Be the anchor leg on a relay team.
It was still the dead of winter when my friend Gillian pitched the idea that perhaps some of us from the RunNinjas should enter a relay team in this year's edition of the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon. Being a veteran relay racer herself she knew how much fun it could be, and given that she was willing to take the lead on the organizational end of pulling a group of runners together (not far off from herding cats) this was just the kind of spark that we needed to get this initiative underway.
Being that this would fit the bill of tackling a new kind of race (which I'm usually pretty game to try) I agreed to be part of our 8-person crew which included Gillian, RickyD, Angela, Chris, Sarah, Cher and Iris. After a bit of back-and-forth finagling we settled on an order of runners, with everyone taking on a 5km section of the 42.2km course except for me ... the hand-off to the final relay racer leaves 7.2km to cover so I had ever so slightly more distance to run out. When we worked this all out I figured that this would not be a problem (given my penchant for running longer back-to-back workouts on the weekends) but after last weekend's thrashing at the hands of the Pick Your Poison Trail Run I wasn't carrying the same kind of confidence into the weekend.
At the same time, running with and for your friends adds a whole new dimension of 'giddy-up' to the experience.
With Gillian as our mastermind we held a few 'planning' meetings over Tim Horton's coffee and muffins to discuss logistics and even plan out race-day outfits (so that we could easily spot each other at the relay checkpoints) and brainstorm ideas for a hand-off baton (which eventually turned into a small flag that was passed from runner to runner).
On race day we carpooled down in a few vehicles knowing that we would have staggered start times depending on which leg we each were responsible for covering, and to have cars parked at appropriate points along the course to ensure that everyone could get a ride down to the finish line. Gillian, Iris and I commuted together into the city, arriving at Liberty Village almost three hours before I was scheduled to receive the RunNinjas flag at the 35km mark. This gave plenty of buffer time to make at least three trips into the washroom at the adjacent Metro grocery store and for Gillian to walk the 1.5km to her checkpoint and Iris and I to march about 3km down to the Martin Goodman trail to her 30km checkpoint. Of course I'd have another 5km jog to take after that, but with no time pressure it was enjoyable to do so as the fastest of the marathoners overtook me for the last quarter of their races.
Arriving at the 35km relay point I spotted our good friend and BQ-attempting RunNinja Rob trucking his way down the course - I trotted alongside him just to find out how he was feeling and was encouraged to hear that he was still on track to hit something close to his 3:15 target. I also managed to spot a few other friends as I waited for Iris to come around and make the hand-off - Eldon, "Udora Flash" Dave and an unknown runner sporting the familiar race kit markings of the Malden Park Runners each received a hoot and a holler from me. I admit to having been more than a bit worried about out other RunNinja compatriot YouJin who was attempting a BQ time of her own - while I was on the lookout for her I did not immediately see her, and watched as the 3:30, 3:40 and 3:45 pacers passed by the 35km mark, knowing that she was aiming for a 3:25-3:30.
When I finally saw Iris I quickly took up my position near the green relay-area pylons and with a quick congratulations and a nab of the RunNinja flag I quickly got up to speed. My goal was to try to hold a 5k-race effort as long as I could - and with every quick peek at the Garmin 305 I saw that I was holding in and around a 3:55/km pace so I was encouraged by that. Now I admit to feeling somewhat guilty passing numerous marathoners (in fact I wouldn't be passed by anyone for the entire 7.2km anchor leg) knowing that they'd all been working hard for 3+ hours by this point, and here I was on fresher legs ... still, it was a race for them and it was a race for me so (to borrow from the great Steve Prefontaine) 'to give anything less than my best would have been to sacrifice the gift'.
Any worries that I had about the weather conditions were assuaged as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and it actually became quite warm. There were moments that I felt over-dressed, and I did manage to work up a sweat which would have crossed over to uncomfortable had I needed to run further than the 7.2km. That wasn't helped by the fact that as I rounded the corner into the finishing chute I passed a runner who decided that he wanted to try to outsprint me across the line - of course the competitive side of me would have none of that, and given the fact that he'd pounded out more miles than me on the morning I had a bit more left in the nitrous tank to cross a second or so in front of him.
Looking back at my splits I actually managed to click off a new 5k PB (19:41) in the midst of my run ... not too shabby given what my game plan was!
After collecting all eight medals for our team I was spotted by Gillian who led me back to where the other RunNinjas were near the final corner. We'd gathered to wait for Iris who was running the full 7.2km back to meet us since that was the most direct route for her to reconvene with the rest of the group. I found Rob had waited to see us finish (after his 3:18 performance), as well as YouJin who must have cruised by as I paused to get my bearings at the 35km checkpoint given that she wrapped up her race in a stellar 3:23 (more than a 20 min. PB for her)!
All in all a great time, and a much better day for me than one year ago at the same race (although I had the privilege of pacing for a really good friend that time). Congrats to all of our RunNinjas as we declared loud and proud that #WeRunThisTown !