As a runner, whenever a big race is approaching, it’s all I can think about. This was definitely the case for the 2017 Canada Army Run. In the two weeks ahead of the race, I committed to tapering my training in order to save my legs for the race, and so I was definitely in my own head, analyzing my training log and putting myself into situations, visualizing myself at various markets in the race. In my training, I’d completed long runs up to 24km four times, and the half marathon distance was absolutely one I was comfortable with, but there was something daunting about my first half marathon race, and the size of those particular one, that gave me butterflies.
I was hunting a PR in the half marathon at the Army Run. For months, I made that goal known on social media and with those close to me in my real life. I’d tailored my training to hit a 1:30 time, run the negative split, take my gels here, hydrate there, carb load in X way, hydrate this much in the weeks ahead of race day, etc. I’d done the homework, the long runs and the preparation. In my mind, hitting that 1:30 was almost a formality. All I had to do was go out there and run it. Everything that was in my control, I had taken care of.
In the weeks leading up to September 17, I started obsessing over the conditions of the race. I checked the weather forecast every day, sometimes even multiple times per day. Two weeks before the race, it called for rain, and I panicked. I hadn’t trained in the rain a lot. I wasn’t sure how it might affect my time, but that I’d deal with it as a new experience and take it in stride if it did end up raining. After all, all I needed was a 90-minute window of no rain and I’d be good. That was literally a conscious thought that crossed my mind.
Then, about five days before the race, the forecast cleared up and I was able to breathe easier. However, a September heatwave rolled over Ottawa and my concerns turned to the temperature. On race day, this translated to 25 Celsius (32 with the humidity) and not a cloud in sight. I knew when I saw the weather advisory email from the event organizers the day before race day that this was likely not going to be the day to push for a PR. The weather was out of my control – and I would need to adjust my goals for the race.
On race morning, on my bus ride down to City Hall where the start line was, I finalized my race goals:
- A-goal: hit the 1:30:00 time for the half marathon, which would mean covering the first 10k at 4:30/km (45:00), and then drop the splits to finish.
- B-goal: finish within 5:00 of my current PR (1:33:45), which entailed cruising at that 4:30 throughout the race with a bit of cushion.
- C-goal: finish in under 1:45:00, which I felt safe in my ability to complete under almost any circumstances aside from an injury.
Here I am, almost a full week after the 2017 Canada Army Run, reflecting on how everything unfolded.
I slept well the night before the race, with a full stomach after carb loading the night before. I woke up on time at 5:00am, had a bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter, and a banana. I’d packed my bag the night before with my race clothes and a chance of clothes for after, water bottle, charged AirPods and Apple Watch, and a protein bar. Once I got to the race, it was 7:15am.
The Army Run is different from other events its size because it also has two “challenges”: the Vimy Challenge, where participants run the 5k and 10k races, and the Commander’s Challenge, where they run the 5k and then the half marathon. Because of this, the half marathon starts last, after the 5k and 10k. Our gun time was at 9:30am, which meant two things: first, I’d be waiting a solid 2 hours before we tied the line; second, the heat would be in full effect by the time we started, and definitely once we were into the race.
I checked my bag, walked around the event site, perused the expo put on by the Running Room, peed probably 5 times (like, full 30-second pees, which I was a little concerned about), ate my protein bar which was supposed to be for after the race, and paced around trying to stay loose.
I went through my warmup paces 15 minutes before gun time. Around that time, I got a message from my good friend Sachin from work, who was at the event with his two boys, who were dressed as dinosaurs, to cheer me and a few other colleagues on our races. I met with I’m quickly, and as I walked to my corral, he shouted “1:25!” I laughed and shivered in the heat. It was about to go down.
Finally, O Canada was complete and it was time to start. In the shade, it was warm but bearable. The corrals were shaded and I was feeling like I could still push for my A-goal, but that I would know for sure by 5k if I was going to go for it. I was probably about 80% committed to it. I got in the middle of the blue corral, the fastest one, behind the elites but ahead of the runners who may have overestimated the expected finish times. It was the correct corral for me, and the one I’d been assigned to. I lined up a few people behind the 1:35:00 pace bunny, which I thought was a safe bet. I’d trail him for the first 10km, and then push on to my goal time after that.
Little did I know, that pace bunny must have either been trying to bank time early or just not been wearing a watch. After the shuffle out the gauntlet and the initial cluster of people for the first mile of the race, the pace bunny exploded into a nearly 4:10/km pace (for reference, a 1:35:00 half marathon is a 4:35/km pace held steady). I felt fine (thanks, adrenaline) but knew from experience that this wasn’t sustainable for me. After checking my watch and seeing how fast we were going, I made my first decision of the race and let the bunny go. I was going to stick to my guns and my plan from here on.
There is a feeling you get from being passed early in a race that I’m still getting used to. On the majority of my training runs, the only time anybody passes me is if they’re on a bike. It takes discipline to stay in your paces early in a race – to live the phrase “it’s not a sprint; it’s a (half) marathon”, and save yourself for crunch time.
From prior experience, I knew that as much as that feeling of being passed humbles me early in a race, it would feel just as great picking those runners off between 12km and the finish line, when the pace tables turn.
After starting out the first mile at 4:14/km, I slowed to hit the 5km split in 22:59 (4:36/km), which was the first sign I’d be going for my B-goal. I took water at every station and ran hatless under every misting station on the course. My gels were already ripped and ready in my pockets, and I gulped my first one at 6km, about a mile earlier than I’d planned to. I wanted to restore electrolytes early in hopes that I’d rebound and make one last push for my A-goal (stubborn, I know). It wasn’t out of the question at 6km. About a mile later the gel kicked in and I felt great, and for a time I actually was hitting my 4’30 paces. The temperature was already up from the start of the race some 30 minutes ago, and in the sun, I was naive to the struggle that awaited me.
As we passed 7km and approached the cheering station by the the War Museum and the bridge into Quebec, the gel was doing its job, and I remembered that by the time we returned to ontario, I’d be at 10km and in a spot to make my move. I glanced at my watch and although I felt strong in my cadence, I was still hovering at 4’34/km. My heart rate was already hovering at ~170bpm, which was approaching my maximum effort.
It was in this stretch just before half way through the race that I conceded that today just wasn’t going to be the day. It was too hot to run the negative split I’d intended. I could not sustain a 170+bpm HR for another hour. I slowed down on the ascent of the Alexandria Bridge back into Ontario and observed my 10k split of 48:38 (4’38/km). This was just too much time to recover from in the last 11km to make 90 minutes.
I owned my decision to go for my B-goal in that moment.
As we turned onto Sussex Drive and passed a number of entirely necessary water and cheering stations, the sun hung high overhead, and the humidity was very oppressive. I took my second gel at 13km, as planned, and it went down smoothly.
My split between 10-15k was actually my fastest of the race, which I was surprised and pleased by, but I knew it was too late. There was a significant downhill portion between 13-15km and I picked off probably 40-50 runners in that space. I felt like I was flying, and I was, at a top sustained speed of 4’08/km for that stretch. My 15k split was 1:08:50 (4’31/km).
The remainder of the race was characterized by my “pain face”, which I hadn’t actually seen before but would later discover through pictures. I knew I was within 5k of the finish, and I continued to pass people who’d gone out faster than me. That was reassuring, and the crowds were motivating. My cardio was there, but the heat was just too much for me to push through.
Once we came up to 18-19km and returned to the Rideau Canal for the home stretch, I recalled something that another of my running friends and coworkers, Ashley Andrews, had told me. “No matter where I am in a run, I always know I can run 2 more kilometers,” she had told me. This mantra kept repeating in my head: 2 more kilometers. 2 more. 2 more kilometers. I’d be done in close to 10 minutes. I could do this.
It’s in these moments, when you’ve thrown yourself deep into your reserves and you’re struggling, that you find what you’re truly made of. In the heat of the mid-day sun, with my legs on autopilot, my mind took me to a particular long run back in May where I’d planned to go out for 21.1k but crashed and burned at 19.9k. I was so dejected. I had overtrained at that part of my cycle and learned from it. But it stung. I vowed never to put myself in that position again. I wouldn’t stop. I wanted to. I’d slow down if I had to, but there was absolutely no way I was going to stop running. There would be no continuing if I stopped. But still, everything hurt.
For this race, spectators could also track participants using their name or bib number in the Army Run app, which I thought was so cool before the race. During the race, it was an extra layer of stress to deal with. My parents, while they weren’t at the race, told me they would be tracking me from home. I’d told some friends about it and everyone from work who I knew was going to be there was likely going to be tracking me. I definitely wasn’t about to stop running.
I saw the clock as I passed 20km reading 1:32:20. I knew I’d be there in a few minutes.
Before the race, Sachin had told me he would be waiting “near the finish”, which was vague, but promising to me. I expected to see him on the side of the road anywhere after 16km, and didn’t see him until the final 500 meters. I knew he was tracking me so he’d see me coming.
I heard him yell my name and tell me to “Go!” I was struggling hard, with only the knowledge that I’d just passed 20k to push me forward. There was another runner who I caught up to at that point who I asked if he wanted to cruise with me, and he said yes. We were side by side when we passed Sachin.
I don’t know what came over me, but I had a final burst of adrenaline after seeing Sachin so close to the finish. I sprinted, all out, balls to the wall, through the line, and actually passed someone 10m before the line. My final time was 1:37:04.5.
Once I came to a full stop to the side of the road, my legs began to cramp like I’d never experienced in training. I’d truly exerted myself to the fullest, and left everything I had on the course. No, I didn’t run a 1:30:00, but I had no regrets. I dealt with the circumstances and ran my best race for that day. Everything I could control, I controlled to my maximum ability, and what I couldn’t control, I rebounded to my benefit.
There were several highlights on this day for me:
- I’d run my first official half marathon race.
- Seeing Sachin and sprinting through the line.
- Digging deeper into my afterburners than I knew I could.
- Hitting my B-goal in that heat.
- Executing and adapting my plan correctly.
But the biggest highlight of the day was accepting my dog tag from a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. As this is a race to honour and sponsor the men and women who put their lives on the line for the benefit of us all, the custom of the Army Run is to shake the hand of a uniformed individual and receive the medal.
Looking ahead, I have my sights set on October 22nd. The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon is just over a month away. Just as I did before the Army Run, I plan to prepare as much as possible. If I’m lucky, seasonal temperatures and an earlier start time should set the scene for me to finally break the 90-minute half marathon.