This weekend my family and I traveled to Ottawa, Ontario to compete in Ottawa Race Weekend, a series of road races in the Canadian capital. My wife Robin ran the 10k, and I ran my first half-marathon.
I decided to run this particular race last November. I wanted a run that would challenge me physically and that was held in the early part of the summer, requiring me to stay active throughout the winter.
I started training in January, after I’d recovered from a minor knee injury I suffered in a 5k race six weeks earlier. After about 230 miles of training from January through May, I felt ready as we crossed the border into Canada on Friday.
The half-marathon was on Sunday morning. The start consisted of two waves, the first at 9:00 and the second at 9:15. I was in the first corral of the second wave. Seeing all the half-marathoners take off before I needed to start running was strangely relaxing. I breathed deep, enjoyed the excitement of the crowd, and tried to think about my strategy during the race.
At 9:15 on the nose, we were off! I knew I’d chosen the right starting corral, because everyone around me adopted a pace I was comfortable with. The first kilometer was the most historically significant, as we passed the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill. The doors of a large church were open, and a parishioner was ringing the steeple bell while another waved as we passed by. At about 1.5 km, I passed the area around my hotel, and I saw my family cheering me on!
I timed my first kilometer at about 6:42. I hadn’t thought to convert my paces into minutes per kilometer instead of my more familiar minutes per mile. I did a little math and realized I was running about 11:00/mile (actually 10:47/mile). All my training had been done at 11:30-12:00/mile, so I knew that this pace was about appropriate for a race.
We crossed into Gatineau, Québec at about 2.6 km. Gatineau was full of rolling hills and fewer spectators, but those who lined the streets greeted us with words of encouragement (that I could only half understand, since apparently my ability to understand French decreases while I’ve been exerting myself). A girl band played at around 6 km, with the lead vocalist offering high-fives to runners.
We crossed over the MacDonald-Cartier Bridge back into Ottawa at about 8 km. This part of the run seemed a bit, well, desolate. Crossing over a bridge sharing the road with automobile traffic was a downer after the cheering spectators, but a few cars honked their horns, showing us their support.
My 8.6 km split was 55:32, putting me at a 10:24/mile pace and an estimated finishing time of about 2:16. I didn’t have the mental strength to actually calculate that at the time. I just knew I was running a pretty solid pace, and better, I knew I could keep it up for a while. I really wasn’t getting tired. My legs were moving well, I was breathing well, and I was in good spirits.
We got back into Ottawa, ran through the gel station (wow, Powerade gel is disgusting — long live Gu), and past another band doing a decent cover of Tainted Love.
After another pass through the city center (and lots of supportive spectators) we continued south down the east bank of the Rideau Canal. I knew that the canal path was flat (water tends to do that) so I looked forward to saying goodbye to hills for a while.
I also knew that I was making pretty good time, and I decided to start thinking about when to make my push. In my prior training runs, I’d had problems keeping my legs moving at about 10½ to 11 miles (17 km to 18 km) onward. I decided that I would push a bit harder from the 12 km to 18 km mileposts, and just rely on pure stamina to get me the last 3 km to the finish.
I started to get considerably more tired as I ran. The kilometer markers passed — 13 km, 14 km, 15 km. The road was flat, few spectators, and lots of runners a long way ahead of me. This was the point where I started to feel a little depressed, that there was still a long way to go. The push was working though — as I passed the 14 km mark, my watch reported that my time was just over 1:30. My brain was in good enough shape to tell me that since the half-marathon is 21.1 km, 14 km was two-thirds of the way and my time was two-thirds of the way to 2:15. My stretch goal of 2:15 was realizable.
This race proved no different than what I’d imagined with regards to my stamina. My legs started to feel a lot heavier as I crossed the 16 km sign. That we needed to climb a short hill to cross a bridge at this point didn’t help. As the field turned onto the Queen Elizabeth Driveway I knew this was the home stretch. Only about 4 km to go.
Everything after about 18 km is a blur. I knew the end was close, but I was spending too much effort keeping my legs moving to free up any of my brain to enjoy myself. The crowds were very motivating, and I still felt myself gaining on quite a few runners. In the back of my mind I’d hoped that my stretch goal of 2:15:00 could be a reality, and I pushed my failing legs and lungs as hard as I could to envision that dream.
As I drew to within 200 meters of the finish I knew that wouldn’t happen.
I had about 40 seconds to run the last 200 m, and at the pace I could maintain that wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care. I just wanted to finish so the pain would stop and I could enjoy my many accomplishments at which I had succeeded.
I finished the race in 2:15:22.9 (6:25/km or 10:20/mile). I met my major goals, which were to finish under 2:30:00 and to not walk any intervals. I did allow myself to walk through the water stations, and I dallied a bit in the water station at 18 km. But none of my walks were longer than about 30 seconds.
I’m taking this week entirely off from running. My legs could use the break, and it’ll feel good to give them some time to heal. Plus, the time off will be entirely guilt free.
I will very likely run the Mohawk-Hudson Half-Marathon in October, and may run the Schenectady Stockade-a-thon 15K in September. I’ll do a couple of 5k and 10k races to keep myself motivated in the meantime.
I’m pondering a full marathon next year, but that’s a level of commitment that I’m not sure I’m ready for. I’ve been running about 15-20 miles per week for the past few months; a marathon would require me to double that. But I’ve achieved a base level of fitness that makes such an accomplishment at least feasible now.
Overall, Ottawa was a great experience, and I’m excited to continue running in the future. There was pain, but it is through constructive pain that we grow as individuals. I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish. Three years ago I was barely able to walk without severe back pain, and I required three months of physical therapy. This weekend I ran more than 13 miles and looked good doing it. This is what running means to me — bettering myself by achieving goals that seemed so distant a few years ago.