I hugged a complete stranger at the finish line.
We were just ushered into the food tent, breathless, medals hanging around our necks. We were both bewildered. Absorbing what just happened.
“Did we just get in around the two-hour mark?” I asked her with wild eyes.
It was so hard to tell… there were so many time clocks for the different distances. I wasn’t sure what my time was.
She said we did. Just over two hours.
“Oh my gosh. I’m going to cry,” I said, adding, “I love runners!” And we hugged, just like that. All sweaty and high on endorphins, and feeling like we had accomplished something great.
Yesterday was the Fredericton Marathon, and I, along with 563 others, ran 21.1 kilometres in the half-marathon. I think it was the biggest race I’ve ever entered with 1,500 participants in total.
The weather was chilly and damp, around 14 C. It was freezing waiting in the starting line. But perfect for a long run.
The course is famously flat. It stays completely on Fredericton’s trail system, some of it paved, but mostly gravel. It’s narrow, which makes it challenging to weave your way ahead of other runners.
My favourite part of the route is that it follows the breathtaking St. John River. We crossed a beautiful pedestrian bridge that used to be a train bridge then continued north into the suburban town of Marysville. At this time of year, Fredericton’s leaves and blossoms have just sprung from their buds. It was lovely and the green was brilliant. More than once along the course, I couldn’t help but do a little running dance with my arms, I was so happy.
The day started out early. My boyfriend, Mark (who ran a speedy 5K), and I met up with our friend Jen at 7 a.m. Jen has been training for weeks but thought she missed her chance to run when registration filled up long before the race. She was lucky enough buy a bib from a man named Frank, who was injured.
After finding a place to park, I realized I forgot my Garmin at the hotel. Panic. Nerves.
How could I stay on my goal pace? How would I know when to pick it up, when to slow down?
Jen and Mark reassured me I would be fine. In fact, it might be more relaxing to just run how I felt. I agreed.
So last August, for my first half-marathon in Saint John, on a particularly hilly course, I came in at 2:16.
This time, I knew I could do better, if only because of the flatter course. But I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I told everyone I just wanted to beat my previous time. In my head, my goal was to keep on a 6 min per km pace, which would bring me in around 2:06.
But sans Garmin, I just ran according to how I felt. At first, I tried to keep up with Jen, but I felt winded after a couple kilometres and wanted to slow my pace a bit, so we parted ways.
The first 5-10 km felt great. It was so picturesque and I didn’t feel tired at all. But since I had no idea how far along the course I was, I started getting antsy to find the halfway point, which is roughly where we would turn around. I was also thirsty, so thirsty. I didn’t wear a fuel belt (just stuck a gel in my pocket) so I was counting on those precious water stops. Just past the 10 km part, I asked a man holding a sign if we were close to water and he just stared at me. Must not have heard me!
Finally I could see we were almost to the turnaround point. More of the speedy half-marathoners were looping back. At this point the trail was kind of rocky and more challenging, but still flat. I grabbed some water and took a glorious walk break. Heading back, I checked out the stopwatch on my iPod (I had not been monitoring it because it was zipped up in my pants pocket). I had run the first 10K in 56 minutes! At this rate, I knew I could slow down and still make it around two hours. This added some zip to my step.
But oh man, the final leg of a journey is always harder. At 15 km I started hurting. My hips and knees had were aching a bit. So I starting making mini-goals. Get to the next water stop and take a break for a few seconds. Listen to two more songs and walk for a few seconds. Try to catch Jen (she was in my sights!). Find a nice, easy pace. I knew I could do it. Just had to keep… going…
Before long I was at the last water stop. A nice young man handed me a glass of the best water I’ve ever tasted, calling me by name (it was on the bib). Only 1.5 km to go!
Unfortunately, around this point, an ambulance was approaching on the trail toward an injured runner. I don’t really know what happened to this person, who was wrapped in jackets and clothing. I hope they are OK.
Just before the pedestrian bridge, I recognized a familiar face who cheered me on for the final leg. I tried to smile at every cheering person on the sidelines who specifically clapped for me. Those people really help you get through.
Across the bridge and back into downtown Fredericton, around a corner and bam, there was the final stretch. I picked up my speed. I saw Mark, and our friends Becky, Andrew and their daughter Harper holding a sign. I pushed onward and craved to hear the beep of my chip crossing the finish.
And there it was. 2:01:40.
And I met my stranger runner friend, and we hugged, full of a kind of elation that only running can bring.