I never thought I could have so much fun running a marathon AND achieve a significant personal best.
Marathons are about pain. Everyone knows that. You get through the first 30k and then fight with everything you have to get to that finish line.
That was not my experience at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I kept waiting for the wall to come, I’ve hit it fairly hard before, and the wall never came.
And weirdly, by all rights, I should have hit that wall. Hard.
I had very firm goals for this marathon. I wanted a BQ and for my age category I needed a 3:35. My original goal was a 3:33, until Stan convinced me to go for a 3:30. So coming into the race I had a plan to stick with the 3:30 pace bunny come hell or high water for this marathon. I was determined to not go out too fast (a mistake I have made in almost every race since my very first 5k cross country meet in 2007). The plan was to hold a 4:55 – 4:59 pace and not waver. Well. That went right out the window at the startline. I was with my 3:30 bunny, but he was going WAY too fast. My garmin consistently read 4:45 pace for the first 13 kilometres that I stuck with the pacing line. I expected the bunny to settle into the correct pace by kilometre 6 but no such luck. So I had a decision to make. Stick with the bunny or ditch him.
I did a little bit of both. I stuck with him and then ditched him at the hill between Boulevard Club on Lakeshore and Jameson. I like hills. And this hill and I go way back, so it was fun to push it a little and get a small lead on the pacing pack.
I went way too fast. My watch read 4:35 too often as I passed Ontario Place and as much as I tried to back off I would inevitably settle at 4:45 – 4:50 again, so I shrugged my shoulders and decided to keep with it. Everything felt fairly easy. I was working but in control and holding myself in check. I was also paying particular attention to fuelling. I wore my fuel belt and had three gels in one bottle, and four in the other, diluted slightly with water. Every 3k I took a nice gulp. I stopped at every water station and took a healthy sip. I’m usually an under-fueller and only had 2 and ½ gels in my previous marathon. I’ve found diluting my gels works for me. Much easier to stomach and tastes like juice rather than an over-concentrated syrup.
I had sectioned my race out by the spectators I had positioned on the course. I ran the first 20k to get to my friends stationed at Queens Quay and Bay. It was such a boost to see them, especially as the half-marathoners had just split towards their finish line and I still had more than a half-marathon to run.
After seeing them, all I had to do was run to get to my next spectator at 23k and then loop back to see him again at 26k. I found a ponytail to follow for a bit but then decided to pass her. On the way back out to the Richmond pass I first saw Charles kicking butt, and then I saw Nereo and Tony running strong with the 4:45 bunny. I waved and cheered. It was so exciting to see them on track for their goal. I also saw that I had about a 500m+ lead on the 3:30 group. With a little whirr of excitement I wondered if I could expand that lead. I decided if they caught me, I would stay with them.
I was a little nervous because I was passing quite a few runners–and some were already looking like they were beginning to fade. I had another friend stationed at the end of the Richmond pass and waved and invited him to join me for a run. Understandably, he declined.
I entered Eastern and at this point I was so excited to get to the Beaches. I kept my pace around 4:50 and kept picking off runners, wanting to get to the 30k mark. I was very apprehensive about 30k. In my last marathon I faded quickly between 27k and 30k and the rest of the way to the finish line was a battle for each step. I felt more prepared for that wall to hit and was determined not to surrender to it this time. Marathons are supposed to hurt. If I wanted to be a marathoner I better get used to that.
I thought Lakeshore would be boring, but I distracted myself by watching the runners that were on their way back to the finish line. Some looked strong. Others were hunched and grimacing, clearly hurting. I vowed to myself to be a strong runner when I hit that mark on the way back to the finish line–to make it look good even if it was hurting.
There was a great moment where a woman dressed as Wonder Woman pointed straight at me and yelled, “YOU ARE WONDER WOMAN!”. I felt like it. I was feeling good and keeping an aggressive pace. I was also way ahead of Captain America, whom I had seen on Bayview.
There was a bit of a tricky spot on the course where Leslie meets Lakeshore. It’s a construction zone and the asphalt was unfinished so the streetcar track platforms were raised. They had spray painted the edges a bright colour but I had visions of tripping and falling flat on my face. Luckily, it didn’t happen.
I passed 30k without much trial. I experienced a little tightness in the hips and my hamstrings were beginning to ache. I registered it, decided it wasn’t too cumbersome, and kept on going. I had to turn that corner at Woodbine and Queen looking strong.
I turned the corner and was met with an absolutely amazing crowd of spectators.
I don’t normally pay too much attention to spectators, opting to stay focused and determined on the pavement. Ben Davies spoke to our marathon clinic about race day and the things to do. One of his suggestions was to thank a volunteer and to get as much energy as one can from the crowd. I decided that I would get every ounce of energy I could from the Beaches.I high-fived a line of kids all shouting my name and cheering for me. I smiled at every single spectator I could. Maybe it was my imagination, but it felt like they were cheering louder for me. More excited when I passed by. Whether true or not, I loved every minute of it. And when I saw my fellow Beaches Runners I high-fived them and was so excited that I was feeling so strong and doing so well. I felt I was on track for a 3:25 and that unless the wheels came completely off, I would do better than my projected goal. I yelled excitedly at a few members, “I’m going to make it!!”
One of my absolute favourite moments was a sign that Darlene and Mark made saying “Olivia! Run as if dementors are chasing you!” I’m a big Harry Potter nerd and I knew their daughter and my friend of 22 years had tipped them to the theme that would best motivate me. And it worked!
Another favourite moment was Dave Emilio appearing as if from nowhere to join me for the incline to Beech and through the turnaround. I admit I didn’t fully know what he was saying (I had earbuds in that are very sound-proof), but I knew it was supportive. I’m pretty sure I said I was feeling good and I was going to make it, and then he said “Go finish this sucker off” and I was off and away back through the Beaches, determined to do that very thing.
Exiting the Beaches, my body began to hurt, but I reminded myself that I was near the finish. I only had 8k left. This was like a tough Friday BRC morning workout, and if I wanted to keep up, I had to work for it. I knew I had to keep my momentum. If I gave an inch, everything would seize and I would give a mile, so I ran through the stiffness and held my pace. I remembered my promise to myself to be one of the strong runners and so I concentrated on my form and forged ahead to Lakeshore, smile still intact.
I finally found someone to pace with for a bit at 35k. Blond ponytail. Killer leg muscles. Tall. I stuck with blond ponytail. I high fived some more cheerers. I diligently minded the streetcar tracks.
At Carlaw a very enthusiastic Julie cheered for me and it was great to have an unexpected supporter and friend at this point.
As I rounded the corner from Carlaw to Eastern I was starting to think about how long I still had to go before the finish line and how much I’d already run. I just wanted to get to 40k. Why wasn’t 40k here yet? Did I really need to hold 4:45s? Couldn’t I just hold 5:00 minutes and coast to the finish line? I had the finish time I wanted. Better, even. Did I really need to keep pushing so hard?
I was just having these thoughts when my friend Roozbeh jumped in. I had recruited him to run with me and asked him to be at 38k. To be honest, I had almost forgotten about it. He settled in beside me and shouted “YOU’RE DOING AMAZING!” and I knew I couldn’t quit or back off. Roozbeh is great to pace with. He has a natural stride and I trained with him a couple years ago for the Toronto Half. I’m also very competitive with him.
So my mindset changed. Instead of thinking about the 38 kilometres I had already run, all I thought was: “this is just a 4k race with Roozbeh. He’s my only opponent. And I have to beat him.”
And we sailed. I continued to pass runners; many fighting through the wall. I felt the bewilderment on many of these runners faces, because I was keeping 4:40s. I was flying. No one flies at 40k. How did I even have this energy? I had started too fast. Stayed with a pace that was too fast. I hadn’t trained for this time. How was I holding it? Where was my wall?
An amazing song came on my iPod and pepped up my step — Could Have Been Me by The Struts. Amazing song. I played it three times on my way to the finish line. I highly recommend adding it to your playlist.
I high-fived more spectators and so many were screaming my name. It was the coolest feeling ever. I lost Roozbeh at 41k. I thought he had moved to the side to let me finish the race on my own. He told me afterwards that he fell behind. He couldn’t keep up. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly proud of this fact.
I got slightly disoriented and thought I was on Queen St. so when I reached Yonge I started to really kick it. I was convinced Nathan Phillips Square would be right around the corner. Well, I rounded the corner and I still had 500m to go! The streets were lined with people. All cheering, shouting. It was incredible. I told myself this was just a 500m interval. I’ve done tons of 500m intervals before or longer. No problem. Kick it.
The metres were counting down fast and I was laying it all on the race course. I passed more runners, all struggling. I felt like one of those obnoxious relay racers that go whizzing by fresh as a daisy whilst the full runners glare. I was elated I hadn’t hit my wall. No stride-halting pain. And I was still going to get an amazing time!
I reached the grandstands and threw my arms in the air, waving for the crowd to cheer louder. And they did. I’m not sure that they actually did. But it felt like it, and that’s all the matters. I crossed the finish line and my final time was 3:23:51. Six minutes faster than my “aggressive” goal time and 12 minutes faster than the time I needed to BQ, and a whopping 26 minutes faster than my May 2015 marathon.
I came into this training season with an immovable goal: BQ. I knew I had to change my running style, vary my paces, and learn to hydrate and fuel properly. I needed to use my easy days to recover and to push myself to the limit with my hard runs. But I never thought when I crossed the startline this morning that I would have a sub 3:25 marathon under my belt at the end of the day.
I still have work to do. I don’t do any cross- or strength-training and I need to add that to my program next season. I’m still working on my endurance and pacing.
I honestly never thought in a million years I would have so much fun and still have a great race. And that is really all due to the amazing support of my friends, clinic members, and the BRC. The lesson I learned from this race was: Take the Time to Have Fun. High-five spectators. Thank volunteers. Smile. All that positivity will carry you through the tough spots.
Oh, and have a Roozbeh waiting for you at 38k.
I also owe so much to the BRC morning group. Thanks to you guys. You pushed me and got my ass out of bed at 6am for rns I never would have done otherwise. Thank you for the coffee!