Back in August, I announced that I was training for the Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon, and that I was going to get a PR (meaning I needed to beat 2:16:39, although my ideal goal was 2:10) — or blow up trying.
Be careful what you put out to the universe, kids.
Doubts on Doubts on Doubts
I began having fairly serious doubts about a month out. I’d had a few strong cutback runs, but my regular long runs were far slower than my goal pace of 9:45 — which wouldn’t have concerned me if they hadn’t felt so hard, but even with my average pace being over 11 min/mile, I was struggling. Taking more than a minute off — and sustaining that for 13.1 miles? Couldn’t picture it.
And then, on a 13-mile training run three weeks from race day, my knee started to hurt. A lot. I saw my physical therapist (thank you, Dave!) shortly afterward and stuck to his advice of stretching, self-massage, KT tape, and foregoing my final long run in the hopes that I’d feel good as new in Toronto.
My husband (Jared), our friends (Scott, Emily, and Margaret), and I arrived in Toronto with a day or two to spare, which gave Emily and me a chance to get in a short shake-out run the day before the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront 42k (marathon, half marathon, and 5k were all offered). And I’m so glad I made a point to do that, not only because it felt good to work my legs, but also because, as a Floridian, I couldn’t picture what running in 40-degree weather felt like — or what to wear for it. Running just over a mile made two things clear: running in cooler temps feels great, and I wasn’t going to need many layers because I warmed up almost immediately.
The morning of the race was sunny and in the 40s, although with such a late start (first runners went off at 8:45, I was scheduled for 9:03), I knew it wouldn’t remain so cold. We walked from our condo to the starting line, where Margaret and Emily met up with another friend, Lindsay, and found their way to their speedier corral. I handed my garbage bag to Jared; then Scott (who I’d run with on nearly every long run since June) and I got into our corral and tucked in right next to one of the three 2:10 pacers.
Our plan was to stick with the run/walk pacer as best we could, and, if it worked out, to run with each other, but without any pressure or responsibility. Also, without any talking, at least on my part — with my asthma, speaking while running can get pretty tough, so even though we’d chatted through every training run, I let him know that I’d be happy to listen but I wouldn’t be speaking.
As our corral was released, I felt good. Well, I felt cold, to be honest, and I had no actual confidence in my ability to hit that 2:10 finish. But I felt ready to work hard and see what I was capable of.
It’s always difficult to find your groove at the start of a big, crowded race (over 26,000 people!), and that’s even more true when trying to follow a pacer. I could feel that we were too slow to start, but there were loads of people to dodge and we had a slight climb for the first mile, so I figured it would work itself out in short order.
The pacer varied his speed a lot as he navigated the crowd, and within a mile or two, I realized I was more stressed about trying to stay with him than I was relieved to have someone to follow. I cut the second walk break short and left the pacer behind; happily, Scott did the same.
The crowds began to thin ever so slightly, the course sloped gently downhill, and when I checked my watch at the 5k* mark, I saw that I was on pace to hit my goal. And the best news? I felt so amazing that I couldn’t imagine not being able to hold that pace forever. Cooler weather is the bomb, truly.
*Being a Canadian race, all markers were in kilometers, so I was best able to gauge my pace at the 5k, 10k, and 15k distances since I knew what those equated miles. A friend had mentioned that her GPS had been horribly inaccurate in the city, and I know how awful it feels to trust your watch and realize too late that the distance or pace is way off, so while I kept an eye on my average pace (overall and per mile), I never fully trusted it.
Mile 1 — 10:03, Mile 2 — 9:21, Mile 3 — 9:23
The course continued with a slight downhill for a mile or so, and although we didn’t really talk, Scott pointed out a few landmarks as we passed — along with a sign that said, “Don’t trust a fart after 8k,” which put a smile on my face for at least 100m. He also pointed out that my breathing was getting a little shallow as we made the turn onto the waterfront, so I turned my focus to deeper breaths and slowed my pace a bit as the course evened out.
Before this race, I’d read this race recap from Janae, and one of her takeaways was that future thinking was not her friend. To do her best (and my goodness, her best is fast — huge congrats, girl!), she had to stay mentally in the current mile, only thinking about what she could do in that moment and not about what it would mean for her later on. This approach was a game changer for me — it allowed me to start off at a faster pace than my brain would’ve recommended, and it helped me push through some discomfort as I approached the midpoint.
Mile 4 — 9:03, Mile 5 — 9:13, Mile 6 — 9:53
At the 10k (6.2 mi) marker, I saw that I was ahead of my goal pace — and that my watch was still reading the distance accurately, so my confidence got a boost. Flat and scenic, this section of the course took us along the waterfront and past the elites who had cleared the turnaround point. I was also buoyed around 7 miles, when I saw my husband cheering enthusiastically (seriously, world’s best race sherpa), and Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer* came on close to the halfway point — it really seemed like everything was lining up to get me that PR.
*I created a playlist with a mix of songs that I know pump me up and songs that remind me of friends and loved ones — especially those who have joined me for runs or been supportive and inspiring in various ways.
Fun fact: There were a surprising number of people running in costume to earn a Guinness World Record for things like fastest woman running dressed as a fruit. Not a bad distraction — which was helpful, because life got a bit harder as I neared Mile 9.
My friend Kristy had shared a mantra with me on one of my last runs before leaving for the race: I can run this pace all day. I wasn’t quite able to convince myself that I was comfortable, but even that brought another mantra I’ve used to mind: Uncomfortable does not equal impossible.
Mile 7 — 9:27, Mile 8 — 9:57, Mile 9 — 9:37
At 15k, I realized my watch’s distance was a bit longer than the course — which meant that the average pace shown on my watch was faster than the pace I was actually running. Crap. I knew I’d put a fair amount of time in the bank since passing the 2:10 pacers, but I was also increasingly aware that I’d need to dig deep to just hang on, especially as I got toward the end. There was a bridge in there (don’t ask me what mile — things get fuzzy around this point), and for the first time that day, I took a walk break outside of a water stop. It was frustrating, and not part of my plan, but I was really struggling to get enough air and I figured a short walk was better than a trip to the med tent.
We caught up with Margaret (you guys know her!) — she’d been injured and unable to train for a month or two, but, well, she wasn’t going to let that stop her from completing the half, and we ran near each other for pretty much the remainder of the race.
Early on, I’d had it in my head that, if I still had something in the tank with 2k to go, I’d try to pick up my pace. As I approached the 19k marker (a half marathon is 21k and change, for those who aren’t fluent in the metric system), I kissed that plan good-bye and just hoped I wouldn’t lose too much ground. As Scott reminded me before the race, we didn’t wake up crazy early every Saturday to run for hours in the insane Florida heat for me to give up on my goal — certainly not with the finish line (almost) in sight.
The pace shown on my watch for this section, which took us back into the city, is likely a bit off: Mile 10 — 10:03, Mile 11 — 9:45, Mile 12 — 11:12.
Do you know how long a kilometer is, really? At this point, my brain wasn’t working terribly well, so although I could now tell you that it’s 2.5 times around the track, which would give anyone who’s done some track workouts a baseline, none of that was coming to mind when I needed it. So, as far as I knew, a kilometer was freaking forever — or at least, it felt like it.
The course takes runners through an underpass at this point, and it’s filled with people cheering and screaming, and this continues (I think) until the finish. Normally this would boost me, but all I could focus on was the fact that one of the three 2:10 pacers had passed me — and I couldn’t imagine working that hard for over two hours only to fall short at that point.
With less than 500m to go, as the course sloped upward, I saw that a second 2:10 pacer was hot on my heels. I tried — oh, god, how I tried — to keep ahead of him. I failed.
As he entered my peripheral vision, I yelled, “NO!” (which I’m sure didn’t frighten the other runners at all) and endeavored to stay with him, and I just … couldn’t. So I walked a few angry steps, took a deep breath, then buckled down, determined to finish hard — hopefully ahead of the final 2:10 pacer.
As I approached the finish line (finally!), one of the pacers who’d passed me stopped and turned around, giving people high fives. I glanced at my watch, then the finish line, then my watch, and, what do you know? The distance might’ve been off on my device (I showed 13.7 miles), but the time sure wasn’t. I crossed that line at 2:08:21.
Once again, these paces are likely off: Mile 13 — 8:27, remaining distance — 2:46
As hard as that final mile was, I’m not sure I would’ve changed much. Would an easier pace early on have left me with more in the tank? Maybe, or maybe I would’ve felt the same, but without the time to spare.
Before the knee issue, I’d planned to get in a 14-miler, which I think would’ve helped at the end (mentally and physically); however, my knee felt fine for the race, and who knows if that would’ve been the case had I pushed it in training? And I could’ve started taking gels at the first water stop (I only got in two during the race), but it seemed too early since I’d had a couple of chews right before we took off.
Overall, I’m beyond happy with how this went. I loved the race itself (Toronto is an incredible city, and the weather was perfection — totally recommend), and turning it into a racecation with some of my favorite people added to the fun. And I still can’t quite believe I beat my goal!
While I wasn’t plotting my next race (or coming up with the next goal I want to work toward) as I crossed the finish line, this race definitely removed some mental hurdles for me. So, if anyone has a suggestion for the next big thing … well, I’m not saying I’ll do it, but I’m listening. —Kristen