I woke before the alarm went off, as I had done most days this week. For the previous two weeks was setting the alarm gradually earlier every day, down to 5:30 am. Today, I was up at 5. One essential thing about race preparation is consistency. Don’t try new things on race day. I showered and had my typical breakfast of a bowl of cereal, plus my go-to high-energy food; a bagel with peanut butter. One special task that morning was to log in to the office and reset a server. I had promised to get this done by 7. I tried to limit work requirements for today, but ended up with this on my schedule, plus three more servers to do this afternoon.
There was light frost on the car window as I started out. It was going to be a cold morning. Not a cloud in the sky, however, so the weather would warm up towards noon. Cresting the hill on the approach to Cambridge, the sun dawned through the trees across the Grand-River valley.
The principle reason for choosing this marathon course was its proximity. Less than an hour away, I could forgo the overnight hotel stay that was needed for Toronto events. For the frugal runner, this was the bargain of all the marathons, at a mere $55. I’ve read that it costs them $400 a person to put on the New York City marathon. Of course, it isn’t a city tour like most. They start at the edge of town and head out for a loop through the countryside towards Conestogo.
I arrived plenty early at 6:40, being one of the first there. The line of porta-potties was still being set up. Packet-pick-up was in an indoor soccer arena. I’ve never seen that before. The artificial grass was soft and lumpy, like actual turf. It looked like grass as well, not a smooth mat. Unheated, it was plenty cold in there too. I chucked the literature into a recycling bin and sat to eat my second bagel.
The race shirt is short sleeves. That seems like a joke on a cold day like this. I am bib number 5. Doesn’t anyone else plan this in advance? Race winners were #104 and #90. That’s out of 106 entrants. Makes it look like they decided just that morning,” ya know, maybe I’ll mosey over to Waterloo today for the race”. Showed up and paid the fee at the door. If it rained were they going to skip?
Time to get dressed. I went back to the car, well, actually it’s a minivan, and put on the tights. The car next over was idling. He must be trying to stay warm. The fumes had settled all around the minivan, and were making me nauseous. I grabbed my pack and went to a nearby picnic table to finish. I already had my long-sleeve running shirt on, so I put the jacket over that. Then came the question of what to do with the number-bib. I didn’t want to pin it to the jacket. My jacket was too expensive. Besides, I was likely to take off the jacket later. I could wear it under the jacket, but then the marshalls wouldn’t be able to see it. The right thing to do was bring my race belt and clip it to that, but I hadn’t brought that today. This is what they make them for. I try the water belt, and pinned my number very effectively to the bottle holders. The cold wind had whistled right through the mesh material of the running shirt, so I decided to change to the fleecy undershirt I had brought. Off went the jacket and the shirt; on with the other shirt, and the jacket. Showtime. The pack and all went into the car. My keys I would carry in my hand for the entire trip. That’s what I used to do when I was single and had to carry my keys every night.
A third stop in a porta-pottie was cutting it close time-wise, but I’ve been in there before when the starting gun went off, so what the heck. I got to the line as he was announcing one minute to go. There didn’t seem to be more than a hundred of us. (I see now it’s listed as 106 entrants).
We were off into the sun. The gloaming was dim enough to not need the sunglasses earlier, so I wasn’t wearing them. That turned out okay. I never missed them. I brought only two water bottles in the belt, and now noticed that they were empty. The intention was to fill them as needed, so that was okay too. I had my 8 energy gels; no deep-fried turkey.
The road was closed for us for the couple kilometers to the first corner, then we were sharing it with traffic. The police presence was heavy through here, so the cars were all driving slowly. We headed through Bridgeport, across the bridge, then out of town. Around 10 km we came to the hamlet of Bloomingdale. The half-marathon started half-hour after us, so I had some concern that I would be caught by their leaders before the turn-off which takes the marathoners on the longer loop. My speed is about an hour for 10km, so there was some non-zero likelihood of that happening before the Bloomingdale corner. No sign of them yet as we were directed across the road in front of the waiting traffic and away.
That's when the migraine hit.
Like the glowing afterimage of dozens of flashbulbs going off in front of me, a sparkly haze suffused itself over my vision. A couple years ago I went to the local eye doctor to find out what was going on. She called this experience an optical migraine. Many migraine sufferers will have this happen, and get a piercing headache a few minutes later. Me, I just get the light show, without the headache. So a kilometer later, my left eye had almost entirely clouded over with a veil of static rather like what you get trying to pick up a TV station through the antenna, but with it too far away to get a good picture. There’s shapes and colours, but mostly random static. The right eye wasn’t so bad, with just a few crackles. I carried on running.
The 10 km – 20 km leg is the fun part of a marathon. Jacked up on adrenaline and endorphins, I was giddy with runners high. Smiling steadily, I waved at bystanders and gave a super-cheerful greeting to the support staff at the water stations and intersections – and skipped lightly around the horse poop. A Mennonite buggy passed by on their way to church. Theirs wasn’t the only horse, because the road was well-littered with droppings. It doesn’t bring down the joy of this section of the run one bit. There’s still no clouds at all, and the countryside is beautiful. It’s rolling hills, mostly taken up as farmland, but with plenty of wooded areas, especially along the river which we were staying near to.
At the turn onto a local dirt road, the migraine went away as quickly as it had come. It was a great day. My standard long run (20 km) is out of town on dirt roads like this, so I felt right at home. I was playing my customary music set too, so it felt like a regular Sunday morning. The runners were stretched out with 20-40 meters between us now. In the valleys I was all alone, with no one to be seen ahead or behind. The valleys and trees blocked the wind enough that I took off the jacket.
The water stations are frequent. At every 3 km, this is more water than any other race I’ve done. That’s why I brought the water bottles. I keep rigidly to my 6 km schedule for consuming Gu. Having my own water, even in a race, is essential for this. Today, it would have worked well enough to use the on-course water. The cups are full, which I can’t always tolerate. Oh well, Gatorade into the grass. It’s got what plants crave.
Just past half way I came to the red covered bridge that they have on the home page. I’m all alone on the bridge too. After the bridge, it felt proper to turn back to home. It was roughly half-way after all. The marshalls directed us further from home. I pointed the other way, “but my stuff is back that way”. She laughed. Maybe I was the first one to say that, or perhaps she was just humouring me. The breeze along this stretch was stronger, and let me know right away that it was still cold out. The fleecy shirt has a zipper at the collar, which I was moving up or down depending on conditions.
The race winner would be finishing about now. Let’s be clear about this. I’m not very fast. I don’t carry a watch. My only pacing technique is to remind myself regularly to take it easy – there’s a long ways further to go. Therefore I have only a rough idea based on how long it normally takes me to cover this distance. I’ve done marathon before, and several 30 km runs this winter, so my pace is consistent.
Coming around the furthest corner, with the wind at my back, I rolled up the sleeves. This was the home stretch. With 10 km still to go, I was pleased to still have some gas in the tank. Any time previously I’ve been completely trashed by now, like some of the human wreckage I pass in the next hour. My quadriceps felt like they’d been stabbed, which I can put up with. In the essentials I was still good -- energy to continue, knees okay, ankles fine, no problems in my right hip which had been sore the last couple of days. It reminded me of what Sara Conner said in Terminator 2 about how the future was now an empty highway; we were making things up as we went along. This was a new experience.
I turned the volume up on the music player, and skipped ahead to some of the phat bass tracks that I had loaded. That helped a lot. I shut out the world and went into my only little dream zone where I could ignore the pain. The trouble was the cars and trucks whizzing past at 80 km/h. For this section of the race we were running along the edge of the highway, with light traffic going by. Couldn’t they put some cones along the white line to better separate us from the cars? Couldn’t they post it with a temporary speed reduction? Sometimes I dropped down into the gravel, but damnit, I paid for this race, and felt entitled to my 18 inches of pavement.
The rolling hills were more difficult now, but manageable, except for that one at 40 km which reduced me to a walk. Crossing the finish I was very happy. 4:07. An attendant asked if I was okay. I don’t know if she asked everyone that, or if I looked particularly poor. No, I’m not okay -- my legs felt awful. I’m very proud of myself.