fitness · Guest Post · race report · racing · running

So how’d it go? Putting a race into perspective (Guest post)

Image description: Head shot of Jennifer smiling, wearing a visor, pre-race, trees, people, building, flag and white sky in background.
Image description: Head shot of Jennifer smiling, wearing a visor, pre-race, trees, people, building, flag and white sky in background.

by Jennifer Quaid

I ran the Ottawa Race Weekend Scotiabank Half-Marathon last Sunday.  And as happens to countless other athletes in the minutes, hours and days following a race, game or competition, I was asked: “How’d it go?”

“How’d it go?” such a simple little question on the surface and, assuming the question is well-intentioned (not always the case, but we’ll leave that for another blog), something asked out of genuine interest in the participant’s assessment of what happened during the event. The answer, however, is tricky because whether you like it or not, you have to reflect on what your performance means to you (in relation to one or more indicators, be it an objective metric like time, score or ranking or a subjective perception, like effort, satisfaction or fun) and then, you have to decide what you are going to say about it to others.  Sometimes, these two steps flow smoothly from one to the other – usually when you meet or exceed whatever expectations you had.  Other times there is no clear answer because it depends on how you want to characterize what happened. Glass half-empty or glass half-full?  This latest half-marathon was just such a situation.  Through the prism of three possible answers to the question, here is how I worked through what I thought of my race and what I would say about it.

Answer number 1: “I ran a 1:44.21.”  Answering with a race time is a typical, quick response.  I thought about just saying this multiple times. Before the race, I had indicated to some of my running friends that I hoped to run a sub-1:45.  For anyone who does a sport that is measured against the clock, you know there are thresholds imbued with a certain aura.  A sub-1:45 half-marathon is one of them, because it translates into a sub-5:00 min/km pace, a kind of badge of honour among older racers like me (I’m 48) who still remember when they could run really fast without nearly as much effort.

In the world of amateur running, competition is a relative concept. I do not try to compete with elite runners or even category winners. Even in my 45-49 category, the fastest women run times that are beyond my reach.  My objectives are calibrated to what I think I can achieve – on a good day, when things go well, taking into account the reality that running is an activity I love but which can command only a limited amount of my time in comparison to that which is taken up by my family, my friends, my colleagues and students, my academic career, my community etc.

Against this backdrop, it would be tempting to say, just be happy you can run, just go out there and have fun, who cares about the time?  Well, umm, I do.  I have been racing in some form or another my entire life: cross-country, middle distance track, 5 & 10k road races, marathons, triathlons, Masters swim meets and open-water swims.  As I have joked to many people over the years: you can take an athlete out of competition, but you cannot take competition out of an athlete. Age, injuries, family and work responsibilities, none of that can ever dim the desire to perform and to achieve goals.  Of course, this applies to other areas of life too, but sport remains a particularly fertile ground for setting measurable targets.  But a time never tells the whole story and this was especially true for my half-marathon this year.

Answer number 2: “It went really well until about 16k, when I got a massive calf cramp. I kept going but the cramp never went away completely. I finished ok, but not as well as I could have.”

The bane of the older athlete’s existence is the way the body can break down in ways it never has before. Sometimes, we see it coming, sometimes it hits without warning.  Going into Sunday’s race, I was worried about lingering issues with my hamstrings, which have become quite vulnerable (running plus a desk job is terrible for hamstrings).

In 2015, my first half-marathon after more than 10 years (and 3 kids) away from road racing, I ran a personal best time of 1:39.53, but I paid for it dearly when in the weeks following the race I started to notice sharp pain in my left hamstring when I ran at faster tempos. I foolishly did not heed these early warning signs and ended up with a hamstring tear (there was never a precise cause identified and it took months to diagnose, but I knew something was not right by the fall of 2015).  It took 18 months to recover, during which I could do little running and it nearly drove me crazy! I ran the 2017 half-marathon but I was much more careful and much slower (1:46.32).

In preparing for this year’s race, my left hamstring was fine, but my right hamstring had occasionally bothered me in training.  When I woke up on race day, however, I felt great.  It was a cool overcast morning and I could sense in my bones that the conditions for racing would be near perfect – the times were going to be fast this year.  Nevertheless, I started the race cautiously, watching my pacing, making sure I was not going out too fast.  At about 15k, I looked down at my watch: a 4:51 km/min, not lightning speed, but a good solid pace. I said to myself: “No need to push, your first half of the race was strong, all you need to do is stick on this pace and you’re golden.” Hubris, I suppose.  500 m later, my calf seized up in a cramp so intense I had to stop running.  More than the pain, I felt the utter shock of surprise: how can this be? I have never had a calf cramp in my life!  In an instant, I knew my fast time was history.

But the injury, though significant, was still only part of the story.

Answer number 3: “I had so much fun out there: the atmosphere was amazing.  I just love being part of this race!”

If you have ever run in a mass race, you will know that while running in the crowd of runners, you are part of something larger than yourself. Even if people are actually running at variable speeds, you are part of a continuous flow that carries you along, if not physically, at least psychologically.  Until you stop.

When I had my calf cramp, I was stopped for all of about 20-30 seconds as I tried to stretch it out.  Nevertheless, I watched what seemed like thousands of runners whizz past me. I will admit it was dispiriting. Then I had another surprise.  A runner stopped at my side for a few moments. He said: “You ok?  Try rolling your foot more to take the pressure off the calf. And here, take this.  Good luck!”  He handed me a packaged electrolyte “gummy bar” and was gone.  I did not have time to note his name or bib number.  But I will forever be grateful to him for altering the course of the race for me.  Not for the calf muscle – even the gummy bar could not eliminate the pain and awkward gait I would have to manage for the next 5 km – but for the change in attitude his gesture prompted in me.

Though I do a lot of sports, I will always be first and foremost a runner.  Running is one of the few spaces in my busy life that remains completely mine and allows me to reconnect with that fleet-footed 10 year-old I once was, who ran out of pure joy without a care in the world.  Now, she said to me : “Hey, this cramp may slow you down, but you don’t have to let it ruin your fun.”  So I started up again, resolved to enjoy every single minute. I smiled at every funny sign I saw (my favourite: “Enjoy this quiet time away from the kids!”), I clapped in appreciation at the bands playing on the roadside, I high-fived every kid who held out his or her hand, and I blew kisses to the throngs of spectators who lined the final kilometres of the course. Most important, I did not once look at my watch.  When I crossed the line at 1:44.50 (gun time, not chip time), I was pleasantly surprised.

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, post-race, smiling, sunglasses on head, trees and park benches in background.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, post-race, smiling, sunglasses on head, trees and park benches in background.

Three answers, all factually accurate, all different perspectives on the same race. So what’s the takeaway?  Each of them is an important part of why I continue to race.

First, performance metrics, like time, when kept in reasonable bounds, give me something to strive for and provide a focus for training.  I may not have had my best time this year, but I was encouraged and pleased with the first 2/3 of the race.  At the finish line, my first thought was : I am not done; there is room for improvement yet.  I can run faster!

Second, injuries happen, especially as we age.  The calf strain was a reminder not to take the body for granted, but I was also heartened by how well my hamstrings have held up.  I realized that with proper care and training, it is possible to rebuild and recover.

Finally, attitude is everything.  Clearly, finishing the half-marathon with a smile is small potatoes in comparison with other more important matters.  But it was a reminder to me of the transformative power of choosing to be positive in the face of adversity.

So how’d it go? “It was fast, it was tough and it was fun! And I can’t wait till next year!”

Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a married mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.

fitness

Bodies can surprise you (Guest post by Rebecca Kukla) #halfmarathon

a selfie of Joseph Rees and Rebecca Kukla
Joseph Rees (left) and Rebecca Kukla (right)

By Rebecca Kukla

On Saturday, I ran my third half-marathon, the Potomac River Run. Both of the other times I trained for a half-marathon, I was incredibly disciplined about training, driven largely by a fear of collapsing half-way through the course. I had all sorts of rituals: not only an elaborate weekly schedule of four to five runs, but much fussing over the details of my playlist, purchasing new shoes, collecting up the perfect set of snacks, planning out my water breaks, and so forth.

This time was different. Partly it was because for the first time I was not going to be running with my wonderful friends, FFI bloggers Tracy and Anita, so I didn’t have our shared enthusiasm and peer pressure keeping me on track. Two of the four in the group of us who planned to run this race together dropped out. My remaining racing buddy, Joseph, while a dear friend, was a man in his 20s who can run twice as fast as me while drunk and with a giant sea turtle strapped to his back. Partly it was because this year I am commuting between New York and Washington, DC every single week and taking a full graduate course load on top of my full-time academic job, and still training in two other sports, which in New York involves commuting to my boxing gym an hour and fifteen minutes in each direction almost every day. Something had to give. I was overwhelmed.

I ended up doing something like two thirds of my planned runs, and many of those I cut short or did at a slower pace than I planned because I was just exhausted or out of time or both. A couple of weeks I skipped altogether, because of travel, family illnesses and who knows what.

Long story short, by the time race day came, I had given up on any hope of a PR. I felt totally unprepared, and my trial 21K two weeks earlier had been my worst time ever. All was chaos. I forgot my running belt in New York. I woke up the morning of the race and realized I had no snacks to bring, and had done nothing to update my tired playlist since my last race. I had no idea where the course was. Indeed, we got lost three separate times on our way to the race. I wrongly thought that the race ended in the middle of DC, so I left all my things in my boyfriend’s car and planned to take the metro home at the end, but once we arrived we found out the course was actually an out-and-back. We were stranded in the chilly forest with no coats, and we had no way of getting home from the wilds of Maryland where we had been dropped off.

When I looked at the course, my heart sunk further. The promotional materials had promised a totally flat, fast course. I had assumed it would be a smooth running path along the river. One glance showed me that the course was actually a rough, uneven trail, and that the organizers’ conception of ‘completely flat’ was significantly different from mine. Mentally, I adjusted my finishing time up yet farther. We found out there were no bathrooms and no mile markers on the course. We had no water and no snacks. We started to joke about leaving and getting brunch instead. The colder we got, the less joke-y our jokes became.

Finally the race began, and I took off at what I thought was a light slow jog, trying to warm up slowly, as is my practice. After half a mile, my app informed me that I was pacing slightly faster than what was supposed to be my target pace – the pace I had long since given up hope of achieving anyhow. I was surprised and assumed GPS error. But no, after a mile I was still at that same pace. I considered slowing down on purpose so as not to burn out, but really it felt like I was just jogging comfortably. I couldn’t see any benefit to slowing down. I decided that I’d just keep up that pace as long as it was comfortable. I wouldn’t speed up, and I’d slow down or take a walk break if I needed to. I assumed I would need to, since I was pacing just around 9 minutes a mile, which is quite fast, for me. (I have very very little legs!)

I kept running, and I never felt the need to slow down. Water stations came and went, and I felt no need for them. There were some small hills, but they didn’t make me want to break stride. I made it to the halfway mark in just moments under an hour, and decided it was time to re-up my expectations. I had long wanted to finish a half-marathon in under two hours, and I was on track to do it! So I decided to just stay on pace and not slow down or walk unless I really needed to. And I didn’t. My pace was weirdly consistent, mile after mile. I made it through the whole race without a water or a walk break of any kind, and cruised through the finish line just seconds under 2:00, giving me a PR and meeting a goal that had felt totally unreachable a week before.

As I sat with my friend at the finish line, the overly enthusiastic guy with the microphone whose job it is to keep everyone ‘amped’ called out, “And Rebecca Kukla wins a prize!” I was baffled. I went up and asked, “Why, what did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he bellowed into the mic. “Um, that’s great, but why did I win a hat? What for?” “BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME,” he roared back. “Thanks!” I said. “But seriously, I don’t understand what I did that’s awesome. What did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he yelled back happily. I gave up and took the hat, which I dearly needed, since as I noted we were cold. The next day I found out that I had won second in my age group! I still don’t quite understand how that’s possible, but I did! It was a good day to be a woman in my 40s! I never expected to win any kind of prize for running, especially not yesterday.

What’s the moral of the story? I think just that bodies can surprise you. Who knows why they do what they do. All our neurotic efforts to discipline them and make them predictable are built on an underlying morass of chaos and contingency. I woke up the next morning, post-race, and felt great. I was in the gym boxing by 10 am. I have no idea why that all went so well. But goodness, there’s no better feeling than your body suddenly becoming dramatically more powerful and able than you had any right to expect!

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and also a graduate student in urban geography at CUNY-Hunter College. She is a competitive boxer and powerlifter, a dedicated bike commuter, and a runner of wildly varying enthusiasm. She lives in Washington, DC with a passel of excellent human and non-human animals.

fitness

Accidental Personal Record

I didn’t want to do another half marathon but I promised. My partner signed me up for the Army Run in Ottawa. It was a marginally consensual sign up. But he was excited and I figured it would all be okay. 

The summer was busy and hot at the wrong times. I hate running in the heat. I didn’t train much. Neither did he frankly but he has that particular combination of base fitness and stubbornness that he can do just about anything he puts his mind to. So as the date approached, I knew that 21.1k was not going to happen for me. 

The event gave me the option of dropping down to the 10k and I took that instead. I thought I’d just take it easy and walk as much as I needed. It was going to be an obscenely hot day for September anyway. I had zero expectation. 

The event itself was huge. And you know what? It was super fun. It’s not just a Canadian Forces thing. It’s in support of wounded soldiers and they had a place of honour in the run. The city really owns that run. The Prime Minister ran the 5k (in 23 minutes !!! ). The Minister of Defence ran the Commander’s Challenge, the same run my partner did. It was the 5k and then the half. There were a couple of other Ministers running other distances too. There were kids and moms carrying kids and strollers and basically every combo you can imagine running 5 different events storming the streets of downtown. 

Doing politics on the run. The PM and the Minister of Defence

I just set out to do my best. Not a record, just survive really. And then, there it was, 10k in 1:13.20. A personal best by accident. 

I told my partner I’d do the half next year. It always seems so possible from this perspective. 

Who else has tripped over a personal best?

Sweaty white middle age woman in a green tank top looking pleased with herself.
Do I look smug? I was smug. And sweaty
fitness · Guest Post · race report · running

Race report: 38th Melissa’s Road Race in Banff (Guest Post)

Heather BanffSometimes I think I’m not really a runner. I took it up as part of a new year’s resolution — my friends and I decided to sign up for a 5k race and give it a shot. Two years later, I’m reading my cadence data and learning about zones, and my Strava segments are looking good.

Two years ago, the thought of running a 5k felt like a bit deal. This past year, I’ve been running our local 10k races, and the goal was to try run my first half marathon.

“Without barfing or crying!”

The race:

Melissa’s Road Race is a tradition in Banff — it takes place in late September, and offers a 5k and 10k race that wind through the town of Banff, and up towards Tunnel Mountain Drive. The half marathon — my race — goes out towards Cascade Falls, and then behind the historic Banff Springs Hotel and out to the golf course. Two laps of the golf course road takes you around Mount Rundle, and along the Bow River, and all in a very quiet, secluded area.

Race day: 

My girlfriends and I drove out from Calgary the night before and stayed in a b&b. After an obligatory walk to Banff Avenue for a late night snack, we turned in. There’d been a heavy snowfall warning for Banff two days before the race, but the morning was cold and clear…about 2 degrees Celsius, with fresh snow above the treeline. I had laid out my gear the night before, and I was prepared for the cooler weather: long tights with funky knee socks, a long sleeve shift, arm warmers, a wind vest, hat, buff, globes, and skull cap. A lot of clothing, but as it turned out, I was layering up and down all through the run.

We walked down for the 5k start and I saw my friends off, and then got ready for the half marathon start ten minutes later.

One of the greatest things about Melissa’s is the spirit of the race. Registration is capped at 4,500 participants by Parks Canada and the Town of Banff. The half marathon runners received a wildlife briefing — we had a short elk delay. I polished off a Clif bar while I waited, and then had the first Gu gel while I chatted with the runners around me. I was feeling pretty darn nervous, and had a good case of the ‘I don’t belong here’ frets.

0-7k

I tried to start slow…I really did! The first 5k were easy…running down towards the falls, enjoying the view. I’d seeded myself at about the 7:30 mark, but I found myself passing that pace group and then evening out between the next one, so the crowd had thinned quite a bit.

The first aid station was at the 5k mark, and I walked in to have some water and walked out with the first snack — one of those pressed fruit bars from the grocery store. I’ve been trying to work out inexpensive things to take on runs, and a thirty-nine cent bar is a lot easier to swallow (ha, ha) than the more expensive performance foods and gels.

As we left the 5k station, we were running in sun. The golf course itself was screened from view — it felt more like being out on a back road or laneway, and I only caught a few glimpses of sandtraps and groomed greens. With the sun out, I was warming up…but as the course dipped down and closer to Mount Rundle, we moved into shadow and I had to layer back up. This really was a theme for the run…warm patches of meadow followed by very cool stretches in the shadow of the most glorious mountains.

image description: Road stretching out ahead with three runners in front, green pines on the side, and high, rocky, snowy mountains as a backdrop.
image description: Road stretching out ahead with three runners in front, green pines on the side, and high, rocky, snowy mountains as a backdrop.

8-13k

I am, most definitely, a slow runner. Melissa’s is a race that attracts a lot of fast runners. At this point, there was a lot of room between me and the other runners, and as I got towards eight kilometers, the faster runners in the race were already onto their second lap.

Boy howdy, is that a weird feeling. The first speedy runners blasted by, and I had that moment: what on earth am I doing here? I’m so slow…I don’t belong here. This is awful! I clapped for the faster runners, and to my surprise, they were congratulating ME. “Good pace! Keep it up! Great run! You got this!” It was a real lift to the spirits…especially as I hit 11k and realized I still had another ten to go.

Leaving the 8k aid station, I snacked on a package of Honey Stinger gummies…and shared them with a fellow runner (also his first half marathon). Then off running again, and I kept finished that first lap of the golf course, had a bathroom break, another fruit bar, and charged out for the next lap.

13-15k

This was where everything started feeling hard. I’d trained well through the summer, and I was feeling pretty confident that I had the strength to finish. Certainly the scenery was keeping the run breathtaking in all the right ways. The sharp smell of pine and the croaking of mountain ravens will stay with me for a long time, I think.

But there was something about this long stretch…I’d read about the psychology of long races, and the point where the effort becomes just as much mental and emotional as it is physical. For me, it was the ‘dig deep’ moment…I had to look inward, trust my body, and settle in for the long run still to come. The fast runners had left us all behind, and it was time to get the job done.

My 5k friends were texting encouragement to me and I was reading the messages on my Garmin…and at this point, those little buzzes were really welcome. I knew they’d be waiting for me at the finish, and those motivating messages helped so much. So did the sight of a Parks Canada ranger keeping a close eye on something off in the trees…

16-18k

More snacks. More positive self talk. A few more walk breaks. My pace was feeling good, legs good, feet starting to get a little sore…but I was doing it. When I hit kilometre sixteen, I started thinking about how I only had five to go, and how it was just my evening run. Just my regular, run of the mill, after-work run through the neighbourhood. It helped to look at the distances and think about where I’d be if I was back home.

At 18k, I had my last snack — a gel I’d been saving as a ‘just in case.’ I’d been keeping up a fairly regular pace but I was suddenly very hungry and tired, and in retrospect, I probably needed one more snack than I’d packed. Fortunately the gel — the one I almost put back but left in my pocket after my friend told me to take it for emergencies — did the trick.

The run down along the falls meant a slog uphill. At the top of the hill, I saw the marker for the nineteenth kilometre, and the volunteers were cheerfully calling out that it would be level from this point on.

19-21k

Home stretch! At this point, I was dodging tourists on the pathways and running past 5k and 10k runners leaving the race, but I was determined to keep going. My friends had been tracking my progress, and were waiting close to the turn point into that last little bit.

I managed to put one last burst of speed and sprinted in to the finish…I wanted to finish strong, and finish proud, and coming in as fast as I could manage was the way I wanted to do it.

Image description: Beaming in a "Calgary Marathon" blue ball cap, sunglasses, and a bright pink top, Heather holds up her finisher's medal, with an image of a snowy mountain, green slope, and water and the name, "Melissa" in orange lettering. Behind Heather is a small crowd, pine trees, and cloudy blue skies.
Image description: Beaming in a “Calgary Marathon” blue ball cap, sunglasses, and a bright pink top, Heather holds up her finisher’s medal, with an image of a snowy mountain, green slope, and water and the name, “Melissa” in orange lettering. Behind Heather is a small crowd, pine trees, and cloudy blue skies.

Impressions:

I did it! At 39, I ran my first half marathon. After a year of hard work and preparation, I finished with a chip time of 2:37:45, towards the back of the pack for overall time and for my age group. I am deeply grateful to have the strength and health to do this, and as I approach 40, I’m also very grateful to have friends to share my training and run talk with, and that we celebrated this accomplishment together.

We all went up to the hot springs afterwards, and I ran into another half marathoner — one of the fast ones that lapped us. I was congratulating him on his fast run, and how much in awe I am of the people that were flying by me. But what really struck me was what he said about seeing the slower runners (and I paraphrase):

“I see all of you, and you’re just on your seventh or eighth kilometer as we’re going by on fourteen and fifteen, and I think ‘goddamn, look at them…they’re pouring their heart and soul into this, and look at them — they still have the whole race ahead of them but goddamn if they aren’t giving their all! It’s so %!@#ing amazing, because you’re just made up of grit and will and ^!$#ing determination.”

And that, friends, is exactly what you should remember the next time you think you are too old, too slow, too out of shape, too inexperienced, too amateurish, too whatever to do what you want to try to do. Grit and will and determination. You have it all.

I won’t soon forget it.

Heather Banff finish joy
Image description: Heather in a joyful jump, wearing sunglasses, a blue ballcap, black sleeves and a pink t-shirt, black tights and yellow socks and a yellow race bib #3144. Meadow, mountains, blue sky, and white clouds in the background.

 

 

 

 

competition · fitness · race report · racing · running

Half marathon: Not quite a hot mess, but a humid fizzle

Tracy in dark pink running tank, blue cap, and sunglasses, wearing race bib uber 38046; Anita in short sleeved red v-neck t-shirt, sunglasses atop her head; inflatable MEC Race Series arch in the background.
Tracy and Anita in front of the start/finish arch pre-race, Pottersburg Park, London, Ontario.

Anita’s Take on the MEC Series Race #3 Half Marathon

This race was different. Unlike the Niagara Half Marathon, or the Florida Keys Half Marathon, or others, this time it was just Tracy and I doing a London-based race.  In the past a handful of us would make the fun trek to a different city to race.  We’ve avoided London simply because it’s a bit dull racing on the same path you train on week after week, but this race was different because the route took us along parts of the path that we’d never been on.  There were also some pre-race emotions thrown in as this was the last race that Tracy and I would run together for a couple of years owing to our forthcoming consecutive sabbatical leaves.

We went into the race with good spirits. For this one we’d tried a completely different training approach with a coach. Our weekday runs consisted mostly of speed work, which we found challenging at first but eventually we enjoyed conquering the quick, fast workouts that depended on keeping track of our pace. The weekend runs were not as long as we typically would map out for ourselves.  Nevertheless, we both felt that our bodies had responded well to the new training approach. We aimed to shave a couple of minutes off our personal best time.

The race itself was a low key affair, with smaller crowds than the other races we’d done but just as well organized.  Bagels, bananas, gum drops, Clif bars, hot chocolate, coffee and water were available before and after the race. Not too many spectators cheering us on but the route volunteers were terrific. We thought the heat and humidity wouldn’t be a problem once we realized that much of the race route was shady. And it was a lovely route with lots of greenery!  A bit of flooding too but the organizers had built a bridge over the worse part, plus they warned us about the water with an early morning email.

And now to the punchline: it wasn’t the best race for us…yes, we finished, with a respectable time, but…We felt good for the first third of the race. We held on during the second third. Sometime during the last third (around the 16K mark) the struggle started. Hoping it would pass, I didn’t let Tracy know I wasn’t feeling great until the last 3 km or so. And it wasn’t an injury or ache – it was just a ‘not feeling great’ feeling. Like maybe this feeling might progress to feeling like I need to puke.

It crept up silently because we felt like we were doing well with our pacing the whole time. We were also good to ourselves by taking a few longer breaks during that last bit. Was it the humidity? Maybe (but we’ve run in much worse). During our after race de-briefing I said to Tracy: “I never felt the runner’s high. I didn’t feel the happiness on that run.” After some thought, she agreed. Although we’re pleased that we finished in good time, the joy of running eluded us that day.

Tracy’s Take on the MEC Series Race #3 Half Marathon

Despite that we rarely do local races and have never done a local half, Anita and I were both pumped for our local half marathon last Saturday. It would be our last event together for two years. We’d been working with a coach leading up to it and were feeling good about our speed work. As Anita said, we like to travel, so the whole thing lacked the “glam factor” of some of our previous events. And because it was local, we didn’t even think to book off the night before to go out for Italian food (a pre-race tradition whenever we’re at an out of town event).

We were both in a bit of a tizzy that morning trying to decide what to wear. Shorts or capris? Short sleeves or long? I made a good last minute decision to go with shorts and a tank top.

There was a small and friendly crowd at the race site, with ample refreshments for pre- and post-race. The massage therapy students from Fanshawe College had their tables set up under a canopy for post-race massages. It was clear and sunny, but a good portion of the path was shady and we thought we’d be okay.

And at the beginning, we were keeping a fantastic pace, right on target for our simple strategy. Basically, we divided the race into three parts. The first 7K was for finding our rhythm and keeping a steady pace. The second 7K we focused on staying present with the task and maintaining a good even pace. And finally, in the last 7K we wanted to pick it up just a bit, particularly towards the end, laying it out in the last 800m or so.

Like Anita just said, we faltered in the last few kilometres. There’s a part of our long runs that we call Death Valley because it’s a hot stretch with no trees. The turnaround for the out and back for this race was just about half a kilometre or so past Death Valley. And by then it was pretty hot and humid. So no sooner had we passed through DV than we hit the turnaround and had to do it over again.

For me this was the turning point. I started to feel overheated. Subsequent water stations I knew I needed water and Nuun (though I had never trained with Nuun before, I had to drink it for the electrolytes).  We had kept up reasonably well with two other women who were running just ahead of us at a similar pace. They stayed steady steady with no walk breaks. We were taking 30 seconds every ten minutes, consistently for most of the race until the last 3 or 4 km when we started walking a bit longer.

I tried to maintain my energy with some energy balls we had made with Linda–oats and chocolate and coconut mixed with syrup and other goodies. But it was hard to chew and tough to swallow. I really needed my shot blocks, which I hadn’t had time to buy. I forgot I had a Vega gel in my belt, so that went uneaten (truthfully, I don’t know if I’d have been able to hold it down).

Most times when Anita and I run together we prop each other up. If one is struggling the other is able to encourage. But this time we both felt our energy get sucked away around the same time. After the race we both confessed that we felt like we were going to puke. I had a definite feeling of wooziness with more than 5K left to go.

I hauled out all the mantras I had, focusing on “fast feet” (which was a lie!) and “perpetual forward motion.” MEC has good signage, with lots of motivational sayings along the way (all of which elude me now).

When we crossed that finish line, later than we’d hoped to, my legs felt stiff and unsteady. I grabbed water and a half a banana. We both made our way over to the massage tables. Anita’s upper body was all seized up around her neck and shoulders.  My calves and hamstrings felt hard and tight, so much so that even a relatively gentle massage made me wince. My feet ached. This was not my usual post-race feeling. I was drained.

After our massages we walked slowly up the hill to the car. Having told ourselves earlier that we would treat this as a usual weekend run, we tried not to feel disappointed in our performance. Anita was disappointed that we didn’t get a medal for finishing. But we took a couple of post-race selfies anyway. It may not have been our best event, but we made the best of it.

And as a usual weekend goes, we treated ourselves to breakfast (or in Anita’s case, lunch) at Billy’s.

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Tracy (left) and Anita (right) post-race in the parking lot, looking reasonably cheerful.
fitness · race report

Relay, Relay! Around the Bay a different way

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Sunday was the Around the Bay 30K road race in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s a road race that prides itself on being the oldest road race in North America, older even than Boston. In 2015 I did the 30K. You can read about that challenge of mind and body here.  At the time, it was the furthest I’d ever run. And though the Grim Reaper didn’t take me down, I didn’t have an easy time of it.

Flash forward to this year. With a full marathon and several half marathons behind me, I felt ready to do Around the Bay again, but the “lite” version. Namely, the two-person relay. I talked Julie into it one after back in November and before she could bail I signed us up an collected her registration fee. We chose our team name: Steady She Goes. And we had the whole winter to train (oh joy! winter training).

15K seems eminently reasonable. Before long, we’d recruited some company — Anita and Violetta formed their own team, Hippy Chicks. You can also do a three-person relay for ATB. My running coach, Linda, signed on for that.

From right to left Tracy (short blond hair) in pink running jacket, Anita (with black ear band) in burgundy running jacket, Julie (with long blond hair, loose) in blue running jacket, and Violetta (with long brown hair, loose) in black winter coat. Everyone is smiling, standing arm in arm in front of a red Clif banner at the bottom of the stairs in First Ontario Centre. Other runners in the background.

Each relay is limited to just 250 teams. And that’s why you have to make an early commitment. The real buzz around the race is of course the 30K. There are literally thousands of people running the 30K, as opposed to just 500 runners doing 15K each on two-person teams, and 750 runners doing 10K each on the three-person teams.

As we like to do on the blog when we’ve pulled a group together to do an event, we’re going to give you a little taste of what each of us experienced that day. Anita and I ran the first 15K for our respective teams, meeting Julie and Violetta at the 15K mark to change timing chips so they could carry on for the rest of the race. So we’ll each tell you how it was for us, and Linda will give us her thoughts on her 10K as the first runner of her relay team.

Tracy (Team Steady She Goes, Runner #1)

I felt relieved, so very relieved, that I wasn’t doing the 30K. Despite that, by the night before the race I’d already thought I might like to do the 30K next year. I don’t know how these things happen to me, but I get caught up and next thing you know…

It was a cold, windy, grey morning on Sunday. Thankfully, the rain that had been forecast earlier in the week didn’t materialize or else it would’ve been totally miserable. Julie, Anita, and I left our Air BnB a little late to find decent parking. But as we approached downtown we got jazzed up listening to Kelis sing “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.” I don’t know what it means, but it got us into a good mood.  We drove around to several lots until we finally arrived at one where we felt scammed, but less than we’d have felt at the first lot we tried.

After some phoning and texting, we hooked up with Violetta just inside the First Ontario Place (formerly Copps Coliseum). The finish line is inside the arena, the start on the road outside the arena. The whole place was teeming with people. Thousands. We paused for our mandatory photos. I almost lost Anita on our last bathroom break before the race start. I’m so glad I found her in our plan B meet-up spot because we helped each other stay on task through the race.

The first 15K of Around the Bay helps to drive home the point that Hamilton is, indeed, a steel town. It takes you through industrial areas and on the highway, with its overpasses and ramps. There’s nothing picturesque about it. Windy and dreary with lots of ups and downs.

Anita and I had the goal of doing it in — wait for it — 1:45. Okay, I know that doesn’t make us speedsters. But it seemed reasonable to expect that we could maintain a 35 minute 5K pace for 3x5K in a row.

And we did. In fact, we did even better at 1:43. Not only that, I felt amazing the whole time. Linda sent some excellent advice about how to strategize the different segments of the race — when to go easy, when to pay attention, when to pick up the pace, and when to really pick up the pace.

Instead of our usual 10-1 intervals, we went to 10 minutes running and 30 seconds walking. But we skipped quite a few of the walk breaks because we had a good rhythm going and didn’t see the point of interrupting it. All that paid off. And for the last 3K we didn’t stop at all. We pushed the pace for the last 1K, reminding ourselves that we had no need to leave anything in the tank for later. I felt really pumped knowing we were coming in under our goal time. Next thing we knew, we caught site of Julie and Violetta at the side of the road. We ran over the timing mat and met them on the other side.

They were freezing from waiting. Julie could hardly feel her hands so I swapped out the chip, fixing it to her shoe. I gave her a big hug and sent her on her way for the last 15K. Much prettier, but also a constant stream of rolling hills. I’ll let her tell you about that.

All in all I felt good about our time. But being the first of a relay team isn’t all its cracked up to be. There is no mechanism for meeting your team mate at the finish line. They get both medals and just hand you yours when you manage to meet up in the stands after. And there’s a lot of waiting around. Kind of anti-climactic if you ask me. So that might be enough to spur me on for the 30K next year, even though 15K is a great distance. On the upside, I have a year to prep!

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Tracy (right) and Anita (left) on the bus after their 15K, feeling pretty good about it all.

Anita (Team Hippy Chicks, Runner #1)

I was pumped to do the first half of the 30km relay this year. Previously I did the second half, and it nearly killed me, but I’d heard that the first half was easier. And 15Km! we do that all the time!

My biggest worry was the halfway mark where I had to give the timing chip to my partner, Violetta (and Tracy had to do the same with Julie). First there was the actual getting the chip off my shoe and attaching it, flat, to Violetta’s shoe. Fortunately last time I learned a neat trick: use safety pins to secure the chip rather than trying to tie it to your laces (too much time!). (It was still a bit difficult on account of my fatigue and her frozen fingers). Then I had to pack a bag of stuff that Violetta could give to me as I finished my part of the relay. It was a bit stressful anticipating everything I might need at that moment (sweatshirt, food, jacket, phone, money, health card…).

But the most stressful part was that I knew, from past experience, that actually finding your partner as you come running towards the hordes of relay partners could be problematic. I raised this issue…but no one was taking me seriously. I suggested that Violetta hold a balloon so I could spot her quickly. My kids suggested painting our faces to see each other in the crowd. Another suggestion was wearing a distinctive hat, but unfortunately we really couldn’t anticipate the weather. In the end, we relied on Violetta’s bright pink jacket, and Julie’s quick thinking as she waved a pink blanked up and down with full force as we came down the road.  And with that, we did our quick exchange of tags and bags, and away they went.

All in all it was a great race for Tracy and I in that we beat our anticipated time by 2 minutes (yeah!) and for the first time we felt in control of our pace throughout the whole race. In fact, we were all awesome – Team Steady as She Goes and Team Hippy Chicks rocked it!

Violetta (Team Hippy Chicks, Runner #2)

I’ve always said that a 15k race would be the perfect distance, of course, that was when running a half marathon and so needing to run 6 more kilometres after getting more or less comfortably to the 15k mark.  So when I heard that about the Around the Bay relay, I couldn’t say “no”.  When I told some friends who had done the ATB before, they immediately asked if I was doing the second half.  I didn’t know it but the second half is all hills, mainly rolling hills but one ridiculous monster hill.  But that isn’t the only thing that made this run tough.  The weather was incredibly cold—this didn’t register so much if you checked the temperature (which was 2 Celcius) and not even if you noticed that there was a windchill factor (-4 Celcius).  What would actually be beautiful scenery on a warm day, running along Eastport drive with the bay on one side and Lake Ontario on the other was the most challenging bit of the whole run.  The winds were blowing and the waves were crashing and I literally covered my face to make it through.  Maybe I’m a suck but that was probably the least pleasant 10 minutes of running I’ve ever done.  Psychologically, I’m thinking maybe it was helpful because after that, even Heartbreak Hill was easy (ok, maybe not easy, but certainly doable).

Outside the weather, there were two other things that made this run challenging.  The first was my too-laid-back training regime.  In contrast to how seriously I took my half marathon prep, I just figured I’d be able to get away with much less for a 15k.  I think I was ultimately right about that but I wasn’t as confident going in.  The other challenge was that I was going to run this race alone for the most part.  In the past, I’ve always run with my friend Diana and we’ve talked and encouraged each other throughout.  This time, I started the run with Julie but we parted ways after a few kilometres because she does the run/walk whereas I run continuously.  Thank goodness she was there at the beginning for the hard part!  While I still prefer to run with a partner, I did prove to myself that I could do it on my own.

It was a little surreal crossing the finish line which is inside Copps Coliseum full of supporters cheering.  I was happy to meet up with Tracy and Anita and compare stories.  But the cherry on top was being surprised by my husband and daughters who were actually there!  It was one of those moments where I felt proud of myself and content with my life—and that is worth more than the medal I got.

Julie (Team Steady She Goes, Runner #2) (written by Tracy)

Julie didn’t get her report in, so I’ll summarize her experience. After waiting Violetta at the 15K mark for me and Anita to arrive, Julie was freezing. She had a fleecy pink blanket, but that wasn’t enough to keep her warm for almost two hours.

Also: Julie hates running alone. And her two main training partners, me and Anita, were running the first half. And Violetta doesn’t do 10-1s, which is the mainstay of Julie’s approach. She lives for the 1 minute intervals. She did find a woman who she was pretty evenly paced with, but instead of running together, the two of them kept apace without making an explicit commitment to stick it out together. I got the impression at lunch that if she had to do it over, Julie might have reached out more directly to that woman.

And then there were the  rolling hills. The second half of ATB is all rolling hills. Until the final hill, which is deceptive and brutal, Deceptive in that it looks as if it’s about to be over and the you round the bend and boom, more hill. Brutal in that it just goes on and on and on.

Between the hills and running alone, Julie found it hard to stay motivated to keep running. She admitted at lunch that she took more walk breaks than she probably needed, just because there was no one to keep her going, to pace her, to encourage her to stay with a plan. You see, Julie doesn’t care that much about time even though, really, she’s inherently faster than either Anita or me.

Maybe her desire to run alongside someone will be enough for me to convince Julie to do the 30K with me next year when Anita is in the UK.

Linda (Team Awesome, Three-Person Relay, Runner #1)

Training for a race is easy compared to that tricky decision: What to wear on race day? I dislike feeling cold and yet I perform best when I can dissipate the body heat created when racing. ‘Linda’s Race Dress Rules’ to the rescue:

  1. Above 0 degrees C, it’s shorts. (Underdressed beats overdressed.)
  2. Keep the body warm prerace.

Sunday I headed outside early for an easy ‘wake up the body’ jog. My tunes woke up the brain. Overnight ‘race elves’ had erected white metal barriers, orange pylons, and portapotties, transforming the city streets into a race course. Things looked good; things felt good. Liked that a lot.

As first runner on the team, I lined up in the Start corrals downtown.  Loud cheering arose as we passed a gigantic Canadian Flag overhead. Start! About 2.5K I tried to toss my arm warmers to the sidelines. Instead the wind took charge and flew them to parts unknown. The long-sleeve tee and vest got unzipped. Yeah, right choice in clothes.

My goal for Sunday was to run a 10K tempo with a controlled pace. My focus on rhythmic breathing, quick turnover, and relaxed body put me in the zone, the process. ‘Landing lightly, Osprey fly, Fast feet, Fast feet, Through the sky’. Didn’t’ matter to me that the only birds I could see were the seagulls zipping by in the NE 33K wind. Lucky seagulls—they had the wind at their backs. I didn’t. Nevertheless there was an exhilarating freshness to the strong spring gusts.

Before I knew it I was approaching the finish. That’s when I misjudged the exchange location and started my 800m sprint too soon. Holding my pace while climbing the long overpass gave me an opportunity to see what I could do. Did it. Waved my partner goodbye. Smiled knowing I had run well and had made an excellent contribution to the team–Team Awesome! Yes we were.

If you want to enjoy the energy of the Around the Bay road race but feel that 30K is too daunting, consider trying one of the relays. And if you do, it might tempt you to try the 30 next time (as it has tempted me for 2018…). 🙂

race report

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.

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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