Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My second marathon story: It's all about the journey!

Wow. I can't believe it's already been a week and a half since my Toronto Marathon. Things have been busy, but I figured I would take the time to write my second marathon story while it's still fresh in my mind.

The big news is: I finished my second marathon on May 15th, and I shaved off almost 7 minutes from my original time. A PB! And when I crossed that finish line, the feeling was one of elation, joy and pride...Such night and day emotions compared to my first marathon.

Here, then, is the story of my second marathon:
On the Friday before the race, after a busy week at work and catching up with friends who I hadn't seen in months (this included far too much eating and not much running) I drove to Exhibition Place in downtown Toronto to pick up my race kit. There was a pretty long queue for the 5, 10 and half marathons, but only a few of us walking over to the full marathon tables. Bruce had told me that there would be more than 2,800 of us running the full -- more than 10 times more runners than the 130 runners at the Moncton Marathon in the fall -- but I still felt like I was part of a small group and I had a little glow of pride as I picked up my race bag.

There wasn't much happening at the Race Expo, which surprised me, but I did get to meet John Stanton in person and shake his hand. When I told him I was visiting from Halifax, he said I'd enjoy the Toronto course because it's mostly downhill and pretty flat, compared to Halifax. I asked him whether I should head out for a short run that night, since I'd only done 4k that week, but he suggested that I do an easy 3k the following morning and then rest my legs.

So that's what I did, after a surprisingly good night's sleep, considering race day was only two sleeps away. The next morning, I pulled on the blue 2011 Toronto Marathon t-shirt, again feeling a little glow of pride buzzing inside me, and I jogged over to the local Blockbuster to pick out a few mindless DVDs to watch over the course of the day. It was a hot, humid day, so I hoped that the rain they'd been promising for Sunday would actually come.

Funnily enough, the Twitter buzz about #torontomarathon was all about people worrying that our chips wouldn't be waterproof, our numbers wouldn't last in the rain, or that they'd freeze. Others complained that there had been chocolates (Tofifees and Werther's chocolate caramels) in our race bags ("are they trying to sabotage us?" one tweep posted), but I didn't mind -- I shared the chocolates with my parents as we watched The Switch.

Later that afternoon, I started laying out my gear on the dining room table, including my pre- and post-race bags. I still wasn't 100% sure what I'd feel like wearing in the morning, so I laid out a few different outfits, along with my camera, water bottles, GU, the race cheering signs my Halifax friends had made for me (which had survived the trip to Toronto), Gatorade, Body Glide, Ibuprofen and other essentials.

The butterflies were definitely there, but more than anything, it almost felt surreal. I'd been so busy the previous week that it hadn't given my overly active brain too much time to obsess about anything. Secretely, the usual questions still hovered -- am I ready? Did I train enough? Am I strong enough? Do I even want to do this?

But then I remembered some of the quotes Wendy had emailed me the previous week: "You're stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and braver than you feel." And: "Trust your training." All of the hard work was done now. All that remained was to go out there and run.

That night, my mom made us Gordon Ramsay's Pancetta Pasta for dinner -- my favourite pre-race meal. Then after watching a bit more mindless TV and calling my hubby for one last pep talk ("Just run it like any other run," he said, telling me how proud he was of me), I headed to bed early. And got another surprisingly good night's rest.

In the morning, I woke up at around 6:30 because we had an hour-long drive into North York before the starting gun went off at 9. Although one Twitter follower told me "get a move on gurl" because they thought I'd never make it, what with traffic, parking, etc., I tried to make my mind a blank and not think, because there was nothing I could do in the car.

Eventually, we made it to Mel Lastman Square just as the half marathoners were leaving. My parents had dropped me off on the east side of the street while they went off in search of parking, and here was this human river of runners that just kept coming for what seemed like five minutes. After awhile I just decided to try and get into the crowd and run diagonally across, all the while making a mental note of what folks were wearing.

I tend to be a fairly warm runner, so when I noticed that there were a number of people wearing shorts and t-shirts or tanks, I decided to switch out of my t-shirt and into my tank and running sleeves. At that point, the rain was just drizzling but it was hovering somewhere around 9 degrees, and it was going to warm up.

Inside Novotel Hotel as I waited in line for the bathroom, the buzz of the gathering runners was electric. By coincidence, I met Bruce and Darryl outside the hotel even though we'd said we would meet by the bag drop. Bruce told me he was wearing his lucky running shorts and had a good feeling about the run.

"Every time I wear these shorts, something good happens," he said. "Make sure you keep them on then," said my dad with a chuckle. I gave my parents a hug, and they wished me good luck (my dad": "break a leg"; my mom: "merde" -- "which means 'shit' in French," I explained to Bruce with a grin).

So the three of us Haligonians headed over to North York City Hall, where the crush of runners and electric hum of anticipation was even greater. I was amazed by just how many of them were wearing garbage bags -- we were going to get wet anyways, so what did it matter?

After one last trip to the bathroom, where I met Gail -- another runner from our Spring Garden Road Run Club -- I followed the crowd, which was slowly making its way to the start line. Bruce (our coach from my marathon clinic) had suggested that I find the four-hour pace bunny and try to stick with him, so I looked out for the pair of pink bunny ears that said 4:00 and made my way to that place in the crowd. Strangely, I still didn't feel nervous. I was floating in an in-between zone and just trying to keep focused on being confident and feeling ready.

The only thing that had me worried was that we'd been out there a few minutes and still, my Garmin wouldn't kick in. There was just that little sliver of white on the black status bar, and it would keep creeping up, then back down, then up...But finally with only two minutes to spare it kicked in. I set my pace to 5:26 and the workout to 10:1 intervals, and then I waited for the starting gun to go off.

I didn't have long to wait. Suddenly, we were counting down the 10 last seconds with the announcer. The starting gun exploded, and we were off!

I gave my parents an excited wave as we filed by them, and then we were on our way. I felt strong, and the pace bunny was setting a manageable pace, as we ran around Mel Lastman Square and onto Yonge Street. The only thing in the back of my mind was the hill at Hog's Hollow. Once we made it up that hill, I thought, I could relax and settle into things.

As we ran under the 401 and down Yonge to the intersection at York Mills, we took our first walk break. The hill loomed in the distance. We were keeping at about a 5:17 pace and I still felt great. I headed up the hill feeling strong -- I was from hilly Halifax, after all!

And then, the pace bunny and the group started passing me, then moving ahead. I figured that I'd catch up to them once I got to the crest, but I was starting to feel tired. No matter that I'd spent months training in one of the hilliest cities; this hill was long. I was tired, but I told myself that I could rest once we made it to flatter ground.

The hill crested, I picked up my pace to catch up with the bunny as the four-hour group stopped to grab a drink. We had another walk break, and then started back up. But my legs started feeling sluggish, then leaden. My breathing wasn't relaxed anymore. And somewhere in that stretch from Lawrence to Eglinton, even as I drew on the energy of the group cheering us on outside Lulu Lemon and as I high-fived a couple of wide-eyed little girls holding out their hands to us by the side of the road, I started to fall back, then back and back.

At that point, I made a decision: I could either try to keep up with the bunny and tire myself out at kilometre 7, or slow down and pick up the pace later if I felt up for it. So I did the latter, and I decided to ignore the pace setting on my watch. I noticed that more and more runners were starting to pass me, but there seemed to be nothing I could do to pick up my pace.

As 7 kilometres turned into 10, then 15, my mind, which had been so calm at the starting line, started playing the doubt game with me. Why was I feeling so tired? Had I done something wrong in the days before? Had I really trained enough? Maybe there was something physically wrong that I was fighting. Or maybe I really wasn't cut out for long distance running. Maybe, I should just quit at the halfway point.

And my parents, who had said they'd see me at the 10k mark, were nowhere to be seen. As we wound around Casa Loma, I waved frantically to a woman about my mom's height and wearing a similar jacket. I wasn't wearing my glasses, so it took me a while to realize that it wasn't in fact my mom.

It was at about kilometre 16 or so that we entered the beautiful treed valley of Rosedale Heights (I think that's what it's called). Everywhere, little yellow pollen buds littered the wet ground, and we were surrounded by green. If I hadn't been so tired and playing mind games with myself, I'd have said it was pretty.

And then the 4:15 pace bunny passed me to my left.

Ok, I thought. Let's try and keep up with these guys. I did, for about 10 minutes, glancing up at a spectator who was cheering us from a bridge above the road.

And then, I started to drop back. I just couldn't maintain their pace.

Well you can imagine what this did to my already active brain.

If I quit, I'd have still done a half marathon.

But I wouldn't get a finisher's medal.

That's why they call it a finisher's medal. Because you finish.

But no one would care except for me.

And what about all the people who'd cheered me on all these weeks? What about the fundraising I'd done in the name of Japan relief efforts? What about all the training I'd done?

So I let the 4:15 group (and time goal) drift away from me, but I didn`t stop. At this point, I was near tears. Emotionally, I was exhausted. Something was definitely wrong. I was just a couple of kilometres till the half, where I'd see my parents and quit.

And then...

As we emerged out of the valley and turned left onto Front Street near the St. Lawrence Market, out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar face running towards me. It was my friend Kyla! She'd promised she would see me and would cycle the route to cheer me on, but with the rain and the winds, I had figured it was completely understandable that she'd decide to pass on her promise.

"How are you feeling?" she asked me, walking beside me as I took my walk break.

"I want to quit!" I half sobbed.

"Just think about all of the good things you're looking forward to when you cross that finish," she encouraged.

"Hugging your mom, taking a warm bath..." she chuckled. It was after all pretty chilly outside, though by that point I was hardly noticing the weather -- I was so stuck inside the battle in my brain.

I gave her a half smile, as I took in a gel and sipped on my water. I prepared to start running again as my Garmin counted down the seconds to the next running interval.

"I'll bike ahead and see you in half an hour on the course," Kyla said. "So you'd better be there or I'll start worrying about where you went!"

I promised to keep going, and started running again, my legs still feeling heavy, but somehow lightened by knowing that my friend had taken the time to come out here on a rainy Sunday just to cheer me on.

As I crossed Jarvis Street, I chuckled to myself as a cop started telling off an impatient Toronto driver who had tried to turn left and cut off the runners. He was gesturing and pointing in my direction, so I can only imagine that he was saying something like: "Can't you see there's a marathon going on here? What do you think you're doing?"

I had chuckled. So I guess I was starting to feel a bit better.

Approaching the halfway mark, I started looking out for my parents, but they were nowhere to be found. Part of me started worrying about them (which was a good way to distract me) and part of me was a little relieved, because if they'd been there, I'd have fallen, sobbing and tired, into their arms, and they would have let me quit if I felt it was the right thing to do.

So I kept on. We ran under the Gardiner, which was a nice change because it was warmer, but my hat blew off. All of a sudden I was at kilometre 23, then 24. At around that point, the front runners started coming back. I cheered for them, because they looked amazing. Inspiring, despite my fatigue.

And there was Kyla, on Lakeshore.

"How are you feeling now?" she asked, with a huge grin.
"A little better, but still not great." I admitted. "Thanks for showing up! You're amazing!"

"No, you're amazing," she said. "I'll see you in a bit!"

So I kept going, once again reflecting on what great friends and family I have, and thankful for their support.

Kyla showed up again a couple of kilometres later, as I was heading along Front Street towards the CNE.

"How are you feeling now?"

"I just don't know what's going on. I was aiming for a four-hour finish but my legs just felt like lead!" I agonized.

"It's raining and it's windy," Kyla said. "It's just a day."

I tried to believe her. I'd had so many "days" before, so this shouldn't be anything new. I handed her my hat, and I kept going.

As we ran along Lakeshore, more and more runners started coming back in the other direction, and I became focused on: A) spotting my parents; B) ticking down the kilometres. I had at this point long since given up any idea of keeping a pace or a time goal, but Kyla had encouraged me because she said she'd had to cycle a lot farther to find me between the last point and my current location than she'd expected.

"You're too fast!" she laughed.

I laughed too -- I hardly felt fast. But at this point speed didn't matter.

In Lake Ontario, the waves were slate grey against a dull sky. I could see a few dragonboat teams practising in the choppy waves.

I then realized that all along, I hadn't made much of a point of looking around me to gather images for my marathon story. So I looked up, only to find a guy passing me -- and running in completely bare feet. I'd heard about the barefoot running craze, and certainly seen quite a few "gorilla foot" runners in the last few months. But running barefoot in the streets of Toronto -- not to mention the rain-drenched streets of Toronto -- seemed not only painful, but quite gross, frankly. Better him than me!

As the stream of returning runners continued to my right, I also kept an eye out for the four-hour pace bunny, just to get a sense of how far back I'd slipped. I didn't see a bunny, yet, but I did catch a glimpse of a mouse: a grown man dressed in a brown velour mouse costume, complete with curly tail and pink ears. Better him than me!

Every so often, runners would spint by us wearing red "Relay" bibs on their backs. It was a little frustrating, because they only had a few kilometres to go so of course they could be fast. But that was their race, and this was mine.

And then, in the distance, somewhere around kilometre 27, I spotted a small woman in a red raincoat dancing and hopping from foot to foot, waving a fluorescent orange poster from side to side. Not wearing my glasses, I couldn't read what it said, but I knew the words that had been markered on to it:

"Go, Halifax Runner Girl!"

It was my parents! It was the first time they'd ever seen me at a road race, after years of hearing me talk about my running. And their glow of pride made me feel proud.

I took a walk break and asked my dad to walk alongside me for a quick minute.

"I wanted to quit," I told him.

"The 4:30 pace bunny is still behind you," he said. "So you're still ahead of that time."

Well that was it. That was my Plan B. No matter that my goal of breaking four hours had been shattered a couple of hours ago.

From that point on, the "race" (it had become more of a run) changed. Plan B was to achieve a personal best.

Never having run the course before, the next challenge on my list was learning to be patient: I kept on seeing so many runners heading back to the finish, but the turn seemed nowhere in sight. I knew it was only a few kilometres away, but when? And then we approached the white suspended bridge over the Humber River, ran under its footings, and I was running back.

By this point the rain had started in earnest. I pulled my sleeves back up and covered my hands, because the wind was hitting us full on. I could still see runners here and there wearing garbage bags, and I still couldn't understand it. Three hours of wearing a garbage bag? Yuck! Better them than me!

A few kilometres on, I saw my parents again, at around kilometre 33. My mom had switched to the neon green poster, and was doing another excited hop-hop-skip dance by the side of the road.

"The worst is over! We'll see you at the finish!" my dad said.

It felt so great having them there; Kyla, the support of all my friends and family. Who cared that I wouldn't break four hours? At this point, I was running a marathon. 42.2 kilometres. And if I had to walk to the finish, I would! But I knew that I could finish, even if it meant another nine very slow kilometres.

A couple of minutes later, I saw a volunteer hail a cab from the traffic next to us on the Lakeshore, and a runner in a Mylar blanket got in. I felt bad for him for the disapointment he must be feeling for not completing the race, but that was another reminder of just what an accomplishment actually finishing -- just finishing -- a marathon is.

Kyla was there on the way back, standing with another group of people cheering the runners on. The rain was really falling now, and was dripping onto them even though they were standing under a bridge. Seeing them huddled in the rain reminded me of how much I always appreciate the people who come to cheer runners on, even in miserable weather conditions.
I smiled at Kyla and gave her a thumbs-up.

"Still smiling!" she cried out.

It's true, I felt so much better than I had a couple of hours ago.

Funny how your mind plays games on you. Because although the trip along Lakeshore to the turnaround had seemed never-ending, the run back to the downtown core seemed quicker. The kilometres were ticking by. Maybe a little slowly, but that became my focus: from kilometre to kilometre, 10-minute walk interval to 10-minute walk interval.

To occupy my brain and stop it from wandering, I tried counting pylons, but that just became boring after 10 (I guess I had a short attention span at that point). So instead, I looked around me. At kilometre 37, a man ahead of me jumped up and slapped the 37-kilometre marker -- it seemed like a personal ritual to tell himself he'd run that far.

Then, another kilometre later, another man was standing to the side with a poster reading: "Free beer at the finish line." I gave him a thumbs-up (though I never did see that beer at the finish).

Kyla was there again as we turned left to head under the Gardiner. I gave her another wave and a thumbs-up. I was only a few kilometres away! The busy part of my brain kept on wanting to butt in, saying, "What if you choke? What if you have to quit now?" but I did my best to push it out and just focus on the pavement, and keeping on moving forward. Even if I had to walk the last few kilometres, I'd walk them!

We turned onto University, and I could see Queen's Park in the distance. John Stanton had said that Torontonians consider that part of the run a hill, but that I would find it flat. Sespite my exhaustion, I did. I tried to keep up on the flatter part of the road, because my left quad was starting to tire from running on the sloping side next to the streetcar tracks. Around us, lineups of cars waited, and I thanked the cops in bright yellow rainjackets for making sure we were safe.

About a kilometre and a half away from the finish I passed a younger guy, who looked up at me excitedly. "We're almost there!" he said. I could tell from his smile that this was his first marathon, so I congratulated him, and I kept going.

As I neared the brown buildings of Queen`s Park, I checked my distance, and I could see we still had around a kilometre to go. Something inside me told me that they'd make us run around Queen's Park to get to the finish. Rounding the bend, I started looking around me for the finish line.

The lawns in front of Queens Park were littered with flapping white event tents. I could hear an  announcer's voice, and crowds were milling around. There in the distance was the blue inflated finish arch! Only a few more hundred metres, and we were done!

"You're home! You're home!" a man called out to us.

"Woohoo!" I yelled, raising my arms.

I felt amazing! I saw my dad to my left, his camera in hand. I gave him a thumbs up, and kept going, picking up the pace.

"Looking strong, Christine!" I heard a man say as I rounded the bend at the top.

I kept going, giving 'er all I had, drawing on the speedwork we'd done in recent weeks.

There were my parents, behind the red barricades on the side. I was so close to the finish!

I looked at them, raised my arms again, and cheered.

Give 'er, give 'er! You`ve done the speed work, you can do this!

A few more hundred metres, then a few more, and I crossed the Sport Stats mats!

I had just finished a marathon! I felt like the most amazing runner in the world, as I high-fived a couple of guys who had just crossed the mats at the same time as me.


I turned around, to see my mom running behind me. She'd jumped around the barriers and run the last 100 metres with me. I hugged her, and looked for my dad.

A volunteer handed me a medal, and a photographer asked me to pose with my medal. I was sweaty and tired, but I beamed with pride as he snapped my photo.

Taking a Mylar blanket from one of the volunteers along with a banana and some chocolate milk, I took out my phone and dialed my hubby with frozen fingers.

"I finished! I'm so happy!" I said to Steve.

"I have a lump in my throat. I'm so proud of you!" he answered. He'd been watching my progress online for the last four and half hours, and said he felt like he'd been there with me the whole way.

Unlike my first marathon, this time, when I crossed that finish line line, the feeling of completing that race, the pride, the accomplishment, was 10 times bigger than the huge finisher's medal hung around my neck.

Because this time, I learned an important lesson: it's not how fast you run the race. It's about the journey.

Thank you to all of you who have supported me on this marathon journey. You have been amazing, and your support has meant the world.



  1. What an amazing made me cry. I am excited to do my first half in February...can't even imagine a full marathon!!

  2. Wow! Your friend Kyla what an angel for you that day! I have said it many times, amazing job! It really is about the journey!