Monday, May 27, 2013

Race report: Ottawa Marathon 2013

For multiple marathoners, there exists a silent code. Over time, we don't tell others our goal times. Oh sure, we may announce a BQ attempt once in awhile but humbled enough, we start to announce broader goals. "Oh, I want to finish" or "I want to run it strong." PBs and race times are announced after races -- they're earned, just like shirts we refuse to wear until after race day.

Whisper goals, as some may call them, can make the failures a little more easy to bear. Fine enough to say "I want to run a 21 minute 5K race" but I guarantee you're not feeling the anguish in the final 400 metres in the same way you feel slip of a time goal during a three to four hour race. Seconds missed feels like minutes, minutes feels like kilometres. This is the other part of of being a lonely long distance runner.

(Ottawa Marathon 2013 race results / Ottawa Marathon 2013 race photos)

I've watched the Garmin signify lost goals. Damned hell to look your watch at kilometre 39 of an otherwise perfect race as your goals go down the drain with a cramp or as you bonk.  Of all my now two dozen marathons run, I can list only a few that went flawlessly in that I didn't hit a wall, ran strong, smart and had a finish to be proud of. The Ottawa Marathon wasn't all of that, but it came damn close.

Ottawa was the second marathon of the spring, but from the moment I joined Sam in pacing the 3:50s at the Goodlife Marathon, I knew that I'd leave a hell of a lot on the table for a strong second race. The winter of respectable mileage, the strongest months I've had in more than a year, left my endurance at a good level -- without any of the quality work. My Around the Bay time of 2:24ish in theory gave me a 3:30, but I knew I wanted to add some buffer. I had not raced a sub-3:30 since Boston, 2011, so I'd rather get a low one than bonk and end up with another marathon around 3:40. (In retrospect, doing two to three marathons in a single season, often in one month, isn't advisable for fast racing. More in another post.)

Race expo
When asked about Ottawa goals, I kind of broke the rule. I confided with my friend Lee I'd go for 3:35 -- then I revised that. "Somewhere between 3:30 and 3:35, we'll see."

Arrived in Ottawa Friday and settled in. Took some sightseeing in but mostly set camp in my suite hotel (with a kitchen), foraging for all the groceries I'd need for my Friday and Saturday meals. Much cheaper and I'd rather cook my own pre-marathon carbs anyways.

Did a little gallery hanging out on Saturday and did a bus tour offered by the marathon which is great because although I ran Ottawa last year, most of it was a blur. It was nice to get a gauge for the course and make mental notes about the elevation, turns, sights. Immensely helpful -- and I took pictures on the way. I met Shazia and her husband on the bus tour she was taking before her first marathon!

Before the race, I was thinking about what would be my mantra. I remembered this one I spotted once. It may very well be my new one. Here's the last tweet I put out before race.

"There will be a day I can no longer run. Today is not that day." I can't tell you how many times I used that yesterday.

The race

So I took the 3:35 pace band (5:07 kilometre pace) with me. I thought about 5 minute kilometres but felt it'd be better to be on the conservative side and pick it up if needed. There was a pace bunny and quite a lot of people deciding to trail him. The weather? Wow. Absolutely what you'd want for an early spring or fall marathon. Cool, starting at around 9C at the start and no warmer than 13C at the end. And it was cloudy. If there was a day to go for your time goal this was it. Windy at bits but that's to come.


With more than 4900 finishers, Ottawa Marathon is the biggest marathon in our country. It doesn't do a mass start with its half and as a result, the first bit of the race is hectic. Within the first few hundred metres, the bunny was already a bit ahead of me, and we proceeded to overtake a tonne of runners who were clearly not going our pace. I really don't understand what advantage starting a farther up than your time goal but it's a little frustrating for others, especially when the pace group moving up is quite large, which our was.

So our first kilometre was about six seconds slow, so we made up for it with more than a few kilometres of faster-than-pace running. At some point, I felt that maybe our group was averaging much faster than we should have, but I just kept calm, focusing on my race. I didn't try to freak too much if the group got ahead of me, knowing that at least if I found my own way to navigate the crowd we'd eventually find some space.

The course along the canal, which is weaving with some turns, is beautiful. If it weren't for the jockeying, it'd be a lot more serene running experience. My splits for the first 5K shows all but the first kilometre faster than the prescribed 5:07s. The bunny said he'd be running 5:05s, leaving some sort of time bank.

1-5K splits: (5:11.7, 4:53.3, 4:55.3, 5:00.8, 5:01.5)

6K - 10K
We went along Dow's Lake and passed the tulips and at this point, I decided to just run slightly ahead of the pace group. I felt more comfortable being away from the bigger crowd and content to run my own race. Turning on to Fairmont on our way to Westboro, I was feeling pretty good. Looking at my splits, they were on the smidge of fast, about six or seven seconds faster than pace. Within a few kilometres, I probably was about about 15-20 metres ahead of the pace group.

Of course, I knew I was banking a little bit because like just about every marathon, I knew I needed to hit a portapotty at some point. At a water station just before the 8K mark, I saw a bank of four portajohns and saw two greens, made the split second decision to dash in. It's a calculated move but in a race 26.2 miles long, a 15-30 second diversion that can bring you immediate relief.. and, well, makes running way less stressful.

10K mark. Taken during bus tour
Exiting the portapotty, I saw the 3:35 pace group a good 100 metres or so ahead of me. Last year, I did a pit stop later in the race (around the 15K mark) and made the rash decision to quickly power my way back to the group. This year, I just ran my pace, just a few seconds faster than pace. It didn't take to long to catch up to them

6-10K splits: (4:59.3, 4:59.8, 5:21.3, 4:55.3, 5:00.8)

Wellington St. in Westboro is a highlight of the course. Great fan support, a pretty street to run down and more or less easy to navigate elevation-wise. Any mini hills were fine because it was quite early in the race. I had rehooked up with the pace group, running to the right of the bunny as is customary. I noted a few of the runners around me -- always fun to fill a few minutes of your run looking at your counterparts' running strides, water station technique (or lack thereof). One woman was bounding on her tip toes, and another guy asked her if she knew what she was doing. Thanks man, like we really need a mid-race critique on our form?

We were running a lot closer to pace and I believe a pace check around the 8 mile mark put us around 20 seconds faster than pace (which is okay). My gear choice was shorts, T-shirt and a pair of my favourite running gloves, glove liners -- I have probably gone through a dozen pairs through the years. The beauty of the gloves is that they are just enough coverage to keep your hands warm (I get cold hands easy), light and breathable and they're cheap as hell. Through the race, I was taking them off and tucking them into my shorts, then putting them back on when the wind was going.

View of Parliament around 16-17K
Yeah, the wind was a little challenging in bits. Since I train on a windy waterfront in Toronto, it wasn't really that bad but when you were facing it head on, which we did a few times, you'd have to work a little harder. If anything, the wind kept us cool.

Running back toward the Parliament buildings and passing the War Museum was an inspiring sight. It was also around a water station. I found most of the ones I'd been at to be a little hard to take water and dash to the centre because of our big-ish pace group, so ahead of this one, I darted ahead to grab my water. By the end of the station, I'd cleared the pace group, and then something clicked. Again, I separated from the group.

11K-18K Splits: (4:58.3, 4:59.0, 5:03.0, 5:05.0, 5:01.0, 4:59.3, 5:04.0, 5:00.5)

19K to 27K
Me whooping it up in 2012 Ottawa
Turning the corner to cross the bridge to Gatineau there was a massive crowd. Sometimes during races, I'll take a wider curve and urge the crowd to whoop it up (like here last year). Yesterday, I just turned the corner and planned for the next few sections of the race. If there was a point I decided to lay it down, this was it.

Gatineau has varying elevations. Some climbs, some flats and some great downhills. On balance, they challenge you -- the uphills especially. I was now in 'racing' mode in that I had no one to pace with, but to go by feel. I wasn't exactly going by the Garmin pace checks, but rather trying to run by feel. As you'll see with my splits coming up, feel was a little faster than those 5:07s.

One thing about deciding to go your own pace -- it's very hard to judge if you're being stupid by passing people, or if you're going to slow by just trailing. So I took somewhere inbetween, looking to run in a comfortable zone. If I gradually crept up on someone, then I'd make a lot of sense if I just kept on going.

The halfway mark came on a hill and at kilometre 22, just before we did an uphill followed by a downhill, I saw the 3:35 pace group on a turnaround -- I had at least 45 seconds on them. It would be the last time I would see them.

A lonely bit on the Gatineau course is on its hilly area right before we rejoin where the museums sit. Here's where I started to see the first runners start to walk up hills and a good point to keep my mental game in check. I had stayed with the plan to take gels at every 8K, already taking in three gels by the time I was finishing up in Quebec. Bon Jovi's Livin' On a Prayer was playing -- it was still cool, I was feeling strong, no hint yet at any wall or cramps. This was a good racing day.

Looking at the splits for the Quebec section you see I made about a minute ahead of the pace group.

19K to 27K splits (5:04.0, 4:55.8, 4:59.8, 4:55.5, 4:59.5, 5:00.0, 4:57.3, 4:53.3, 5:00.0)

28K to 37K
View of Parliament from bridge
Heading back to Ottawa, we climbed the bridge with a fantastic view of Parliament Hill. Made a silent nod, then back at it, passing the National Gallery and the big mass of fans as I headed toward Sussex. At the corner of the gallery, I made a big whoop, getting the crowd going, and myself going too -- clocked in an overzealous 4:48. Oh well.

The stretch towards 24 Sussex (where the PM lives) you see the runners on their way back past the 37-38K mark and we saw some returning runners. The course has a rise or two, is exposed and by now, I was running pretty much alone. I'd come across groups of runners once in awhile but for the most part, I'd leave them behind after passing. I think it dawned on me I was doing this sometime and I just warned myself not to fall into the trap of slowing or going too fast.

We're about to go downhill
Past the PM's residence, there's a bit of a climb toward Rockcliffe Parkway, the 30K mark a sort of big point to make. I made sure to keep relax but was just happy it was still cool and I was feeling good. We crested the hill and started on down, cruising and hitting pace. A strong runner came cruising by, Another Brick In the Wall (pt 2) was being played and I rocked out to the song, hitting a few sub 5 minute kilometres.

It was now approaching the 2:45 mark of the marathon. It was 9:45 and it was still cool. Great. Runners were slowing, and I had to mentally fight through a water station where a lot of runners were slowing. Birch Ave. and Hemlock  Rd are residential areas and I started to try to forget last year's marathon -- I had took a walk break in this section on what was emerging as a hot day.

Not much to report as we worked our way past New Edinburgh, just clocking through the numbers, trying to give a good effort. In retrospect, maybe I could have put a little less gas into it (I see a few 4:48 splits).

28K-36K splits (4:48.8, 4:52.5, 5:07.0, 5:00.5, 4:55.5, 5:00.0, 4:53.8, 4:48.0, 4:48.8)

37K to 42.2K
So I'd love to say I cruised in the final 5K with increasing pace. What I do have to report is that I did take a few walk breaks to get my head in order. I'm pretty sure it was lack of quality training catching up to me. To this point, endurance training and a lot of race experience got me here. In any case, I truely did not hit a wall, but having the lack of a pace group was starting to work against me. I couldn't really get a sense of what was too fast or slow. So I took a total of six walk breaks in the final 5K. Not pretty, but the funny part is what happened to my splits.

You see, in the final three kilometres, we merge with the half marathoners. I estimate I was running with 1:30-1:33 half marthoners, which REALLY threw my pace out of whack. My pace, even slowing, should have been around 5 minutes, maybe back to 5:06 but these guys were going at 4:25 or faster.

So that was a fun end to a marathon, being passed by much faster runners, fresh as daisys, as you're well into your third hour of running. So in the final three, played hop scotch with a few other marathoners. When I did resume running, I think I was going out a little fast. Except for a slow 41K (which was clocked in around 5:16) eery one of my other splits were at the 5:03 or faster. I guess you can say I was doing 4 minute running spurts with 30 second breaks.

Turning the corner and heading back along the canal, I was determined to run in the final bit and I was able to do most of the last, ramping it up to the finish. I wanted it to be over. It hurt a little, I won't lie, but I didn't really hit the wall. No cramps, no heat exhaustion.

I looked at my watch and was a little surprised. 3:32:32, almost the halfway point between 3:30 and 3:35. As I walked the chute, collecting Gatorade, medal, banana and space blanket, I was really satisfied. I had no what ifs, I did not regret leaving the pace group. I set out to run the race on my own terms. Self pacing can be a gamble, but I find they bring the biggest reward.

Post-marathon selfie
The time gave me a 1:32 negative split. What's better than that was the feeling of racing through most of this marathon.

I entered this spring wanting to make a mark. Last spring, Ottawa was my target marathon but I inserted Toronto (3:37) three weeks before doing Ottawa in 3:40. The fall of 2012 was a tough one with very lacklustre summer of training and our family went through a lot (my first 4 hour marathon and a 3:52 two weeks later.). Somehow, over the past year, my body forgot how to run a 3:30 or faster. Well, I'm back on track, summer's coming and race season is 20 weeks  to go. 3:32:32 is the flag planted. I'm back. Lets see what comes next.

Final thing. Ottawa is an amazing course. The fan support is fantastic and I'm loving it -- I would do this again. Maybe even as early as next year.

Chip time: 3:32:32

37K-42.2K splits *note my Garmin went wacky for parts of this race so I can't verify every split... the excess is added to the end (4:53.3, 5:03.5, 5:01.3, 4:58.3, 5:16.3, 4:50.0, 3:02.5)

24th marathon!


Lee said...

Fantastic report. Sounds like a great race, well run. I knew you'd nail that goal time, but wow. Right on.

Unknown said...

So amazing to meet you and congratulations on a fantastic race. Since you were about 50 min ahead of me, I'm 99% sure I saw you coming back out of Vanier, when I was heading in. So cool. First one done for me an I aspire to learn from great runners like you!

Mari said...

Congratulations, Kenny! Glad to see you're back on track. I ran Ottawa years ago, but it was a horribly hot day. Loved it, though, and would do it again.

pyrad said...

I had no idea about the silent code, but it makes SO MUCH SENSE!

Congratulations Kenny! Very impressive!!

Kate said...

Great report. Brings back good memories of my marathon there in 2012! Absolutely love Ottawa Race Weekend at every year and every distance

Andrea said...

Great report and congrats on making your goal. Ottawa looks fantastic. Seriously considering it for next year.

Unknown said...

Great job on your run! Ottawa has never before interested me because of the size of the crowd it draws and all of the potential draw backs that go along with that.
Your report has made me consider this race for next year.

Noel Hulsman said...

Re: "I really don't understand what advantage starting a farther up than your time goal but it's a little frustrating for others". Undoubtedly an extra logistical hurdle, but I really think more Canadian races should move towards qualified entry corrals and stricter controls (i.e. Chicago, Boston, etc). There is no upside in me getting in front of 2:50-runner, or a 4-hr guy near the front of the pack. That could be stressed a little more strongly at races.

Robin said...

Congrats what a great result and a negative split to boot! Well done.

Marky Mark said...

Spectacular job and once again a gripping race report-felt like I was running it but without expending your 3,000+ calories.

yumke said...

Thanks guys! I really enjoyed the race and am looking forward to some down time the next week before it all ramps up again. Spring to Fall marathon training is a quick transition with late May races.