From Starting “Wine” to Finish “Whine,” Niagara Women’s Half Marathon Gets It Right

niagara falls women's half marathon 21.1 logoReaders of the blog will know how much I like women’s events. So I was pretty excited when Anita (my Scotiabank Half Marathon partner, local running buddy, and longtime friend) and I signed up for the Niagara Women’s Half Marathon way back in the late winter.  And I got more and more stoked as our road trip approached.

Race day was Sunday and we left for Niagara Falls, Ontario, on Saturday late morning. The plan — pick up our race kits, eat something, head to the outlet mall for some shopping, check in to the hotel, chill, eat again, sleep.  It all went to plan but for the “chill” part. Somehow the day got away from us and the next thing we knew it was 8 p.m. and we were just getting started on our appetizers.

Both of us were strangely calm the night before.  No nerves. No real worries other than that we might be a bit cold in the morning if we got there as early as they suggested (6:30 for an 8 a.m. start!).  So we decided we’d aim to get there by around 7:15 instead, and it was only 15 minutes from the hotel, so if we left at 7 a.m. no problem, right?

Not quite. When there are 4000 entrants and one road into the parking lot and no shuttle buses from the hotels, that’s a lot of vehicles trying to get to the same place.  15 minutes turned into 30 and eventually we got to the venue. If they’d said to get there early to avoid being stuck in traffic we might have listened. But they said get there early to hear the music and use the port-a-potties.

The event advertises their famous port-a-potties, each with a bouquet of flowers in it. They had a higher ratio of port-a-potties per competitors than usual because research shows that women take longer in the loo than men. They kind of overstated the awesomeness of these things. It’s true that the one I went into had a pot of flowers setting in the urinal. But that was about all that was different about it.

So with that out of the way and a few pre-race pics, we went to find our spot at the “Start Wine.”  Yes, that’s not a typo.  Niagara is a wine region after all. And there was even a bottle of wine in the race kit (meaning that Anita scored double the fun because I don’t drink). So we made our way to the Start Wine with less than 10 minutes to go.

Niagara Women's Half Marathon Start Wine

Niagara Women’s Half Marathon Start Wine

There we met several women from a lively, fun, and very well-represented group from the US called Black Girls Run. With 400 from various chapters across the US, they made up 10% of the total competitors in the race. Many had t-shirts and head bands with their smile-inducing slogan: “preserve the sexy.”

With the sun out, we weren’t cold at all and in fact we both felt relieved that we didn’t load ourselves down with heavier clothes or throw-away sweaters or, in Anita’s case, capris instead of shorts.

The pre-race energy filled the air and the race announcer did a great job of getting everyone excited.  Then “O Canada,” a count-down, and we were off.  It took us just over three minutes to get across the start wine from where we were in the crowd.

Our race strategy was to do intervals of 10 minutes running, 30 seconds walking for as long as we could, switching to 10-1 intervals when 30 seconds started to feel too short.

niagara falls

Instead of giving a full report, I’m going to give some highlights:

1. We did indeed, as advertised, get to run past the Falls twice, both times during the first 5K which was an out-and-back from the Rapidsview parking lot, along the Niagara Falls Parkway to the base of Clifton Hill and back. We got some mist from the Falls, which felt lovely, and we also got to see the leaders of the race as they reached the turnaround and headed back our way.

2. There was a lot of crowd support all along the route. There were also all sorts of musical acts, including a marching band, a string duo playing a cello and a violin, a solo harpist, a solo sax player.

3. When the route looped back sort of past where we started, Kathrine Switzer was in the middle of the road high-fiving everyone she could. If you don’t know who she is, she is the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, way back in 1967. And she’s pretty darn amazing. I didn’t realize it was her but Anita had done her homework and told me that we’d just high-fived Kathy Switzer.

4. The course continued along the upper part of the Niagara River, across a bridge, and then followed a road for quite a distance all along the bank on the other side of the river until another turnaround.  Again, the second out and back made for exciting times when the lead racers, Stephanie and Dale, came blasting past us in the other direction, making their way to the finish wine, where they would arrive more than an hour before we did!

5. I’m not sure if it’s because I recently did a marathon, which seemed just endless, or if it was just my mood, but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the kilometre markers.  We made a note, but it wasn’t until about the last 6K that I was constantly doing the mental calculations about how close we were to the end. With 5K to go I still felt pretty good, even though I knew we were off pace.

6. We got off pace fairly early. We’d wanted to keep our pace to 7 minutes a km, but early on we took a quick bathroom break, which of course added some time, and then once we crossed to the other side of the river there were some long, treeless stretches in the blazing sun. We didn’t talk a lot during those stretches. In fact, we didn’t talk as much as we usually do in general. For my part, I was soaking in the vibe — there was a lot of high energy and encouragement from the sidelines and from the other women. It felt good. But it felt more like a fun run than a race. Anita and I had both agreed ahead of time that we weren’t going to get too caught up in the pace and our time. We just wanted to enjoy ourselves.

7. Nutrition and hydration. I planned better this time, keeping my shot blocks in a pocket pouch rather than risking losing them from the loop of my fuel belt like I did in the dreaded Mississauga Marathon (more than a month out and I’m still committed to “never again”). I ate one block every 20 minutes or so. About an hour into it I started to feel a little bit light-headed. Despite not having experimented with Powerade before the event, I accepted it when offered at the water stations and also took some water. In that long hot stretch without trees, I took extra water and poured it into my hat. Anita by that point was dumping the water on her head.

8. My wall came at around 18K, with just 3.1K to go. What is that no matter what the distance, the last fraction of it always seems hard.  When I did the Around the Bay 30K and the Mississauga Marathon, up to 22K was no problem. But Sunday, 18-21.1 challenged me.  By then, we were taking our full minute for the walk breaks, or adding walk breaks before the 10 minutes were up, or taking a walk break and then walking through the water stations. Anita and I checked in with each other from time to time to see if the other was okay. We both said we were but later she admitted that she was struggling in the last little bit as well.

9.  The finish wine (probably best called the “finish WHINE”) was just around the bend forever! I really felt like we weren’t ever going to arrive at the end. But the next thing I knew, I could see it about 200m away. I said to myself, you run this short distance all the time. Keep going, keep going, keep going.  And then we were crossing the mat. And then the firefighters (yes! firefighters!) were putting the medals around our necks. And someone handed each of us a cool washcloth (yes, a cool, damp washcloth! what luxury). And we made our way to collect our boxed snack of a banana, an apple, and two cookies wrapped in tissue paper, and drinks.

We walked past a line-up of women waiting for FREE post-race massages. And then there was a seating area with a bunch of banquet tables set up with white table cloths and centre-pieces — definitely the most elegant post-race set-up I’ve ever seen.

Niagara post-race set upIt was the kind of set-up that made you want to hang around.  Which we did — long enough to see the overall and age-group winners collect their prizes, long enough to check our race results. And stretch and bask in the sense of accomplishment that running 21.1K brings no matter how long it took.

10. As Anita said on social media, we each achieved a PW — personal worst! It was my second half marathon, and I came in 11 minutes slower than the last one. But it was immeasurably more fun and relaxing.

I’m going to let Anita have the last word about the Niagara Women’s Half Marathon:

The Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon was an amazing race. Maybe one of the best I’ve ever done. Great swag bag that included a bottle of wine! There were about 4000 people (so not too big not too small), it was well organized with a beautiful route and lots of spectators and local musicians (sax player, harpist, marching band, other bands at various points along the route). One water station included someone with a hose spraying a mist out to cool us down bc it was so friggin hot. Really great, supportive atmosphere. A special shout out to the BGR contingent (Black Girls Run) – 400 women from all over the US wearing shirts with their awesome logo “Preserve the Sexy”. Despite running a PW (personal worst!!), Tracy and I had a brilliant time.

If you are interested in doing this race next year (June 5, 2016) the early bird registration before June 30th is only $68. Here’s the link.

Niagara post-race medal

Tracy’s First Half Marathon: A Whole Lot of Fun

Biting into my medal at lunch after the race.

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.

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.

Race Day

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.

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.

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.

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.

Time: 2:29:13