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)