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.

mec2

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

Why I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon (guest post)

by Alison Conway

alison

Image description: this color photo shows Alison Conway, a tall blond woman dressed in running tights and long sleeves with neon pink shoes and race bib number 3519, coming through the finishing arch (a red inflated archway that says “Running Room” and “Start/Finish” at the end of the Sarnia Half Marathon. She is flanked by two other runners, also in black tights and long sleeves. On the pavement in front of them is painted the blue and white symbol for wheelchair accessible parking. It’s a grey cloudy day and people look cold.

I took up running after a hiatus of almost thirty years when I turned 50 in 2015. In my early twenties I suffered bad knees and the physio who treated them directed me to the pool. Three decades later I thought I’d try a 5 km running clinic and see how the knees held up. Two years later, I’m logging and loving the miles.

Since Nov. 8th, running has taken on a different significance. Now I start my runs full of rage and despair over what’s happening in America, full of fear that the same will happen here if either Kevin O’Leary or Kellie Leitch (two of the top three Conservative Party leadership contenders, according to the National Post 2/3/17) gains ascendency in Canadian politics. Guilt plagues me. I am running when I should be volunteering or protesting. I spend money on race registrations that would be better spent on larger monthly contributions to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Clearly I have been living with my head in the sand since I didn’t see Trump coming. Now I must atone.

But self-laceration is too easy and familiar. I couId spend the next four years in my head, spinning. Instead, I must sit down and make some hard choices. And one of my choices is to set a limit to how much time I spend running. I’ve been encouraged by friends to take on a marathon. I admire those in my running group who have overcome serious obstacles in their lives to achieve this goal, as well as those who use marathons to raise money for charity. I admire our coach, who is an advocate for at-risk youth and mental health services. But at this moment, whatever benefits I could list under “self care” when thinking about a marathon take a back seat to those I list under “other care.”

The challenge we face now is that each day asks us to make decisions about how much news we will consume, what contribution we will make, what action we will take. The marathon we are all running is the one that involves making these choices deliberately and mindfully, day in, day out, week in, week out, for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, panicked, frozen. We all have to pace ourselves.  It seems like a good time to ask hard questions of “self care,” to see how far it extends itself to helping those more at risk than ourselves.

We can be more deliberate about yoking our fitness goals to our political commitments.  I volunteer for Start2Finish, a reading and running group for at-risk children, and I practice the power pose with little girls every week. “Sweat is great!” is a common refrain; “Just keep running!” is another.  There are other programs aimed directly at fostering confidence in girls through running and we can all help to nurture young women by giving them our full attention as volunteers.

In our exercise communities, we can find ways to build relationships and trust with those who do not belong to our particular constituency—in my case, academia—in the hopes of enabling dialogue when so much divisiveness characterizes public speech. I talk too much, but lately I’ve been trying to listen better, to choose my words more carefully when I respond to ideas I consider ill-informed. I am finding out about the community work others are involved in, their sense of local politics and what’s at stake in mapping the future of the city we live in.  Now it’s time to take what I’ve learned to city hall, to become an engaged citizen rather than a passive observer. The old chestnut, “Act local, think global,” has taken on new, concrete significance since I decided to focus my attention on doing the next right thing.

What I can’t do is try to run away from the whole sorry mess we’re in, or turn my back on those who need my help and support right now. We need to run toward resistance, not away from it.  Maybe one day, for me, resistance will involve training for a marathon. But right now I have more urgent tasks requiring my attention.

Alison Conway is an English professor at Western University.  Her favorite workout is running the roads and trails of London, ON.

Yoga for Runners?

yoga011 runnersWhen I first took up yoga sixteen years ago running was not a part of my world. In my view then, runners were always nursing injuries. We had a few runners in our yoga class, and I remember clearly when one of them asked a senior Iyengar instructor who had come to do an intensive workshop with us about running. The student was having some hamstring issues and wondered what she could do to address them. The senior teacher said, “Stop running.”

But now I love running, and I’ve reconnected with yoga. So when a promotion from my hot yoga studio showed up in my inbox advertising a “Yoga for Runners” workshop, I was on it faster than you can say, “warrior series, anyone?” I recruited Anita to attend the Saturday afternoon workshop with me.

It was one of those cold days in early spring, so a couple of hours in the hot room felt welcome.  We got there a bit early, with time to do my favourite thing–some minutes of quiet savasana (corpse pose, often spilling over into a nap) on the mat before class.

The session started with the instructor giving us an overview of his running history. For a young guy, he had quite a few marathons behind him already. He told a credible story about how yoga had helped him with his running, much of it having to do with mental focus.

My real curiosity was: what does yoga for runners actually look like? Is it any different from yoga for non-runners? We did some familiar poses: “runner’s lunge,” the warrior series, downward dog, pigeon. But in the end, and I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, I didn’t learn anything new about yoga and its specific application to running.

That’s not to fault the workshop. If a runner who had never done yoga before attended the workshop, then it might have opened them up to a new way of conditioning the body, opening the hips, being present through discomfort, paying attention to your body, and so on.

There are all sorts of good reasons for runners to do yoga. It’s a popular topic on running blogs. For example: “Why Runners Should Do Yoga”; “25 yoga poses that will make you a better runner”; “How yoga can help your running”; and “The benefits and effects of yoga for runners.”

So it’s not as if yoga for runners is a new idea (despite what my senior Iyengar teacher had to say). The articles just cited list all sorts of benefits runners can gain through yoga:

  • reduce stress
  • ease pain
  • build strength and flexibility in the core, quads, and hip flexors
  • build tenacity and learn to manage uncomfortable emotions
  • reducing risk of repetitive strain by lengthening muscles that running tends to shorten over time
  • injury prevention
  • total body conditioning
  • boost mental acuity and body awareness
  • increase range of motion
  • improve balance and stablity
  • learn to practice conscious breathing

I don’t deny those benefits. And I felt great after the workshop.

But the idea of yoga specifically for runners is misleading. Yes, runners can get a lot out of yoga. Just about anyone can gain something from yoga. So if you’re a runner and you haven’t tried yoga, go for it. No need to wait for a special workshop.

 

 

The Runkeeper’s sub-60 minute 10K plan: app-solutely!

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 4.52.30 PMI’m about 6 minutes away from getting my 10K down to 60 minutes. For those of you who do 10K in 40-50 minutes, a sub-60 10K may seem like a breeze. But for me, from where I’m at now, it feels almost impossible. It means I need to sustain an average pace of 6 minutes per kilometre for 10 whole kilometers. And to me, that’s fast.

But I’ve got a trusty app that promises to help me, and I’m trying to stay positive about the whole thing because so many people say it’s within my reach. Runkeeper is a run-tracking app that, like most other run tracking apps and among other features, has built-in plans. I’m doing the free sub-60 10K plan. As regular readers may know, I’m keeping it low-key this summer. So the idea of an app that tells me when and how far to run, plays some music while I do, talks to me along the way, and reminds me the day before of what’s coming up appealed to me.

Each week of the plan includes four runs. So far, it’s been easy because each of the runs has been assigned as “slow” and they’ve all been relatively short, with the longest being yesterday’s 6.4K (I think they just converted things from miles, which is why all of the runs are strange distances like 3.2K, which is 2 miles, 4.8K, which is 3 miles, and 6.4K, which is 5 miles). The good news: after one week, I’m on track. I did what the app told me to do.

Four workouts down, 57 to go! Yep. There are 61 workouts in total, over 16 weeks. Officially that will take me to November 7. My goal race is the MEC 10K the week before, on Halloween.

Speed work starts tomorrow: after a 4.8K slow run, I’m doing 2x 20 second intervals FAST with 2:00 in between. And then I’m done. I like the psychology of the approach: small, manageable increases in distance and effort. That’s my favourite game (see my post about doing less).

The main challenge for me, besides the sheer fact of trying to get faster, is to run continuously without walk breaks. I’ve been using the Running Room model of 10-1 intervals, and though I like it and I know that it has a lot to recommend it, I am experimenting with losing the walk breaks during this training.

You can pay for a super duper version of Runkeeper, either by the month or the year, that has all sorts of bells and whistles: more stats, more training plans, a “DJ” for your music, more analytics, workout comparisons and so forth. But I’m happy with the basic, which logs and tracks my workouts. Since I’m aspiring only for the sub-60 10K, the plan they’re offering is just fine with me. If I want more data and comparison, I can always get that from my Garmin on Garmin connect.

I’m interested to hear from others who have used apps or training plans on their own to achieve goals. If you’ve got some experience doing that, please share about it in the comments. Meanwhile, with 13 weeks to go I can’t say yet how successful I’m going to be with the app.  As with anything, the first hurdle is always sticking to it. I’ll report back next month about how it’s going. For now, I’m feeling good about it.  Wish me luck!

Fit and fat revisited (ultra running doesn’t make everyone thin and lean)

One of Mirna Valerio's selfies, used to prove that she showed up and did it! From http://fatgirlrunning-fatrunner.blogspot.ca/2015/07/thoughts-of-fatultrarunner.html

One of Mirna Valerio’s selfies, used to prove that she showed up and did it! From http://fatgirlrunning-fatrunner.blogspot.ca/2015/07/thoughts-of-fatultrarunner.html

You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it.  Running is supposed to be the “best cardio” for weight loss. Have you seen the people who win marathons? They’re lean sometimes to the point of being barely there.

If marathoners are that thin, ultra runners must be even more so. Except that, no, it doesn’t work that way.  I’ve already talked about how endurance training won’t make you lean any more than basketball will make you tall and lanky. I found this out first hand when I trained for Olympic distance triathlons and then a half marathon and then a 30K and then a marathon. I lost no weight at all. Not one gram. My weight fluctuated by about 2 pounds over the entire 2 year period.

And so what? Here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue, we like to challenge the idea that fit and fat don’t go together, and also that being thin is a sign of fitness. It’s not. There are plenty of thin people who could use a regular fitness routine. Sam has a great post that muddies the waters around the so-called connection between inactivity and obesity.

This week, Runner’s World profiled a 250 pound ultra distance runner named Mirna Valerio. Valerio blogs about her running at Fat Girl Running. Mirna runs about 25 miles a week unless she’s training for an event, in which case she ups it to 35. Right now, she’s training for a 50K trail race.

Here’s what people say to her:

“People always say to me, ‘Anyone who runs as much as you do deserves to be skinny.’ Of course, what they’re really saying: ‘If you do all this running, why are you still so fat?’”

Mirna provides a powerful counterexample to the idea that being “overweight” by the lights of the charts is automatically a negative comment on your fitness and health. Recent science bears this out. The RW article states:

“The scientific evidence has become quite powerful to suggest that a healthful lifestyle dramatically mitigates the risks associated with mild levels of obesity,” says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., author of The Diet Fix and a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine in Canada. “Scales don’t measure the presence or absence of health. A woman with obesity running marathons makes a superb role model.”

Mirna’s training is a huge source of enjoyment in her life too. Part of her regular ritual is that each time she goes out she takes a selfie.

Every run, every race, every traverse of a mountain trail, every gym workout, Valerio begins by taking a photo. “To prove that I was out here,” she explains. “To document the fact that I achieved something today.”

She makes it fun. And she keeps it light. On her blog, she has a page “how to be a fat runner.” She explains it in ten simple steps, including “embrace the name” and “look in the mirror and smile even if it doesn’t feel genuine” and “look in the mirror again and admire yourself for being a fatrunner.”

So here we have an ultra runner who is not thin and lean. But we’re not going to challenge her fitness, right? Imagine how much joy she would have robbed herself of if, after running for a few weeks or months without losing weight, she decided it wasn’t “worth it”?

This is what happens when we focus on one goal only: the goal of weight loss.  When our activities are a means to that sole end, and we don’t achieve that end, we sometimes forgo perfectly good, health-promoting, and enjoyable forms of activity because they don’t “work.” But there are so many other ways that getting more active does “work.”

What an impoverished idea of any kind of training we would have if its only function was to help us drop fat and lose weight. If that’s the only reason I ran, I would have given it up long ago. And so would Mirna Valerio and countless others who found that actually, they didn’t end up looking like elite marathoners when they took up endurance training.

Check out the entire RW article about Mirna Valerio here.  And visit her Fat Girl Running blog here.

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

Mississauga Marathon 2015 Part Two: Tracy Runs and Runs and Runs and Runs Some More (Race Report)

[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.

Mississauga Full-Relay-and-Half-Route-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.

At the start and haven't yet lost my mojo!

At the start and haven’t yet lost my mojo!

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.

0-12K

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).

12-22K

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:

Where the half marathon and the full marathon parted ways.

Where the half marathon and the full marathon parted ways.

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.

22-32K

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.

32-42.2K

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.

In the finishing area, water in one hand, box of cereal in the other, medal around my neck.

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.

Time: 5:50

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.

In my orange race t-shirt with my finishers medal.