Race Recap: Maritime Race Weekend

Rolling hills, scenic vistas, cool sea breezes and pirates: this was the backdrop for my 7th half-marathon and a season’s best performance at Maritime Race Weekend.

This well-organized and spirited event takes place in Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, just outside of Dartmouth. The course is one of the most beautiful I have ever run — and I have run through many stunning places in the Maritimes. It starts off at Fisherman’s Wharf and weaves along the coast. The weather was absolutely perfect, around 18 C, but very sunny — I wish I had my sunglasses.

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I went into this run without any particular goal in mind. Life has been moving at a hectic pace and I have managed to get in my training runs but not much more, so I wasn’t expecting a PR. Still, I have felt strong the past few weeks, which really is to be expected at this point in the season, so I knew wouldn’t fall flat on my face.

Mark, Silas and I packed up and left for Dartmouth on Friday morning, making the four+ hour drive. We stayed at the same hotel where race kit pick-up took place, which made everything easier. Silas was immediately impressed with the pirate theme.

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We got to bed early and prepared for a 6 a.m. wake-up on Saturday, race day, which we thought would give us plenty of time to get to the start line in time for the 8 a.m. race.

Sleep was so-so with the two-year-old waking up at about 4 a.m. and tossing and turning next to me for the last couple hours of the night. I’m not blaming him for anything though because I had typical nerves and wasn’t sleeping the greatest anyway.

We woke up and I set straight into my typical race morning routine: chug water, eat English muffin and peanut butter, hotel room coffee, bathroom and get dressed. My watch and iPod were charged and ready to go. My two cheerleaders were moving a little more slowly than me.

I sent them down to the 7 a.m. breakfast buffet to pick out a couple items for the road while I finished up in the hotel room.

Instead, I went downstairs to see them seated in the dining room. I started to sweat. We still had a 15-20 minute drive ahead of us (in unknown terrain), plus we needed to find parking and I had to get to the start line. Finally we got into the car even though all Silas had eaten was a quarter piece of toast and a couple of Cheerios. The car was stocked with fruit and other snacks so I knew he would be fine and eat eventually.

As we arrived in Eastern Passage, the two-lane road soon became lined with parked cars. We started looking for a parking spot and ended up having to turn around and drive farther away from the start line. Eventually I got to the right place with less than five minutes to spare. Problem was, I needed to use the port-a-potty one last time (as many runners know this is crucial on race morning!). I figured I would have just enough time, but as I made my way to the crowd, I realized there was still a huge line-up and the crowd was packed. I tried to move up toward the two-hour half-marathon pace group but couldn’t get anywhere near them. I settled for the 2:20 group and figured I would just have to catch up.

As the gun sounded, the crowd didn’t move. It took a good 2-3 minutes before I crossed the starting mat. I tried to take it easy, thinking this conserved energy would help me later but I couldn’t help but feel anxious. I wanted to go, but I was stuck in the crowd. I weaved as best as I could, but there wasn’t a ton of room. I spent most of the first 5 km of the race like this. The up side was I didn’t go out too fast. (First 5K – 28:55)

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The first few water stops had port-a-potties but at least one person was waiting outside and it wasn’t an emergency at this point so I continued to hold out until the 5 km mark. The outhouse was hiding in behind the water station and no one was in it. Score! I paused my Garmin and managed to get in and out within 1 minute.  I hit the course again and caught up to the people I was chasing before in no time.

Around the 8-10 km mark I realized I was making great time, in fact it was the best pace I have been running all season around 5:30 to 5:45 min/km. Part of me worried I would run out of steam but I tried to focus on effort rather than the number on my watch. I enjoyed the scenery and relaxed. I was having so much fun! I took a GU gel at about 8K. (10K – 57:54)

Around this time we hit a few bigger hills. I slowed down but didn’t stop, trying to steady my heart rate. Cresting up a hill always guaranteed a beautiful view. While I was feeling good around the 13-14K mark, something weird was happening in my shoes. The smaller toes on my left foot seemed to be overlapping each other. I’m not sure what caused this, but it really started to hurt. I told myself some weird things like, Who needs baby toes anyway? Focus on the big toe. When I walked, the toes were fine. I can’t explain why this was happening. Hope I haven’t developed some kind of weird gait issue.

Around 15 km I told myself I was going to hold back a bit then boost the pace for the final 5K. I wasn’t sure if this was a goal I could sustain, but I wanted to try. I have always wanted to get negative splits (faster last half than first half) and I thought it might be possible this time given my slow start.

Lucky for me, as I rounded a bend, a person directing traffic yelled out, “Last 4K, all downhill!” and I practically fist-pumped. I got my second wind and really pushed it down a big hill. I saw this photographer and jumped in the air but looks like he just captured my goofy grin after the fact.

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For the final few kilometres I continued to push the effort even though I knew I wasn’t going to break the coveted 2-hour mark. I didn’t really mind because overall, I felt the strongest I have all year, and I knew I would come close. I continued to “go fishing,” reeling in runners ahead of me and picking them off one by one. Did it ever feel good to finish with a bang.

I rounded the final corner and saw 2:06:xx on the clock, but my Garmin (which I paused for the bathroom break) said 2:02. Awesome! I was so happy. Official time was 2:03 on the nose. And I did get the negative split I was looking for — the last half was three minutes faster than the first.

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I crossed the finish line and the first thing out of my mouth was “Where’s the beer?” I was directed to a small building where the after-party was taking place. I drank up rather quickly because I was anxious to find Mark and Silas. After grabbing a banana and an orange and some water, I wandered around for a bit and found my guys. They had spent the past couple of hours enjoying the scenery and throwing rocks in the water, one of Silas’s favourite things to do these days.

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We also ran into Anna from Piper’s Run! I was so happy to meet a fellow mom/running blogger from the Maritimes, and it totally happened without planning. So great to meet Anna and her husband Saï, who both took part in Maritime Race Weekend. Runners are great people! Go check out her blog. I love her honesty and can truly relate to how difficult it can be to balance chasing running goals with life as a working mom.

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Hard to believe I have now run seven half-marathons. And of course, I can’t wait for the next one. My body is definitely used to this distance and I know I could beat my PR from 2013 of 1:59:54 with better race morning punctuality. I’m tempted to sign up for another one this fall but taking it easy is also appealing.

Thank you Maritime Race Weekend for showing us “Good times in the Maritimes!” We will be back!

7th half marathon in the books in beautiful Eastern Passage, N.S. @maritimeraces

A photo posted by April Cunningham (@aprilacunningham) on

Book review: The Illegal

illegalKeita is an elite athlete from the tiny, fictional country of Zantroland, who finds himself on the island of Freedom State, running for his life.

Viola Hill, a black lesbian who relies on a wheelchair to get around, is hot on the story.

For someone like me, this book has it all: running, journalism, political corruption!

The story takes places within an overarching theme of power and race, black versus white, good versus evil. In this story, knowledge is power, and young, up-and-coming journalists hold the key.

It was the perfect read for kicking back on my vacation, which happened to coincide with the Olympics in Rio.

I am a fan of Canadian author Lawrence Hill, having read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, which tells the incredible journey of a female slave from the shores of Africa to Nova Scotia and beyond.

Reading his acknowledgements, I can tell Hill put immense effort into this story, writing it over the course of five years. He consulted with health experts, refugee experts and Canadian Olympic runner Reid Coolsaet. He spoke to athletes about what it’s like to compete in a wheelchair, which informed his writing of Viola Hill.

Among his other acknowledgments, Hill thanks my alma mater, Wilfrid Laurier University, for allowing him to write in Lucinda House, and he also thanks friends including sports journalist Stephen Brunt for convincing him to buy a place in Woody Point, Newfoundland, near Gros Morne National Park, where he finished this book. I love the Canadian-ness of this book and its roots.

While I enjoyed the story — hanging on every mile of Keita’s races — I also felt as though the novel wasn’t the calibre we might expect from this author.

A few things stick out at me, most notably an unbelievable love interest between Keita and a cop, who apparently only thinks about sex — and by the way, they go on a date at Tim Hortons (what?!). In general, many of the story elements seem to weave together a little too conveniently. It’s almost as if Hill was trying to condense too much into one story.

All that aside, the book certainly opens your eyes to the dangers that could be faced by athletes from around the world.

It’s common for Kenyan runners to move to Canada, seeking prize money to send back home to their families, according to The Globe and Mail. They must balance elite training with full-time jobs. Many find the life too difficult.

Every day I run without fear, and I do it for fun. For so many, running is a way to make a living, and it must be done while facing extreme circumstances.

I think it’s important to realize that running is about more than leisure, weight control and self-empowerment.

I loved reading about a runner who must dig deep to find the courage, strength and stamina to win.

Into the Night 5K

Heading to the Into the Night 5K run on Friday, I was not feeling enthusiastic. It was more a case of doing the run because I had already forked over my registration fee.

I didn’t know anyone else doing the race, I was tired, it was Friday, blah, blah, blah. 

Into the Night kicks off Marathon by the Sea race weekend in Saint John. Since I’m not doing the half-marathon this year, I opted for the 5K night run.

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I arrived at the Diamond Jubilee Cruise Terminal in Saint John early for the run I thought started at 9 p.m. I picked up my race kit and was pleased to see two glow sticks made of foam — light sabres, which I knew Silas would love.

I was, however, a little disappointed to find out the race wasn’t timed. I was kind of looking forward to pushing myself in the 5K, which is a relatively unfamiliar distance for me. But with fireworks, glow sticks and a light-hearted feel, I knew I would enjoy myself.

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Turns out the race didn’t start till 9:30 p.m., when it was completely dark. It meant a little more waiting around, but luckily the weather was perfectly comfortable and I did a little jogging to warm up a bit.

Approaching the starting line, we heard a few inspirational words from Terry Thorne, this year’s Marathon by the Sea race marshall. Thorne has run 12 marathons and was in the process of attempting to qualify for Boston when she had a brain aneurism in 2007. She now lives in a nursing home after going through years of recovery. “Never, ever give up,” she said, standing with the help of a walker.

Thorne then sounded the race horn, and with her words on my mind, we were off, carrying the light sabres and dashing into the night. I pressed ahead and fell into a rhythm, running by Market Square as revellers took a break from enjoying live music to cheer for the runners. Then it was on to Harbour Passage, where darkness cast over the course and the colourful glow of the light sticks bounced ahead. I continued to pass people, one by one, until one woman sailed by me. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to let her win.

I don’t know who she was, but I set my mind to staying with that woman, who set a challenging pace. I wasn’t comfortable, but I kept telling myself that 5K is not far at all. I kept on her tail for most of the race, but the final kilometre was a challenge and she got ahead.

I decided to hold back then dig deep for the final stretch, and it worked. I sailed by the final few metres… and was shocked to see the clock at 24:xx. I hadn’t been looking at my watch throughout the race, instead focused on running by feel. And it turned out to be a great strategy.

According to my Garmin, my time was 24:49 — more than a minute faster than my personal best of 26 minutes! However, I believe the course was short, as my watch said the run was only 4.9 km. Still, I totally smashed my PB, and I was over the moon! Not bad for a “fun run.”

I gladly accepted a chocolate milk, ate some orange slices from the well-stocked food tent and made my way home. As I pulled in my driveway, I heard the fireworks (and wondered why they wouldn’t have gone off near the start of the race, while runners could see them over the harbour).

The run turned out to be a great experience, sailing through the dark with a sea of fluorescent runners. It felt good to be out of the blazing sun and gave me hope that I have some speed left in this mother runner legs of mine.

 

The link between gratitude and performance

“You have 50,000 thoughts per day, and 80 per cent of those are negative…. We’re conditioned to see the glass half-empty.” – Scott Welle, sports psychologist

When I run, I usually feel uplifted, stronger and happier. That general feeling of wellbeing is one of the main reasons why I run. It’s what gets me out the door.

But until recently, I haven’t given too much thought to the power of positive thinking and its link to performance – both mental and physical. When I was marathon training with a niggling IT band injury, I superstitiously started to think that every second weekend I would have a “bad” run, and sure enough, it became true. My negative thoughts became reality.

When I turn up the good tunes, and positive podcasts and practise positive self-talk, I inevitably have a “good run.” Of course they can’t all be good – there’s heat, there’s discomfort, laziness and sometimes pain. But how do you push through when the going gets tough? Eventually it becomes mind over matter, and you need something to get you to the finish line.

Listening to the Runners Connect podcast on a recent run, I was really inspired to hear about growing evidence that links high performance with the simple act of feeling grateful.

According to author, marathoner and sports psychologist Scott Welle, who works with professional athletes from the NBA to the MLB, studies show high performers almost always have the highest amount of gratitude.

Welle told podcast host and elite marathoner Tina Muir that 50 per cent of our happiness comes from genetics and 10 per cent comes from our surrounding environment. The rest is based on “intentional activities.”

He says being grateful can help your health, your sleep and performance – both personally and professionally.

Welle suggests writing down two or three specific things you are grateful for every morning.

 

“You will look at life differently, and you will attack it with a different level of positivity and contribution than I think move people do when we live in a mindset of lack versus a mindset of abundance,” he told Muir.

When I’m out for a peaceful long run, and the endorphins are flowing, my mind is often bubbling with happy thoughts. I love my little family, I love living on the East Coast, and I’m so proud of this life I have built with my husband. I’m so grateful we are all healthy and have everything we need. Then, I think about something that was ticking me off a few hours ago, and it seems so inconsequential. What a waste of energy.

Who is up for a gratitude challenge? For 30 days, write in your journal every morning, two or three very specific things that make life good. And let the positive vibes flow.

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I’m grateful for the warm sunshine on a beach just a short drive from my home, and the sound of my son throwing rocks into the waves as the tide rolls in.

 

A running update

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We are loving our new jogging stroller. It feels so great to get out and push my boy through the neighbourhood or local parks.

But man, this summer has been hot! Even here in Saint John, where it’s usually temperate along the coast. It’s been humid too, and I can’t remember the last time I went for a run and didn’t return home just drenched in sweat.

The past month, I have been working on gradually building up my mileage again with the aim of running a fall half-marathon. I recently signed up for Maritime Race Weekend in Eastern Passage, NS. Very pumped to run this race for the first time on Sept. 17.

I’ve also been making more of an effort to improve my speed. I’ve been attending the weekly track nights at the University of New Brunswick Saint John (Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. if anyone is interested!) led by the venerable Coach Daryl Steeves.

When I told him I have been disappointed with my speed ever since running the marathon, he said training for speed and distance are completely different, which made me feel so much better.

Although I’m usually the slowest runner in attendance, I have found it very helpful and I already feel stronger and faster.

Here’s an example of the workout from the last track night I attended. Added up to 7.5 km.

  • 400 m warm-up
  • 400 m easy, 400 m moderate, 400 m hard (20 s. rest between laps) x4 (1 min rest between reps)
  • 1 km with 3 fartleks

I’m finding my speed on the track is so much faster than I thought I could run – even thought it’s just short bursts – so this is encouraging.

Other highlights from the past month include getting in some long runs with my friend Jen. It always seems so hot, so we take our time, but it’s nice to put the miles in together.

It was also great to run with Alicia through the Irving Nature Park during her visit from Ontario. There is something so wonderful about running with one of your best friends who lives far away.

I also stocked up on shoes before Alex Coffin closed up his West Saint John shop. We will miss him here in the ‘hood but he will still sell shoes from Ken-Val Rehab. And, he is now the general manager of the PotashCorp Civic Centre in Sussex. “You know me, I’m always around,” he told me.

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Another hot race: Canada Day 10-miler

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My third race of the year landed on yet another hot day. This is a rarity for the east coast, so I guess you could say I’m training my body to run in the heat.

And yet again, I came out with a sluggish pace, left wondering where my zoomy legs from just a year ago went.

The annual Canada Day 10-miler in Grand Bay-Westfield is a simple, fun event along the St. John River organized by my local shoe salesman and running guru Alex Coffin.

This was my second time participating. The first time I ran the 10-miler was in 2013, which I’m now referring to as “my prime.” It was the same year I ran a sub-2 hour half-marathon and scored a few other PRs.

With the sun and heat expected to strike, Alex offered an early 8 a.m. start, which my friend Jen and I gladly accepted. It also meant we could finish the run early and head off to enjoy the long weekend.

As soon as we arrived, we knew we would be feeling the heat anyway. The air was still and it was already close to 20 C.

We started off at a decent pace below 6 min/km, but after the 5 km mark, I started to wane. We took a walk break close to the halfway mark, then another after a little hill right at 8 km. After that, we slowed right down, making mini goals to get us to our new walk break. It wasn’t pretty, but we knew we’d get it done.

We finished in 1:43:47, which was 59th and 60th out of 78 participants. It was also nearly seven minutes slower than the last time I did this race (1:36:50).

But this run was never really about going fast, it was about a Canada Day tradition and enjoying a long run with a friend. Mission accomplished.

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St. Andrews 5-miler

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April & Janie

It was warm and sunny for the 38th annual St. Andrews Father’s Day 5-Mile Road Race. And three weeks after my first marathon, I came out with my slowest 5-miler, ever.

I’m not shattered by this result – it was 21 C and the sun was pretty hot after the 10 a.m start. I feel like I pushed it as hard as I could, and I really haven’t been training for speed. But when I went back and checked my stats… damn… even slower than my first race ever!

Today’s finish time was 49:38, or 9:56 minutes per mile, placing 11/18 in my age group. My personal best is 42:30 from the Hampton 5-Miler in 2013.

Some background

OK so I know I really didn’t prepare myself well for this run, so I kind of got what I deserved. First of all, Mark, Silas and I went to St. Martins, a beautiful seaside community, for the day on Saturday. We hiked, played on the beach and ate junk food. When we got home, my husband and I stayed up late watching a movie.

I hit snooze this morning, then crawled out of bed and tried to get our butts out the door within 45 minutes. A challenge for sure. None of us were really feeling it. Not a great way to start Father’s Day.

After about an hour on the road, we got to the run with literally a minute to spare before registration closed. I jumped out of the car while my husband parked.

My plan was to run with Silas in our new stroller. But… we forgot it. So this meant I was running on my own. I knew I wouldn’t be fast, and the stroller was going to be my safety net. So I mentally prepared to tackle this hilly run on my own, and without music.

The run

The course itself is truly beautiful, wrapping around the harbour at Passamaquoddy Bay, through the downtown, through wooded areas and past the historic Algonquin Resort. The two-ish miles are flat, followed by a couple of challenging miles. The last mile is mostly downhill, except for one monster of a hill near the end.

This was my second time running the race, and our third time coming. Mark raced it two years ago when I was nine months pregnant. It’s small and fun with lots of door prizes! A couple of our friend ran the race too, which always makes it fun.

We finished off the morning with a tasty lunch at The Gables, and Silas was obsessed with the lobster out front!

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This run was humbling and was a reminder that just because I ran a marathon doesn’t necessarily make the shorter distances any easier. Also, hitting snooze is never a good idea.