What does it take to finally run a strong marathon and earn a shoe in the process!

Was it a perfect race, no. But yesterday at the Hamilton marathon I finally ran the marathon I’ve been trying to run since fall 2015. You can tell from the expression on my face it didn’t come without effort, but I’m very happy with the result.


HamiltonFinishPrevious marathons

I always liked 5 km and 10 km races. I blame my sister Judy and my friend Christopher for putting marathon ideas in my head, eventually I decided to give it a try.

  • Spring 2014, I ran 3:53:05 at my first marathon in Ottawa. I was thrilled because that got me into Boston 2015. I ran it in 4:05:43. I was happy. It’s a tough course, I didn’t push it, I wanted to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the experience.
  • Philadelphia 2015 I tried for a sub 3:50 and ran 3:51:47. I was happy to have a PB but a little frustrated trying to learn how to run this marathon thing. I tried again at Grandma’s marathon 2016. It’s a fast course but unfortunately it was miserably hot and I finished in 4:07. No fall marathon in 2016 due to hamstring issues.
  • Spring 2017 I ran Boston 2 Big Sur, which mean two marathons in 2 weeks so suffice to say I did not try for a personal best, each race was over 4 hours. But, it gave me more confidence in my strength on the longer distances. New York City 2017 was my third attempt to break 3:50, trying to follow the pace bunny was a bit of a disaster, and I gave up on the pacer at km 26, I did hold on to run a PB 3:49:19 but it wasn’t pretty.

 

  • Spring 2018 I ran the Vancouver marathon with a goal of 3:45. I still don’t know what exactly went wrong, probably heat? I’ll never know for sure. Suffice to say I felt great at the start was on pace for my 3:45 and it all fell apart at 21 km. I finished in 4:05:30 bitterly disappointed. My fall race was Chicago, a fast course, In January I had visions of 3:45 in Vancouver and 3:40 in Chicago. but after the disaster that was Vancouver, I needed a morale boost. So I decided to just try and run a strong sub 4. I had a great race, felt strong the whole way, finished in 3:52:30 smiling.
  • Spring 2019 I was back in Boston, it was warm, first run in shorts since November. This is not the day to try and PB, so I set a simple goal of running my first sub 4 in Boston. It was close but I powered through the last km to finish in 3:59:25.

Working towards the goal

Through all four years, all my times on the track, and in shorter distances indicated I could run a marathon faster. I just couldn’t make it happen. People running with me on the track were posting sub 3:40 times. Why was I struggling so much just to break 3:50? The marathon is cruel that way 🙂 it teases you. You know you can do it faster, but you only get a couple of shots at that distance a year and I think that’s part of the appeal. It’s a challenge to run a marathon *well*.

I trained hard every season, I cross-trained, I did hills, I did speed work. 2019 things seemed to be coming together.

I was running well on the track, but I generally do run well on the track. That’s where I look the fastest compared to other distance runners. But, I was hitting some sub 7 minute 1600s. that was new.

canadaDayRandyI decided to take a serious shot at breaking 45 minutes on a 10 km. My current PB was 45:03.  I always had a mental block with the idea of running sub 4:30 kms for 10 km. I picked my race, I even did a ‘run your fastest 10 km’ 6 week training plan leading up to race day. I got my friend Randy to pace me. I jogged the route three days before the race to learn the hills and turns. Race day was not perfect. It was warm. But with some help from Randy, I left it all on the course and finished in 44:36. (as an added bonus I was 5th woman overall, I sneak in the occasional age group placing, but I’m not usually in the top overall).

So could I beat my 5 km PB? That requires a PB friendly race. There’s a 5 km in New Brunswick near my parents place, called the Joe McGuire race that is flat and fast! My dad drove me out while I was visiting, there was a little bit of wind, and it was a touch warm, but I managed to finish in 21:33 beating my previsou PB of 21:47.

armyPacerSo now I had the strength from my marathon training and my legs were remembering how to run fast. Could I put it all together? My fastest half marathon was a 1:46, which I *knew* I should be able to beat. I went out with the 1:45 pace bunny and posted 1:43:20 at the Ottawa Army Run in September and felt good the whole way. You can tell I am having a good race when I have the energy to goof around with the race photographers trying to give my pace bunny bunny ears.

Can I produce the results I want at a marathon?

The Hamilton marathon is advertised as a fast course. It has a downhill from 22 – 28 km. I struggle the most mentally from 21-32 km so this worked in my favour. The biggest issue with Hamilton is actually the long downhill. A lot of runners find it beats up their quads. One of the things I worked on after my first Boston marathon was my downhill running. I now take pride in begin a strong downhill runner. In fact I ran a leg at the Peak 2 Brew relay race which was 10 km continuous downhill with an average 6% decline this summer. I figured it would be good preparation for Hamilton. I trained for it and even  with the training, it took me 4 weeks to fully recover from that 10 km downhil run, but the training did 100% pay off! I pass a lot of runners on downhills now and it’s very satisfying.

ElevationProfileHamilton

I also knew that my best times always came at fall races. Training in winter and racing in spring does not lend itself to personal bests. It’s hard to run fast in winter on icy and snowy roads, and if you get a hot day for your spring race, you aren’t acclimatized and it can really mess you up. Whereas if you train through the heat in the summer, then you feel really fast when it cools off in the fall.  You do also learn from every marathon you run, even those where you are disappointed with your results. Even if a marathon does not go well the training you put it does build and make you stronger for the next one.

Okay so back to Hamilton… It’s a fall race, I’ve set PBs on 5km, 10km, 8 km, 15km, and 21 km already this year. It’s a fast course. It’s time to run that sub 3:45! I decide to follow a pace bunny since I know my Garmin runs a little fast (i.e. it will read 1.0 km when we are at .98 or .99 kms). I figure if I feel good maybe I’ll even try to pick it up at 37 km and get under 3:44.

zebrawarmupgearMy sister and I hit the thrift shop for our traditional keep warm at the start throwaway clothes (matching zebra outfits this year!)

But wait there is no 3:45 bunny in Hamilton. It’s a small race, there’s a 3:50 and a 3:40. Uh oh. Runnign with a 3:50 and then taking off to get under 3:45 sounds risky. Well, I guess it’s time to see what these legs can do. Let’s run with the 3:40 and see how long I can hold on!

The forecast is decent, not too hot, a little windy, but that’s okay, when you run with a pacer you can usually find someone to draft behind 🙂 I’m in the gynasium at the start line and I see someone holding the 3:40 sign. I walk over to ask his plan, will he walk water stops, will he run an even pace or negative split? He tells me he’s not the pace bunny, he was looking for the 3:40 pace bunny and they gave him the sign since the bunny forgot it. But he introduces himself to me, nice to meet you Julio and says “stay with him since I’ll get you there in 3:40”. We go to the start line. We can’t spot any 3:40 ears. He gets the announcer to ask the 3:40 bunny to come get their sign. At this point a half dozen other runners have come over to join us since he’s holding the 3:40 sign. Julio shrugs and says oh well, I guess I’ll be the 3:40 pacer.

Off we go, it turns out Julio has paced other races, including a recent 1:50 half marathon. He’s also run the Hamilton race before. He starts calling out to runners what to expect on the next stretch of the race and the planned pace. “we are 30 seconds ahead, we’ll lose time when we turn into the wind, but don’t worry we’ll get it back on the downhill at 22 km”.  He calls out the water stops. Since we had already chatted in the gym, I find myself running beside him chatting amiably.

An added bonus, one of my long run buddies Terry joins the pack! Terry has a goal of running 100 marathons before he turns 50! He will run 3 marathons in a month during peak race season. This is the first time we’ve been in the same race. Unfortuantely it’s end of race season, and 3:40 is too agressive given the strong race he ran at Petit Train du Nord and he drops off, but not before we get an official race picture together !

SusanTerryHighREs

At km 13 another runner says to me ‘ you can run faster than 3:40 if you are able to chat that much’. Julio and I laugh, One thing I have learned is that staying relaxed as long as you can really helps. If I can’t talk 15 km into a marathon I’m probably not going to hold that pace! I had the pleasure of doing track work with a guy named Jim who would hum and sing to himself doing speed work while my friend Henry and I panted along trying to keep up.  When I finally ran a race with Jim I discovered he does the same thing during the race, humming as he passes you. Whenever I find myself tightening up in a race, I try to channel my inner Jim, I won’t say I can sing and run a marathon at the same time, but I do try to smile, and relax.

Julio was wearing gloves and holding the sign, so I open his gel packs for him and we continue to chat, other runners occasionalyl come up to joiKanakoHappyRunnern us and chat as well.

I am feeling good and suddenly I see a spectator in a K2J shirt (there were very few spectators on this race) and it looks like… it is, it’s Kanako and her husband Face!!!  Kanako is another of my long run buddies. Neither she nor Face is racing this weekend, what are they doing here? I run over give her a hug and my spirits are buoyed. Kanako is another fast runner who is always smiling during races. She is constantly getting her race photos picked for race advertisements!

“Okay this next stretch will be windy, we will go a little slower here to conserve energy and we will make it up on the downhill” says Julio. I drop behind the shoulder of Julio or other runners for a good chunk of the 8 km stretch with the headwine. I move out front whenever we approach a water stop. They are short water stops. I am not carrying any water, and with the stops 3 km apart I want to make sure I take something at each stop.

We finally turn off the windy bit and to our shock the police directing traffic stop the runners to let the cars drive through. Frustrated we jog in place afraid of seizing up until he lets us through. I make the comment ‘hope no-one misses their target by 30 seconds because that would suck’ but I shake it off and try to relax, getting angry won’t help my race, and we have just arrived at the top of our 7 km downhill! I am in my happy place, we cruise down the hill and by the time we reach the bottom we have 20 seconds in the bank. I’m at km 28 and still on pace for a 3:40!

Of course the downhill is over now, but it’s flat. Lots of people told me the flat would feel really tough after that long downhill, but honestly I was okay, I think that downhill training paid off. I start thinking maybe I’ll actually pick it up at 37 km and run sub 3:40!

We started with about 20 runners in our 3:40 pack. Once we left the downhill it thinned out fast. By 31 km there were only four of us left. One guy said “I’m going to pick it up the last 10 km, anyone want to join?’ I said no thanks, I might go at 37, but not until then, a lot can happen in the last 10 km. (Foreshadowing?  or experience ?)

Km 32-36 were into the wind. I had dropped behind Julio’s shoulder, and the conversation had definitely dropped off. I was running out of steam. I used my strategy of dedicating each of the last 10 km to a different person who *cannot* run a marathon do to illness or injury and would love to trade places with me right now. Rita, James, Krissie, Jesse, Mel, Chris, Rosanna, Guy. At km 36 I gave Julio his last gel and he said okay that’s my last gel, take off, make your move. I replied weakly ‘I’m just trying to hold on’ . There were two of us still running with Julio and both of us were hurting. km 37-38 I thought of Randy helping me get through the last few km of that 10 km PB and how much that hurt  but I had held on. km 38-39 I thought of the friends I had who were diagnosed with cancer in the past month, what did I have to complain about.  (Side note: Cancer SUCKS!) The last water stop was at km 39, Julio was 100-200 meters ahead of me, The other guy had dropped off. I decided to walk about 20 steps at the water stop. First time I walked the entire race. I was struggling, but I was still passing people. Hey a few spectators – please cheer me on please!!!! What I would give for a familiar face to show up and run me through this last km right now! I’m counting off every 100 m in the last mile. We make the final turn toward the finish – 100 meters to go? and *F*K* it’s uphill into the wind, ” Seriously uphill and headwind” I said out loud completely miserable. “Yes but you can see the finish line” yelled the volunteer. I mustered what I could and I won’t say I sprinted to he finish but at least I didn’t slow down. 3:40:29! FYI Julio finished in 3:39:58 all alone, but I did find him in the finish tent to say thank you, he really helped me pass the miles, and I appreciated not only his pacing but his company!

JulioandSusanFinish

I feel like I finally ran a ‘good’ marathon. Could I have run faster? Not much! I certainly didn’t have anything left at the finish. I had run through the suck and held on to the end without completely falling apart. I didn’t just achieve my goal of 3:45 I had come within 30 seconds of my stretch goal (I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t been stopped at those traffic lights :))

A few years ago, I was congratulating Corey,  another K2J runner, on winning a race (yes 1st overall) with a PB and he said “well the pixies and fairy dust showed up’. I have always loved that phrase. You can train, you can prepare, you can do yoga or physio, you can eat right, but you also need the pixies and fairy dust to show up to get the performance you want on race day.

So thank you to all the running buddies who helped me learn to embrace the suck, to enjoy the good runs, to make sure you do a few races just for fun (Bay 2 Breakers anyone?)  to get through the crappy runs, to pick up the pace a little, to take a risk on race day, to appreciate every day you are not injured or sick because at least you *can* run, to run that optional 6th 1600m on the track, to drag yourself out there when you would rather stay in bed.  Thank you to all of you who kept telling me I could run a 3:40 and who will probably tell me I should now try for 3:35.  I’m good with the 3:40 for now thanks! Marathons are exhausting 🙂

Oh and with regards to the shoe… our running group K2J fitness has a K2J award, run a PB in a 5km, 10km, half and full in a 16 month period and you get to give them a shoe to have nailed to a piece of wood. It’s the highest award in our little running group. I love it because it’s all about achieving your *personal* best. It resets when you turn 50, 60, or 70 because at some point you have to accept you will slow down and you aren’t going to beat the PB you set at 25.  Setting lifetime PBs at the age of 49 feels pretty damn good, now if you will excuse me, it’s time go decide which expired running shoe to give the coach!pile of running shoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. Congratulations again on a great race! and your K2J Award.

    Reply

  2. You rock, girl!

    Reply

  3. A wonderful account and a great race, congratulations on b oth

    Reply

  4. Posted by Robin Andrew on November 5, 2019 at 11:03 PM

    Awesome Susan! A huge congrats on your K2J award!!

    Reply

  5. Epic! Congratulations again.

    Reply

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