Monday, 17 October 2011

#33: I’ll Be Back

Satisfaction, accomplishment and a yearning for more...


It’s a pretty fine performance for my first attempt and one I am extremely pleased with. It’s an experience I will always remember and probably hope to emulate again and again (with minor improvements along the way).

I’ve never written a “race report” before and find the idea kind of silly, but I believe it can also be informative, insightful, entertaining and educational. So I'll give it a go.

I was awake long before my alarm was set to go off at 6am. I lay in bed straining to hear the sound I most feared, but it wasn’t there; it was dead calm. Finally I got up knowing any further sleep was impossible. I headed to the bathroom for the first (of many) trips this morning and on my way downstairs, I was again listening for that sound that haunted my dreams; still nothing. When I passed the kitchen window, I told myself not to look but couldn’t help myself. I glanced outside at the blackened sky and was relieved to see that the trees were perfectly still. There was no wind! It was still far too early to make any conclusions with the race still 3 hours away, but I took it as a good sign. I made some toast and forced it down along with a banana and a bottle of Gatorade. I of course wasn’t hungry at this early hour, but it was a necessary task.

It was now just after 6am and with nothing to do, I went back to bed and tried to stay calm by listening to some music and trying to focus on the task ahead. My legs were physically shaking under the covers; they were beyond my conscious control. They were so eager to move again after so many days of forced rest. When I couldn’t take their uncontrollable shaking any longer, I again got up and took a hot shower. It was nearing 7am and the sky was beginning to brighten. I again peered outside and again the trees were still and silent. The forecast was still predicting winds of 35km/h from the west, but it seemed as if it wouldn’t be so bad. I spent the next hour doing nothing at all. I put on my short shorts, my Longboat t-shirt with the already attached race bib (an insignificant #163) and threw on a long sleeve and some jogging pants to keep warm. I opted not to bandage my heels or toes and would hope for the best. I was concerned with my shoes which had taken on a new shape after I put them in the dryer for a tad bit too long after Wednesday’s wet training run. I wasn’t too worried but knew that the smallest blister could prove disastrous. Just before 8am, I left my house with everything I would need and perhaps some things I didn’t.

As I made my way to the corner to catch my ride, a woman on a bicycle who could clearly tell, wished me luck in my race today; it was a good omen. Not a minute later, Roger picked me up with Doyle already on board. We headed downtown to try and park close to the finish and found a convenient spot on King. We engaged in our usual running/race banter and all agreed the weather was better than expected. After some light stretching and more bathrooms breaks, we did a short jog down to the finish area and then back to the jeep. Although we were together, the three of us were very much alone. We all did our own thing and each guy was psyching himself up in his own particular way. I still haven’t 'found' my pre-race routine and am not one for rituals, but this alone time is often important. I actually prefer the company of others to distract me from my own mind and the self-doubt and uncertainly that can plague me at these tense moments. With still some time to kill, Rog and Doyle continued to do their thing, while I sat in the car and visualized. For all my hard work and training, I was still about to do something completely novel and thus had no way to know what to expect. I had been told a million times that the end would be hard, that it would be terrible and terrifying, but I still didn’t quite understand what they could mean. I tried and think about those last 10km and how I wanted to feel. I almost wished that it was already over...

About 15min before the race, we ditched our pants and long sleeves and headed for the start. A short 5min jog ensued and then we were there. There among the 15,000+ runners who would be running today; it was chaos. Doyle was still busy doing his stretches and being Doyle and I was growing increasingly nervous to get into the starting corral and near to the front of the line. Finally I convinced him to go. Panic quickly followed when we were herded into the Purple corral (the slowest one) and told to follow the corrals all the way to the front. That would have taken at least 10min and we only had like 5! We decided to try and make our way across University to get to the corral quicker but found that it was totally blocked off. A security guy told us we would have to go around. That was unacceptable advice. With my patience at its end, I stepped up onto a seating platform and jumped the blockade directly into the elite starting area. Doyle soon followed and before anyone could say anything we were making our way to the start. We snuck in past the giant inflatable starting sign and squeezed past another barrier and were finally where we wanted to be. We soon found some fellow Longboaters and wished each other luck with a minute or so to spare. That minute seems to take forever as everyone is nervously looking down at their shoes and their watches ready to go. Without so much as a warning, the horn sounded and the race had begun...

The first part of any race is always chaos. There are people everywhere, most of who are running way too fast and over their heads. One must constantly watch their feet and those of others who are all scrambling to find a better position. It’s always faster than you intend as well. The first 2 and half were like this. We turned onto Wellington and headed east for the first time today. A gentle wind could be felt on the back pushing us forward. Doyle and I had gone out fast but not too fast. The first km was about 3:45, and we made an effort to slow things down a bit. The second was closer to 3:55 and we were already into a rhythm.

Things started to space out a bit and we settled into a groove. Just after the 3k mark (a 3:50 or so) as we headed west (into the wind) on Lakeshore, there came a voice from behind: “Hey Simcoe Shores guys!” ... Could that be directed at us? I looked at Doyle and then looked ever so slightly behind. “Ya, you guys, I’m talking to you.” Soon a familiar face came sprinting to catch up to us and we were reintroduced to Sean Cross, a guy who had run on an opposing team at the Simcoe Shores Relay as well as the Ingersoll 10k we had run several weeks before. We chatted back and forth and soon realized we were all aiming for around the same time of 2:48. We had found an ally and agreed to work together for as long as we could. As we continued to battle the occasionally strong winds heading west, we took turns breaking the wind and running in a close pack. We also found ourselves picking off other runners (the ones who went out way too fast) and used them to help us in our quest to make the turnaround without suffering too much from the wind.

Early on, I stuck to my plan to alternate between Gatorade and water at the fluid stations but already after just a small amount of the stuff at around 4k, was getting a cramp in my stomach. I knew I should have practiced taking fluids during training runs. I was able to battle it away after several km’s but knew it would be a recurring issue as I would need to continue taking fluids throughout the race. I opted for water more often than Gatorade and even grabbed a gel at the 17k mark to save for later. My inexperience with taking fluids meant that I managed to half-choke a couple of times which garnished a laugh from Doyle. My oversight of the importance of mid-race fuelling would turn out to be a major factor in the difference between my planned 2:48 and my eventual 2:50.

We passed the 10k mark just over 39min; our pace was still fast (3:54/k) but it didn’t feel forced and we were happy to maintain it for the time being. As we continued west, we saw the race leaders heading east on the other side of the Lakeshore. The lead group was full of pacers plus the two Kenyans favoured to win and surprisingly, our own Canadian sensation Reid Coolsaet. He was clearly going for the (Canadian) record despite the unfavourable conditions. The second group was composed of two more Canadian Olympic hopefuls in Eric Gillis and Dylan Wykes. I yelled as loud as I could “Go Eric;” I really wanted him to do it (qualify for the Olympics)!

We stayed on pace right until the turnaround at about 12k and when we made the turn everything felt a bit easier. The wind was no longer hounding us, and although I didn’t feel it was all that bad on the way out, this was a wonderful feeling. The next kilometers just floated by. Before I knew it we were at the 18k mark where the marathoners and half-marathoners went their separate ways. As Doyle noted, it was time "to separate the boys from the men." We turned south onto Stadium Road and then east again on Queen’s Quay. It was here at Bathurst Street where my one and only contingent of fan support in Kass and Sarah, greeted me and cheered me on. It was a great feeling! Soon after, we crossed the half-way point which told us we covered the first 21.1k in 1:23 and change. It was still a bit brisk (at ~3:54/k) but things still felt okay. The next 10 or so km’s are the “worst” ones (okay, not the worst as you shall soon see, but the most unspectacular). These are lonely and lazy km’s where it can become easy to lose focus and make mistakes. It didn’t help that this part of the course was also particularly dull and void of scenery. We ran to Cherry St and headed south where we did a “lollipop” turn at the bottom and headed back north to Commissioner’s and continued east for several more km’s before doing another lollipop type turn on Leslie. The details of these km’s elude me now as I tried to get into a groove and just keep going. At one point I felt like I was overheating and sweat was actually forming on my head and neck (this usually doesn't happen to me...I'm a non-sweater). I tried to compensate by taking extra water at the next station and was rewarded with another minor cramp. Soon we found ourselves on Lakeshore again, still heading east and approached the 30k mark. Things were about to get interesting...

The 30k mark was located at the top of a gradual hill just before we headed north toward Queen St. We crossed the line just over 1:58, a full minute earlier than I had expected from my pre-race calculations. We were still hitting close to 3:54/k pace and I was still feeling relatively good. That feeling however didn’t last long. Just as we headed onto Queen St to do the last 3km east before the final turnaround, my legs begin to feel the slightest bit heavier. It was barely noticeable at first, but something was definitely up and my step didn't feel as comfortable as it had for so long. I took this opportunity to take a gel just before a fluid station to wash it down with water. I was hoping that this would be enough to get me through until the end. I perked up briefly on Queen St where the fan support was really strong and the complete strangers continued to yell out words of encouragement to me personally (my name was printed conveniently on the front of my bib). The clock at 32k said something like 2:06 and it was here that I did that first bit of mental math that said that if I could hold on and do a 40min 10k, I would be well under my intended target. Unfortunately it was not long after this that my pace began to slow. Doyle and Sean seemed to be creeping away little by little, gaining a few meters every minute, and although I desperately wanted to stay close and follow them, I just couldn’t do it any more. It was here that the "race" truly began, and already I was losing...

They had probably gained more than 100m when I made the turn at ~33k. It was here that all hope of a perfect marathon debut went out the window. The wind hit with such ferocity that I immediately was panicked and devoid of hope. There were still more than 7k to go and I was all alone with no one to block the wind. A group ahead of me consisting of the fastest Canadian women and her pacer was not far ahead and I considered trying to make a surge to catch them in order to help with the wind situation. After battling to the top of one of Queen Street’s rolling “hills” I gave everything I had to pick up the pace one more time. It was only a few seconds before a powerful wind gust smacked me square in the face and brought me back to reality. I wasn’t going anywhere!

With the wind howling endlessly in my face and my pace slowing further by the minute, I was finally experiencing the true test of the marathon. I wasn’t bonking and I hadn’t hit any “wall” but I was experiencing my own personal version of what this must have meant. I began doing the mental tricks trying to imagine how much further there was to go and how fast I could run those distances on a good day. I can remember looking for the next km mark and doing everything just to get to that point and then reassess. I felt like I wasn’t even moving and refused to look at my watch for fear for what it might have said. I tried to do the math and calculate where I might be but at this point, playing with numbers was pointless. At one point I was even worried that I might not even break 3 hours and this was almost too much to bear. I had trained so hard. I had been ready for this. Why was I failing so badly?

Those long km’s somehow managed to go by. 36...37...38...39. How much time had passed I couldn't know? Finally I saw the Don Valley flyover ahead and knew that this was the 40k mark and that there were only about 4 more to go. There was a large supporter group just before the flyover full of Greeks with flags all dancing and singing and cheering my name. I tried to look at them and show them how grateful I was, but I don’t think I had to the energy to do so. I made that long journey up the fully exposed flyover and the wind hit me harder than ever before. It was here at this very point, where the terrible thought of stopping, of walking, came into my mind. I already felt like I wasn’t moving so why not? I then heard Roger’s voice: “No matter how slow you’re moving; running is always faster than walking.” I couldn't give up now. I tried ever so slightly to fight back against the wind and move a little faster. There was a lone guy at the Sportstats truck where they took our 40k split and he too said something of encouragement and told me to keep going. It was here that I saw my time and was given a glimmer of hope. 2:40 and change. I was somehow still on pace, or at least not far off of it. Just 2 more km’s to go and I could probably reach my goal. I had definitely slowed down, and was in all likeliness still slowing down, but the finish was now so near. I put my head down and carried on. I tried to move faster but it just wouldn't happen. It was here that I realized just how tough the marathon can be and why it is the ultimate running challenge.

I wanted so badly to just keep moving. My arms and legs began to tingle with those pin-prick like sensations you get when they ‘fall asleep;’ I was losing all feeling and was actually welcoming the numbness. On the other side of the flyover, the massive city buildings suddenly became so near and for a few minutes, the wind didn’t seem so strong. I saw the 41km marker and then like an angel descending from above; George Hubbard appeared at my side and began to run alongside of me. He told me I was doing great and said my time was about 2:44 something. He said I would definitely get under 2:50 and that somehow convinced me that it was true. I wanted so badly for him to stay by my side and guide me to the finish but I didn’t have the energy to say so. I told him “thanks” and just kept moving. Shortly after, a man on a bike was heading toward me and told me that it would “all be over soon.” I think I tried to smile. I went through a final barrage of supporters who yelled my name louder than ever before. The course made a slight change of direction from Front St to Wellington and it was here that I saw the “500m to go” sign. So close now. Out of nowhere, another runner appeared just ahead of me. He was clearly hurting badly and actually made a wrong turn to leave the main road and was directed by the fans back on course. I came up next to him and without actually saying it, hoped that he would follow me. My focus then reverted to the signs which spelled out 500...400... then 300m to go. Each 100m interval seemed to last a lifetime. I made the final turn onto Bay St and saw that most beautiful sight of the finish line. The clock was counting up and I could see it was already at 2:49 high. I gave what little I had left and surged toward the finish, almost unable to hear the massive crowd cheering me on. I think the announcer said my name and where I was from but I can't be sure. I looked up as I crossed the line to see the clock hit 2:49:55 and I knew I had salvaged something special. I grinded immediately to a halt but knew to keep moving which I did. Soon Roger and Rob Campbell were there to greet and congratulate me. Rob said it was an amazing first performance and I thought it might be true. I kept moving as the volunteers herded us up Bay St. A small boy put a medal around my neck and said I did great and I was truly glad to have it. Soon I saw Doyle and was happy to see him again; how long had it been seen we drifted apart? We made our way through the now hoards of people (mostly half-marathoners finishing in the same time we did), grabbed a banana and bagel and departed the finisher’s area. Rog had given me a backpack with our things in it so we found a small space at the entrance of a building and quickly changed into some warm and dry clothing. I finally asked Doyle what his time was in the race and was taken aback when he told me. The guy I had trained with all year long had just run a 2:45 in the same conditions! I was overcome with amazement and completely forgot about my own race. He had run perhaps the greatest race of him life so far. For all the training and all the time we spent running together, it seemed to have paid off and in a big way. We had both run extremely well. The difference between us was experience and I was already looking forward toward getting more.

We eventually made our way to the VIP tent right at the finish line where some Longboat members (a special thanks to Lynn and Sabrina) had volunteered and got us in with free passes. There we could comfortably watch the race and take in what we had just done. I felt surprisingly good, considering how bad I felt mere minutes earlier and was happy to take on some fluids and carbs. We watched as our fellow teammates Gerardo and then Melinda came in with their own highly impressive times; it had shaped up to be a pretty good day after all. Soon my legs began to ache and we decided it was time to head home. We walked back to the jeep and Roger drove me home.

At home I had a bottle of Gatorade and a banana knowing that I desperately needed fuel to recover but my body was wanting none of it. I had a shower in which I soaked my lower body in ice cold water but my tolerance for such discomfort is relatively low and it wasn’t long before I had switched to burning hot water instead. It was not long before I was on the move again as I was planning to head to Rogers to join the others for the CBC broadcast of the event set to air at 3. I got on my bike and again was surprised to feel comfortable in moving my legs. I stopped off at the beer store before arriving at Roger’s just before 3pm. We spent the remainder of the day drinking beers and talking shop about everything and anything, running related and otherwise. At one point, Doyle and I felt an immediate need for nourishment having drunk nothing but beer all afternoon, and so a plan was set in motion to order pizza which was subsequently devoured by all. We left just before 10pm when the beer and food was gone and my legs were beginning to ache. It had been a long day.

I made my way home and began thinking about what I had done earlier that day. Already
I was thinking about the next time I would attempt 42.2 and what I would need to do differently in order to do better. 2:50 on my first attempt; there was no limit to what I could achieve. I was suddenly very excited.

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