I have a love-hate relationship with the Ottawa Marathon. 2015 was the 4th time I’ve run it, and 2 of the 3 previous times, things went badly. In 2010, I came up just shy of the dreaded 6 hour marathon, and in 2014, I had a lot of cramping and struggled to a 4:11 finish. But in 2013 I posted 3:47, which was a PB at the time, so I knew the race could be a fun one if I executed properly.
I made some impressive rookie mistakes for this race. I forgot my salt tabs in Toronto and didn’t realize it until 10 pm the nite before the race. I couldn’t decide on a shirt to wear until the morning of the race. I didn’t make sure my pace per minute and the my goal time matched up.
But in the end, it all worked out.
I haven’t been to the Boston or New York marathons, but I’ve been to Chicago and Honolulu and Montreal, and it’s hard to beat the race experience from the Ottawa Race Weekend. If you’re not in race mode already, hanging out around the 5k and 10K on Saturday night will do it for you. My wife ran the 10K, and to hear the mass of people cheering the homestretch there is one of the defining moments of this weekend.
The race is also a little tour through my past; I grew up in Ottawa, and the new route, which was put in place a few years ago, takes runners past a lot of significant places in my childhood. The run starts 2 blocks from my dad’s condo. It veers along the Rideau Canal, where I learned to skate. At 7K it winds past Bayswater Avenue and the store where we bought sandwiches before we could cook in our new house when I was 11. Then it zips past Fairmont Park, where I spent every weekend playing hockey on an outdoor rink all day long. It’s an amazing way to let the first 9k of a marathon slip by, reminiscing about the past, wondering if any of the people cheering used to be classmates, and appreciating the chance to be out there running. At 9K I also got a nice bonus, as Amanda Powell, a former Running Room clinic teammate who ran Ottawa in 2014, and then moved there, came out to cheer as well.
We had a great morning as the course turned onto Wellington Street and headed towards Westboro: not too cool, not too hot, with a light wind to cool us off. But I could tell then that we were due for another bout of Ottawa heat. As with any late May marathon, Ottawa runs the risk of getting brutally hot, and each time I’ve run it, it has. The question is, how far along the course can you get, before the sun gets out overhead?
This time, I got lucky. The first part of Sussex Drive at about 28k was a highlight, with lots of cheers from the top of the Alexandria Bridge, and a smooth run past 24 Sussex Drive, where the Prime Minister’s guards were clapping from the guard post by the front gate. Then it was off into the shade and small rolling hills of Rockliffe.
The sun didn’t become a factor until I had reached the 32k mark, so the rest of the race turned into a mental game to get to the finish.
But the lack of salt tabs hurt, as my hamstrings got tighter and my legs got a little cramped, Even my left achilles seemed to shorten. Rather than risk injury, I slowed my pace a little, but put my mind on not leaving any more minutes on the course than I had to. It’s around this point that the sponges, water tables, and kids with freezies become an essential part of the race; without them, the race can actually get dangerous. As it was, I’d dump a cup of water on my head and drain a sponge down my back, and three minutes later everything would be dry again.
The support as you run around Rocklife and New Edinburgh is nice, with lots of homeowners and residents lining the streets from the 33-36k points. It quiets down a little as you head back along Sussex Ave, towards the finish, which is one of the hardest parts of the course: exposed to the sun, with a scattering if supporters and a lot of runners reaching varying stages of breakdown. En masse, runners were going wide to the left to run 100 metres in the shade of the Chapters building, even if it wasn’t the shortest route to the finish.
But as you leave Sussex to head down Colonel By Drive, you encounter one of the great visual moments in running. As runners pass the Rideau Centre on the left, they’re greeted by a throng – no, a cacophony – of cheers, as supporters and family and passersby gather to line the street and cheer. I’m looking foreword to seeing Wellesley in Boston one day, but for now, this is the most incredible show of support I’ve encountered in any race. In years past, I’ve complained that it felt like they were all out there to cheer on half-marathoners, and of course they were, because there are 12000 runners in the half-marathon, as opposed to 5000 in the marathon.
But I also discovered this year that if you run fast enough, you get to that intersection before the half-marathon runners show up (their race stars 2 hours after the marathon), and everyone cheers for you instead! I high-rived as many kids as I could, and even took off my headphones for the last 3 kms – something I never do. As we crossed the Pretoria Bridge and headed back up Queen Elizabeth Drive for the last kilometer, i looked for the kind folks who passed me a beer last year, but couldn’t find them. Maybe they weren’t out yet?
Rather than cruise slowly up the road, I challenged myself to finish as strongly as I could, and pushed as hard as possible to get to the finish. I slowed down a little when I saw my wife and kids and my dad near the finished; I high-rived them and lurched forward again to get to the end with an honest effort.
Final result: 3:34:39, a 10-minute personal best, 37 minutes faster than 2014, and 13 minutes faster than my previous best on this course in 2013.
Every year, I say I don’t know if I’ll be back, and it’ true; it’s hard to get ready for the heat, and it’s hard mentally to watch all my running friends finish their races weeks before mine. But the Ottawa race experience is, I think, the best in Canada, so it’s a good bet I’ll run Ottawa again someday.