2017 Army Run Recap

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. 

I checked the results of the race and noticed I wasn’t the only person affected by the heat. I ended up placing 171st overall out of 5663 runners, and 20th in the M25-29 category. 

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. 


The 1000km Milestone

The date was February 10, 2017. It was still winter outside, which in Ottawa meant the snowbanks were still two meters tall, and the windchill was a parole officer who kept everybody inside their homes. 

Because of the treacherous scenery that awaited outside my front door, I recall avoiding going to the gym in favour of a run on my basement treadmill. I wasn’t particularly interested in running, but I did like to mix in the occasional cardio session here and there. 

I had just recently purchased my Nike+ Apple Watch and was also interested in testing it out. Because I work at Apple, I wanted to be able to speak to the product better with my customers, and draw from my own experiences. I also just wanted to know what the hype was about. 

The treadmill in my basement is in one of the back corners of my house, in my dad’s office space. It’s practically buried by old paperwork, my grandparents’ hospital documents, holiday shopping lists, etc. It’s not a very visually stimulating setting for a run (or much else, for that matter). To add disfunction to the disarray, there’s even an old TV that doesn’t turn on anymore directly in front of your face when you run on the treadmill, so all you see is a reflection of your own face bobbing up and down as you run. 

Despite all of these factors, I still committed myself to my decision to run. I wanted to see how far I could go, and using my watch as motivation, I went farther than I probably should have. My numbers from that run were:

  • Distance: 3.35km
  • Duration: 23:12
  • Pace: 6’55/km
  • Avg HR: 152bpm

Looking back, I am more horrified by the uneven numbers than the numbers themselves! Today, I would stop at 3km or even 3.5km. But 3.35? The OCD in me is buzzing. All kidding aside, I did learn a lot that day. I also learned that I still had a lot to learn about running. 

I must have felt good after that day, because a few days later, just as a coke addict returns to sort another line, I went back to my basement treadmill for more. That time I ran/walked 4.66km (again, the number gives me acid reflux just typing it), but almost died of cardiac arrest, and so I stopped 340m short of 5km. Would I have actually died? Probably not. But I’d been running for 2 days and didn’t have the mental stamina to break through. 

I actually wouldn’t accomplish a 5km run until March 26, a good 6 weeks after I began running. I can still remember that day. That was a monumental accomplishment for me. I walked into work like I was Tim Cook that day. 

After experimenting with the 5k for a month or so – my training log shows I was infatuated with the distance, as 8 of my next 11 runs were exactly 5km long – I pushed for 7km. That felt good. Within a month of hitting the 5km plateau, I had set my sights on 10km. 

By this point it was now April. The snow was retreating but the roads were still slippery and slushy. I graduated from the treadmill in my basement to the one at Goodlife and locked in to get it done. I was determined I would get there. If I had to stop along the way, so be it. But I would not quit. Lo and behold, in 51:55 (but probably closer to an hour considering the breaks) I covered the distance. 

After stepping off the treadmill, I looked at myself in the change room mirror. I couldn’t believe that I’d done that. I remember smiling through the sweat droplets so deliriously, which I don’t do often and hadn’t done in a long time. Little did I know, as running became a bigger and bigger part of my life and self image, these smiles were about to become more and more frequent. 

Around the start of June, when I was comfortable and able to run upwards of half an hour with relative ease, I decided to document my runs on my Instagram. The feedback was both immediate and addictive. Runners from all around the world were encouraging me on. I started to see myself as a runner and call myself one with confidence. With the decision to go public, I felt like I had people counting on me to follow through on my goals. This scared me. But it also inspired me to set even bigger, scarier goals, including my biggest goal of all: qualifying for and completing the Boston Marathon. 

I can recollect the first time I told someone I was trying to get to the Boston Marathon. It was my good friend Sachin from work. He used to run a lot, and had shown me his old race results online. I was so impressed. I wanted to do it, too! The idea had been marinating for a few weeks at that point, and it was (still is) a pipeline goal for a few thousand kilometers down the road, but I just came out and said it: “I’m training to get to the Boston Marathon.” 

His reaction was one of both surprise and belief. We both knew I had a lot of work to do. But I felt so assured of myself, so confident in the progress I’d made. And saying it out loud made it real. It raised the stakes. From that day on, while I still run for the feeling and enjoyment, I began to consider myself a runner. My runs had purpose. The food I ate mattered. The recovery runs, foam rolling, Epsom salt baths, strength training. It all mattered. 

On May 31, just less than 4 months after that fateful February morning, with six runs of 10km under my belt, I set my eyes on the next markee distance: the half marathon. This was an important achievement if I was to continue working toward my goal of the Boston Marathon. I returned to my habitual treadmill at Goodlife and locked in, just as I’d done when I decided to go for 10km.  I did it in 1:45:43. 

Something about a treadmill, while I absolutely prefer outdoor running, is comforting to me. The pace is controlled for me. Water and a towel are readily available. I can just put my legs on auto-pilot and mentally check out. Outlasting other runners next to me is satisfying. The most gratifying thing for me, however, is seeing the sweat that I’ve poured onto the surface beneath me when I’m finished. It sounds gross, and it is. But each drop that fell on that treadmill was an indication of my effort to improve myself. 

Yesterday the Nike+ Run Club app indicated I’d run 1000km. Today is September 10 – exactly seven months after that inaugural run. In the short time I’ve been running, I’ve now completed two 10km races, with a top 10 finish in both (they weren’t elite races by any stretch of the imagination, but both had upwards of 250 participants). I’ve never PR’d in a race, only in training, which is something I am trying to change. 

I am now one week out from another new experience: a half marathon race. The Canada Army Run will be my first “big race.” But I am not intimidated by the crowds and the noise. I am only running against myself. My mindset has evolved from just surviving, to seeing how fast I can run it. I know I can cover the distance – I’ve done it in training 10 times already. The time I am touting as my A-goal is 1:30:00. My PR in the half marathon right now is 1:33:45. I feel that with the right preparation, nutrition, strategy and race day adrenaline that I can do it. Typing this gives me goosebumps and reminds me how much I’ve changed since February. 

It’s amazing how things can change in seven months. 

Running in the Rain

Let’s face it: as much as I love it, sometimes running isn’t as graceful as it appears. There are some days that my body feels creaky, like my legs need a little extra oil to move faster and easier. On days that boast beautiful weather and scenery, it’s easier to settle in and enjoy the ride. On other days, like this morning, I’ve historically avoided going out for a rainy run and locking in on the treadmill, instead.

I know I can’t be the only one who has made the conscious decision to not train in the rain. Indeed, it’s a far more pleasant way to spend an hour or more inside a cozy gym on a treadmill, with a towel and water at your fingertips, instead of braving the elements and risking getting soaked. 

One major reason for staying indoors was that I didn’t want to wreck my shoes! A stray splash in an unexpected puddle, mud from a saturated trail, and accelerated bacteria growth in the shoe are all reasons I wouldn’t go outside. In the back of my mind, I know I do have an older pair of shoes that I could lace up for just today, but I can’t bring myself to do it! 

But today, my attitude toward running in the rain took a turn. As runners tend to do, in the week and change before a race, we hawk the weather forecast. I’ve become obsessed with knowing what the weather will be like during the Canada Army Run Half Marathon that I’ll be running September 17. Yesterday it said 70% POP. Today it’s changed to just cloudy. 

I was shocked by the butterflies that arose in my chest when I saw that original forecast. I feel wholeheartedly prepared to run a PR of 1h 30m in the half marathon. I have been training for 6 months to get to this point, and have covered the distance and more numerous times. I am the kind of person who doesn’t go half way. I like to think I have done all I could do to train effectively for this race. 

The worry came from something outside of my control: the weather. I never really trained in the rain, so how would I respond to those conditions in a race? Would I have to adjust my strategy? How will my stride be impacted? My breathing? These were all concerns that, as endurance runners, we measure and then re-measure.

This morning the conditions for my run were light rain, cool breeze and dark skies looming. At times I cut through a steady mist that hung in the air, remnants of an overnight fog that would not go away. Water dropped from my eyebrows and my nose, but I felt strong. The air was fresh and cool in my lungs and I found a comfortable rhythm for my 8km recovery run.  

When I finished, I reflected on the experience. If it does rain for part or all of the Army Run, I will embrace it. Running is the most primal form of sport and it stems from a connection to humanity’s most natural state of motion, and connection to the Earth. Bringing rain into the equation romanticizes it, enhances it, and will not be avoided again in my training. While I may not be able to control the weather, I can control how I adapt to it. And like I said before, I always want to know I’ve done everything I could to be successful. 

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