I almost didn’t run this race.
It took a full week after the Around the Bay (ATB) before I was recovered enough from the flu to start up again. At that point I had only four weeks of training left before race day and April had plenty of winter weather left for us.
On Sunday, April 15, my plan called for my longest training run: a 36k test that I affectionately referred to as “the beast”.
The weekend before, I had tried to run 32k with my running group and it hadn’t gone well. I ran the first 26k too hard and died at the end. (Also, I had almost no water and suffered for it.)
On the weekend of April 15, we had a whopper of a storm: frozen rain mixed with snow and strong winds. Basically, weather chaos that shut down the city.
I got suited up on Sunday mid-morning and headed for Mount Pleasant cemetery, figuring I would just do 5k and 6k loops in it until I hit 36k. The footing outside was terrible but the cemetery is almost always shovelled and salted.
On that day it was locked up tight. I guess the maintenance crew figured there was no point in doing anything on the weekend when the forecast predicted that the storm would sock us in until at least Monday.
Then I did something I almost never do. I packed it in.
I went back to the house, had the same hot bath that I normally would after a long run, sulked, and started coming up with reasons to bail on the marathon.
“I had to take time off training and now I probably won’t run a personal best”, “It wasn’t my fault, the weather made it impossible!”, “The marathon just isn’t my race” … etc.
I phoned my coach Kevin the next day to tell him what was on my mind. The first thing I said was, “I guess everyone bailed on the group run?” It had also been scheduled for that Sunday, and I just assumed that everyone else would react as I did.
“Nope.” Said Kevin. “A surprising number of the group showed up and we got it in.”
“How?” I asked, truly stunned that they had gutted it out.
“When you’ve got to get it done, you find a way.”
Kevin told me that I pretty much had to run the 36k if I wanted to have any realistic shot at a PB and a possible Boston qualifier (BQ). I told him I was going to either run it on Tuesday or switch to the half-marathon instead.
After we talked, I thought about the other runners in my group who had gutted it out. Then I got a more than a little annoyed with myself for not having persevered. Over the years I had run through every kind of weather imaginable, and I almost never missed a training run.
I woke at 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning and went through my race day routines, treating this run like a dress rehearsal for the race.
The run started off rough. I just wasn’t feeling like I had any rhythm, and holding the 4:50 per kilometre pace that Kevin had in my plan felt harder than it should have. But I stuck with it, and by about 20k I was feeling great. Smooth, relaxed and confident.
I got the run in and headed back home, sweaty and tired but now fully committed to running the full marathon. It had been a long season of training, I was running faster than I ever had before, despite my ATB setback, and I was now ready to put that work to the test.
My goal for this race was simple: Qualify for Boston.
Father Time gave me some help this year. My age group qualifying time increased from 3:15 in the age 40 – 44 bracket, to 3:25 in my new age 45 – 49 bracket.
Runners with Boston on their bucket list (and that’s most of them) know that they need to clear their qualifying standard with room to spare because Boston is oversold every year, and the spots in each age group are awarded based on fastest times. So even though 3:25 would allow me to register, I would need to be about three minutes under that time to have a good chance of actually being granted a spot.
I figured I had a shot but after my disappointing ATB, my late-season weather challenges, and my past history of blowing up at the 35k mark in most of my other marathon attempts, my expectations were low. Bluntly put, the marathon intimidates the hell out of me because there is always a point late in those races that you can’t replicate on any training run: you are on the verge of total shutdown and only the primal urge to keep going pushes you onward.
In the lead-up to my race, I calculated that a 4:45 per kilometre pace should be enough to get me to Boston, so I set that as my goal.
I got up at 5 a.m., ate a big bowl of oatmeal, and was out the door by 6:30 a.m. I arrived in plenty of time for the race’s 7:30 a.m. start.
The start line was in the courtyard of Mississauga’s city hall, which is basically a massive concrete cavern. Everyone was milling around before the race – about 3,000 runners in total.
There was real energy in the air. Everyone was trained, tapered and hopeful that today would be a good day. There was also a feeling of camaraderie. We all knew that we were about to push ourselves to the edge and stay there for as long as our bodies and minds would allow.
When the gun went, we were greeted by a torrent of red, white and blue streamers as we crossed the start line (celebrating the race’s fifteenth anniversary). The streamer cloud was so thick I couldn’t actually see as I ran through it. We were still all bunched together, and I made a joke to the guy next to me about being sure that I would find streamers in my dryer’s lint bin a week from now (and probably my shower drain too).
We made our way over to Burnhamthorpe Road, turned west and started down the first leg of the race. I was determined not to go out too fast and was strangely pleased to see my first kilometre clock in at 5:18. I have gone too fast more times than I can count, and I wanted to run a defensive race. An easy start was critical.
I settled into a nice groove during a long and gradual downhill section, made sure to take water at each of the early stations, and just tried to lock into a comfortable pace. Once in a while I would test whether my effort was easy enough by closing my mouth and breathing only through my nose.
Doing this reduces your air intake a little and provides a good gauge of whether you’re working too hard. If you need to open your mouth to get more air, you know you need to back off your pace.
I reviewed my stats from my Garmin after the race and saw that I ran the first 10k at a 4:41 pace. That was a little faster than my goal pace of 4:45 but just about bang on when you factor in the long downhills during that section.
We ran a long stretch along Mississauga Road and crossed under the QEW. The half-marathoners and marathoners were running alongside each other, and I chatted with other runners. Then at the 14k mark the half-marathoners went straight and the marathoners turned right, and that would be the last we saw of them for quite a while.
After making that turn, our numbers really thinned out. I wound up running beside two guys named Arthur and Roger.
Arthur and I talked about our training and found that we were both trying to hit the same pace. Roger didn’t say much because he was pushing hard to hold the pace. He was breathing loudly and joked that his nickname should be Darth Vader.
We ran along Indian Road to Lorne Park Road not far from where I grew up. It was fun to run through my old stomping grounds. Unlike Port Credit, that area hasn’t changed much.
I ran the 10k to 20k section at a 4:46 pace. There was one pretty good hill and the sun was beating down on us in parts, but overall I still felt smooth and strong.
As we came up Truscott Drive to turn onto Southdown Road, I looked up to see Doogle standing by the side of the road. I went to give him a high-five and the next thing I knew he was sidling up beside me and saying he was going to run with me for a few kilometres. This was the first time anyone had paced me in a race, and it was pretty cool to have my best friend show up unannounced.
Then a moment later I heard a honk and looked over to my right to see my wife Marla and son Ben waving from our car. I hadn’t expected to see them either so suddenly there were surprises galore.
I introduced Doogle to Arthur and Roger, and on we ran. It was hard not to pick up the pace with all the excitement but Doogle and Arthur both kept their eyes on their watches and wisely reined me in a couple of times. In a marathon every drop of energy must be poured out sparingly. (I’ve learned that the hard way more than once.)
A little farther along, we could hear shouting in the distance and as we got closer I heard, “Yeah Dave! Go Dave! Woooooo! Woooooo!” There stood Tiffany, Soroush and Anastasia from my running club, out to cheer on their fellow Marathon Dynamics runners … and they were really whooping it up. (The picture on the right shows us high fiving on the way by – thanks again for the jolt of energy guys! FYI – Doogle is on the right in the black shirt, Arthur is wearing black on the left, and Roger is in red.)
Doogle had to coach his son’s baseball practice so he peeled off after running with us for about 5k (thanks again for the awesome surprise!), and we made the turn east for the final 17k. We also lost Roger at about that point.
I ran the 20k to 30k section at a 4:46 pace.
Arthur and I made our way through the neighbourhood streets. The terrain started to roll for about the next 30 minutes. We ran through Jack Darling Park, where I drank my first beer, and then past Lorne Park Estates, where I used to live.
My sentimentality quickly faded. The rolling hills were taxing, and my left hip was locking up. Arthur was starting to fade. I encouraged him with all the enthusiasm I could muster, but my energy level was also dipping.
Over the next stretch we ran through beautiful lakefront parks and past spirited cheering stations that urged us onward, but I barely noticed any of it. I had reached the point in the race when all my training and preparation would be tested by one defining question: Can you hang on?
As I rounded each turn, I just tried to breathe deep and block out the pain and negative thoughts. I knew I was getting close but those last few kilometres always feel like they are taking forever.
By the 41k mark I was completely red lining. I didn’t want to slow down only to find out later that I had missed qualifying for Boston by a few precious seconds, so I poured out every last drop of energy that I had left.
As I rounded that final bend, my son Ben was there to meet me. We ran together for a short time but fast as he is, he was wearing boots that weren’t suited for a finishing kick. Ben dropped back and then my running buddy Tiffany reappeared and ran with me for a few strides, screaming encouragement and willing me to the finish line.
I crossed in a time of 3:20:54 at pace of exactly 4:45 per kilometre (and I managed to hang on through that last gruelling kilometre, running it in 4:44).
I waited for Arthur at the finish line and congratulated him on his race. Then I found Marla and Ben and they helped me change out of my wet clothes. (Picture a guy who can’t bend his knees and looks like he’s had too much to drink trying to bend down to tie his shoes.)
Before long I was home enjoying my post-race rituals of a long, hot bath, a mid-day nap and a celebratory pizza dinner … tired but contented.
Post script: I took a while to write about this race because I wasn’t sure if my time would be good enough to earn a spot in Boston for 2019.
While my time was under the 3:25 cut-off I needed, as mentioned above, you have to be well clear of that mark to actually get a spot because the race is always over-subscribed. Your qualifying time allows you to register on the race website but then you have to wait for everyone else to register, and about a week later you find out if your time was fast enough to actually secure a spot.
Until this year, runners in my age group had never needed to be more than 3 minutes and 30 seconds under the 3:25 cut-off to get in, and I was 4 minutes and 6 seconds clear, so I knew I had a decent chance … but what’s that expression about not counting your chickens until they hatch?
After registering, I nervously checked the race website each day, where the organizers kept posting updates about record enrollment for the 2019 race. I wore out the send/receive button on my inbox anxiously waiting for a confirmation email.
When the email finally arrived, it said that the cut-off for me to earn a bib for Boston 2019 was 3:20:06, which was 48 seconds faster than my time. While that wasn’t the news I was hoping for, my disappointment didn’t last long.
I ran Mississauga almost seven minutes faster than my previous personal best for the marathon, and I basically executed my race plan to perfection, which I had never really done over that distance. I also knew wholeheartedly that I left everything I had on the course that day, and really, what more can we ask of ourselves?
The reason everyone wants to run Boston is that it’s really hard to get in, especially when the qualifying goal posts keep moving. Deep down, I have an abiding faith that I’ll get there at some point, and when I do, this year’s close call will make that moment all the sweeter.
Besides, in running (and life) nothing worth having ever comes easy!