It’s not easy, which is why I think it’s worth writing down, but I ran a good marathon Sunday. I say ‘good,’ because my goal was certain: run the marathon in such a fashion that each step wasn’t spent swearing I’d never do this again. I ran my first marathon at the Waterfront in Toronto in 2009. My leg was so stiff afterwards that my mother-in-law had to massage it just so I could bend it enough to put on my pants. (I reckon it must’ve been cold that day in October, but only the detail of my mother-in-law comes back clear). Last May, I ran my last marathon. It was May 28, 2022, in Ottawa and I finished, according to Sportstats, in 4:11:29. For at least a couple of those minutes, medics had to help keep me upright and perhaps for 45 minutes, maybe more, I limped myself to the finish line.
In between that Sunday in Ottawa and that Sunday in Toronto, I’ve run at least twenty-two more marathons—two in Boston, one in Jerusalem, one in Vancouver, lots in Ottawa and Toronto, one in New York. They go sideways on me often. One time I broke three hours. One time, during the race, I drank a beer. This Sunday, at the Road2Hope Marathon in Hamilton, things worked out. How come? More importantly, how can your next race not go sideways on you—an experience a lot like copping a squat on an electric chair. These are some of the things I can recall.
1. I did the training and the training was long. Not excruciating, not exactly. I’m always running and always training with BlackToe Running and since 2009, I never stopped. But this cycle, which began in earnest perhaps late July, probably had eight long runs over 30K. I’d felt what it felt like between 32 and 36K a bunch and also knew by heart how it felt between kilometres: four minutes and, say, forty-five seconds I could recite in my sleep; so, in the race, when it got tough, let’s say at 33K, I understood nine kilometres unconsciously. I could do 9K. I’d done 9K five times a week for thirteen years.
2. Time didn’t matter. OK, that’s not entirely true. I had a time goal. Let’s say 3:20. But it moved often. 3:25? 3:15? My running partner—faster? slower? the same?—wanted 3:05. Do I race with him? Am I being cowardly? Nah, I kept my A goal in mind: finish this thing with grace, which meant: a) run the whole way, and b) don’t break my body. In Ottawa, my calves were so cramped I couldn’t stand. That can’t be good for you and that made me scared. I was scared of the marathon. And so even though time always matters to a racer—it matters to my 8-year-old—that wasn’t my A goal.
3. I ran by feel. There was a 3:20 pacer and I ran with him, for less than one kilometre. I found my natural rhythm and thus my watch and my pacer and split times didn’t matter.
4. I ran my own race (dare I say almost unconsciously).
5. I also respected Race Week. Or, let’s even say that during Race Week I got carried away. I had long quit alcohol and Halloween candy. I was eating walnuts and leaves. I was home in my house and the kids were away and on the Saturday before the race, I barely did anything. I read my book.
6. But also: I had an emergency on Thursday night and a friend needed a friend. And so I pivoted and had a Manhattan soothe my soul and guess what? (Drinking water before bed, making it home before 10:30): I survived. The lesson here is, I think, make a plan and stick with it. But remember you’re a human being and sometimes human beings have to do human being things—even during Race Week.
7. I think that mixture of being serious and staying loose did me well. Rachel Hannah, pictured above, I think has come around to that mentality. It’s a bad omen, as my dad would say, when you walk down the block—even in $350 sneakers—and the birds fall from the trees. That can’t help digestion.
8. Gels, meanwhile, were consumed at 15K, 25K, and let’s say 33. I didn’t exactly know when I’d take them and lots of people take more. (My friend who finished eleventh took five gels, but he puked two at the finish line—you decide). I took two Gu with caffeine and one fancy Maurten. I had the gels on me and I’d taken all of them before race day.
9. I also drank plenty of water. The water stations were frequent and I hit them every few kilometres. Just sips really, but also the people at the stations were present and enthusiastic. There was never a crowd, a water station crash or any cacophony. And: when I found myself crashing out there, I dumped a water on my head, maybe at 34K to wake myself up. It worked.
10. I should also say it was a beautiful course on a beautiful day and the race was two laps along the Hamilton waterfront—through a park—and I always knew where I was and where I was going and there were no parts of the course that were bleak, under a highway, completely empty or at the bottom of an Everest-like hill. Hamilton was flat, temperate, a little windy, but nothing like that 2018 Boston hail storm which saw yet another triumph of Krista DuChene, pictured below, and—come to think of it—I also very much enjoyed (and also wasn’t running for a time or using my watch).
11. I had friends along the course—in particular, Kate Van Buskirk, cheering on her father and who I saw maybe four times, once even for a soul high five—but I didn’t particularly talk to any racers and was quieter than I can be sometimes at a race. I wouldn’t quite say I was focussed, though maybe I was, but at least I stayed relatively on track and never got carried away. I can be chatty while racing and speed up when I see spectators and go out of my way to give a kid high-five. That stuff is good but energy is finite. The morning seemed to end quicker perhaps because I did fewer things while racing.
12. Be loose. Have fun. Smile at your mother. But steer clear of the clown stuff. Focus your energy where it belongs. It ends the difficult thing quicker.
13. I also slept in my own bed, didn’t touch social media, and cooked my own food: chicken and rice for dinner two days out, spaghetti the night before—bananas and peanut butter all weekend. Definitely eating is harder at destination races and Dusty Baker, World Series winning Astros manager and baseball legend, said he liked his team’s chances when the series moved back home. Control what you can control, like Alex Cutulenco (pictured below, left)—and that’s easier to do when you’re home.
14. Furthermore: I had a ride to the race, we arrived at the event super early, parking was a snap—right at the start line—and it was daylight saving’s time, which bought me an extra hour, even though I still never sleep great. I definitely charged my watch and iPod and definitely knew which shoes I’d wear: the Saucony Endorphin Pro 3, in magenta. And, even though I knew what I’d wear—shorts with two pockets so I could separate my iPod from my gel—I stayed free to pivot.
15. Because of the wind, I feared being cold in my singlet and so I put on the race shirt on race day—a cardinal sin—and guess what? It didn’t matter. Again I had a plan and I pivoted and so what?
I was intentional yet not rigid which is probably a good way to race and also probably a good way to live: we change our mind, we adjust, we make decisions as best we can and then we deal with the consequences. We—like the school strike in Ontario—progress.
Sunday’s race was a good one for me, plenty of races are not, which is why I wrote this story. I think I learn something every time, I want to, and maybe that’s part of why I even like doing this—it gives me a chance to rattle around the usual noise in my head. I guess the point is, as you head into your off-season and plan your 2023 goals: enjoy the process and stay humble. Anything can happen.
Things can even go brilliantly.
Photo of Rachel Hannah by Rob Lapensee. Photograph of Krista DuChene courtesy of the Boston Marathon. Photographs of Alex and I courtesy of the 2022 Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope.