On September 26th, I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, thus completing the GTA marathon three-pack within one year. (GoodLife Toronto Marathon, Mississauga Marathon and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon are the three major GTA marathons) More significantly however, I qualified for Boston, getting my ticket to the event for 2011! My time of 3:10:46 qualified me by 13 seconds, and it was an epic battle for every one of those seconds. For these reasons, I felt this marathon experience to be the best of the five marathons I’ve run so far.
A long journey
It’s felt like a long journey to get to where I am today, but not in the way that you’d expect. After running my first 42.2K at the PEC Marathon back in October of 2008, I set my sights on improving my time for 2009. Almost a year later, I ran a 3:02:50 in the Edmonton Marathon in August 2009, improving my time by almost 30 minutes and thus earning me my first Boston Qualifier. (BQ)
I wasn’t expecting such a good performance and so after the initial surprise wore off, I became overly ambitious, signing up for the GoodLife Toronto Marathon only two months later in October. My goal was to run a sub-3 time, which I believed I could do given that Edmonton’s course (back then) was somewhat hilly, and the Toronto Marathon’s course was significantly downhill for the first half and fairly flat for the remainder.
It turned out that I had underestimated the stress that running downhill can put on your legs, especially your quads, especially if you haven’t trained for it. I went out much too fast, covering the first half (mostly downhill) in 1:28 and taking nearly 2 hours for the second half. It took everything I had to keep going in that second half, feeling every muscle in my legs cramp up and watching my KM split times rise to practically a walking pace.
After that disastrous performance, I didn’t feel much like running any more. In fact, I was so put off by it that I sort of missed registering for Boston; I say “sort of” because I think I was looking for a reason not to go, so procrastinating until the race had sold out seemed like a good enough excuse.
Rebuilding and retraining
Fast forward to February 2010. By now, I was feeling better and my injuries had subsided. I began training again in earnest, but didn’t sign up for a marathon right away. I wanted to see how my body and my mind responded to running again. By the end of March, things were going well and so I registered for the Mississauga Marathon. This time, I would be much more conservative in my goals: I was aiming for a sub-3:20 finish.
As told in my previous post, I felt great for the first 30 km, after which trouble began. By the 35 km mark I was slowing down and cramping up. Though I didn’t stop, I lost a lot of time in those last 7.2 km. While the first half took me 1:34, the second took me closer to 1:39, and I finished in 3:13:06, less than three minutes from a BQ.
I didn’t feel too upset, however, since I had met my initial goal and I’d run a much better race technique and pacing-wise. However, the idea of a fall marathon BQ slowly crept back into my mind.
This time, it would be different. Running a fall marathon would give me the entire summer to get ready for a BQ attempt; there would be four months until the Toronto Waterfront Marathon from when the Mississauga Marathon ended, so I wouldn’t be pushing myself. I would have time to rest, then ease back into training and maintain fitness. More importantly, however, the summer would give me an opportunity to train in the hot and humid conditions; if you can run in the heat, running in cool conditions seems easier.
I would also work on my pacing. I’d felt that I’d gone out a little too fast during Mississauga, as my second half was five minutes slower than the first. It has been said that for every minute fast you are at the half, you will end up losing 2-5 times that much during the second half. I’ve certainly found this to be true; “banking” time during the first half of a marathon just doesn’t work. It’s like a loan with an exorbitant interest rate: You get some benefit now, but end up paying dearly for it. Thus, with a slight tweak in pacing strategy, I could qualify.
My training, however, wasn’t totally ideal. While I managed to bang out 30-32 km long runs on most weekends, my mileage wasn’t as high as it should have been and I didn’t get as many quality workouts in as I would have liked, because I was having some knee problems. I played it safe though, and cross-trained to replace some of my runs to prevent injury. I knew, however, that this would affect my performance/fitness and would make qualifying for Boston just that much harder.
Thankfully, my knee problems subsided as I entered the taper phase of training. But by this time, I was dealing with some anxiety, which seems weird given that this would be my fifth marathon.
On September 26th, the race gods smiled upon us and we had near-ideal conditions for running: It was partly cloudy, 8C and calm. The previous Friday had seen record-breaking temperatures of greater 30C and Saturday had been fairly windy, so this day was made even more important. This is it, I thought. This had to be the day that I gave it my best.
We lined up in the starting corrals, all 10000+ of us that were doing the marathon and half-marathon that day. After a speech by the mayor and the singing of O Canada, we were off! As has happened before, I drank too much before the start and had to make an unfortunate bathroom break in the first 5 km. But after that, I focused on catching up to the 3:10 pacer and resolved to not pass him no matter what, in order keep an even pace and not increase my risk of burnout in the latter stages of the race.
Not that my resolution mattered much. I wasn’t feeling in tip-top shape that day and had trouble even keeping up with the 3:10 pacer even by the half-way point, which I reached in 1:34:42. Ideally, you shouldn’t be feeling too much after the first half and you shouldn’t feel like you’re pushing yourself at all until the last third, which was still far away. For the next 10 km or so, I just tried to keep the pacer in my sights. At the 30 km mark, I was still on pace with a time of 2:14:41, but my perceived exertion was rising and my legs were getting stiff and feeling like they were on the verge of cramping up. I was extremely worried that this would be a repeat of Mississauga, where I lost it all in the last 7.2 km. This negative thinking didn’t help matters either.
The final stretch
By the 35 km mark, things weren’t any better, but I looked down at my watch and I was still (barely) on pace with a time of 2:37:31. However, sometime shortly after this, (I don’t remember exactly when, as it’s all a blur) things started going bad. My legs started to cramp up, I lost sight of my pacer and my worse fears started to take shape: This race was going to slip through my hands again, in an almost identical manner to the last.
I had to stop three or four times to stretch and walk things off for a bit, but this didn’t seem to help and each time things seemed to be getting worse. At this point, I was feeling a combination of anger, despair and defeat. I had three 5-minute kilometers, which put me well off the mark in terms of pacing. During all of this, my fellow runners had been trying to help with encouraging remarks. I also vaguely remember some spectators saying, “Come on! 3:10, it’s still possible!“, but all of this couldn’t convince me or improve my mood.
Suddenly, someone yelled out at me rather brutishly, “Don’t stop now! Suck it up!” I wanted to curse at him, but instead I started moving again.
Edge of defeat
It was slow, but I seemingly altered my gait to get around the cramps. Eventually, I realized that I could maintain a decent pace with this new style of running. It was still painful as hell, but at least I was getting somewhere. At this point, I was also exhausted and because my brain was focused completely on getting my body to that finish line, I don’t seem to remember a lot of the details. But somehow, I got myself back up to a 4:30/km pace along the way.
But getting back to pace was only one part of the solution. Because I had lost time near the point where I’d almost given up, I would have to make up over a minute if I wanted to qualify and make that 3:10:59 cut-off time for a BQ.
When I crossed the 40 km mark I was completely focused on my goal. I looked at my watch and saw it was 3:01:57. By this time, my brain could not do math very well, but I knew that I would have give it my all for those last 2.2 km if I wanted to qualify. As mentioned previously, I don’t remember much of anything over those last kilometers except gasping for air, moving my legs/arms as fast as I could and feeling a lot of pain. I do remember crossing Sherbourne St. and trying to remember if it was before or after Jarvis St. (it’s before as you head west on Front St.) as I counted down the number of streets until the last turn on to Bay St. for the final uphill push to the finish.
The final kilometer was done with nothing short of sheer willpower. I wish I’d had more time to soak in the experience as I know that there were hundreds of cheering spectators lining the streets, but I just don’t remember it.
When I crossed the finish line, I looked at my watch. For a moment, I couldn’t believe that I’d made it. I’d actually qualified! It’s hard to describe the feeling that washed over me at that point, but it was like seeing the light of day after digging yourself out of a hole. Though this wasn’t my best time, I’m the most proud of it because of what I had to do to earn it. I feel it’s also significant because for me it represents a full and final comeback from the disastrous race I’d run at the Toronto Marathon nearly a year ago.
After catching my breath, I did checked my watch and realized that I had run those last 2.2 km in in 8:49, making up over a minute during that time. That was nearly 4:00/km, which was about my 10K pace, though I believe most of the time was made up in the last kilometer, which I probably did considerably faster than 4 minutes. I never thought I’d have been capable of that, especially since part of the last kilometer is on a slight uphill.
Despite all the pain and all the emotions I’d experienced during this race, I couldn’t have picked a better way for it to end. To that guy who yelled at me to “Suck it up”, I give my thanks: Maybe that was all I needed to realize I was capable of making a comeback.
I look forward to Boston in 2011!