Oh, Canada! – My first marathon in a Canadian province: Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, May 29, 2011

With my 50 state finish in Alaska set for the middle of June, I decided to expand my horizons a bit and look northward. Although I had traveled to the eastern and western coasts of Canada, I had never visited the prairie provinces before, so Calgary seemed a good choice. Since the marathon was on Sunday and this was Memorial Day weekend in the States, I wouldn’t even have to take a day off work. My husband and I flew up on Saturday morning, spent 2 nights in Calgary, and flew back on the holiday. Nothing like a quick foray into another country.

Of course, this meant we needed to remember our passports and to exchange dollars for some Canadian money (we did this ahead of time through Bank of America). We left JAX early Friday morning, flew to Minneapolis, and then on to Calgary where we went through customs/immigration and took an airport shuttle to our hotel, the Westin, host hotel for the race. I had expected that the host hotel would be close to the expo and the start/finish, but this was not the case. It was necessary to take the light rail transit system to get to both places. Although we had to get instructions, directions, and exact change to ride (the concierge at the Westin was very helpful with this), using the light rail turned out to be very quick and easy. The expo and packet pickup was at the Max Bell Centre, a few stops away. There I picked up my bib and long-sleeved tech shirt, bright red in color with ‘Run Calgary’ on the back, and a bag with some flyers and race booklet. The expo was a pretty small affair with just an assortment of local vendors and charities. I had hoped to listen to a course description talk at 3 pm but we arrived too late for that, so we just made our way via light rail back to the hotel.

I have to admit we did not expand our culinary horizons much on this trip. Chalk it up to travel fatigue and a desire for beef rather than Asian cuisines. Our hotel had a wonderful steakhouse while the surrounding area had Thai and Chinese and Indian offerings. My husband voted for beef and I concurred, so we had a very late lunch at the Keg Steak House and headed to the room so I could get everything ready for the race the next day.

It had rained all week in Calgary so I packed expecting wet weather, anything from light rain to a deluge. I also brought along my long sleeved bamboo shirt (breathable but soft and warm), Maniac singlet, mittens, jacket, rain jacket, and throwaway towel/scarf. I was ready for the heavens to open. But – welcome surprise – it was clear and cold with not a drop of rain in sight. I did not even pack my sunglasses, since I was so sure the weather would be dismal, but in reality I could have used them later in the race. Note to self – always bring sunglasses just in case.

We took the light rail to the start (in an area called Bridgeland at Murdoch Park) on Sunday around 6:15 am. It was freezing cold, 30 degrees, and I could see my breath in the air. Along with the marathon, there was a half marathon and a 10 K. The full and half began at 7 am followed by the 10 K racers at 7:30. A few minutes before 7, the announcer asked us to ‘doff our hats’ so we could sing the national anthem. A recording of ‘Oh, Canada’ then played. My husband looked at me and grinned – this was the first time he had heard that tune before a race. However, I had been at other races in states near the Canadian border where both the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Oh, Canada’ had been played so I just smiled. Nobody sang, which surprised me a little, and I thought that if I continue to do Canadian races, I must learn the words to their anthem. The sun began to rise just as the race started, right on time, and we were off.

One curious thing I had never seen at other races; instead of signs with pace times, the pacers here had little paper bunny ears attached to their real ears and each ear had a pace time on it (hey, so that’s why they call them ‘pace bunnies.’) Good idea, because I have often heard pacers complain about having to hold the sticks with times on them.

The course took us by a zoo (we could see and hear some of the animals), through several attractive neighborhoods, along the course of the Bow River, by a large hospital, and up several big hills. The steepest incline began around 15 k and took us from 1040 meters to a high point of 1150 meters at the 26 k mark. Yes, everything was marked in meters and kilometers, something I should have been prepared for but was not. Same with temperature; I had forgotten the formula for changing Farenheit to Centigrade and back, so all weekend I was guessing at the actual temps. Second note to self – whenever traveling to another country, bring translations of temperature, mileage, and other important facts.

There were plenty of aid stations, about every 3 k or so, with water and Gatorade. Quite a few cheerful volunteers and lots of police helping with traffic. Spectators were relatively sparse but a number of folks sat in their yards or on porches and encouraged us. One thing to note about this course: the roads had lots of small pebbles that managed to find their way into my shoes. Usually I can just ignore such irritants, especially if they happen late in a race. But these felt like rocks, and not small ones either, so I had to stop several times to empty them out of my shoes. The first few times this happened, my hands were still so cold that I had a problem tying my shoes!

Time limit for the marathon was 6 ½ hours, plenty of time (or so I thought) for me to cross the finish line. Funny thing, though, when I carefully read the little guide handed out at the expo the evening before, I saw that the course would be completely open to traffic after 5 ½ hours. Well, that was an eye-opener – and certainly increased my concerns. Sure enough, at about 12:15, two trucks began to drive along the course with workers jumping off every several hundred yards to pick up the orange cones that marked the course. At that point, I made it my business to ‘beat the trucks’ by making sure I kept ahead of the cone picker-uppers. I managed it, but just barely; it wasn’t easy. For that reason, I would say that this course is really not walker-friendly and I probably would discourage walkers from trying it unless they were able to do a 5 ½ hour race.

My time was 5:51:25 and as a crossed the finish line the announcer called out my name, that I was ’64 years young’ and had come all the way from Florida. A volunteer put a unique medal shaped like a belt buckle around my neck and two other volunteers (one may have even been the race director) congratulated me and shook my hand. Nice touch. As I made my way through the finish area, I was directed to the food tent where I was handed a little reusable plastic tote bag that I could fill with food: banana, oranges, water bottles, granola bars, chips. I really appreciated the tote bag. Too many races have me stuffing my pockets and juggling food and drink on my way back to my hotel.

Back to the hotel for a shower and nap, and then we dined at the Keg again, this time in the bar since the restaurant hadn’t yet opened for dinner. I tried some Canadian red wine and we shared some nachos and sliders. Our flight back did not leave until 11 am the next morning, so we had time on Monday to walk around the city and eat breakfast at Tim Horton’s, a local chain that’s sort of a cross between McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. Despite my concerns about the race (which, while realistic, were unfounded), my impressions of Calgary were positive. Calgary is the provincial capitol of Alberta and sits at the foot of the Rockies.  Its downtown seems to be undergoing a process of revitalization. It has an excellent light rail system, a mix of new and old buildings, and a young dynamic. I noticed many young professionals, college students, and families with small children bustling around town. It was a great place to complete my first Canadian marathon.

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