Race Report: Scotiabank Toronto Marathon

Crossing the finish line

The thousand-yard stare in the above photo notwithstanding, the marathon was a success. It was my fifth marathon, and the first one I’ve done barefoot. I had finishing times in mind (the usual spectrum of target, goal, and wishful thinking), but my real goal was was a state of mind. And I achieved it. (My chip time, by the way, was 5:17 and change – an improvement of 2 minutes over my last marathon finishing time, in 2010. Not only am I getting older, I’m getting better!)

For a number of reasons, I’ve taken a while to get my thoughts down about this event. That may be a good thing, as it’s meant I’ve had time to reflect on the race, my performance, and the future. They’re all good.

The Goodies

For starters, I had the pleasure of running almost all of the marathon with fellow barefoot runner Dan B. Dan and I have known each other online for about 3 1/2 years, but met in real time only the day before Scotiabank. He traveled from his home in Massachusetts for the race, and I showed him around Toronto a bit as we did a (car) recon of the route, drank espresso in a couple of my favourite local places, and chatted about running, barefooting, and life in general. For the marathon itself, Dan and I ran the first 30K side-by-side,as we’d agreed beforehand. (That must have been quite a sight, judging by the cheers and comments we got from race spectators!) After the 30K mark, we yo-yo’ed back and forth, until Dan surged ahead to cross the finish line about 15 minutes ahead of me. Sharing the race with Dan was the high point of the marathon for me, as well as one of the best things that happened in my running year. I very much look forward to running with him again.

If that weren’t enough, I had another couple of major successes – this was the first marathon I’ve completed without any walking, and, more importantly, the first in which I didn’t experience any black moods at all. I got pretty focused towards the end of it, but my thoughts were all positive, all the time.

The Race

A very soggy start

It was a very soggy start. Rained all night and hadn’t let up by the 8:00 AM start time. So we had about 16,500 runners (4,500 for the marathon and 12,000 for the half) lined up along Toronto’s University Avenue waiting for the “go” gun in th cold, dark, and wet – not anyone’s favourite weather conditions, but there you are.

In fact, we weren’t lined up at all. We were in corrals, according to the goal times we’d indicated on our registration forms. Being older and wiser than I used to be, I tucked myself in at the very end of the last corral, clad in the poncho I’d bought at the dollar store a couple of days before, while chatting with Dan and with other runners. We were a sea of colourful cheap plastic ponchos and those ubiquitous green garbage bags, most of which got chucked as soon as we started moving.

That took a while, though, given the number of start corrals (eight, if I remember correctly). The start gun sounded, we heard muted cheering from the middle distance, and we waited. A couple of minutes, some more muted cheering, and we waited. And again. You get the idea. A full 20 minutes after we’d heard the start gun, we crossed the start line, activated our watches and Garmins, and set off.

Scotiabank’s designed and marketed as a destination marathon, i.e., its organizers (Canada Running Series) crafted a new route for 2012 which took runners through many of Toronto’s more interesting neighbourhoods before heading down to the lake shore for the long stretches that made up the bulk of the race route. They also worked hard to include 12 neighbourhood cheering sections, each one “owned” by a specific neighbourhood to offer support to race participants. All of that simply added to the street party flavour of this race.

So we barreled along for the first few kilometers, sorting ourslves out in the crowd and settling into our chosen paces. Dan and I, in these early stages and for the better part of the first 30K, were running at about a 6:38 min/km pace, which is what we’d agreed on beforehand. That worked nicely, moving us along at a reasonable speed and along with or slightly ahead of most of the runners around us. Once we’d gone through the downtown section, we met some of our fellow DMers (members of the dailymile running community), introduced ourselves, and both gave and received support. By this time, the rain had stopped, and, though the skies were still overcast, we no longer laboured under the ominous rain clouds of the early morning.

At the 19K mark

By the 19K mark, we passed under the Gardiner Expressway, a behemoth of an urban expressway, where Nicole M., another DM pal, waited for us with her camera and a couple of inspirational signs. Talk about support – Nicole stood in the damp and the cold for a couple of hours, cheering us along as well as every other runner passing by. This is what the running community is made of, folks! It was especially helpful to this barefoot runner as I navigated a sea of discarded paper cups from the nearby aid station. A tip of the barefoot hat to you, Nicole! (Photo courtesy of Nicole M.)

After this, of course, the serious fun started. Everything, as I’d expected, went well enough until about the 28K mark, when my pace started to fade. Not too much, but, after about 32K, to a notable degree. I’d known it would, and had experienced this in enough previous marathons not to be dismayed by it. In fact, I felt like the “observer” of Buddhist meditation – not reacting positively or negatively, simply watching what was happening. That’s what I’d planned, and that’s how it rolled.

Scotiabank marathon pace chart

As you can see from the above chart (from my Garmin Forerunner 210), my paced dropped steadily from that point until the end of the race. That was partly due to the usual depleted fuel issues, partly because the soles of my feet were getting a little tender, and partly because I haven’t yet been able to manage the mental strength to go deep and draw on some buried resources. As I said, though, I had no moments of existential doubt, and maintained a very positive mindset while watching what was happening.

About 2K from the finish, the race route went back into the heart of Toronto’s downtown core, amid looming office towers, streetcar-tracked narrower streets, and a surprisingly large number of spectators, all of whom seemed to understand what we end-of-the-crowd runners were experiencing. It was still a street party, but a more serious one that at the marathon’s start. I turned up from Wellington Street onto Bay, and did my level best to run gracefully as I entered the finish chute, which was tidily located right between Toronto’s old and new City Halls. (“Why do you call it the new City Hall if it was built in 1965,” Dan had asked. I still don’t have a good answer.) Dan was there waiting for me, and we shared a manly handshake and an even more manly hug to celebrate our shared success.

The Winners

Taking it easy post-race

Dan B. and yours truly, immediately post-race. We felt we’d earned the right to sit down after running 42.2K barefoot! Getting up was a bit of a challenge, I must admit. But we did it, and staggered off, full of the sweet, sad tiredness that comes after running a full marathon. (Photo courtesy of a friendly stranger.)

Reflections

Lots of learnings from this one.

First of all, I learned how good it was to race with a friend. I strongly suspect that the shared pacing (not to mention support) that came with the “companionate running” with Dan made a huge difference to my physical and mental accomplishments. Second, the fact that I wasn’t bitten by the black dog of despair I attribute to three things: 1/ the psychological approach I’d taken in my training; 2/ the very careful carb loading I’d done in the two days before the race; and 3/ the training program I’d followed to prepare for Scotiabank.

There’s more, of course, but I’m still thinking about it. As Dan said before the race, he always takes something different from each marathon he does. The something I got from this one is big and deep, and I haven’t finished exploring it yet.

Next Time

I want to do Scotiabank next year. I like the route, I like the organization, and I like the street party. What I’d like to pull off in 2013 is a 5 hour finish. My strategy (yes, I have one already) is to start really slowly, at a 7:00 min/km pace), and hold that for as long as I can. Ideally, that would be for the whole 42.2K distance. I want to enter into that post-30K threshold space with more psychological and physical strength, and I want, once again, to be the observer. With less fade and more awareness, I may be able to knock some minutes off this year’s finishing time.

And finally…

Back to the thousand yard stare in my finishing photo… Given all the above good stuff, I’d argue that it wasn’t, after all, a zombie look. Instead, as I’d written in an earlier post, I wanted the final 12k of the marathon to be an opportunity to look past a threshold to “the place where the definitions are.” I got that. For all my sore muscles and tingly feet, those final kilometers were a private, quiet, and, yes, peaceful space where I got what I needed. Come to think of it, I got a whole lot more than I needed – and that, my friends, is the real reason we run marathons.

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14 comments

  1. Thoroughly engaging and enjoyable report, Alan. It all came together very nicely for you. I have Fitzgerald’s book on my xmas list – I hope come close to emulating your psychological approach for the challenges of 2013.

  2. Hi Alan. It’s been a long time since I’ve commented but I figured today would be a good time.

    First, a hearty congratulations on the race. And a great report!

    I haven’t shared this anywhere online until today but a year ago this week I found out I had prostate cancer, something you’ve also experienced. I had surgery in March and so far I’m cancer-free. After recovering I decided my lifelong goal of running a marathon was now overdue so I trained to run the NYC marathon, which would have been today had it not been for the hurricane. Like you, I’m a barefoot runner and was all set to run through the five boroughs “skin-on-ground”.

    Anyway, now I’ll have to adjust my plans. But, as always, you continue to inspire me and your recent race is no exception. I always learn something either about you as a person or about your experiences by reading your blog.

    Thanks for being there and don’t stop running and blogging!

    1. Great to hear from you again, Bob! Sorry to hear about the cancer, but I’m glad to hear the good outcome. My cancer journey isn’t over yet, I’m afraid. In 2010, 4 1/2 years after my first set of radiation treatments, my PSA count spiked very highly, and I had to go back for a second (and more brutal) set of treatments. The numbers have been good since then, but I have a biopsy coming up soon to see what’s what.

      Good to hear about your BF marathon plans. I think you’ll have a great time! If you want to chat about either the marathon or the cancer, feel free to email me at basicbare@gmail.com. Always happy to talk with a fellow barefoot cancer dude. 🙂

      Take care.

    1. Thank you, Robin! You’re right, the weather conditions weren’t ideal. Not for me, anyway – I like the temps to be a good deal warmer. Still, considering the initial forecast for the day, which called for rain and very high winds, we didn’t do badly at all. As someone once wisely wrote, “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” 🙂

    1. Thanks, Paul. The Greektown cheering section was the one that really got to me – not just because of my tiredness, but also because they seemed to really care about us. It meant a lot.

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