Monday, May 05, 2014

Race report: Toronto Goodlife Marathon 2014

I had to rip those arm warmers off. A kilometre earlier, they were shielding my limbs that are apt to get cold in the gusting wind, but now I was running into the sunshine, a honest tailwind behind me, they were getting on my nerves, big time. You don't want any negative thoughts this late in a race.

A few clumsy motions later, they were off, but not without a casualty.

I had dropped the wristband. 

How could I leave it behind, after it carried me for so far?

So I stopped dead in my tracks, 36K behind me, less than an hour away from The Goal. I turned, risking sudden cramps. I wasn't going to lose it, it meant too much to me.


Most marathon experts advise even paced marathons -- run the first half pretty much the same time as the second. By doing so, you do not risk getting up to your lactate threshold levels until late (or never). The race will get harder as the miles pile on -- they always do, but if you try to bank too much, you are likely to blow up. I know this feeling, having had marathons where marathon pace was going great, and a kilometre later, you were going 30 seconds slower per kilometre. Then you took a few walk breaks. Then it was over.

My last two marathons, I ran two negative splits, where you actually run the second half faster. In Chicago, where I hit a 3:18, I ran the second half 9 seconds faster than the first. In New York, which I ran three weeks later, I ran the last 21.1K about 30 seconds off the first.

But this weekend called for anything but a negative split. The first half features a net huge downhill that even I'd advise runners bank a minute or more.

And then there was that wind.


The Toronto Marathon is where I PBed and qualified for Boston back in 2009. It's a net downhill course in the first half but it doesn't always necessarily make it fast. But it is a fast course and if you run it right, it can pay huge dividends. I put Toronto on my race calendar when I signed up with BlackToe Running in December. I told the coach that I wanted to get back to Boston. When he asked what time that was, I told him 3:10. In reality, I needed a 3:15, but Boston had a cutoff last year of around 1:28, which meant you needed a 3:13:30 to get in.

Buffer, I told him. I wanted a buffer and 3:10 would get me that.

I've written about the crazy training in this extreme winter. I had, up to marathon day, also been on a 157-day running streak, had hit 200 miles or more per month for four months, and had set new personal bests in the 8K, half marathon and 30K. In my mind, being three for three in races was a massive deal, but there was really only one race that mattered -- the marathon distance.

Through the winter, my group got faster, that by the time were were talking marathon pace, the coach was starting to assign us 4:25 kilometres, or 3:07, or three minutes faster than that 3:10.

Dare to dream, right?


I had practiced tearing those armwarmers off five hours earlier, noting that the end of the left sleeve would catch on my Garmin, and also the Boston Run Now wrist band I've been wearing for the past year. It was my daily reminder why I was running, my goals and while it did none of the actual running or strength work for me, it symbolized all of that. I noted, as I was practice tearing off the sleeves, that I would have to be careful as I've only once raced with armwarmers (at Around the Bay) and remember how I ended up hating them as I overheated. I couldn't figure a way to tear them away quickly during a race.

I wouldn't make that mistake again.

But the wind was threatening all week. The temperature looked like 6 - 8C but with with of 20km/h winds, maybe with gusts of  40 km/h or faster. When emailing with my friend Lee, we discussed the west wind. Best case is if it was blowing the right direction, it could help push you home - but you would first have to run into it.

I got a ride up to the race start and met up with the other teammates and as I got out of the car, I could feel the wind coming from the north. It would later change direction as we made our way through the course. We were all pretty quiet and nervous, but we were ready to go. With the marathon separate to the half, the race feels pretty small. I hit the portapotties twice and as last few minutes approached lined up with a few teammates.

1-5K: Oh those hills

So there was no 3:10 pacer. No worries, I thought, as we hit the first kilometre a tad fast. The first part of the race plunges down Yonge St. and as we made our way to the first down hill, I saw that a 4:22 kilometre became a 4:39. Clearly had to find our pace so we adjusted. We had hit the 3K almost exactly on pace so we got ready to plunge down (4:12) only to take on Hoggs Hollow, the first big hill. We ran it a little on the fast side, hiting a 5K in 4:34, not the 4:45 I thought it'd take us.

3:10 pace is 4:30 and we were aiming for 4:28-4:29, and maybe 4:24s or so during the downhills.

At the 5K mark 
At around the 5K mark, I saw a colleague who snapped a picture of us. It was also the last time I remember Mike with me. Mike's been my training partner through the winter and also paced with me at Around the Bay and Chilly. When I didn't see him in the next kilometre, I had figured this would have to be my own race.

Splits: 4:22, 4:39, 4:28, 4:12, 4:34

6-10K: Yonge Street
The course continues down Yonge Street. It was not congested at all so I had the space I needed to get into the zone. That's one of the things I really need in these types of races, the ability to settle in to racing. No iPod, no chatter, just getting into the metronome running, more like being on autopilot, remembering to keep your stride in check, your fuel points done and 'racing', that is, passing slowing runners, when it was called for.

I was still a little inconsistent in the splits, but after a 4:20 kilometre, I started to zero in on what I needed to do. Race and find that 4:28 pace.

Splits: 4:34, 4:29, 4:32, 4:20, 4:26 

11K to 16K UCC and Casa Loma
Up to this point, the wind was more slightly at our back, but with the 10th kilomoetre, we started a series of turns that would take us west, the south, west, north, west, south, then west. And this meant that we would feel the wind for the first time. With the first turn into the wind, I got a feel for it, and tucked behind another runner. It was a real wind, and I was glad I had chosen my outfit of a double singlet, arm warmers, touque, gloves and shorts. It was also at this point, only 10k into the race, that I started to think about strategy: If I were to hit the wind later in the race, I would have to find a way to bank a little bit of time.

The next four kilometres, as we were winding around the Upper Canada College and surrounding area, we had a few elevation changes and I was still a little erratic in pace, from 4:25 to 4:33. We then hit the Casa Loma area, which begins a huge downhill portion of the race -- some 7K of a fast course. Some of the splits were a lot faster than I had remembered doing them in the past, well faster than the 4:24s

I had made the call earlier that day not to bring water, a departure from other marathons. But I felt that with the cooler temperature, I could get by with my five gels. By the 16K mark, I had taken two, with three to go. The arm warmers were feeling good, there was a chill in the air.

Splits: 4:33, 4:30, 4:25, 4:12, 4:17, 4:21 

17K-21K: Plunge, then into the wind
Down into Rosedale Valley Road, I decided to make a dash for the side of the road, where I did a 15 second pit spot. Recovering, I went back into it, wondering how much time I'd actually banked. We joined Bayview and I saw about four runners ahead of me and realized that if I were to actually participate in any form of drafting, I'd need runners to go with. 

Then it was into the wind. The sun was out and mercifully the wind was cooling me enough so I could give more effort.

Splits:  4:26, 4:18, 4:23, 4:28, 4:28 

Half marathon in 1:34:14

So I hit a half marathon with a projected time of around 3:08:28, IF I could do an even split. I looked at the time and realized I didn't have as much of a buffer. In fact, I really didn't know exactly how much I had. 

22K - 27K: Downtown to waterfront

My marathon race strategy typically is to run comfortable until it is not, then run hard until it's really hard and then race it till you have to stop. By the 22nd kilometre, if you were to ask me where I was in my head, as the gusting wind pushed us back with every step, I would have told you that it felt like I had hit the 30 kilometre mark.

That's not a good sign, but I had come too far. The whole reason why I was striving for these 4:30s was the fact that I wanted to requalify for Boston. I had made that decision the day after the 2013 Boston Marathon, and solidified when a friend of mine gave me a Boston wristband. It it stored the mission that I've been carrying out for more than a year, a road I wanted to get back on since I last ran Boston in 2011. 

For that, I would have to train hard, work hard, eat better and get stronger. So when a winter hit like no other had, I had no choice. When 5 am rolled around on a Thursday morning, I practically leaped out of bed. And layer after layer that piled on this winter, I always remembered to put on that wristband. It went right against my Garmin. If the Garmin was blinking the time I wanted to get below, the wristband was the reason why I was striving to go faster for so much longer.

So I zeroed in on runners ahead of me. We really couldn't do much drafting but they looked strong, and as I increased my pace I realized that I was too. As we worked our way down town and into wind tunnels I saw my pace still stick below (mostly) the 4:30 mark. Sure, this was too early for it to hurt, but why would I want to give back any seconds to the course.

Photo by Jen

I saw my friend Jen at kilometre 25. She had just run Boston and with every person I passed, I felt myself get stronger. Within a kilometre, past another series of gusting winds, I saw my BlackToe run group and their signs, and as I posed for a picture, I could feel the tide turning. I was returning home.

Splits: 4:29, 4:42, 3:49 (this is clearly wrong), 4:25, 4:29, 4:24 

28K-35K: The way out
It was the make or break for the day. The next 8K was directly into that headwind. If I tried to go out at pace, I had the danger of working too hard, pushing the effort to maintain pace. If I went out without a fight, I could lose seconds every kilometre, seconds that could add up to minutes of the course of the race. 

I passed JP for the third time that day. He had run a double Boston a few weeks earlier, about to do another few marathons and an ultra and also about to give a speech. When I saw him a few days ago, he told me he thought I looked strong.

As I passed him, he told me to go, and I responded. In the next 500 metres, I saw my buddy Marlene in her M&M costume. I waved and she gave me a huge high five. The next kilometre, I saw Mandy, and as I passed her and waved hello, I realized what I'd been trying to remind myself.

I was home. The kilometres clicked: 28K in 4:22, 29K in 4:29, 30K in 4:30, 31K in 4:33

The wind was still going, and it wasn't feeling any easier, but I knew this course. I had run this course all year round for a decade. I had run countless road races -- five Goodlife fulls, 9 Scotiabank races and had run that trail on snowy winter nights, hazy summer mornings. I had slipped on ice patches and gone against headwind even stronger.

So I pushed

I did 32K in 4:32. Somehow,  I managed so string a sub-4:30K average into the windiest parts of the course. I saw my friend Lee, who also runs the paths all year long. We've in years past joked that on the worst weather nights that we'd be the only runners left. Lee gave me that wristband that I wore on marathon day and every day before that for almost a year. He ran Boston with me in 2010 and 2011 and as I passed him and waved hello, he asked how I was. "I'm okay, this wind sucks," I said. Lee responded: "YOU GOT THIS, THIS IS YOUR COURSE, YOUR HOME COURSE. GO GET THIS!"

God, how could you not run faster. I ran 33K in 4:27, 34K in 4:27. We ran into East Humber Bay Park, where we would turn around and start heading home.

My favourite race photo! At 34K. Photo by Lee

We would start heading home after 16K into the wind. I would start heading home with the wind at my back, with only 7 kilometres to go. I did 35K in 4:23

Photo by Lee

36K to 39K: Hammering home.
It was in this kilometre that what was once cold became warm, and what was once warm became hot. I hated the wind, but I also hate the heat. I immediately focused on my arms and my armwarmers, and I wanted desperately to tear them off. As I hit the 36K mark, I saw Lee again -- he was riding a bike, and realized I had an opportunity. Tear off the arms and throw them at him. If he could take them, fine, and if not, fine too, but at least I would not have to wear them.

It only took a moment for me to realized I had torn off the armwarmer and the wristband went flying into the air.


For a split second, I hesitated.

Would I cramp? Would I injure myself? Would I want to part with this talisman?

A split second later, I came to a full stop, turned, took a step back, picked up the wrist band, threw the armwarmers at Lee, yelling at him to grab them from the ground, then resuming back on a full stride, putting back the wristband where it belonged.

There was no way I'd be going home without it.

Free of arm warmer! Photo by Lee
The course gave back everything it had taken away. I took my last of five gels and started to hammer into the sunny day. I hit 36K in 4:27, then continued the pace with a 4:26 37th. As I started to revisit the course, I started to picture all the interval work I'd done. I could see the other runners coming back from where I came. I knew I had time banked, and I knew that if I were to close this deal, there was no slowing down right now.

I'd have to keep on going. The sun was heating and all of a sudden, I didn't need my gloves any more. I took them off and wished I could take off the base singlet layer. But while it was hot, the race was getting down to the final five kilometres. Excited, and seeing more of my friends, I hit a 38th kilometre in 4:24 then the 39th in 4:19.

Splits: 4:27, 4:26, 4:24, 4:19

40K-42.2K: The final three

I took my first real walk break somewhere in that stretch. It wasn't a walk break caused by the wall, but rather to catch myself and my emotions. I knew I was so close and I wanted to settle myself, so I picked a water station, drank, then resumed to run.

The final three kilometres were something special. I looked down at the watch and didn't even need the pace band -- I knew I had a 3:10. From that moment on, I tried to turn this last portion of the race into a victory lap. Everyone who saw me in the last three kilometres saw a huge smile, and they're right. I was so happy, so filled with emotion.

Photo by Lee

I thought a lot about my mother, and dedicated the 40th to her. I thought about Emma, who died on the course last year, and fought through a difficult moment when I thought I wanted to stop.

At 39K (Photo by Andrew)

I thought about all the work I'd done, over the past year, the past winter and of all the times I'd run this exact same path, many times were in pain, many were with pace, but most of them were gearing myself up for this moment. I had a rare pleasure to place the moment in context. I saw Mandy and stopped to say hi with a hug. I saw my friends Dawn and Joel and gave a big smile. The splits say 4:38 and 4:25 for 40 and 41, but for me, that 9 minutes could have lasted longer because I knew I had achieved my goal.

Even in that final 40 minutes, I thought the difference between a 3:07 and 3:09 was the amount of hurt I wanted to endure and realized that I had already been tested. I loved the final stretch. I soaked in the crowd. In a way, I wanted to slow it down so I could pump my arms into the air just one more time.

Final kilometre was done in 4:38, with bright eyes and a smile. And those few seconds I used to save the wrist band? The moments I decided to walk and savour my marathon? No matter, I still ran the second half two seconds faster than the first. Let me say that again. I ran the second half of this downhill course -- into the wind -- faster than the first. When I think of why, I can only answer the best way I think I know why. Because I was home. And I had no other choice but to bring it home.

Final time: 3:08:26
First half: 1:34:14
Second half: 1:34:12
Pace: 4:28
PB by 4:10
Boston qualifier by 6:34


Robin said...

Congrats again Kenny such a great result and race. This is a fantastic race report, it's so easy to capture your emotion. Nothing like having a great day on the course and race that comes together. You did it, in tougher than we'd like conditions, and that's terrific...Woo hoo to you and enjoy Boston in April!

Stan ( said...

Excellent report. Thanks for sharing and have fun in Boston next year!

Patrick said...

Congrats again and great report!

Marty said...

Hi there. I found your blog on Saturday evening as I was prepping my gear for the Goodlife marathon (my 14th) as their website is so sparse and yours was so thorough. I loved reading it.
I wanted to say a huge congrats - what an emotional read, and I'm sure an emotional journey for you.


Unknown said...

Congratulations on your PB and BQ! I follow your blog and as a novice marathon runner I find you totally inspiring. Keep up the great work. Once again, congrats!

- Krysta, a Muskoka runner

macnic said...

Kenny! What a fantastic read! Brought me through everything you were thinking and feeling. This is 100% the race you deserve and I'm so happy that you got it! I can't believe the HAT didn't bother you though! HA! Congrats on this and I know you will enjoy all that Boston (and the prep for it) has to offer.

Marlene said...

It has really been amazing to watch you getting stronger and stronger in your comeback - you've earned every bit of it with your dedication and drive.

You honestly look so strong and fresh at ~42K - amazing to witness!

Congratulations on a well earned victory lap. Enjoy the road back to Boston!

Emma said...

Amazing, amazing, amazing. You inspire me.

The Unexpected Runner said...

Congratulations! That wind was fierce and you nailed it!

Anonymous said...

Wow, so amazing, congratulations on your great result, Kenny! Also, gutsy decision about picking that wristband up, very honourable!

Patrick Voo said...

way to go kenny! fantastic race - while i didn't post nearly as quick a time i did manage to *sneak* in my first BQ time. maybe i will see you there!

Lee said...

You were just hammering that tough portion. Pure determination into the wind. Bravo...Boston-bound!

Marky Mark said...

Fantastic job and a gripping race report as always! I checked your time from Vienna and was so happy you met your goal.

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