Wow wow wow! I did it! My first marathon is officially in the books and I have to say, it was incredible.
Two questions everyone have been asking me since finishing the marathon:
The answer to question 1 is surprisingly well! My legs were/are sore, as is to be expected but 3 days post race I am feeling incredibly good. I’ve been militant about rest and recovery and reaping the benefits. I’m feeling good enough to start asking that dreadful question "Could I have run it faster??"
The answer to question 2 is abso-fucking-lutely. There is no question in my mind. Now that I’ve gotten a taste at the marathon distance there is no going back. I'm hooked and already scheming my next attempt at the distance.
The race was incredible and I had the absolute best time. As usual, most of the race is a blur in my mind of one foot in front of the other, with a few intermittent breaks of water, gel, high fives and a lot of counting in the final few km’s. I’ll do my best to recount the experience.
Race morning also happened to be the day the clocks went back an hour so although this meant I got an extra hour of sleep, it also meant I spent about an hour the night before googling ‘do iPhones turn the clock back automatically?’ Once I had gotten enough ‘yes’ responses to be confident enough to go to sleep, I turned off the lights in the hope of getting at least a little bit of shut eye. Even with an early bedtime, I was up various times throughout the night worried about the alarm situation. Each time my eyes popped open I hoped it would just be morning already. So when my alarm finally did go off I bolted out of bed. The clock read 5:15 am and I double checked this was in fact the real 'new' time then headed to the kitchen to turn on the coffee maker. I settled into my typical morning routine but with the added excitement in the air - I was about to run my first marathon.
When I couldn’t wait any longer I ran back into the room and jumped on Luke, waking him up and telling him to get moving it was marathon morning! I was like a kid on Christmas. Luke reluctantly shared in my excitement, though his tired bleary eyes showed otherwise.
To add to the complications of the morning, the Gardiner Expressway was closed for maintenance work, meaning we had to take an alternative route to Hamilton. We planned on leaving earlier but as usual didn’t get out the door until the last possible moment meaning we had very little leeway in timing. Luckily not many cars were on the road at 6:30 am on a Sunday so the beautiful sunrise we experienced was ours and ours alone.
I chatted away in the car (as I always do on race days) while Luke listened and nodded along. The car ride flew by and before we knew it we arrived at the starting location of the Hamilton Road2Hope marathon. We parked on the side of the road (yes, this is a very small marathon!) and with hardly anytime to spare headed straight for the port-a-potties. Once all that was done, I heard the 5 minute call till the start of the marathon. Guess I wasn’t doing a warm up (whoops!). Not to worry, even more of a reason to start slow and steady. We took a few pre-race photos and then at the last possible moment I tore off my jacket, sweat pants, scarf and kissed Luke goodbye heading into the crowd.
The Hamilton marathon is a very small race with a total of 867 runners racing in the full marathon, so the crowd at the start was quite small. This may not sound small, but compare it to the 52,697 that were running the New York City marathon that same day you can get a bit of perspective. I was still weaving thorough the crowd of runners trying to find my place when I heard a 3 - 2 - 1 followed by the blast of a horn. We were off!
Km’s 1-10: The crowd was cheering as we slowly began walking, then jogging, then picking up the pace into a run to cross the start line, turning immediately right onto a back-country road. As we ran that first km I made a point of really soaking it all in and recognizing that this was a moment I would never be able to relive; starting off on my very first marathon.
The first 10 km’s weaved up and down country roads with gentle rolling slopes. This was really cool because you could see the long line of runner’s in front and behind you; a long train of bodies all starting off on the same journey. Even being such a small race, I could feel the energy and magic in the air - 867 runner’s all with the same ONE goal; to run 42.2 km on this beautiful autumn morning.
After 2 km’s, we made our first turn onto Ridge Rd. which boasted a magnificent view from the escarpment looking down over Stoney Creek. If I had carried my phone with me, I would have been tempted to take a photo… and in fact runners did stop to take photos. Instead I have a slightly blurry one from the morning drive which gives a bit of an idea what it was like. I kept the pace steady, somewhere around the 5:35 min/km pace. People were chatting around me, and while I listened to the stories of the runner’s around me recounting past marathon’s, and their journeys to this day, I wasn’t interested in participating. I was focussed on being in my body and in the moment and keeping it a private moment.
We turned back onto another country road and just after the 5 km mark came to an intersection. There was Luke standing on the corner, cheering and photographing. The sun was strong and I had warmed up so I threw him my gloves. I told him I was feeling great, gave him a high five then took off.
The next 5 km's continued to follow the same pattern of gently rolling up and down along the country roads. Aid stations every 3 km's helped to break up the time and the volunteers manning these stations were all wonderful. I made a conscious effort to thank as many volunteers as I could that I accepted water from at this early stage when I was still peppy and feeling good. At about 8k I had my first of 4 gels, deciding the espresso one would probably do me good. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the 10 km marker ahead, the time had just flown by. I took inventory over my body making sure everything was feeling good. As a way of checking my pace I turned to the man running next to me and started to engage in a short conversation. How was he feeling? Was this his first marathon? How beautiful was this day? We chatted for a few minutes, me making sure my pace was still easy enough that I could talk without huffing and puffing and then we wished each other good luck and went back to our individual races.
Km’s 10- 21: The next few km's weren’t all that exciting, which is probably what you want in a well run marathon (if things are getting exciting this early on in the race, you’re probably in for a tough second half). Once turning onto Highland Road, we had a nice straight shot for about 7 km's with hardly any changes in terrain or elevation. I kept the pace consistent even though I was itching to speed up and used effort rather than pace as my guide. As a result, my pace hovered consistently between 5:30-5:35 with a couple outlier km’s that had more significant inclines or descents. At about the 16 km mark we approached an intersection and I saw an old VW silver bug with a dent on the roof parked on the corner. I looked up ahead and there was Luke surprising me! He had planned to meet me at the 5 km mark to ditch any extra clothing I didn’t want and at the final push at the end so this was a pleasant surprise! A little extra boost of adrenaline from seeing a friendly face canNOT be understated !
I gave him a high five and then blasted off. I was feeling AWESOME. The temperature was great, the atmosphere was great, pretty much everything was going great! I had been given a good piece of advice from a friend which was to try to change up pace and stride throughout the run so as to activate different muscle groups and stave off muscle fatigue so I used these few km’s to focus on that. I would spend 10 seconds kicking my feet back to my bum or bringing my knees up to my chest, just changing things up.
Km’s 21- 30: When we passed the 21 km mark I couldn’t help but smile to myself, amazed that a half marathon could feel so good. I knew any minute now we would be turning onto the downhill highway section of the course where I was looking forward to just coassssssting down the hill.
Just before we headed onto the ramp, we approached an area of road construction meaning that the terrain changed to wet pavement which was nice and soft but also quite uneven. All of the sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my left knee. That was weird…? I recognized the pain as my IT band, an injury I had experienced two years earlier, a week before running the Scotiabank 1/2 marathon. It felt like a pull on the outside of my knee and although it wasn’t a horrible pain, it wasn’t what you wanted to feel with a half marathon still to run. I tried shifting my stride a bit, focussed on my technique but the pain persisted. Looking back, I’m actually surprised how calm I stayed knowing how bad IT band pain can get. At that moment, I just made the decision that there was a very good chance I would have to run through excruciating pain for the next 21 km's. I told myself that it was just sensation and nothing permanent and was only as bad a my mind accepted it to be. Pain may be present but suffering was optional. The next 2 hours might be excruciating but if that was what was going to happen, I might as well settle in for the ride. I quite literally came to terms with the fact that I may have to endure excruciating pain for two hours. WTF right?
We turned onto Red Hill Valley Parkway and were immediately hit by two big changes. First was a huge descent. We were quite literally running at a -8% gradient for portions of the next km. Second was the wind… oh boy was there wind! Because it was a beautiful day, the wind felt nice and cool on my face but it definitely added an element of resistance to the next section. The descent was steep but the view running down this highway was incredible! My race plan was to keep the effort consistent during this nice downhill section and not look at my watch knowing that my pace would probably increase and increase it did. Km’s 23, 24 and 25 were my fastest of the race with a total of 90 m of descent between the 3 km’s! It’s such a cool feeling to run down the centre of a highway; I mean when else do you ever get that chance?
Somewhere during that downhill section I realized I no longer felt my knee pain. Perhaps it was the dramatic change in my stride that came with the downhill, or maybe it was due to my acceptance of running through the pain, or maybe it was just a marathon miracle. Either way I’m taking it as a gift and pledge to never get lazy with my IT band self-care again.
The gradient evened off a bit with a very gentle downhill remaining but the wind remained. I kept the pace consistent repeating to myself ‘the race doesn’t start till 32 km’. We eventually turned off the Parkway crossing Barton St. and headed onto the trail section of the course.
Km’s 30 - 40: In my mind I had broken the race down into 3 sections and we were now entering into the third section of the race. It was on! Km 30 was actually one of the tough ones as we turned onto a trail with some uneven ground, a few puddles to dodge and one short but steeeeeep hill that would lead to the bridge crossing over the QEW. I felt the first pang of 'pain' during this section, as the wind struck me coming off the water.
At 32-33km (ish… things were getting a bit foggy by now) I had the absolute best surprise.
From the distance I heard the loudest cheering, ringing bells and then "GOOOOO HANNNNAH!!! GO GO GO HANNAH YOU CAN DOOOO IT. HANNNNNNNAH!" The Rogue Runners were out and they were a force to be reckoned with. The cheers continued as I made my way past the group and couldn't help but BURST out laughing. My arms flew above my head and without realizing it I flew by them! They had signs, they had enthusiasm and they quite literally pushed me forward. Thank you a million times to the amazing cheering squad!
Hitting km 33 was a tough milestone. I was now entering into unknown territory and yet still had 9 km’s to go. It’s hard to convince yourself that you ONLY have 9k to go … I tried the mentality of ‘it's less than an hour’ which kinda worked but also left me a bit depressed. I still had ALMOST an hour left. My mind started to think of all the things you can do in an hour. Teaching an entire pilates class, one full episode of The Great British Bake-Off … no no no this wasn’t helping. I settled my mind and started counting each foot fall bringing me back into my body and settling my mind.
1, 2, 3, 4,
2, 2, 3, 4,
3, 2, 3, 4,
4, 2, 3, 4. …
The final 10 km section of the race is an out and back along Lake Ontario. The first part heading west turns off the lake pretty quickly onto a road parallel to the waterfront trail. This was nice as the road provided protection from the wind. Each km that passed felt like an eternity, but I just kept on moving. I knew I had paced myself well as I spent the next few km’s passing people. What an incredible feeling it is to pass people in the final 10k of a marathon! Cars were driving along beside us, honking and cheering but for most of this section I was running alone. I had a few mantras I repeated to myself. “Steady and strong” was one I liked, and lots and lots of counting.
Just before the 37 km mark we made a big U-turn to head back onto the waterfront trail for the final push to the finish line. Back on the waterfront trail I could immediately feel the wind coming off the lake. My legs were fatiguing and I was quite certain I might get blown off the path but I just kept reminding myself of the long runs I had done to prepare for this day and how much I wanted it.
Here’s what I remember thinking as I passed each km marker:
Km’s 41-42.2: Just after km 41 we approached a 'hill' - I say hill because to the 41km brain it looked like a hill, but in reality it was a tiny slope to run up (video below), and there at the top was my favourite guy with camera in hand. I heard him call my name and looked over but by this point had no energy to spare. Apparently my glare was less of a death stare to my one at the Muskoka Half Ironman - your welcome Luke.
The final km is a blur but I remember reminding myself to savour this moment. Soak it up, and don’t ever forget this feeling. I pushed harder telling myself to give everything I had left in the final 500 m’s, which is so much harder said than done. I crossed the finish line with the biggest smile on my face and the happiest feeling in my heart. I did it!
Finish: I finished with an official 'chip' time of 3:53:42, a time beyond my wildest expectations! Once I crossed the finish line, a little girl was waiting for me to give me my medal. I bent down to allow her to place it over my head as she congratulated me and told me I did a good job. Thanks little 6 year old girl!
I heard my name called and Luke was standing by the fence, just past the finish line. "I did it!!" I said to him as I partly collapsed into his arms. The runner's were then ushered into a tent where we were given a bag to put post race food in. I grabbed an apple, banana and bag of chips then went out to meet Luke. There was pizza and warm soup on offer but to a stomach that had just literally finished a marathon, it was about the least appealing thing I could think of. In my post marathon brain fog I had forgotten the golden rule; Never turn down pizza when Luke is around. Damn. Sorry babe.
Once out of the food tent and in the cold air I was immediately struck by how cold it really was. We grabbed a warm coffee from the Tim Horton's truck and watched a few others cross the finish line and then headed back into a tent to do some stretches while staying warm. I had wanted to stay longer and cheer others on but at that moment all I could think of was getting warm and sitting down. We bid Hamilton goodbye, thanking it for a wonderful morning and drove back to Toronto.
And just like that, I had run a marathon. As I lay in bed that night, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for two strong legs and a healthy body that could carry me 42.2 km's just cause I felt like it. Just cause I wanted to see what I was made of and how hard I could push before breaking.
I’ve never wanted to jump back on the horse so soon. I’m giving my body the rest and recovery it needs. First day post race I took the morning off and lay in bed/ on the couch with my feet up. I reflected on the experience, caught up on some of the things I had been neglected and revelled in the past 24 hours. I went on a walk in the afternoon to stretch the legs between treatments and then did some mobility drills at work - luckily I work in the most runner’s friendly place EVER (The Runner’s Academy) so was able to talk non-stop about the race.
The IT band pain that came and went almost immediately still puzzles me. The only thing I can think of is because the ground was so even and so flat there was’t any change in my pace or stride and the constant impact began to aggravate the knee.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it is that my body was made to run long distances. It’s crazy to think I could enjoy running for almost 4 hours so immensely and itching for my next run.
But for now, I think I'll take nap.
**You can take a look at my run on Strava Here.