To say that I was nervous about running the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon would be an understatement. The race was five days ago and my stomach still flip-flops when I think about it! I was a hot mess of nerves leading up to the event. Basically anything that could go wrong, did go wrong, which wasn’t helping my state of mind at all.
But I knew that focusing on the negative (like getting lost in the middle of Toronto and running for two hours instead of twenty minutes the day before a big race) wasn’t going to help me achieve my goal, so I did what I could to turn what I could into positives, even if it meant lying to myself. The weather forecast continued to predict nasty weather: cold, wind, rain, a possibility of snow flurries. I carried on about how great this was. I loved foul weather! The worse the sky was, the better I’d run. I looked forward to getting wet. (NOT!) I was on day 28 of my cycle, but this was really a good thing. I always feel a huge tension release once my period starts, so this was perfect timing. (NOT!) The start line was a full 45 minute drive from where we were staying. That meant I had all that time to sit in a warm cozy van – maybe even more time if there was traffic on the freeway. That had to be better than standing in a starting corral freezing, right?
Deep breaths, Mazy.
On Saturday, my family walked from our rented condo on Hanna Avenue to the Enercare Centre where the Expo was taking place. We were running a full hour behind schedule since I had gotten a bit lost on my run, so we missed meeting up with our friends who had also come from CT and were running the marathon as well. Because we were late, we went through the Expo ourselves. Packet pick-up was a little awkward. Before entering the arena I was halted by a kid with a tablet & required to fill out information like my name, address, phone number. It turned out I was signing up for some sort of raffle for a free gym membership. I tried to explain that we were from the States and it was unnecessary – even if I won I wouldn’t be able to accept it, but the kid just kept taping on the tablet. Fine. I was entered. And now I have to figure out how to unsubscribe from these Emails.
There weren’t a whole lot of people at the Expo, so there wasn’t even a line to get my bib. And I was surprised I didn’t have to identify myself in any way. In previous marathons I’ve always had to present a picture ID when picking up my packet. But, the part I found most strange about the ordeal was that I then had to take my bib, walk to the far end of the expo center and have another set of people “activate” it. Now, perhaps this was to make participants walk through the Expo and see the vendors, or perhaps the coordinators were expecting more of a crowd. Either way, those handing out the bibs could very easily have had the device to activate bibs in the same location and done it all right there, causing less confusion (and fewer personnel). Also, the table handing out T-shirts could have also been located in the same spot for convince sake.
Anyway…like I said, there was certainly an underwhelming crowd in the expo center and very few vendors. It was the same basic stuff seen at all running expos with the same persistent non-runners attempting to hawk their Made-In-China It’s-On-Sale-Only-For-Today crap. There are a few running related things I’ve been on the lookout for (a visor, foamy slip on sandals, a tank with pockets) but either no such things existed or they were fresh out of my size. Ah well. We were about to walk out with nothing but a bunch of promotional postcards when I saw her; Kathrine Switzer!
She was standing behind a table with a blown up copy of her iconic photograph from the 1967 Boston Marathon. She was chatting to a lady as she signed books. Books! My other weakness!! My husband immediately started fishing around in his pocket for the Canadian bills and I excitedly waited my turn. She signed my copy and shook my hand. She gave me advice for the following day. She was just so pleasant! Then she told me to come around the table so she could take a picture with me. She then gave me a hug and told me she knew I’d do well. And suddenly, for the first time in weeks, I knew it too.
So we spent the rest of the day attempting to relax and fighting off the excitement that was building. I continued to guzzle down Gatorade and water. I ate an early supper of pork chops and pasta (the same pre-race meal I’ve been eating for the past 20 years), and went to bed super early. Well, I laid down super early. I didn’t sleep, like at all. I was too excited, too nervous, too pumped.
I gave up trying to sleep at 4:30 am and got up, made the terrible hotel room coffee, mixed up instant oatmeal with a crunchy granola that tasted a bit like car exhaust. I swilled some more water. “A bottle in the belly!” I had to get down as much water before the race as I could since I had decided to forego the hydration pack after all. I was to meet my friends in the street at 6 am and we would drive up to the start together. I put together a pack of warm clothes and dry socks, face wipes, and granola bars for Hubs to bring to the finish line. The skyline was just beginning to illuminate as I stepped outside. I was smacked in the face with a bitter, forceful gust of wind.
Shit. This was really going to suck.
Before long M and her husband had arrived in their rented van. J had already been waiting with me in the shelter of the main lobby. There was next to no traffic this early on a Sunday morning, so we had zero issues getting to the other side of town. Roads were blocked off and it was a little unclear where we needed to go. We got as close as we could to the start area and S pulled over at a Starbucks to let us out. “Good luck!” he called as he merged back into traffic. The three of us stood a little stunned in the wind. We agreed that we would all have to pee several times in the next hour, so we headed into the coffee shop.
We wandered into Mel Lastman Square where a large building with ridiculous toilet lines kept runners shielded from the wind. It was cold, but it looked like there would be breaks in the clouds, and it definitely wasn’t going to rain. My friends were both checking bags, but I hadn’t brought much with me. I’d finish my water then toss the bottle in recycling before we headed to the start. I had on pants that I’d be okay losing, though M insisted I put them in her bag before checking it. I wore a full zip jacket that I planned on wearing until after the gun went off to keep as warm as possible and tossing once we got going. At 7:10 am the gear bags were loaded up on a big truck. We found a bathroom with no lines down a hall and ran to it. Others caught on and like lemmings, a whole crowd of runners flocked down an obscure hall to a single stalled bathroom. At 7:20 am we made our way out to the start where the crowd buzzed. M and I had lost J in the bathroom melee, but he wasn’t seeded in the same corral as us anyway. This was M’s first marathon, so we sought out the pace leaders together. She wanted to keep her eyes on 3:40, 3:50, and 4:00. My strategy didn’t involve a pace leader, simply my watch and breathing.
As the time drew near my fingers were getting stiff with cold. I decided to try carrying my gel flask (filled with maple syrup) in my shorts’ pocket instead of my hand so I could tuck my fingers into my shorts to warm them. I was wearing a pair of cheap thigh high socks with the feet cut off and thumb holes as arm warmers, but had no gloves for fear of losing them once I warmed up. My two side pockets were filled with packets of mashed sweet potato. I wasn’t carrying fluids, but there would be Gatorade and water every two to three kilometers along the course, and I was confident in my pre-race hydration. My nerves melded with excitement as the crowd pushed in. It was almost time to go.
My plan was simple: Run an 8 min/mile pace, be prepared to slow on the hills as much as 24 seconds (miles 4 & 7 with some consideration for miles 15 & 22), start off conservative, take the down hill (miles 11 through 15), but don’t get carried away. Expect a wall somewhere between miles 18 & 20 and just do whatever you have to to get to the finish from there. I would take fluid at every aid station that wasn’t over crowded and only focus on the shoulders of the runner ahead of me. I could do this. I could do this. I could do this.
The gun sounded at 7:30 am and the crowd shuffled to the large, blow up arch over the starting mat. I waited to start my watch until I got to the timing mat, but in hindsight I should have hit the button right away. I started easy, comfortable. I was just behind a 3:30 group, but had already vowed to not be a part of it. Their chatter was already driving me nuts. The crowd of runners was dense, so dense that there was no way to rabbit out and run too fast. This, I conceded, was a good thing. Within a half mile I was quite warm and ditched my jacket by a lamp post. Discarded clothing was being collected for donation, so I’m happy to think that someone somewhere in Toronto is dressed in a sporty bright pink warm up jacket right now. I hope you like it, whoever you are!! I was coming up on the first mile marker when I realized I didn’t feel an annoying bounce in my shorts. I reached back to find that my waist band lacked a particular bulge. I had dropped my flask of maple syrup! I stopped and looked frantically over the street, but there were too many people. I couldn’t find it and I didn’t dare go back against the crowd. Panic washed over me. I had 25 miles ahead of me and no fuel. The sweet potatoes were to ward off hunger in the last 8 miles or so. I’d never used them as actual fuel before. I began calculating how I’d break them up to make them last the rest of the way. I passed through the first mile mark 13 second ahead of schedule.
I pushed the fear of not fueling away and focused on getting through the race in three mile chunks. As mile four approached, the first hill, the pace group I kept behind began talking about how they could distract themselves from it. Sure, you could see the hill coming from a long ways off, but after training in Andover, this was nothing more than a gentle incline. But this group was afraid of it. I had no time for that kind of negativity and pushed past them. I finished up four miles in 31:08. Definitely ahead of schedule.
I got through mile 8 in an hour and a minute and started talking myself down from the pace. I was going too fast! At this rate I’d burn up, especially since I didn’t have any sugar for later on. I did still have my Electrolytes capsules and two more bee pollen tablets, so I popped one of each. I’d take more electrolytes in five more miles, and the other bee pollen when I began to hit a wall. If/when my pace slowed below the target pace I’d eat a packet of sweet potato. This was going to happen!
The down hill section was indeed fast. The miles flew by, even though I attempted to hold back a little to keep from destroying my quads.
Mile 8 — 7:19
Mile 9 — 7:09
Mile 10 — 7:30
Mile 11 — 7:16
Mile 12 — 7:22
I managed to get control of myself again at the half way mark and ticked through miles 13 & 14 at just under 8 min/miles. But then we entered the city. I stopped bothering with my watch because the buildings were throwing off the GPS pacing. It was also a wind tunnel and I was being blown all over the place. On a narrow street a man, who looked like my dad until I actually got up close to him, looked me right in the eye. “The 3:20 pace group just went by. I think you can catch up to them!” I was startled. I had ten more miles to go. I shouldn’t be moving this fast. I couldn’t do this. And yet, I totally was.
I drafted through the city off a young man who also admitted that he was running faster than what he’d trained for. He was from Ontario. “The wind might change when we get to the water,” he warned. A left and a right and we strode together into the park. My family was up ahead and I was so incredibly happy to see them. Because I was 8 minutes ahead of pace, they weren’t quite ready for me. They scrambled to the edge of the sidewalk and screamed and clanged bells as we passed, but Hubs never got a chance to get the camera ready. Next up was Nick’s family, who was equally as elated to see him and just as unprepared for his early arrival. But the kid was right. As we got closer and closer to the harbor, the wind became more and more unpredictable. He pushed on, but I decided to hold back. I wanted to focus on maintaining effort, not pace. And so far I was feeling like I was flying. This marathon was, at least so far, practically effortless.
I ticked through the next few miles calmly and carefully. Maintain breathing. Maintain form. It’s all about the effort, Mazy. Hold….hold……………HOLD STEADY WOMAN! But when I saw the sign for mile 20 I got excited. I had a 10k left. And I’m good at 10ks. This also meant I had gotten through the rocky part, the part of the race where I usually fell apart. I hadn’t walked. I hadn’t stopped. I was still going! With five miles to go I was back to well under 8 min pace. With a 5k left I was pushing 7:30 pace. I WILL QUALIFY became a mantra on an endless loop in my brain. I was actually going to pull this off.
I felt the pain of the distance and all those miles on pavement when my watched bleeped the 24th mile. My calves began to cramp up and burn. But, unlike every other race, I did not despair. I could handle it for two more miles. Real pain took over at mile 25, but I was now moving even faster. I was down to a 7:20 pace and gaining speed. I passed Nick going up the hill along the freeway. “Hey, there you are!” he cheered as I came up alongside him. “Wow, you’ve got a kick! HOLY SHIT!” I grunted for him to come with me. “Come on!” I started urging all the runners around me. “We are almost done!”
I couldn’t help but smile. In fact, I was almost laughing. I was in pain. Wind was blowing hair in my mouth. I wanted to eat NOW. But I was running. I was doing the thing I love to do most and I was doing it so well. The cheering at the finish chute was like a tunnel of noise. I saw my family out of the corner of my eye, and like a corny movie, everything slowed down. The world stood still a moment as I moved as fast I could. I used up everything I had left in me and kept my eyes glued to the large clock over the finish line.
Overwhelmed and fighting back a lump in my throat, I staggered through the chute. Someone shook my hand. Someone was giving me a hug. Someone put a giant medal around my neck. Someone took my picture. Nick came in shortly behind me and I gave him a high-five. I had done it. I came with a goal, I came with a desire, I came prepared, and I had done it. I had qualified, at last. I was going to Boston.