at eating pancakes and finding creative storage solutions. In her spare time, Betty blogs at Eat, Read, Science where she writes about the latest and coolest science papers in a way that won’t make you fall asleep. You can follow her on Twitter at @BisousZou.

Run like a girl: My journey to the Nike Women’s Toronto 15K race (Guest post)

I am a runner. It took me a long time to be able to say that. When I started running eight years ago, I would always say that I was going for a jog, even if that jog was 5 km. “Just going to jog for a few minutes on the treadmill.” “I’m heading out for a jog around the block.” It took getting a few races under my belt before I was able to reconcile my image of myself as chubby, uncoordinated kid with the less chubby, slightly more coordinated runner I had become. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s part of the reason that I’m taking part in the Nike Women’s Toronto 15k race.

The Nike Women’s Toronto 15k race takes place on June 14th on Toronto Islands. This race is part of the Nike Women’s Race Series and marks the first time that the race is coming to Canada. While the race is marketed towards women, Nike is very clear to point out on their website that men are welcome to participate as well. To sign up, participants were entered into a random draw for one of 15,000 spots. I serendipitously got around this by registering as a student (hooray!). With a $120 registration fee ($100 for students), this is definitely the most expensive race that I have ever signed up for. Am I a sucker for falling for Nike’s brilliant marketing ploys? Probably.

Not a lot of details have been released about the race but if it’s anything like the popular Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco, it will be a weekend-long celebration of women and athleticism. Rumour has it that instead of a finisher’s medal, runners will get a custom-designed Tiffany & Co. finisher’s necklace. I guess that’s where all of our registration fees are going. Participants in San Francisco loved the race so much, they felt compelled to review it on Yelp! Honestly, what other race has it’s own Yelp! review page? (In case you’re wondering, the event has an average rating of four stars out of five based on 342 reviews.) With all this hype, much of which is admittedly self-generated, I am expecting great things from this race. Hopefully, it won’t disappoint.

Back to my reason for running this race – when I started running, I didn’t really enjoy it. I did it mostly because my best friend at the time desperately needed a running buddy for her long marathon training runs. So I would tie on my old cross-trainers and meet her at our predetermined spot. She would run at a slower pace to accommodate me and carry on a one-sided conversation while I silently reminded myself to breath. And at the end of the five or six kilometers, she would leave me gasping by the road somewhere and continue on for another 15 or 20 km. Looking bad, I was a pretty awful running buddy.

Since then, I have completed a number of 10 km races, three half-marathons, two 30 km races, and as of this past fall, one full marathon. Somewhere along the way, I became a runner. I am running this race to celebrate me. With each race, I’m surprised by how far I can push myself and what I can achieve with dedication and practice. This expensive, indulgent, slightly too girly Nike Women’s Race is my treat to myself. After all the toenails I’ve lost over the years, I think I deserve a pampering run.

When I cross the finish line on June 14th, I hope to set a new personal best. After all, that’s what “running like a girl” means, isn’t it? So bring on the speed training (yay!) and the hill training (boo!). Maybe there will be massages and pedicures waiting at the finish line. My feet will be a mess.

betty

Betty is a science communicator living in Toronto. Her two proudest accomplishments are completing a full marathon without barfing and obtaining her Ph.D. She has an unhealthy obsession with pancakes and good deals. Luckily, her husband is very good at eating pancakes and finding creative storage solutions. In her spare time, Betty blogs at Eat, Read, Science where she writes about the latest and coolest science papers in a way that won’t make you fall asleep. You can follow her on Twitter at @BisousZou.