Sunday was the big day I’d been planning for since… well, since March 17 at least: the Fredericton Marathon 10k.
Because this race weekend happens in my hometown, I’ve participated a couple of times, completing the 5k in 2013 and my first full marathon last year. This year, my first Fredericton 10k race, was different in one very significant way: I was attempting to run for speed.
Crossing the finish line at the 2013 Fredericton Marathon 5k
My 2013 5k came less than a week after a mini health crisis. I had a bad reaction after donating blood that culminated in a loss of consciousness, some seizure activity, an evening in the hospital and several days of bed-rest. I was weak, barely walking let alone running. So I set a simple goal: cross the finish line.
And I did with a final chip time of 31:51. I remember very little about that day other than the satisfaction of just showing up, my slow cautious pace, and the relief that I survived it.
The next year, I trained all winter to run my first full marathon during the Fredericton race weekend. Again, I was in uncertain territory. The race would be the longest run of my life. My stomach was churning with nerves for days leading up to it. I could barely comprehend the idea of running 26.2 miles, let alone trying to do it with any kind of urgency. So again, I set one simple goal: cross the finish line.
Crossing the finish line at the 2014 Fredericton Marathon
And I did with a final chip time of 4:42:47. I remember everything about that day: the panic when the 5k, then the 10k, and finally the half-marathon runners veered off toward the finish line leaving me with so many more miles to cover; the feeling of lightness when I passed my family and read the signs they’d made for me; the mantra I found myself repeating when it seemed I might never finish at my glacial pace:
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
And of course, the tears in my eyes when I reached that final stretch toward the finish line (which are somehow still here a year later when I recall it).
But 2015? Well, the 2015 Fredericton race weekend was different because this year my goal wasn’t just to finish. It was to finish fast.
When I first signed up, I hoped to beat my PR of 53:02, set by a 23-year-old me six years ago. In the final week before the race, I added a couple more goals:
- Floor Goal: 59:59.
- Realistic Goal: 57:00.
- Optimistic Goal: 53:00
When I showed up at the start line on Sunday morning, I was being an optimistic realist and hoping for something around 56:00. At the last minute, I decided to run blind, leaving all my running tech at home because I didn’t want to be discouraged if I fell behind my goal pace. This would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse.
My friend Fidele was in town to run with me. It was his first race and I relished every bit of getting him to the start line. A couple days before, we walked a few kilometers of the course and I explained what he’d see and hear as he approached the finish line. The day before, we picked up our race kits and laid out our gear, while peer pressuring each other to hydrate. The morning of, I introduced him to my go-to race day breakfast: a banana and almond butter wrap.
Finally, at about 7:30 on race day morning, Fidele and I, along with my long-suffering but much-loved cheer team (parents, husband, and brother) piled into a couple of vehicles and, after a bit of a struggle, found a couple of parking spots a couple of blocks away from the start line. Just a short walk to work the kinks out of our legs.
As we got closer and closer, we saw more and more runners streaming in the same direction. I felt the familiar pangs of inadequacy. On race day, every single race-bib-wearer seems to exude way more confidence and experience than me. I thought I would feel more like a “real runner” after completing a full, but until the gun goes off I still always feel like I’m playing pretend. (Wonder if that will ever go away?)
We made it to the start line with about 15 minutes to spare. Time enough for porta-potties (No lines! Amazing!), some snapshots and, of course, the pre-race jitters to get a firm grip.
Fidele and me ready to run
When it was time to line up, we spotted a 1-hour pace bunny in the crowd and decided to hang out near him. We both felt a 60-minute finish would be respectable and, if we happened to get out ahead, knowing where the bunny was would at least help us gauge our speed. We hung out for a bit, I tightened up the laces on one of my shoes (this will be relevant later), and then we were off!
It didn’t take long for the crowd to thin out. We were soon passing other runners and leaving the pace bunny behind as we found our stride. I was breathing heavy almost immediately, but felt comfortable running on fresh legs after several rest days and a welcome freedom at having no idea what my pace was.
The race begins with a loop downtown. There’s lots to look at, some cheering spectators, and by the time you get onto the walking trail for an out-and-back, you’re already several kilometers into the race.
Just before I made the turn onto the walking trail, however, I felt one of my shoes loosen and then, as I was looking down, watched it become totally untied. Cursing myself that I didn’t check on both shoes at the start line, I pulled over, tied it up tightly, and was on my way. This probably took, at most, 20 seconds (this will also be relevant later).
It was around this time that I heard someone say my name, assumed it couldn’t be for me, and almost missed my friend Amy cheering. I spotted her at the last minute, gave her a smile and a wave, and felt that familiar boost that can only come from people cheering you on.
(This, by the way, is why we pay money to run the same routes we could run for free any other day of the year. Any other day of the year, there’s no cheering. It’s worth the $40. Believe me.)
As I made my way across the walking bridge, things started to feel a bit laboured. Time to put into action a strategy I read about a few weeks ago (tried to find a link but can’t remember where it was):
- Set sights on a runner ahead of you.
- Focus just on overtaking them.
- Once you have, repeat steps 1 and 2.
This works wonders: the time passes quickly and it helps keep up your pace (even when you have no idea what that pace is).
In fact, I was having such a great time I breezed by the 6 km water station. By the time I made it to the turnaround (the prettiest pylon I ever did see), I was thinking that might have been a mistake. There was some definite gurgling in my tummy, and I vowed to grab some Gatorade on the way back, hoping some electrolytes might settle things down.
Then I saw Fidele on his way out, not far behind me, and gave him a high-five. A couple minutes after that, I spotted the 1-hour pace bunny and realized Fidele and I were both killing it.
Totally re-energized, I skipped the water station again. Very soon thereafter my leaden legs brought on a stirring of regret. This is when I called on a mantra I’d seen the night before:
The day will come when you can no longer run, but today is not that day.
Today is not that day. With a lot of grimacing and panting, I put one foot in front of the other at what I hoped was the same steady, somewhat challenging pace I’d been maintaining.
With about a kilometre to go, I overheard a runner just ahead of me say something that sounded like: “If we keep around this pace, we should come in between 52 and 54.”
Hold the phone. Did I hear that right? Could I actually be on track to potentially beat that longstanding PR of 53:02?
Unsure and with my tummy now gurgling ominously, I held on hard to the pace and pushed myself around the final bend to the finish line. When I finally came close enough to see the clock, it was ticking away somewhere around the 54-minute mark.
With no clue how much was on the clock when we crossed the start line, I gave it my all until I crossed the mat, smiling at my family as I passed them, focusing on overtaking one last target, and trying very, very hard not to throw up.
“Don’t throw up, don’t throw up, don’t throw up.”
Amazingly, when I checked my official chip time, it was 53:39–a mere 37 seconds shy of my PR.
If only I hadn’t had to stop to tie my shoe. If only I had been keeping track of my pace. If only…
Never the less, I was and am ecstatic to have run so much better than I expected. And it just goes to show that a new PR is totally within reach. Next time.
(By the way, Fidele absolutely killed his first race, coming in at 56:47. We’re already planning our next one. A day will come when we can no longer run, but today is not that day.)