I love everything about riding the subway. I love being part of a public transit system. I love dropping down into the depths of a city in one spot and popping back up in another. I love to people watch. Mostly, I love immersing myself in the great sea of humanity. On the subway, I feel the deep connection that binds humans as we hurtle toward our various destinations, material and existential.
Lately I’ve been reading philosopher Kimberlee Brownlee, who argues that social connection is a fundamental human right. We need to be able to rely on others and to know that we can support them, in turn. Among other social dynamics, Brownlee describes to the “micro-moments” of connection that support our physical and psychological well-being—the kind of connection made by body language, for instance, that signals friendliness or kindness. Brownlee’s work dovetails with the work of psychologists and physicians such as Vivek Murthy, whose recent study, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, documents the costs of loneliness to human health and community. Research shows that we need to sustain a variety of relationships—from intimate partnerships to community bonds—to avoid the deadly effects of social isolation.
Which takes me back to the subway and on to the New York City Marathon, which I ran last Sunday. I arrived in New York a nervous wreck, worried that the 26.2 mile distance would prove too much after a serious injury and three years of aging since my last marathon. The weather forecast predicted a race day far warmer than I like for any kind of distance. What if I didn’t finish? Etc. etc. etc. But the moment I landed on the curb of Newark Airport, an alternative narrative unfolded alongside the story of failure that was running through my head. That other story, not mine, featured the young man who helped me figure out which platform to stand on for the train into the city. It involved the woman who looked up the C schedule for me when it seemed like my subway would never arrive at Penn Station and shouted “Good luck!” as she jumped on her A train. It was about all the folks on the street in Brooklyn where I came up into a beautiful fall evening, heading home or out for their meals at the end of the day. Across the river, the Manhattan skyline shone in all of its beauty. New York, and New Yorkers, were going to get me though this somehow.
How the Big Apple works this magic is what makes the New York City Marathon an experience like no other. The race starts on the majestic Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which links Staten Island to the south end of Brooklyn. Setting out with the other 10,000 runners in my wave, I felt part of something monumental, like the bridge itself. There was the rhythm of the marathon cadence, footfalls and breathing, and the views on either side stretching into the distance. As we descended from the quiet of the bridge I entered an alternate reality altogether, as the roar of the crowd waiting on the streets below reached up and pulled me into the beating heart of the neighbourhood.
I had been told that New Yorkers would line the streets of the course, that there would be bands and choirs and drummers. But nothing can prepare a runner for what awaits her on that route! It was like riding the subway: the whole world was there, jammed together for the journey. The shouts of encouragement, the signs (“This is For All the Women Runners!”), the bells and the whistles…. It was—how to say it?—something else. The route gave the marathon a rhythm, for me: through a borough, over a quiet bridge, back into the crowd. The long Queensboro bridge marked the beginning of the end, as we paced ourselves down onto First, where thousands lined the avenue leading up to the Bronx. Over another bridge, then over the last and back into Harlem, before the final climb up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park. Along the last stretch, flags from around the world lined the path to the finish line.
I can’t say why the marathon has become an unofficial holiday for New York. I can’t say why thousands and thousands of people, including my daughter, Hannah, from all over the globe, have decided that this is the day they should gather in the streets together. When I scanned the crowd for Hannah’s face, at mile eleven, I only saw one massive, cheerful crew, urging me on. All of those individuals were suddenly transformed into a collective body wanting one thing: movement forward.
We need a steady heart badly in these days of strife and pain. But it can’t be the heart of a solitary runner, striking out on her lonely path. Rather, the steady heart we need—that we have, if we know how to look for it—beats collectively, sustaining us over the miles that we all have to run, together, before we sleep.
Alison Conway lives and works in Kelowna, British Columbia, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan people.
[warning: this race report is interminably long–my apologies. TI]
Why do people run marathons? This thought flashed through my mind somewhere between 30 and 32K on Sunday, as I ran the Mississauga Marathon, my first full distance marathon ever. And quite possibly my last. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s one thing to be fast and cover these distances quickly, quite another to be slow and plod along for almost six hours. That takes its own special kind of underrated endurance.
I got to Mississauga the day before the event. The minute I got up to my hotel room I heard a baby crying in the adjacent room and another child who sounded like perhaps a toddler vying for parental attention. It took me about 30 seconds to assess the situation and call down to the front desk for another room. They obliged. Whew!
I had dinner plans with my friend, Vicki, and she got there just the second I got the new room. We did a quick shopping trip to the fancy Square One Mall, and then headed out in search of pasta. Alioli exceeded my expectations for what kind of Italian food I might find in a mall neighborhood of a Toronto suburb. You can feed me crusty white bread and Alioli’s jumbo ravioli stuffed with mushrooms and smothered in their marinara sauce every day.
After dinner we went for a walk because not only did we have a bit of time, but the weather was perfect as perfect can be on the weekend. We have suffered through the relentless winter and then soldiered further through what’s been a disappointing and unreliable spring. And this weekend the weather gods delivered on Environment Canada’s promise of “the nicest weekend so far.”
Catching up with Vicki and wandering around on a warm evening in late spring kept my mind off of the reason I was there: to run 42.2 km in the morning. As soon as we said good-night I fired up my laptop to check on some race details, like the exact location of the starting line, the frequency of water stations, and (though meaningless to me because I don’t know Mississauga at all), the route. The route looked unforgivingly long.
I made a decision about shoes, clothes, accessories and laid everything out on the other bed so I wouldn’t have any decisions in the morning. I wrote myself the following note: 6 a.m. eat breakfast, 6:15 shower, 6:45 make way to starting line for the 7:30 start.
Lights out. Unsettled night of sleep but no screaming children.
Rise and shine. I woke up feeling rested enough and pretty excited. Put my cereal together (something with Chia seeds and dried fruit and soy milk that works well for me as a pre-race meal and is easy to pack for travel). Ate. Showered. Dressed. The temperature was still on the cool side, around 11 degrees C, but warm enough that I didn’t need a throwaway sweater. I could leave in my running tank and shorts, not a problem.
When I got down to the lobby a few people were headed out to the starting line. This is the first time I’ve been to a race out of town where I knew no one. Gabbi, my triathlon coach, and Miriam and Mary, both from the club, were all in town but I didn’t have a plan to meet up with them and the starting line is kind of chaotic anyway. Not knowing anyone can be both lonely and liberating. I experienced both as I walked to the starting area and waited for the race to begin.
I had one main plan: to cross the finish line. My longest run ever before Sunday was 30K, so it’s not as if I fully trained for the marathon. That kind of concerned me, but I knew that even if I had to slow down considerably, I would be able to get to the end.
My other bits of strategy included turning off the pace and distance fields from my Garmin so it would only show me how long I’d been out there. This was so I could do it more intuitively. I knew there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about pace. I knew that at a certain point it would be enough just to keep moving forward. I thought that being hyper aware of my pace might feel demoralzing. Gabbi agreed and suggested that the only reason even to use the Garmin at all on race day was to have a data record to analyze later.
I set the Garmin to 10-1 intervals and committed to sticking to them. Gabbi had suggested doing water station intervals instead, that is, run between the aid stations and then walk through them. But with the stations being 4km apart and my pace being in the 7-7:30 km range, I thought that would deviate too far from how I’d been training. That might be something for another day.
I felt like a pack mule trying to fit all of my nutrition into my fuel belt and another little pocket thing I had. I stuffed one package of shot bloks, some coconut covered dates, and a cliff bar in the pocket thing, 2 vega gels in my fuel belt zipper pocket, and slid another package of shot blocks into this elastic loop on the outside of the fuel belt. Between the fuelt belt and my phone belt and my bib belt I had more going on around my waist and hips that is probably recommended. But I don’t know how people organize themselves. I also had one small bottle of water that fit into my fuel belt so I could take sips on walk breaks when I wasn’t at water station and refill as needed.
Two further decisions: (1) no music and (2) practice some chi running focuses, specifically the column posture, peeling my feet of the ground, the midfoot strike, and the lean.
I divided the race into 4 parts: 0-12K, 12-22K, 22-32K, 32-42.2K.
The Mississauga Marathon is that great kind of race where they put your name on your bib. As I was waiting to cross the street I saw a woman whose name was also Tracy. We high-fived, with “Tracys unite!” She was with a friend who was wearing a pink wig and had a dog. This will become relevant later.
I love the buzz of excitement at the starting area of a race, and this one was no different. A band was playing and people were milling about. I’d made enough trips to the loo before I left the comfort of my hotel room that I spared myself the line-up at the port-o-pottie. I’ve done enough races now that it’s the line-ups, not the port-o-potties themselves, that I want to avoid.
As I walked through the starting area I got a bit choked up. I get emotional like that sometimes. I think the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. I wanted to be near the back of the pack because I knew I was going to be in the slower group. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was that the slower group sort of gravitates towards the half marathon. Very few people near the back had the blue and red bibs that indicated the full. That kind of worried me. I was in for a lonely race.
Hazel McCallion, who was mayor of Mississauga for 36 years (until she retired last year at age 93), said a few word of welcome. Then we sang the national anthem. And then it was 30 seconds to the start, then we all did a 10-second countdown and I almost cried again. And we were off.
I thought I would finish in 5:00 to 5:30. They say to take your half marathon time, double it and add 20 minutes. My half last October was just under 2:30, so that seemed like a reasonable estimate. My biggest worry was that I would go out too fast. So I hung back and paced myself easy, at what felt like around 7:20 or so, for the first few kilometers.
I took my walk breaks as scheduled even though I didn’t feel as if I needed them yet. I took in the cool air and the excitement and energy of the others around me. At about 4 km I saw a woman with pink hair and a dog at the side. She hollered out, “Tracy!” And I couldn’t remember where I’d met her — I looked perplexed. She then shouted, “The other Tracy’s friend! You got this!”
And at that point, with almost one tenth of the race behind me, I felt like yes, I got this!
I plodded along at a slightly faster pace once I got a bit warmed up. At one point I sort of tripped over something that felt like a plastic candy bar wrapper or something. I didn’t bother to look down even though I wondered how it was that I could have tripped over something that I hadn’t seen, since I was alert and aware and had a clear view of the road.
At 6K when I reached down to grab my first shot block from the package in that elastic loop, it became clear to me why I hadn’t seen the thing I tripped over. Okay. Half of my primary nutrition strategy was lying on Burnhamthorpe Road, unopened. I can’t eat a whole lot of different things and shot blocks go down easier than gels do (for me–I know others are different). So: damn, that sucked. It also meant more Gatorade than I would usually take, but thank goodness they had Gatorade instead of Hammer Heed, because Heed doesn’t agree with me.
By then the mall-suburbs had given way to a scenic, forested area of Mississauga, and soon we entered the picturesque campus of University of Toronto, Mississauga. Maybe it’s because I’m an academic, or maybe it’s because I have two degrees from U of T, but I felt strangely comforted by those surroundings even though I have never set foot on that particular campus of U of T before.
I’d settled into a little group of people who were sort of catching up, passing, catching up, passing, based on different walk-run interval schedules. There was one woman in particular who was power walking the whole thing at an amazing walk-pace. I passed her whenever I was running, but not by much because she caught up with me on my one-minute walks.
We were a couple of kilometres winding through the campus and then we ended up in a stately and elegant residential area on the tree-lined Mississauga Rd. Some of the locals were out cheering us on, and the race had amazing support from volunteers and from the police, who had a major presence at all intersections. The perfect weekend weather also brought out the cyclists, who were for the most part fine but got annoying later on when I hit the loneliest stretches of the marathon towards the end. But we’re not there yet.
Just before 12K I started looking at people’s bibs and that’s when I realized that almost everyone in my little group was doing the half, not the full. Finally I caught up to an older man who was doing the full, and felt immediately relieved. He asked me what I was aiming for timewise. “Between 5:00 and 5:30. You?” I said. He was aiming for six hours.
Six hours! I somehow had never even had in my head the idea that it could take six hours. Good Lord. But at that point 5:30 still seemed achievable. He talked about the “double your half and add twenty minutes” formula and I found that reassuring.
By the end of 12K I was feeling light and happy. We’d been in shade most of the time and it was still early in the day anyway. I had no injuries or even niggling physical symptoms of any kind. And I was still apace with the amazing power walker, which I found both comforting and worrying (because she was walking, but don’t underestimate what some people can do pacewise when they’re walking).
I was over the loss of the shot blocks by now and had opened the other package, eating one every time I hit a walk break at first, and then I rationed by switching to my dates, of which I had five to spread out over the race.
We were all clipping along nicely on more of the tree-lined shady residential streets of Mississauga, not yet down to the lake but it didn’t matter. The shade kept it cool enough and in any case we were only expecting a high of 24C, which is so bearable compared to what it’s like in mid-summer when it’s much hotter than that and humid.
The moment of truth came between 14K and 15K, when the half marathon route veered off from the full:
When I did the Scotiabank Half last October, the part where they marathoners had to go a different route really demoralized me because I felt as if there was no way I could do what they had to do. I had to mentally prepare myself for that this time, and also because almost everyone went straight when I had to turn.
I soon caught up to a woman who was walking and listening to music. I asked her how she was doing. She took one of her earbuds out and said,”This is the loneliest marathon ever.” Her last one had been at Disney, and there is nothing lonely about that one. People everyone. Musicians along the side, all sorts of spectators. Not like that in Mississauga. And we weren’t even halfway home.
Never having done a marathon before, I hadn’t really thought about it until she said it. But when I looked around I could see she was right. There were huge gaps between the runners. Then my walk-break was over and off I went.
At my next walk-break I caught up to another woman who was taking a break. By now all of our emotional defenses were down. By the time the one minute we were walking together was over I knew that she had suddenly and out of the blue got her period one kilometre into the race. She had to stop at a convenience store to buy some supplies. She had cramps. And she had had her last period only two weeks prior. “Maybe it’s peri-menopause?” I suggested. I was just launching into my story of menopause when the walk-break ended and I started to run.
I made a commitment to stick to the walk-breaks as they came along but not to extend them. I knew that once I started to mess around with the intervals, it would become all-too-easy to add a minute here and two minutes there. The woman with her period and I played catch-up and pass for at least 15K, right up until I hit the wall at 30K.
At 22K the course went into a quasi out-and-back portion. There were lots of runners coming towards me who were then turning right (my left, their right). But I still had to get to where they were all coming from, which involved a 4K stretch through a hot, treeless industrial area, then looping back with a short stretch along the water. This part of the route was, for me, one of the more soulless expanses and it just seemed to go on and on and on. Where in the heck is the turnaround? If I’d studied the map more carefully I’d have known. But I hadn’t, so I didn’t. That whole bit challenged me for almost 7K. The path along the lake felt quiet and idyllic, to be sure. But by then, because of the out and back, I could see clearly that there weren’t a lot of people behind me. Just a handful, nothing like the apparent hoards that were streaming towards me when I first began the “out” part of the out and back.
At the water station at the turn I took Gatorade and water. I dumped the water in my hat and drank the Gatorade. There was a band of drummer on the corner, about 6-8 older men in uniforms of some kind all playing different types of drums. The beat boosted my spirits for a few moments, much-needed after the ordeal I’d just completed over the past 7K. It seemed like a good time to use the bathroom, what with no line-up and the band of drummers.
I went into the port-o-pottie, probably more for the rest than anything else, and it turned out that I really didn’t need to go. 45 seconds wasted, but it was nice to be off my feet for a bit.
When I got out into the sunlight again, my friend with her period was just passing me. Then there was a hill. And as I approached the 30K marker, I looked at my Garmin and saw I’d been out there for close to 4 hours already. I did a quick mental calculation and it became clear to me that there was no way I was going to make 5 hours, and I would be pressing my luck even to make 5:30.
That’s when I got a serious case of the “fuck-its.” 30-32K were the lowpoint of the event for me. I gave myself a break and take an extended walk-interval and tried to get a more positive attitude. An older man running in sandals passed me as we entered another residential area that would eventually take us down towards the lake. We greeted each other and as he passed me he said something about having long come to accept the fact that he’s slow.
At 32K I was about 4:30 into it and I had no idea how I would squeeze out another 10K but I kind of knew I was going to, one way or the other. By now, the woman with her period was out of reach. There was no way I would catch her again. The guy in sandals was still in sight.
Somewhere in this stretch the pylon truck started coming along to collect the pylons. I have to say, if a race has a stated limit and that limit isn’t past yet, and if you are within the pace that they said is required, then I just don’t think they should be collected the flipping pylons ahead of you. It’s demoralizing and it also makes it difficult to know if you’re going the right way.
From 32 to 38K, the route took us down into the park along the lake twice. By now, because remember it was the first beautiful weekend of the season, people were out in droves. Not spectators, just people enjoying their Sunday in the park — kids on scooters and skateboards, guys kicking around a soccer ball, families barbequing and picnicking, women and men out for their long Sunday run (not in the event!), couples strolling, people walking their dogs — you get the picture.
Although a few people encouraged me as I slowly passed them — they said stuff like “good job” and “way to go” — at this point I was having struggling with “when is this going to be over” and wasn’t in much of a mind to be able to interact all that much. I smiled and said thanks when I could, but in the end, I just wanted it to be over.
The 39K sign was the last one I saw. I was desperate to know how close I was to the end and people kept saying, “you’re almost there,” but either they removed the rest of the markers (bad form) or they never had them there in the first place (worse form).
The final 2K took me past the Port Credit marina, where I had fond memories of spending some time on a friend’s boat with Renald one year, along a pretty boardwalk and then into another lakeside park. This time, tons of people with race bibs and medals, adults and kids both, were streaming towards me leaving the finishing area. I guess they had a kids’ event at some point before the marathon was over, so it was just packed.
These people especially were telling me I was “almost there.” But I honestly had no idea at that point what that meant. One kid, who had to be under 10 and I have no idea what kind of coaching he is used to but it must be fierce, hollered at me as I approached him, shouting “let’s go!” as if he was a drill sergeant and I was in boot camp.
Finally a guy said, “less than 500m” and then another guy said, “less than 400m.” Somewhere over that home stretch I passed the man running in sandals, both of us as if in slow motion. I could see the finishing chute and I actually managed to pick up my pace a bit for a little burst at the end because I just wanted it to be over as fast as possible. As I entered the finishing chute and ran towards the arch to cross over the timing mats, I started to sob a bit.
Then I noticed that there were race photographers all trying to capture my big moment. When I got married I sobbed all the way down the aisle and I have to say, the photos from that “special moment” aren’t pretty. I remembered that. So I pulled myself together. It’ll be something between a smile and a grimace I’m sure.
I had enough energy to throw my arms up, victory style, as I crossed the line. I got my medal and then I put the wrong foot up on the step for the timing chip guy to remove my chip. He’d clearly removed enough chips that day and was probably annoyed at the late finishers, so that didn’t amuse him quite the way it amused me. I don’t think either that he realized how hard it was to get my foot up there in the first place. Anyway, I got the other foot up and he snipped the cable tie and took the chip.
As I made my way along, I was surprised that Gabbi, Mary, and Miriam had all waited around for over three hours after the half for me to get to the finish line. They all came up and congratulated me and hugged me and said how awesome I was.
The kids had eaten all the bananas (who needs a banana after a 2K fun run?) — I think the race organizers should do better to make sure that those of us who limp across the finish line after hours and hours and hours and hours and hours get a banana. Anyway, I got a bagel and a box of cereal and Mary gave me half of her banana. And I had a Clif bar in my pouch.
Gabbi offered to drive me back to my hotel. Her car was about 2K from the finish line and they kept reassuring me that it was a good thing to keep moving my legs after such a long run. I knew that but still. Longest 2K of my life, from the finish area to Gabbi’s car. Grateful nonetheless.
Would I do it again: too soon to say for sure, but I’m leaning towards a “no.” Still, here I am the next day, with my race t-shirt and my medal, feeling pretty pleased to have completed an epic run, still smiling.
I’m about four days from completing my very first marathon – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I’m terrified and I’m excited and, to be perfectly honest, I’m finding it very difficult to put this whole experience into words. I’ve tried several times to write a blog post talking about why I decided to run a marathon, and every time I’ve gotten a few paragraphs in and scrapped the whole thing. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure why I’m running it – yet here I am, with less than a week to go!
My training has been rather free-form. I’ve aimed to do at least a couple of 5-10 km runs throughout each week and I’ve added on a couple of kilometres to my long runs on each weekend. I have also added strength training back in to my routine, and I am just loving that!
So how has it all gone?
Well. I’ve chafed in places I didn’t realize it was possible to chafe. I’ve also learned that there can be such thing as too much BodyGlide. I’ve gotten blisters on top of blisters, and sought out the measures I can take to avoid blisters (hello, my new friend moleskin!). I’ve become a connoisseur of energy gels (for the record: Gu Peanut Butter flavour is my favourite, followed by Salted Caramel. Espresso Love and Chocolate Outrage are tolerable but not preferable). I’ve discussed the finer points of electrolyte replacement beverages (Nuun is my go-to now). I’ve required more food than I ever thought possible. I swear, it feels like there’s a black hole inside me instead of a stomach! (“Some people,” my good friend warned me, “may ask if you lose weight during marathon training. You don’t. Because you’re eating so much. All the time.” This is truth.)
I’ve burst into tears while running on more than one occasion. My longest run, 32 km, was a disaster. Nothing felt “right”. My legs, stomach, and head were all conspiring against me. I ran it on a Monday afternoon instead of on the weekend, and as the day turned into night, my sweat turned cold. My stomach growled. When I finally made it to my neighbourhood, I knew I wanted a nice comforting burrito bowl. Guac and cheese? Yes, please! But I stepped to the door of the burrito place at 9:02, only to find they closed at 9:00. I cried on the short walk back to my apartment, hoping no one would see me and ask what was wrong, because I knew even in my run-addled state of mind that “The burrito place was closed!” was going to sound absurd to pretty much everyone. (Happy ending to that story: the Chinese place next door was still open!)
Most recently, I started a run this weekend only to be greeted with a foreign, burning pain in my knee. Panic set in immediately. What was this? What did it mean? Was I injured? What if I couldn’t run the marathon? I let out a full-on sob and alarmed a woman walking nearby, who seemed rather skeptical when I insisted I was okay. The pain worked itself out a few minutes later, thankfully!
Still, it definitely hasn’t all been painful. There have been some wonderful and joyful moments. I’ve been very lucky to I have two friends who are also running marathons this year to share much of the training with. Many of my long runs have been spent in their company, and I can’t express enough how much their support has eased the process. With them, I’ve run through trails and through the city, laughed, commiserated, listened to stories and told my own, and tucked into several incredibly delicious post-run brunches. Both of them are running STWM: one (my triathlon buddy) will be doing the half-marathon as preparation for her full marathon in November, and the other I’m fortunate enough to be running the whole 42.2 km with on Sunday!
I have no idea what it’s going to be like to run 42.2 kilometres.The build-up is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I have random moments where I let out an audible “eek!” to myself just thinking about it. But those who have already done it have told me that the feeling of crossing the finish line is like nothing else. I can’t wait to find out.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a triathlete, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and marathoner-in-training.