Crossing the finish line of the Ottawa Marathon continues to play through my mind in slow-motion: in blurs of leafy green, in steamy humid air, in the shouts of spectators (I took their words to heart), in the face of the lovely woman who slowly placed a beautiful, heavy medal around my neck.
This was my first marathon. It was my race, and though it was imperfect in so many ways, it was also absolute perfection. And I will never forget it.
I dug to the deepest part of me to run those final 600 metres to the finish, and a man in an orange shirt ran up to me and sternly told me to smile and throw my arms in the air – because I needed a good finish line photo!! So I did.
Just past the finish line my shoulders fell forward and I released a gasp, which turned into a cry, and a long wail. I know some heads turned but I didn’t care, as I fully absorbed what had happened. I ran 42.2 kilometres.
I ran a marathon. What was once impossible, was now possible.
A first marathon in such a beautiful city at a huge, well-organized race is so magical. Time didn’t really matter, it was more about finishing the race in an upright position. The extreme heat only accentuated the need to take it easy. But it actually took some of the stress of meeting a time goal away and I was able to take it all in.
My final time was 5:12:28. Here is how I got there.
About a week or 10 days before the marathon, I came to terms with the fact it would be a hot race. This worried me because I have spent the past four months training in cool Saint John. I tried to remain optimistic that the forecast, calling for temps in the high 20s, high humidity and possible thunderstorms, would change, but it didn’t. It was Ottawa’s first heat wave of the year. And we’d be running through it.
A day or two before the marathon, the local media began reporting that the marathon may be cancelled or changed due to the extreme heat. My heart sank, thinking all those months of training, not to mention the expense of travelling to Ottawa, would be lost. But I knew running in dangerous conditions wasn’t wise either. The last thing I wanted was to end up passed out on the side of the road, or waking up in a hospital with my toddler son a 12-hour drive away from me.
While the heat barely dissipated (race organizers say it was probably the hottest in the race’s 42 year history), its impact on the marathon event was minimal, and mostly by sheer luck. Cloud cover and a light breeze helped keep the heat to a manageable level for most of the marathon. It only become horrid, at least 30 C or 38 C humidity, in the last hour or so of my run.
Still, race organizers pulled marathoners who hadn’t reached a final bridge by the four-hour mark. I’m lucky I made it to the finish line.
My husband and I made a vacation out of the Ottawa trip, including the 12-hour drive one-way. I knew I wouldn’t be resting in the hotel room on the day before the run, but I tried to take it easy. Despite this, we ended up doing a lot of walking, even a hike through Gatineau Park (oops) the day before my run. It lovely, but was sizzling hot. Also, I stupidly wore brand new sandals, which I thought would be comfortable, ending up with beat up feet.
By the time we got back to the hotel room on Saturday night, my legs and feet were aching. I had tried to drink lots of water, but I probably still didn’t drink enough. I stretched and we went to bed at 10 p.m. and set the alarm for 4:45 a.m.
All the while, I was steeling myself to the very real possibility that I may need to pull out of the race if the heat forced me to.
Marathon breakfast was a whole wheat blueberry bagel with crunchy peanut butter and a banana. And hotel room coffee. Ugh.
Our hotel was about a 20 minute drive away from downtown, so we strategically left in time to avoid race day street closures. We found a great place to park for free and got to the start line in time to have a quick coffee (for Mark) and to for me to get to the bathroom one last time. I also had lots of time to find my place in the start line corrals. It was not difficult since only the marathon even started at 7 a.m.
I should also mention here that I purposefully had a shower the morning of so I could have wet hair for the run. Running Room founder John Stanton made this suggestion along with many other great tips at the Saturday night pasta dinner. Another piece of advice he gave was to remove your hat and pour water on it at the water stops instead of dumping water over your head. This can avoid chafing issues (since salt from sweat would wash over the body along with the water). A cool head helps cool down the entire body.
The first half:
The first 21 km of the run was through Ottawa’s downtown, along the Rideau Canal, through beautiful residential areas and along Wellington Street lined with small businesses. It was flat and scenic. My pace was steady as I took one-minute walk breaks every 10 minutes. I took the breaks even if I felt I didn’t need them. My strategy was to conserve energy – because of the heat and because of those dreaded final 10 km which remained a big unknown.
The crowd support was extremely uplifting. I was amazed at the ordinary people out with their children, sitting in law chairs, with signs and garden hoses pointed at runners. Kids ambled for high-fives. I drank it in. The spirit was so real!
I hit the porta-potties at about 14 km, and lost three-four minutes as there was a bit of a line. It was worth it.
21 to 30 km
Another great section of the course, across the river to Gatineau, Que. Does this mean I can say I’ve run a marathon in two provinces? Running across the bridge was fun and seemed to go by quickly. At this point we were sharing the course with half-marathoners. They seemed like gazelles and I tried to stay out of their way.
At the 21.1 km mark, the precise halfway point, I noticed a few people let out a cheer as i to say, OK, this is where it gets real! I felt a little surge and fist-pumped.
The course was dotted with plentiful water stations, which also carried Nuun electrolyte drink. By the end the thought of that stuff sickened me, but I kept drinking it so I wouldn’t get dehydrated. It seemed to do the trick!
There were also cooling stations, awesome and refreshing little misting showers. It provided an instant jolt of energy, however fleeting.
Around the 28 km mark, I noticed the 5-hour pace bunny group run ahead of me. I decided to run along with the pack for a bit. But since their walk break didn’t line up with mine, I soon abandoned that plan. Until that point I believed I would land somewhere between 4:45 and 5 hours. But that was the last I saw of the pace bunny with the shower puff tail. Ah well.
Anytime I started feeling discouraged about how slow I was moving, I told myself it was better to be wise than press on for some arbitrary speed goal. What point is there in risking heat stroke, passing out or bonking? All I needed to do was finish, and at that point I knew that was going to happen.
The feeling of knowing I would finish was warm and motivating. I knew it would be difficult, but I knew I would get there, even if my pace slowed down considerably, which it did.
28 km to 37 km
This was my darkest stretch. I may have dropped an f-bomb on Snapchat during this time.
This is when the sun decided to shine in all its hot, miserable glory. The temperature seemed to shoot up about a million degrees, making my legs heavy and every step a struggle. After 32 km, I decided I would take a walk break every kilometre. I just had to make it to the next flag. This strategy edged me along, but my pace lagged.
Looking around didn’t help much either. It seemed as though everyone around me was giving up. There were more people walking than running at this point.
The neighbourhoods continued to cheer us on. They clapped with conviction saying, “You can do it! You’re strong!” People looked me straight in the eye. I had to run. I had to press on. I almost felt guilty walking by a cheering spectator. They kept me moving, step by step.
Around this time I also started to see the Extra Mile Crew, some energetic folks who helped the slower runners get to the finish line. No one specifically came to round me up, but I started to feel like the slow runner that I was. I was starting to feel demoralized. And 5 km seemed so far away.
37 km to the finish
I saw Mark at the crest of a small hill on Sussex Drive, taking cover in the shade. He looked concerned, like he was worried he had missed me. I called out to him and he thrust Gatorade and an ibuprofen pill at me, which I gladly accepted.
He had suspected my IT band would be throbbing by that point, but almost magically it was fine. Still, I was fatigued all over. Beads of sweat sparkled on his brow. We were in the extreme heat of the day.
“I’m going to run with you to the finish,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I was so extremely happy to hear this. I really needed an extra push at this point. We ran very slowly and he encouraged me along. I can’t even describe how tough it was. I remember thinking that childbirth is easier (not true).
Little by little, we passed each flag: 38K, 39K… around 40 km you’d think I would give it my all to the finish. That’s how I always imagined it would be. But I didn’t have it in me. I walked through the very last water stop.
Near 41 km, I decided I needed to run. I stopped again for a few seconds into that final kilometre to gather my strength for the finish line. Then I gave it the final push.
I picked up speed and heard those final cheers, raised my arms, plastered a big smile on my face and sailed across the finish line.
It’s now day three after the marathon and I’m filled with gratitude. I feel so lucky I had the opportunity to take the road trip Ottawa and run in this world class race. I’m grateful to the people of Ottawa and Gatineau for all the sprinklers, cheers, signs, high-fives and smiles along the route. All those volunteers who handed out cups of water and Nuun.
I’m grateful that my body held up for me. After nearly a month of painful runs, and physio sessions, it held together fine on race day. The weather was disgustingly hot, but I know it could have been worse. I’m grateful for the clouds and breeze.
The marathon training journey was quite an adventure. There were early morning runs, snowy and rainy runs, two-hour treadmill runs. I felt mom guilt and wife guilt and I worried about sleep and food and weight and strength and injuries. I got sick two or three times during training and missed precious runs. Training wasn’t always perfect, but there were many sweet and serene morning runs when everything just clicked, when it felt like I was meant to be a runner, and it stopped being hard work.
I met my goal of running 42.2 kilometres, something I never could have dreamed of accomplishing a few years ago.
42.2km: We will meet again.