That was my emotion when I toed the starting line of the Goodlife Toronto marathon.
When I initially planned (during Summer 2015) on training to run a fast marathon at the PEC marathon (October 2015), half way through the training I had a glute issue that wrote off my training efforts. And any hopes of a ‘race’ planned! I still ran that marathon, primarily treating it as a ‘systems-check’ and ‘speed-check’.
I spent the most of the first 4 months of 2016 training for this marathon, in the backyard of where I live these days – Toronto. I had a variety of interruptions from January to April, from 3 weeks of travel to India / Dubai in Feb, to some Achilles strain in April. When life got in the way of training, I had to use a pen to keep moving around workouts and adjusting the plan to get in the right portion of mileage and intensity with sufficient rest and recovery in balance.18 weeks in and 628 miles later, I was ready for the race weekend.
I went to the Exhibition Place on Friday to pick up the bibs for my friend and I. The expo was the usual –find your bib #, pick it up based on your event registered for and walk ahead to get your T Shirt – and I thought it was pretty small and uneventful. Just a handful of stalls and running vendors. I was done in less than 10 minutes and found myself taking the return shuttle to downtown from where I was heading home for my first carb-loading of the weekend. I heard from other folks who have ran this race in the past that the expo has only gotten smaller, and support, etc. on race day was not being very well organized in recent years.
Shumit – a friend from India, these days is in Michigan – was running the full too. He and his wife Ekta came by on Saturday, we had some pasta at a local diner close by, talked running, and some more. We were up at 4:30 am, without an alarm, continuing our conversation on running. I still remember talking to Shumit on the telephone a week before I ran my first marathon in 2009. Being new territory back then, I could use all the tips I could find. Shumit gave me some valuable input that helped me. As you’d imagine, we’ve been good friends since.
Ekta drove Shumit, Ryan and I to the start. Ryan is a local running friend from my local running group, East York Toronto Runners (EYTR). He was all fired up to run a 3:05, and seal his spot at Boston 2017. Everybody in the car was so engaged in conversation that we missed the intersection where we had to get off to walk to the start. Half a km later, Ryan is the enlightened one, and we find ourselves taking a U-turn.
Everything happens for a reason. I earlier touched upon how I was hoping the PEC marathon (October 2015) would have been a fast marathon for me. When I still got there, hoping to run a decent time, I decided to stick to the 3:30 pacer. This introduced me to Patrick Voo, a genuine human being and a fabulous runner. Patrick and I became friends after the run, and we stayed in touch. He offered to pace me for the Toronto marathon back in March. And even before he finished his thought, I took him up on the offer.
I wish I had my phone before the bag check-in because I would have loved to take a picture of the huge sign that Patrick had made that said “NAV”. It was fun to see the expression of some runners as we traversed through the crowd, trying to get close to the 3:15 pacer. And confusing some folks in the process. I even saw a couple of them taking pictures. Anybody want to share some here??
First half – Fun
The plan was simple. Try to stay in the 3:15-3:17 range. Go a bit easy on the hills / incline, let gravity drive you on the downs. Save the legs. Try not to push too early, and maybe get an even (ideally, a negative) split. The weather called for light rain for the first hour or so, with some occasional windy conditions. 10 minutes to the start, people started to throw away their trash-bag turned ponchos as the drizzle started to wade off.
7:30 a.m. and off we went. The start line was the same for the half and full, but since we kicked off an hour before the half marathoners, we didn’t have a sea of people to dodge our way through. It wasn’t long before we settled into our pace. I’m not sure if Patrick was an ‘exclusive one-person pacer’ in the past, but boy did he look like a seasoned one at it. I seldom watched the pace on my Garmin. At most, I would look at the watch when it beeped every mile’s split; and once in a while, when I saw myself losing ground on him. I guess that’s what you get when you have a fine runner leading you in a marathon.
Starting at Mel Lastman Square, the course took us north for about 800m before turning around to head down Yonge Street for the next 8 km. The first half of the race has a net downhill, with the occasional inclines. The only ‘climb’ I’d consider is the Hoggs Hollow Hill – a 500m steady incline, just after Yonge & Sheppard – at the 4th km. Being so early into the race, we kept it nice and steady, focussing on effort rather than pace. I thought it looks like a killer of a hill only because there’s a huge drop before you get to it. All about perspective!
We chatted a good bit in the initial miles. I did give Patrick a heads-up early on that I was going to save up the numerous tokens of appreciation, for all the great things he was doing as a pacer, to thank him big at the end. Before I knew it, we hit the 10k mark in 46 minutes and change. The course then hangs west into a stretch than zig-zags through many corners as we go through some pretty neighbourhoods, passing the Upper Canada College, Casa Loma, handing us down into the beautiful Rosedale Valley. This was one of favourite patches as we ran through the picturesque section. Trails in our peripheral vision, running a long and slightly winding stretch, and making friends with runners in the same pace range.
We were hitting our splits for a 3:15 pace, but could not see the official pacer in the horizon anymore. Positive split is a popular strategy in such a course, where the first 20 kms has a significant amount of downhill stretches. This probably explained the split for the first half split of many runners, including us as we pass alongside the Don Valley Parkway on Bayview Ave to register the half marathon distance in 1:36:56.
Second half – Agony
The second half starts by running through downtown, a 5 km stretch heading west ward, first onto King Street and then onto Wellington Street. It was nice to run on familiar ground for a bit, and getting the first real chance to run on flat roads since the race started. We made friends with a couple of other runners as we ran in a 5 pack for the next 20+ minutes. As we ran through the financial hub, we got a sneak of some landmarks – Air Canada Centre, CN Tower, Harbourfront, Rogers Centre, Billy Bishop Airport – every now and then, between those tall buildings on the south side.
26 km in, I let Patrick know that my right Achilles was bothering me for the last 10-15 min, and was only getting worse. We decided to keep at a 3:16-3:17 pace, letting go of a couple of folks who looked strong. If this wasn’t enough, my left Achilles also played along and bothered me from the 34th km. As I was being a cry-baby, I learnt much after the race that, Patrick was also having issues with his right knee from the 16th km. But he kept pressing, because I was counting on him. Isn’t he a stellar of a dude or what!
Back to the race, it teases by taking you adjacent to the finish line, heading further west as you get into the last third of the distance. The final 14 km is an out-and-back from Ontario Place to Humber Bridge, on the Martin Goodman Trail. I was hurting in my Achilles, but I was feeling alright otherwise. My stride was good and breathing normal. For the first 5 km out, we enjoyed some tail wind. 2 km to the turn around, and I could feel the wind picking up. The turnaround as such is a small cone shaped trail section that houses the park boat ramp which you circle around, and make your way back. I would imagine that it would be easy for many runners (especially the back packers) to be confused to which turns to make.
The conditions started to worsen in the last 8 km. With light rain and headwind, my body was getting cold. And the series of inclines (that at this point felt like mini hills) was making it only worse. I saw Shumit and Ryan before and after the turnaround, and they too looked spent. When you feel like you are pushing hard and your pace is 45-50 seconds / mile slower, you know that it’s not your day. I was determined to keep moving, and that’s all I managed. All the above factors meant that I lost about 3:40 in the last 8 kms. Crossed the finish line in 3:19:41, a PB by 5:07.
I felt a huge amount of gratitude for Patrick for giving up his time, energy and more importantly, a potential good time for himself. I don’t think my embrace and words could relay my deep appreciation of his selflessness. Thank you so very much Patrick, you’re the best dude.
Patrick continued to help me beyond the finish line. I was hypothermic and was trembling like crazy. He helped me grab my bag, change into some dry clothes and get into some shelter to warm up. Standing at the massage tent was not going to cut it, since I could not cease to tremble. We then moved to the medical tent where I was first made to go horizontal, wrapped up in a few layers of mylar blankets and cotton sheets as my body temperature plummeted to 34C. I was then advised to sit next to the heater. Finally, after about 55 minutes my temperature returned to normal and I could walk and talk without moving like a bobble head. I realized that I was not the only one since many runners seem to have faced the same fate.
I have to mention here that the race organization in many quarters was below par. The bag check area at the finish line was unattended and uncovered. I know of a few folks who picked up their bags to only find wet clothes in them, and I also met a lady (who I would think isn’t the only victim) who couldn’t find her bag. There were supposedly two aid stations where gels were available – 28th km mark and 41st km. a) I didn’t see them handing out gels at the first aid station, b) why would you want to give out gels one km to the finish!!?? The race t-shirt I hear was of better quality and design a few years ago; honestly, I couldn’t care too much about the t-shirt, but I might imagine a majority do. The medal is huge, which is good as this seem to be their unique selling proposition (not that I’m a fan of medals either!). I just hope it’s does not become their ONLY selling point.
In the last few days, I’ve had a chance to reflect about my race. I’m very grateful to have been able to complete another marathon; another lesson to be absorbed. If there’s one thing I can take away, it’s confidence. I know better than to expect perfect conditions on race day. Receive what you are offered, and adapt accordingly. Given the sub-optimal training season until now, I thought many facets of the race day turned out well – the target in hand, the ability to sustain the pace all along and the determination to stay strong when the going got tough (in the last 10k). I’m confident of only getting stronger in my next phase of training, as I work towards creating a great memory in Berlin. Here’s to better times ahead, literally!
~ Navin Sadarangani