Toronto Women’s 5K: Speed Demon Wannabe

Most runners have some specific distances that they seem to excel at. There’s no formula for it, really, it’s just a matter of personal style and preference. Some runners are sprinters and do very well in the 5K runs, where pacing strategies aren’t really used. Others do better in longer distances, like 10K and 10 mile races. Then there are those who are slightly insane and do half and full marathons.

We will not discuss the freaks of nature who do ultramarathons.

I myself have always gone for the mid-to longish distance races, varying between 10K and 21.1K (half-marathon). The only reason I have not attempted a full marathon is because I cannot commit the time to the training. But someday…

The point is that 10K is generally the shortest distance I run. The poor 5K distance has been shamefully neglected.

Last weekend I put that right. I decided, early on this season, to put at least one 5K race into my schedule. Although it seems like a humble distance for a half-marathoner, I realized that it could be a really good test of my ability to just run like hell for half an hour or so.

I went into the race with some specific goals. First, I had to beat thirty minutes. Second, I would only take one walking break and that would be going through the aid station. Finally, I would finish in the top 50%. This last one was going to difficult, because I really had no idea how the other 390 runners in this race were going to do. I have been a little frustrated of late, though. When I first made my big comeback to running just over three years ago, I was finishing races in the bottom third. Since then, my performance has steadily improved, but that top 50% has been eluding me. As great as my 15K race ten days or so ago was, I still missed the average finishing time by just a couple of minutes.

I knew that I would have to work hard to achieve my goals, primarily because I had been out with my husband the previous night and consumed almost a full bottle of wine. Yes, I confess that I lined up at the start with a hangover the size of a mountain. I felt dehydrated and a little ill, but if anything, this motivated me to run as fast as I could, so I could get this over with.

I took my place in the starting corral at the last minute, so I was further back than I really wanted to be. And so when the race started, I got caught in the crowd, and I wasn’t able to go out as fast as I wanted to.

After a bit of weaving and dodging I was able to break away a little. The first two kilometres passed in a bit of a blur, and when I got to the turnaround point, I realized that I was actually enjoying myself.

Nothing cures a hangover like an elevated heart rate and a ton of sweat. It was great.

I was easily maintaining my target pace, so I slowed down to walk through the aid station.

Actually, that’s a lie. The aid station was manned by delicious-looking firefighters. And when you’re trying to impress firefighters, you don’t walk during a race. Not, at least, where they can see you. Your inner show-off emerges, and you pick up the pace. And that is why I was moving at a sprint when I grabbed a cup of water from the most delectable of the young gents. I ran on, not caring that I was sloshing my water all over the place. When I rounded the bend, then I slowed to a walk.

I drank my water, allowed my heart rate to subside for twenty seconds or so, and then I was off, with just two kilometres to go.

I started to get tired, but I was still keeping up with my goal pace. I slowed down marginally, just for the sake of keeping enough gas in the tank for a strong finish.

When I entered the final kilometre, my legs wanted to fall off. But I kept moving. At my current pace, I would nail that last kilometre in five and a half minutes. I kept reminding myself of what my friend and coach Phaedra told me as she ran me to my half-marathon finish along this exact path three months ago: “You can do anything for five minutes.”

When I saw the finish line ahead of me, my legs kicked into overdrive. I crossed the line with the clock reading 30:02 and a chip time of 29:18.

So. Finish the race in under half an hour? Check. Although it would have been nice to actually see the clock reading under 30:00. Next time I will pay more attention to my start line position.

Only walk through the aid station? Check. Kind of.

Finish in the top 50%? Check! I came in 86th out of 391 runners, and out of 44 in my age group, I was 15th. I was well ahead of the average finishing time of 35:10.

On Saturday afternoon, feeling content and triumphant, I took a nap on my back deck. Because dammit, I deserved it!

(Photo credit: Ryder Photography)


Race Report: Durham Quarter Marathon

Freshly soaked by a fire hose!

The Durham Quarter Marathon is the race that I almost didn’t register for. At 10.549 km, it’s such an odd distance. I’m not sure why this was a deterrent, considering that my favourite race distance is the half-marathon. 21.095 km is not exactly a round number. In the end, I registered for this race because I wanted to run a race in the middle of summer for the sake of hot weather training. I also reasoned that it would be a good benchmark for me, being exactly half the distance of my “A” race, which is coming up in October.

Then there was the cause: The Refuge, which helps homeless youth. Who wouldn’t want to run for such a great cause?

Leading up to the race, I started to feel a cold coming on. This happens to me so often that I have come to the conclusion that it’s all in my mind. It’s part of my mind trying to trick me into believing that my body is not capable.

My mind should know by now that I’m not letting a stupid cold stop me from running a race.  I ramped up the vitamins and fluid intake, and dealt with the guilt of missing a training run so I could rest. When I woke up on the morning of the race, I felt fine.

The race started at Oshawa City Hall, about two minutes’ walk away from free covered parking. I picked up my kit, pinned my bib to my shirt (no small feat considering my – um – curviness up top), and ate my pre-race snack with plenty of time to spare for warmups.

At the start line, I positioned myself about fifty feet behind the 1:05 pace bunny. My goal was based on average pace – I wanted to beat 6:15 minutes per kilometre. I had not worked out what total time that translated into, but I knew that if I stuck close to the 1:05 bunny I would make it.

By race standards, this one was quite small. There was no lack of enthusiasm, though, from the runners, the onlookers, or the race officials and volunteers.

There was a count-down, and then we were off! I didn’t really know what to expect. The race had been advertised as a net downhill course, but all that meant was that the start was at a higher elevation than the finish. It didn’t mean there wouldn’t be hills to climb. I had not seen either a route map or an elevation chart, so I didn’t really know how to pace myself.

So I started fast, staying close to the 1:05 bunny. Although I was still with him when the first kilometre ticked over, I decided to dial it back a little after that. I felt OK, but it was a fairly warm morning and I was well ahead of my goal pace. There was no need to knock myself out. I let the bunny go, figuring that I would probably catch up with him later.

Most of the race was run on park trails. This meant there was nice shade cover for much of the distance, and for the first few kilometres, there did seem to be more downhills than uphills. I had no trouble keeping ahead of my goal pace, and I was having a lot of fun. There weren’t enough runners around me to clog the path, but there were enough to maintain that race vibe that runners love to be a part of.

The aid stations were spaced at just the right intervals, and the course was dotted with signs that said things like, “Run like you just stole something” and “Don’t stop, people are watching”.  There were also some cheering squads along the route, blowing noisemakers and ringing bells. There was one man enthusiastically egging the runners on while holding a sign that said, “Go, random stranger, go!”

In the seventh kilometre, I saw what I now refer to as Monster Hill #1. It rose ahead of me like a personal Everest, and I saw the runners ahead of me slowing to a walk as they were defeated by this monster.

The show-off in me emerged. I was going to run all the way up this hill, as God was my witness. I didn’t care how slow I ran or how much my legs ached, I was not going to walk. I shortened my stride and started to make my way up, passing all of the runners who were walking. Sure, they’d probably all pass me at some point after the hill, but I didn’t care. I had a mission and that’s what I was focused on. All of a sudden, I was at the top and I felt great. I felt as if I had gone up that hill at the speed of mud, but it turned out to be one of my fastest kilometres.

All of that hill training and strength training that my friend and coach Phaedra made me do has clearly been paying off.

That hill took a lot of out me, and the going was rough after that. But with just a couple of kilometres to go, I was almost done.  Sometime during the eighth kilometre, what did I see in front of me? The 1:05 pace bunny! As far as I could tell, he was about thirty seconds ahead of me. If I could put on a burst of speed, I had a chance of catching him.

It was tempting, but I had to be careful. We were going into the ninth kilometre, and I wanted to leave enough for my finishing kick. I decided that catching the bunny would have to wait.

I turned onto a trail along the waterfront, rounded the corner, and saw…

… Monster Hill #2.

Seriously? When race directors map a route with a giant hill in the last couple of kilometres, are they just being sadistic?

I tried, people. I tried to approach Monster Hill #2 as I had approached Monster Hill #1. But I felt as if I had nothing left. I walked halfway up the hill and then ran up the rest of the way, and by time I got to the top, I was well and truly done. Ahead of me, like an oasis in the desert, I saw the final aid station. I walked through the aid station to get my heart rate down a little, and then picked up my pace again.

I had a little more than a kilometre to go. Ten minutes of running at the most. I could do it. I was hurting, but I kind of switched my mind off and just ran. I didn’t think I had anything left for a finish line kick, but at this point, if I made it across at a crawl I would be happy.

But right after the 10K marker, I started to hear finish line noises: cheering, and the sound of a voice through a loudspeaker. I turned a corner, and there ahead of me was the finish line. Without any conscious effort on my part, I felt my legs turning over faster, and I felt my stride lengthening.

I still had the finish line kick! I never managed to catch the pace bunny, but I only crossed the finish line about 30 seconds after him, finishing with a gun time of 1:05:45. My actual time was closer to 1:05:25.

My goal pace had been 6:15 min/km. My actual pace was 6:13 min/km. This race had definitely been a success. If I continue sticking to my training program, my goal of 2:15 for the half-marathon in October is achievable.

Shortly after crossing the finish line, some sexy firefighters doused me with their fire hose, and I sat on the grass eating my post-race banana, in a drenched but contented state, trying not to think of the fact that if it weren’t for Monster Hill #2, I would have caught that bunny.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)


Toronto Womens Half-Marathon: Getting By With A Little Help From A Friend

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Phaedra and I, sharing some post-race happiness

I am always a jittery mess leading up to races, and yesterday’s Toronto Women’s Half-Marathon was no exception. If anything, I was more nervous than usual. I had trained hard, coached by my friend Phaedra, and I wanted to realize the fruits of my efforts. As I wandered around the starting area eating my pre-race peanut butter sandwich, I thought back to my season of training. Instead of thinking about all of the great runs I had, my mind stubbornly focused on the not-so-good. Like missing my very first week of training due to a stomach bug, and having to take an emergency trip to the other side of the world during my second and third week. I thought obsessively about how my training went a little pear-shaped a month ago, due to circumstances beyond my control.

I knew that these nerves would vanish as soon as the starter’s siren went off. The slight stuffiness in my nose would disappear and the tightness in my right calf would magically loosen up. I would be lifted by the collective energy of the 1500 runners around me, and I would be spurred on by my natural tendency to compete with myself.

Seeing a couple of familiar friendly faces right before the race started helped immensely. My friend George from the Geneva Centre for Autism was there to cheer on his girlfriend. Phaedra was there too, already lined up at the start. I squeezed my way into the crowded corral and waited for the siren.

And then we were off! I was forced to start at a moderate pace: this invariably happens when 1500 runners are competing for space on a narrow park trail. It is at times frustrating to be trapped behind slower runners with no immediate opportunity to pass them, but it can be enormously beneficial to be forced to keep the brakes on, particularly early in a long race.

I was aiming for an average pace of 6:30 minutes per kilometre, and for the first few kilometres, I hovered between 6:34 and 6:40. I was OK with that. Usually I increase my pace over the course of the distance, so starting slower than my goal doesn’t worry me.

The course was a challenging one. The entire race took place on park trails that at times, were barely wide enough to allow for the two-way traffic on the out-and-back segments. The trails were mostly paved, which was nice, but in places they were uneven, so I had to watch my footing very carefully. While the course was not as hilly as, say, the 10K race at the Toronto Zoo, there were enough undulations to create a challenge – most notably, the hill leading up to the bridge going over the railway line.

At about the 5K mark, I was running the out portion of an out-and-back segment, and I saw Phaedra coming towards me, running the back portion. She was looking strong and moving fast, right near the front of the pack. We cheered each other, did a high-five, and went on our way.

The kilometres ticked by. I marked the little milestones as I passed them. 7km – a third of the way there. 10.5km – halfway there. The 12km milestone is always a big one for me, because it means I only have 9K to go, and I am counting down single digits.

14km – two thirds of the way there. At this point I was really starting to hurt. A twenty-year-old ankle injury was acting up, no doubt aggravated by the uneven path. There was no way I was letting myself stop, though – I had only 7km left. 7km is like a walk in the park to me.

At 16km I hadn’t quite managed to hit my target pace, and I found myself having to revise my “A” goal of beating 2:15. I mentally shifted to my “B” goal – a personal best time. I had to beat 2:19:46 and I thought that I was only just in for a shot at accomplishing that. All I had to do was ignore the burning in my legs for half an hour or so.

18km – there are the firefighters! Sadly, none of them had their shirts off, but they were absolutely gorgeous. They were a welcome sight at a point in the race when I always start to struggle. There was no way I was going to slow down. I had to show off for the handsome firemen. I wasn’t exactly looking my best, so I had to impress them in other ways!

At 19km I saw two things: the chocolate station and Phaedra, who had finished her race and run back to meet me. I guzzled down a chocolate bar, desperately in need of the sugar rush, and then set off for the last 2km, with my friend running beside me, not letting me give up, reminding me that the prize of the finish line was just minutes away.

I was hurting, really hurting. My legs were begging me to stop, or at least slow down. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, Phaedra said, “Come on! You have five minutes left! You can do anything for five minutes!”

All of a sudden, I rounded a final bend, and there it was – the finish line. I have a strong finishing kick, and it didn’t let me down. Phaedra hopped off to the side and I charged to the finish, crossing the line in a time of 2:20:11.

I missed my personal best time by 25 seconds, but considering that my personal best time was set on a much easier course, I was satisfied with my time. I was particularly pleased that my final kilometre was by far my fastest, at 5:56.

It is worth pointing out that before Phaedra helped carry me for the last 2km, she had finished the race fourth overall, and first in her age group.

I am already looking ahead to my next half-marathon, my autism run in October. It is perhaps a good sign that as I sipped my wine and soaked my aching legs in a bubble bath last night, I was reading my copy of The Art Of Running Faster.

(Photo credit: Phaedra Kennedy)


Here Come The Butterflies

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Two weeks and one day from now, I will be lining up for my first half-marathon of the season, the Toronto Womens Half-Marathon. I am looking forward to this race immensely. Not only for the chocolate station. And shallow and all as I am, not only for the aid stations manned by shirtless firefighters who douse you with water.

I am excited about the challenge of it. With the help of my friend and coach Phaedra, I have really been pushing the boundaries in my training this season. I have managed to survive some fair significant disruptions, like unexpected travel to South Africa and a couple of bouts of illness.

The two races that I have done this year – the Good Friday Ten-Miler and the Toronto Yonge Street 10K – have both yielded PB’s (personal best times). I am eager to see if I can repeat the performance over a longer distance.

I just have to get through the final phase of training, which is referred to by many runners as Taper Madness. While tapering is an essential part of training, it can be a period fraught with anxiety and mild (or not-so-mild) paranoia.

The science behind tapering is this: you spend twelve or fourteen weeks training intensively for this event, putting in your mileage and your speed work, having a battle of wits with hills, and spending entire Sunday mornings out on the road. You build your stamina and your strength, and you get used to spending long periods of time on your feet.

The training is a long process that should be properly planned and carefully executed. And if you’re not physically capable of running the distance of a half-marathon two weeks prior to the race, chances are that you won’t be ready on race-day either. The last two weeks don’t really have any value in terms of building your fitness level or your strength, so you are better off cutting back your mileage and giving your muscles time to rebuild in time for the big day.

Because you are reducing your mileage, you have more of a build-up of energy, so you get jittery and anxious, and you start imagining that the twinge in your ankle means it’s broken, or that the little pimple on your chin means you have smallpox.

Some runners can get through the tapering period without incident. They are cool, calm and collected, and don’t suffer from any attacks of nerves. “Butterflies? What butterflies?” they ask with infuriating serenity, when you question them about whether they are nervous about their upcoming race.

Other runners cannot sit still. They pace around restlessly, talk a mile a minute and fidget incessantly. They turn into hypochondriacs, anxiously assessing every little ache and every occasion on which they need to clear their throats. Because they stop sleeping, they advance seventy-two levels in Farmville in a two-week period.

Guess which category I fall into? I’ll give you a hint: I’m sitting here typing this at 4:12 in the morning.

Technically, my taper hasn’t even started yet. It will start after my long run tomorrow. But I tend to start feeling the jitters right before that last long run. I feel that there’s a lot riding on the run. If it goes well, I will go into Race Day with confidence, but I will be worried about whether I can repeat the performance. If it goes badly, I will be obsessing about whether I’m ready for the race.

So the butterflies have shown up, right on schedule. No matter what tomorrow’s long run is like, I am going to spend the next two weeks driving my family nuts and breaking out into occasional bouts of maniacal laughter. At night I will be banished to the sofabed because my incessant fidgeting will keep the husband awake. I will constantly bug the children, who will indulge me by playing with me for a while before my six-year-old gets exasperated and goes, “Momm-meeeee. You don’t play the gamethat way.”

Right now, the butterflies are not obeying any air traffic rules. They are flying around in chaos. But it is my hope that when the starting siren goes off on the day of the race, the butterflies will reconfigure themselves, arrange themselves into beautiful patterns, and fly in formation.

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Holy Crap, No Way!

Yesterday I got an email that prompted me to utter the words, “Holy crap, no way!” and start to panic a little.

The email was a weekly newsletter from Toronto Women’s Run Series, and the first sentence started with the phrase, “With 14 weeks to go until the Toronto Women’s half-marathon…”

WHAT? There are just 14 weeks until my next half-marathon?

Holy crap! No way!

Of course, that means that there are only ten weeks until my wedding, but that’s another freak-out for another day.

I’ve been sitting around all winter getting bronchitis and having kids in hospital and the such like, when all this time I should have been gearing up to training. To be fair to myself, I never stopped running completely this winter. I had to slow down some due to all that’s been going on, but in between illnesses, I’ve been able to get in some short but good quality speed workouts.

Actually, the speed workouts may have been my downfall. Forcing myself to maintain 4:55 minutes per kilometre when my usual speed workout pace is about 6:00 minutes per kilometre probably overtaxed my body and screwed around with my immune system.

But anyway. The point is that I’m probably not in as much trouble as my mind would have me believe.

It messes with me a lot, my mind does. But again, that’s another story for another day.

What the newsletter did do, though, was galvanize me into action. I went to a few of my favourite running websites and selected a training program to follow from now until race day. And you know, it’s not so bad. This training program is not any more difficult than previous ones I have followed in the past,and as I said, it’s not like I’m starting from zero.

For this particular race, I am aiming to break 2:15. It is an ambitious goal, since my best time since I came back to running is 2:22:38. A seven-minute improvement over a distance of 21km is quite a lot. But I think I can do it and I’m sure as hell going to try. Ultimately, I’m doing this for my son, and that is the best possible motivation.

I’ll just slow down briefly when I go through the water station staffed by shirtless firefighters.