Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race Report: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2014

Three words. That's all I needed. That's all, really, I could muster in my mind that late in the game.

I had 36 kilometres before I wanted to start using the three words, my motivational running mantra. But through the race, I had also been anticipating that moment when the healing left calf would rebel, when the waves -- bursts -- would strike deeper into the muscle. My legs were spinning, maintaining the pace I had taken to heart, but I could feel it building.

When the 36th kilometre struck, the cramps hit, threatening to tighten completely. I pointed my left foot forward so the balls of my feet would absorb more of the impact, shielding my calf. I had been running for two hours, 40 minutes, and the three words I had planned to use on repeat were hastily replaced. I'd need that mantra later. I wasn't going to waste it now.

"Push, push, push," I muttered between breaths. "Push, push, push," I said, wishing, willing the cramps away.

The leg throbbed. I thought about stopping.

I said for the third time as the spasms hit, "push, push, push."

A FEW DAYS AGO, I sat down with my coach to talk about our plans for the marathon. I was four weeks out from a calf pull, and four days until my next marathon. I had healed enough so I could start attempting faster paces. We had agreed on a 3:07 marathon plan, which was the goal time I set back in June. In my mind, my fitness had me with the potential to go faster, but we ended up agreeing on the plan. I promised to go out on pace. "You'll see, once I get on pace, I'll stick to it," I assured her.

My build this season went almost flawlessly until I pulled the calf. I was getting stronger, working on my stride and running technique. I was paying attention to the details -- strength work and healthy diet. I was listening to the body. Races were solid this summer, including a new 5K and 30K PB and I had run long enough runs to be confident in the distance -- even with the injury and the reduced mileage in the past few weeks.

Calf aside, I was fit, and ready to race.

By the time I woke up on race morning, a weather system with gusting winds had swept through the city, leaving us with a gorgeous cold race morning. There was a wind but it was a mere 15km/h and the temperature was calling for 3C at the start, rising to 6-8C by noon. Perfect weather conditions. I had opted for light armwarmers, double singlet, gloves, shorts and a headband. It ended up being the perfect gear as I was never too warm or cold.

I arrived at the start line pumped, confident, focused. But something was different this time around that I had at no other Scotiabank. I was surrounded by so many friends -- teammates who I've run hundreds of miles with; friends I've known for years on the running scene; social media runners from this city and far off places. Everywhere I looked at the start corral, I could trade a hug, a handshake and wish good luck. I was going to run this race solo, but I wasn't alone.

Yes, I got it autographed by Reid and Lanni. Good luck charm?

THE GUN went off and I settled on the pace, trying to find the easy running feeling, finding it quickly. The grade was uphill and I saw that my first two splits were around two to three seconds off pace of 4:26s. I knew I would find the pace at some point and promised not to go any faster than 4:21s. The weather was stunning, light wind and it seemed everyone had seeded themselves properly, so limited weaving was happening. As we passed 2K and headed west on Bloor, I saw the 3:10 pace team, which should have been running 4:30s, blaze past and I was slightly confused until I checked my overall time versus the handdrawn paceband. They were going too fast.

I knew they were going fast when I saw Leah, Olivier and Alan, on their way to a sub 3 pace, catch me and pass. Within the next kilometre another group of runners I knew were going for sub 1:30 halfs blazed by and I knew I had to keep the pace, but even so, I was firing off a few faster kilometres, a 4:20 3K, a 4:23 4K. Keep it easy, I told myself, even as the emotions started to surface. Hold on.

Running by BlackToe Photo: Jennifer Morrison
The 6K mark was a special one, running by the Black Toe group and I may have thrown in a 4:15 (GPS says so) as they cheered their hearts out. I took their energy and put it on the roads.

I knew I had to settle down from all the excitement, and that when I hit the 8K mark I would find a rhythm. I've seen plenty of my Scotia races fall apart at the Lakeshore stretch, which is made for fast running -- wide, nicely paved roads and the sun behind you. Not only that but you could see the elites coming back at you, while you are running with speedy half marathoners.

These are the easy miles, I told myself. Easy, easy, easy, I said to myself as we hit the 10K, headed for the turnaround.

Splits: 4:22, 4:24, 4:20, 4:23, 4:15, 4:15, 4:24, 4:27, 4:32, 4:27
10K (Actual 44:15 / Target: 44:19)
Pace for 1-10K : 4:25K

I hit the 10K mark four seconds faster than pace so by the time we were headed back after High Park, I felt that it was time to get the work on. I knew there were a lot of half marathoners around me so I was trying not to use their efforts to guide my pace. Since I was running by myself, I had to listen to my own internal pace. I knew the 3:10s were still ahead of me -- ridiculously so -- but I was confident that my 9K, 11K and 13K times were within seconds of where I needed to be. My race was going according to plan.

I don't bring a lot of emotion to this stretch of the race. Instead, I use the 13K to 19K mark to find the zone. My job in the first half was to keep calm, find the rhythm and pay attention to the details -- did I take the gel I had promised I'd do every 8K? Was my stride bouncy? Was my breathing easy and manageable?

The course this year took us up the overpass, adding extra elevation, so I used it to remind myself that I had a few rolling hills to run later in the race. I had been doing a few faster kilometres leading up to 18K, but most of them were within the 4:23 range. When I saw one of my coaches and she ran with me for a few seconds, I told her I was trying hard to "hold back."

As we split from the half marathoners, I felt like the race had hit a new stage. If I was holding back the first part, now it became a different race. More lonely, fewer runners to pace with, and the prospect of facing a headwind. I was lucky though, having found that I had caught up to a running buddy, Dana. I saw her at the start and we figured we'd see each other on the course. So we headed to the half together, which I hit 25 seconds ahead of target time, 1:33:08. On track for a 3:07 or faster.

Splits: 4:21, 4:24, 4:24, 4:19, 4:23, 4:23, 4:24, 4:16?, 4:18? 4:20?
Half (Actual 1:33:08 / Target: 1:33:33)
Pace for 10K to 21.1K: 4:24K

Half marathon mark, Dana to my left.

I HAD A SCORE TO SETTLE with this race. This year was my 10th Scotiabank race - I had run six half marathons and three fulls, and I never really had a marathon go my way. My first time was a BQ attempt (3:10) that turned into a 3:19 and a trip into a medical tent. My second was a 3:38 marathon that I used as a build for another fall marathon and my third was my slowest 42.2K race, a 4:00 I ran two years ago. It's a race I'd rather forget, and not just for the time on my race history, but the time of my life it reminds me of. Two years ago, almost to the day, I lost my mother. I ran that 4 hour Scotia three days before we lost her. I wanted to shake that feeling I associated with this race, for good.

But today, I knew it had to be a different race. For the first time since 2008, Scotia was my goal fall race. I had trained for it with much of my team. We were going to go for it.

I love the marathon because while running is the thinking person's sport, the marathon is the thinking runner's distance. Marathoning at the edge is a pursuit -- you need to slowly dole out your energy, exercise restraint, while you work on efficiencies, fuelling and pace management even in those early kilometres. The first 30K is the warmup -- the race comes after. Pain is meted out at whim after that point, and you're only to guess in what form -- a cramp, a wall, a lack of will.

The plan of attack for any marathon is to understand that an honest pace can become hard, then impossible. I found a way to boil down my strategy: You race with your head, then your heart, and within your ability. Head. Heart. Ability. I love that because you can race smart, race with passion and race in a way to unlock your potential.


Half to 25K
DANA AND I headed east on Queens Quay, proceeded to run up past the Canary District/Corktown Common, where the Pan Am development is nearing completion. This was a new part of the course that featured an north-south out and back that burned a few kilometres. I pictured it being pretty boring stretch, but I really liked it, being able to see who was ahead and behind, able to wave and give encouragement to friends. When we hit a headwind, we would trade the lead and while the wind was being all random, it was a good way to change up the running. Thank you Dana for that!

Splits: 4:26, 4:27, 4:26, 4:28, 4:32, 
25K (Actual 1:50:51 / Target: 1:50:48)
Pace for 21.1K to 25K: 4:32K

We headed back toward Eastern and started to climb the overpass, which was the second major hill that we'd have to climb again at the 40K mark. I told Dana we should take it easy and we trudged up the hill. By this point, she was a bit behind me. It was around 27K and I looked at my splits and realized I had ceded some time as we had slipped to some low 4:30s. So I took the job of getting back on pace, hoping that she'd catch me.

Oh stupid hill. There's Dana behind me. 

I just ran by feel, trying to regain my stride, but each one of the splits were giving me closer to 4:19s. I was worried I was using all of my stored energy even before I hit the 30K mark, so I just focused, pushing away the notion of "marathon is work" until later in the game. I wasn't even at 30K yet and I'd upped the pace. I also forgotten to set my watch to show the seconds after it hit the one hour mark, which left me with only a idea of whether I was hitting my splits, but I took a look at my watch for the 30K, as I had memorized the time (2:12:57) I needed. As I approached the line, I saw my watch hit 2:13, and knew I was within 10 seconds of my goal time.

Splits: 4:33, 4:19, 4:22, 4:19, 4:19
30K (Actual 2:13:08 / Target: 2:12:57)
Segment pace 4:27K

I've always hated the out-back nature of this race, mainly for the Eastern Ave section, but also for the rolling Queen St. stretch. Looking at the course map this year, I realized that a change that they made would make it a little better. I knew I would get a lot of strength from seeing fellow runners ahead and behind me. I could take courage from them. I looked forward to seeing friends. It made me not think about my own pain.

On this stretch, I knew there were rolling hills, a sharp turnaround. I tried not to think about the kilometre markers at this point, knowing that if I just focused on running strong that I would keep at bay those negative thoughts that can start haunting at the end of a long-distance race. Still my paces were strong -- a 4:19 at 30, followed by a 4:20. I knew with every kilometre six seconds faster than pace would be a slight gamble, but I knew I had the cardio room.

About midway into the race, I could feel a slight soreness move into my left calf. It was more or less in the area that I pulled, not quite pain or discomfort but a reminder that it was there. If there was any race at this point, some 33K into the race, I was racing out the weariness in that left calf. Could it hold?

We turned around and I saw the skyline. It was a gorgeous day and I remembered two years ago hitting a wall already. Those thoughts I also kept at bay -- it wasn't time yet for emotion -- nor was it time to use my mantra. I saw my co-worker Joe, my teammates Avery and Andrew on this stretch.

Then something amazing happened. I knew I was in a zone as I was hitting the 35K mark, but it was only a few days later that I realized what I'd done. My 4:19s and 4:20s had clawed back my time back right on pace. The goal 35K marker was supposed to be 2:35:07. I found out that I hit the 35K mark at 2:35:07.

Splits: 4:19, 4:20, 4:27, 4:19, 4:19
35K (Actual 2:35:07 / Target: 2:35:07)
Segment pace 4:23K

A FEW SECONDS COULD HAVE CHANGED the rest of the race. The calf cramps, as they all do, came all of a sudden, with no warning. They struck just as I had done a 4:20 kilometre, passing the 36K mark. In those few seconds, I had two choices.

"Slow down?" I thought.

"No, fight this."

So the response was "push, push, push," as I altered the stride, pushing past it instead of slowing down to stretch. I kept going for a good 15 seconds until the cramps subsided, the calf didn't clench. I grabbed my last remaining gel immediately, knowing anything I could get into my body at that moment would help. And once I survived this first wave, I kept on going. The next kilometre I did in 4:22, as if I had barely hit a speed bump.

There was unfinished business.

IN TRUTH, you run by yourself, but you can be carried by others. "You are my hero!" my teammate Kerri screamed at me from the other side of the median, and my spirits soared. I didn't earn any of that but it reminded me what I was setting out to do that day.

Into my last 7K, I saw the 4:00 pacer and his group run toward where I had turned 5K ago and I thought about where I was two years ago. I saw my former self trailing him -- I had hit a wall, I was defeated, I didn't have strength.

Today, I did. Today, I was hitting the 38th kilometre of my marathon with a 4:23 split, remembering where I was two years ago, where I was in 2008 when I hit the wall and ended the day in the medical tent. Today, I was racing with my head, with a full heart, and always within my ability.

"Head, heart, ability," I said aloud as I hammered through the 39th kilometre, about to tackle the bridge that I had feared earlier. "Head, heart, ability," I said, relishing in the meaning.

In my head, I knew I had done all the work, and now it was time to put it all in.

In my heart, whatever time that was left in my race -- I could pour every emotion into the roads. Happiness, forgiveness, acceptance, strength.

In my ability, it was all within reach -- and there was no harm in overreaching, even in a marathon.

I hit the 39th in 4:26, the next kilometre in 4:26. I hit 40K right on target.

I'm powering through. Photo: Michael Lin

Splits: 4:20, 4:22, 4:23, 4:26, 4:26
40K (Actual 2:57:19 / Target: 2:57:16)
Segment pace 4:26K

I KNEW FRIENDS were going to be packing the course, in fact I could sense it, but I felt like I was fading slightly. The calf was still playing games with me, expressing itself once every few hundred metres. I made sure not to hit a streetcar track or a dent in the road for fear of pushing it off the edge. I was within view of St. Lawrence Market and I thought of all the times I'd run in this area. I thought of the season that just past, the year of running and of how perfect this day was for running. I could not let this pass up, I kept on telling myself. This is when I need to go.

"Head, heart, ability," I kept on saying every time negative thought came into my head, when I hesitated to pass a slowing runner. 

I tried to live in the moment. If it was pain, joy, determination, will, I felt it all at once. I found myself swinging in emotion, from thinking that running is work to thinking that I fucking love to run. I smiled. A lot. But it was still work, I reminded myself. I was holding on, waiting for the wheels to come off, but I was holding on. 

First I saw Nicole and her hilarious sign. Then out of the blue, my teammate Cynthia was at the side of the road, screaming at the top of her lungs. I'm not sure what she said, but only that I responded by running the hell up the road to turn the corner up Bay Street. A Globe photographer captured her in the picture below -- she was screaming at everyone (we love you Cynthia!).
I was in the moment. I turned on Bay going uphill, but I focused on the view of the City Hall ahead, sucking as much energy from the crowd. I saw a bunch of my teammates screaming their heads off and I responded by blowing a kiss their way, then flashing a heavy metal salute, smiling my way up the street. Coach Kate was at the next intersection, screaming her head off, urging me to go faster (thanks coach). The screams from other friends and strangers helped erase the distance even as I had stupid thoughts of slowing down.

I knew I executed the marathon I wanted to run. I knew I ran it with all the emotion I had brought to the course.

The mantra that I saved for the course is best expressed in a finish-line photo that captured me moments before I crossed. I don't think I see exhaustion. I don't even think it's quite joy. The caption, if I were to write one, is simply. Head. Heart. Ability.

The marathon was done in 3:07:20. A new personal best.

Splits: 4:32, 4:20
42.2K (Actual 3:07:20 / Target: 3:07:07)
Segment pace 4:33K

A YEAR AGO, I raced what I called my comeback marathon in Chicago. I had crossed the finish line in 3:18 and when I finished the race, I asked myself, "where to next?"

What I realize now is that the "next" was never a finish line. I think all the things I've learned in the past year -- of the dedication it takes to run every day, of the value of team and friendships and of how running fuels me in every other aspect of my life, that is where I find myself after completing this race.

What I know now -- and did not know in the course of this epic race -- is that when I got to the start line Sunday morning, I had already arrived.

The next was every day leading to Sunday.

I was always here.

I was home.


Janice - Fitness Cheerleader said...

Flawless Kenny, absolutely flawless! Way to go!

Patrick said...

Well done Kenny. You looked like there was no stopping you when I saw you go by me around 33 or 34 km.

Robin said...

What a great race report and an even better race Kenny. I've never had great experience at Scotiabank either (with the marathon) so decided to skip it. After reading your post, I may go back again, we'll see. I remember your run 2 years ago and it gave me strength during my own sadness a year ago. What a great tribute run to your mom this weekend. Bravo. Heal up now, hope the calf is ok.

Marlene said...

You are such a strong, smart marathon-racing machine! You've worked so hard this year and definitely earned this victory. Well done executing the plan so flawlessly - an inspiration!

Patrick Voo said...

great run, and fantastic report kenny! i can only wish to run a marathon as quickly as that ... but i will continue to push forward with relentless progress. "head, heart, ability" - i love it!

Heather said...

Fantastic race report! And big congrats on hitting a personal best.