Well that was … hard. Fucking hard. A few hours have passed since I crossed the finish line, and my thoughts of the day are starting to sink in. My legs feel like jelly and I'm finding it hard to get off the coach, but I’m soaking it all up and relishing in this feeling of fatigue; the proof that I gave this race all I had to give.
The Mississauga half marathon was my big goal spring race! I chose this race for a few reasons - firstly, the timing worked out with my travel plans, secondly I had heard great things about the course (and I wasn't disappointed) and thirdly I wanted to get really comfortable running the half marathon distance so when I race my half ironman this summer the run will feel like a familiar distance.
I woke to the sound of my alarm at 5:15 am. I groggily turned it off and got out of bed. I went straight into the kitchen and turned on the coffee maker I had prepared the night before, then had a glass of water. 'Wake Up Hannah, this is it, this is race morning'. My stomach felt a bit off and I wasn't sure if I overdid it on the pasta last night, or if being a bit lax on my food allergies the past month was coming back to bite me in the ass. I tried to put it out of my mind and decided with a bit of coffee in my system I would feel better. I settled down on the couch with my strong cup of coffee and my computer and started browsing through running websites for last minute motivation. The sun started to rise outside my window and my body slowly started to wake up. I did a little movement while I waited for my rye bread to toast and took deep breaths.
As the morning went on I reminded myself that nerves are good. Nerves are just a form of arousal - how you interpret these will really decide if they facilitate or debilitate performance. These feelings of butterflies, and antsy-ness are what will fuel me through my race. At 6:15 I started to put on my race clothes, put my pile of race nutrition into a bag and headed out the door with Luke to drive to the race. Being 6:30am on a Sunday, there were hardly any cars on the road and we flew there in no time at all. Arriving with half an hour until the start of the race was perfect timing. I used the washroom once more, did a quick warm up of about 5 minutes of running followed by some strides and then made my way over to the start line to gather with the other runners.
I spotted Luke across the gate which was a big surprise, as I didn’t think he was coming back to see the start. I ran over to him, to give him a hug and kiss. He wished me good luck and I made my way back into the starting line. I found my place around the 1:50 pacer and waited until take off …
The race started great! I was keeping a nice and steady 'easy' feeling pace straddling 5:10 and 5:15 min/km, exactly where I had planned to be for the first 5k. Although I wasn't pushing, it was not as easy as I knew it should be feeling from past runs. I knew when I woke up in the morning that my stomach wasn’t feeling great and as a result I felt more depleted than usual. I took more trips to the washroom than I had hoped and had an inkling this might creep back during the race but I tried to put this out of my mind and focus on the positives of the day; the weather was great, my legs felt great and I was heading into the run injury free and really motivated. I knew if I was strategic and stayed positive I could still make for a great race.
I kept that easy feeling pace as we turned down Mississauga road, trying to soak up the experience and stay in the present moment. Whenever there were stretches of downhill I allowed myself to fall forward and take up more speed without increasing my effort. I kept repeating to myself ‘eat up the downhills’ and I imagined myself falling forward with grace. There was a slight hill coming out of the University of Toronto campus at around 7 or 8 km. I repeated to myself ‘just a little speed bump’ and then reminded myself to bring my HR and breathing back to normal as quickly as possible after cresting the hill.
At this point I saw Luke again, at the corner of Dundas and Mississauga road. He was smiling on the side of the road and seeing him boosted my mood a bit. I gave a wave and then pushed on.
There is one big hill on the course (and even it isn’t that big) around the 10km mark. I knew it was coming and made sure to have a gel before it. The hill is on a curve so unless you know the course you aren’t quite sure how big it really is. I had run this part of the course before on a training run so I knew it wasn’t too too bad but my mind started to play tricks on me and as we turned the corner I was relieved to see the top of the hill. I was keeping a pretty steady pace at this point averaging 5:11 min/km. My watch read 5:09 but when I added up my time at each km marking I suspected I was closer to 5:11. I knew if I could maintain 5:11 for the rest of the course I could make my 1:50 goal, but I would be cutting it really close. One or two bad km’s later on could put me over 1:50. I was hoping for more of a buffer but I also didn’t want to start increasing the pace too early and risk falling apart in the final 5km.
Once I crested the hill, there was a long downhill section and I allowed my breathing and HR to settle and began my attempt to speed up a bit. I was trying to see if I could grab on to 5:05 pace and hold it for as long as possible. Looking back at my splits, I was able to pick it up and maintain a faster speed during this section from km 12-17 (around 5:07, 5:08).
Around this time however, I developed a horrible side stitch. This same thing happened at Around the Bay after the last big hill so I had an inkling this might happen during this race. At ATB, the stitch was like stabbing pains in my sides so I actually stopped and walked to stretch it out a bit. When I started running again it came back immediately so I ended up just trying to make it go away while running and breathing.
Learning from my past experiences I realized there was no point in walking as it would probably come right back once I started running again so I went about trying to get rid of it while maintaining the run. I must have looked hilarious to give you a visual; I was grabbing my R oblique with my left hand and squeezing like crazy. I would then take a big breath in, hold my breath, squeeeeeezing my side, slightly bend to the left and then release it. I was trying to contract my left obliques as a way of performing reciprocal inhibition on myself WHILE running a half marathon!
It really must have looked quite hilarious !
I’m not sure what finally did it, but at some point the stabbing pain in my side subsided and although I don’t think it ever fully went away I don’t remember thinking about it too much in the final few km's of the race. Unfortunately, my stomach and GI system became much more of a worry of mine in the final few kms.
As we made our way down Mississauga Road I saw my coach Mark who gave me a cheer and let me know there was a long downhill section coming up. I knew the course up until the 16km mark, after that it follows the waterfront trail as well as residential streets and it is quite zig zaggy which is hard when you’re already really tired. Even just one day later, the final 5km stretch is almost a blur to me. I remember just trying to hold on to the 5:10 pace here and when possible pick it up if I could. I remember looking at my watch and seeing 5:15 and thinking "no, no, no you have to go faster than that or you won’t make 1:50". I'd then attempt to pick it back up to 5:10 only to look down a few seconds later and be back running at 5:15 pace!!! My body really just wanted to settle into that pace and bringing it up to 5:10 felt like a massive effort. It was so frustrating.
It was during the final stretch that my stomach really started to get into knots as well. Because I had been so focused on my side stitch, I had completely forgotten about the gel I was going to take at the 16/17 km mark. I remembered just after 17km but because my stomach was all over the place the thought of a gel repulsed me. I decided to open it up and see if I could at least stomach a bit. I had one bite and immediately knew it was not going to happen so just threw the rest in the bin. Such a waste of a good gel :( I was cursing myself for being so lax with my nutrition over the past few weeks and vowed in THAT moment to not make the same mistake going into my half ironman this summer. I am going to be super careful and give myself a few months now of only putting into my body things I know are good for it.
The other thing was because the km markings were slightly off my watch's time, I wasn’t ever quite sure what my real time was. I knew on my watch I was going go make my 1:50 goal but my watch would beep 30 seconds before I actually hit the km markings. (I am positive the 10km marking on the course was far too late!!) But anyways, because of this from Km 17 to the finish I was really running scared. This just shows how having a goal can act as a great motivator when times get tough.
With less than a km to go, I saw Luke again on the side of the trail snapping pictures and cheering me on. It wasn’t until I could see the clock at the finishing chute that I really had an idea of my time. When I saw that last bit I burst out and did a full on sprint to the finish (and passed a woman in the final 50m!) and thank God I did because I came in at 1:48:58! I got that extra 2 seconds to make me break my goal by over a minute!
Overall, I’m happy with the PB and the goal but I’m not 100% satisfied with my performance, and it’s because the whole time I knew my stomach wasn’t right and it was holding me back. I believe I'm capable of more which is an exciting and motivating thought.
BUT, what I am really proud of, is throughout the whole race I was able to stay really positive. I know how important the mindset is to your race so no matter what, even at the beginning of the race when I had a sense my stomach might bother me later on, I tried to push that thought out of my mind and remind myself that I felt good now and I was keeping things easy and i was going to stay positive. When it got really hard I tried to focus and think of all positive things and I totally avoided a bad downward spiral at the end. The final 3-4 km I did slow down slightly and I wish I had been able to pick it up to 5:00 pace but I also didn’t drop down to 5:30 pace and really just give up. So that’s something I am really proud of.
I’m realizing that the act of racing itself takes experience and so much of it is not just your fitness going into the race but how you strategically handle the ups and downs. I still feel super inexperienced in racing, and I know that as I do more races I’ll get a better sense of how I'm supposed to feel at different parts of the race.
My general feelings of this race were great and I would recommend it to anyone. The course was beautiful, it was bustling with runners yet you had room to move around, there were lots of supporters out and it was so easy to get to in the morning. There is a good chance I'll be back next year but for now... My sites are set on on Muskoka 70.3 in 2 months.
You can see the full data from this race on Strava