Another Northern Adventure: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Ontario, Canada – October 16, 2011

The day was cold and drizzly and very windy – but that did not stop me from enjoying this race to the fullest. It was a packed weekend. We left for Jacksonville very early in the morning and arrived in Toronto around noon, took a shuttle to our hotel (the Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre – an excellent choice), and, after quickly checking in, we walked several blocks to the shuttle stop to take us to the Expo at the Direct Energy Centre. No problem with buses this time – there were plenty of them lined up and they made a continual circuit from the downtown area to the Expo and back again.

Packet pickup was very organized. We had been sent our bib numbers in an earlier email, so I went directly to the volunteer handing out my number and picked up my souvenir chip and packet. I guess the only disappointment I had during this entire weekend (other than it being far too short) was that I was given the wrong size tee shirt. I had requested a medium but the one in my bag was a small (too small to even fit over my head) and I didn’t check the size until I was already back in my hotel room. Since it was a slippery feeling tech tee shirt (white with a red design on one shoulder), it really wasn’t much of a problem. The bib was colorful, with a band of yellow for marathoners and orange for half marathoners, and our name emblazoned in big letters across the front. Our corals were color (or should I say colour?) coded as well, with the slower folks designated as purple. That was me. There were many booths advertising Canadian races as well as some in Europe so I went a little crazy gathering a lot of literature. My husband just shook his head and sighed (but I think he found a few places he would like to visit).

After the jaunt to the Expo, my husband and I decided to try one of the restaurants he had chosen for this trip. We walked a few blocks to the Three Brewers Restaurant and had lunch. I would give it mixed reviews. The beer was rather ordinary, the food fairly good and substantial, but the music way too loud. We made our way back to the hotel so I could get my gear ready for the race and we could both relax after our day of traveling. If the weather had been a bit warmer and less windy, we probably would have opted to do some sightseeing, but the 35 mph winds and temps in the 40’s were a real deterrent.

The race did not begin until 9 am the next morning, rather late I thought, but it turned out to be an advantage. I meant I did not have to get up at 3 in the morning to eat (since I like to eat my breakfast a good 2-3 hours before a race) and the later start time allowed for the sun to rise and the temps to warm up a bit. Rain had been predicted for the weekend but fortunately it had stopped by Sunday morning. We had periods of drizzle during the race, especially towards the end, but it was tolerable. The winds had died down too, although for several miles in the beginning and for the last 10k at the end, we were facing a strong headwind.

This course is advertised as flat and fast and it certainly was. There were only a few small inclines over some bridges and just a few short hills, but mostly it was flat. There were bands and plenty of aid stations with water and Gatorade. We passed along the shore of Lake Ontario and by some parks and city buildings and some business areas. Plenty of spectators lined the course despite the cold and wind. Every k was marked but I found it too hard to translate into miles, so I just adapted to thinking in terms of kilometres. The important thing was to remember that 21 k was the halfway point, 30 k was about 18 ½ miles, 35 k was about 21.7 miles, and 42 k was the finish line. The 30 k and 35 k points were important because runners had to reach those stages at certain times or move to the sidewalk.

This race had a 6 hour time limit, although the finish line would remain open for 7 hours. In fact, this year the finish line stayed open longer because Fauja Singh, a 100 year old British sikh affectionately known as the “Turbaned Tornado,” was trying to complete this race to become the oldest person ever to finish a marathon. I saw him several times on the course (there are at least 3 out-and-backs), surrounded by an entourage of people. My goal was to try to finish in under 6 hours, but I knew as long as I stayed in front of Fauja Singh, I would be doing okay! It was really impressive to see this vibrant older person humming along with such energy.

I crossed the finish line in 5:43, received my medal, large and heavy, on a beautiful lanyard. Post-race food included plenty of bagels, bananas, apples, and bottled water. Back to the hotel for a shower and nap before a good hearty dinner and sleep. We had a very early flight back to the states. My impressions of Toronto were primarily positive. It is a very cosmopolitan and diverse city, bustling and busy, with some neat old buildings and plenty of skyscrapers, construction, traffic, and shops.

One of the reasons I decided to do this race, despite the tight time frame, was because the race website specifically welcomed power walkers. Since so many races in the US have time limits of 6 or 6 ½ hours but emphatically state that walkers are NOT welcome, I was pleased that this race was open to walkers as long as they could finish within the allotted time. It was a good choice and I am very glad I did this, my second Canadian province.

Long Beach International Marathon, Sunday, October 9, 2011

California is a long way from Florida, so for my second round of the states I wanted to find a race that would be scenic, challenging, and fun. I had lived in southern California about 30 years ago but had never visited Long Beach. With a welcoming climate and several tourist attractions, it seemed like a great choice. For the most part, my visit was indeed a good one, and quite enjoyable, although the challenging part was rather unexpected and largely due to the poor sportsmanship of some of the other participants.

Because of the vagaries of air travel today, my husband and I had to leave a day earlier than we had originally planned. We drove to JAX airport on Friday and flew to LB via Atlanta and Salt Lake City, arriving at 11 pm Pacific time (and 2 am eastern time – we were really tired!). A shuttle brought us to one of the host hotels, the Hyatt, and we checked in and immediately went to sleep. The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and went to the Expo as soon as it opened. Since the Expo was at the LB Convention Center, it was a short walk from the hotel. Packet pickup went smoothly and I received my bag of goodies and short sleeved v-neck tech tee, white with an attractive green design, and we strolled around for a bit looking at the displays. The timing chip was a D-tag, which I much prefer to a chip. We made our way back to the hotel, deposited our stuff, and headed out to play tourist.

First stop was the Queen Mary. It was about a 2 mile walk from the hotel, a good way to stretch our legs after the previous day’s air flights. Admission was pricey (about $30 a person for the tours we chose, and those were the senior citizen prices) but turned out to be worthwhile. We had an excellent tour guide, an older gentleman dressed as a sea captain, who explained the history of the ship from its maiden voyage in 1936 to its use as a troopship (nicknamed the “Gray Ghost”) during World War II. It was a fascinating way to spend the afternoon. For a late lunch, we chose the Rock Bottom Brewery. Remember, my husband was on this trip and he really knows how to pick good places to eat! We tried some local micro-brews and enjoyed some great food, including huge soft pretzels with a yummy dip. Sated and satisfied, we returned to our hotel room so I could take care of my usual pre-race preparations.

This race offered an early start for marathon walkers. I was told by a volunteer at the Expo (and it was reinforced by the race guide) that walkers taking the early start would NOT get an official time. However, after checking the stats for last year, it seemed that walkers who finished within the 7.5 hour time frame of the race would indeed get an official time. I decided to go ahead and take my chances.

On Sunday morning I walked with my husband and friend Deb, who was also taking the early start, to the start line just a few steps from the hotel. It was still dark, with temps in the upper 50’s, as the 5000 or so bicyclists who were riding 26.2 miles on their bikes (all kinds, fancy, plain, old, new, even 2 unicycles) took off on their marathon journey. The early start walkers were next. My watch said 6:20 am as I crossed the starting line. The first 6 miles or so we followed a circuitous course around the harbor; I ended up closely following a group of racewalkers who were locals and had completed the race before. It was a good way to be sure I would not get lost in the early miles. The elite runners took off at 7 am and soon caught up and passed me, followed by successive waves of other runners. Half marathoners were the last to leave at 7:30.

Now unfortunately I must explain about the not-so-great challenging part of this marathon. This race had, hands down, the absolutely RUDEST runners anywhere. I was jostled, bumped, tripped, and run into a dozen times or more. Obviously these runners were completelyignorant of racing etiquette. Because there were at least 50 people in the early start, and because this race included a large number of half marathoners, the beginning dozen miles were way too crowded. Even so, there is simply no need to run into people. Three people apologized for hitting me, but the rest simply sped by, no doubt pushing aside others who got in their way. I must admit I was practically in tears at this point. I am usually smiling and happy on a race, but this was humiliating and depressing.

By looking at my splits, it is easy to see how my times were affected by this barrage of very pushy runners. The first 6 miles, I was walking at a fast 12:57 pace, while for miles 7 through 12, my pace slowed to 14 minutes. After the half marathoners split at mile 11, I kept an even steady 13 minute pace for the rest of the race. I have taken early starts at many races, large and small, in Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas and never had such a negative experience before. It might be a good idea for LB to hold the half marathon on a separate day or on a different course or, at the very least, let them start first and get them moving and out of the way!

The beginning of the course was beautiful, with views of the Queen Mary and the harbor but because I was defensively watching every step, I could only glimpse brief snatches of coastline and scenery. That was a shame. It was not until after the halfway point that I could look around and enjoy the course, but by that time we were deep into California State University at LB and more interior views. Some big hills but nothing overwhelming, enthusiastic spectators, and plentiful water stops (with Powerade, gels, and occasionally fruit and pretzels) made the second half of the course much more enjoyable than the first.

Although the temps were pleasant very early in the race, the heat and humidity quickly rose to the 80’s. Many people appeared to be stuggling with leg cramps, especially in the later stages of the race. I had started taking S-caps very early on and continued with 1 every couple of hours; I think that helped explain why cramps were not a problem for me. No problem with blisters either. Although I was still nursing the bad blister from Lakefront, I had covered it with a bandaid and that seemed to help.

The only other disappointing thing about this race was the appalling lack of post-race food. After crossing the finish line and getting my medal, someone handed me a bottle of water (good) and a tired very beat up banana (not so good). Nothing else. Not even a stale bagel or two. Or some chips or chocolate milk. Nothing. I was finishing about mid-pack (due to the early start) and there were at least 200 people behind me. Guess they would be lucky to get a banana!

Now there was defiinitely some good stuff about this race and about LB in general. The medal is terrific – heavy and large, with a picture of the Queen Mary on it, and the lanyard is colorful and attractive. I finished in 5:53, so I managed to keep under my 6 hour personal time goal.  In the photo above, I am wearing my white Marathon Maniacs hat (not my usual blue Gator cap) and I am happily heading towards the finish line.  There are several neat things to see and do in the city and a number of good restaurants. Because our return flight did not leave until Monday evening, we toured the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific (runners got in free by showing their bib) and we had a filling breakfast at the Long Beach Diner. I was glad I had a chance to finally visit Long Beach and I was certainly glad to check off California for my second go-around of the states. Would I do this particular marathon again? Not a chance.

Lakefront Marathon, October 2, 2011

I decided to do this race for several reasons. For one thing, I had never been to Milwaukee before and I had a secret desire to visit this Midwestern city. Perhaps it was because I’d watched too many episodes of Laverne and Shirley during my formative years, but Milwaukee has always had a certain appeal to me. I had also read some very good reviews about this race on Marathonguide.com, and while I usually approach those reviews with a certain degree of caution, I was swayed by the preponderonce of positive comments. Another reason was to check off Wisconsin for my second go-around of the states.

It was good that I signed up early in the spring because the race filled up by April; the race allows only about 3000 entries. The event is put on entirely by the local running club, the Badgerland Striders, and the club and its 1500 members and volunteers do an admirable job. In June, I had met the race director, Kristine Hinrichs, and Betty, another club member, on the bus to the Mayor’s Marathon, and they had reassured me that their race does indeed keep the finish line open the full 6.5 hours. Note that I am always concerned that race officials keep their word about finish line promises since it’s very important for us back-of-the-packers.

Up at 3 am on Saturday, October 1, I made the 2 hour drive to Jacksonville and two short flights and an airport shuttle later, I soon arrived at the Hyatt, one of the host hotels. My room was ready (hooray) so I set my bags down and headed outside to grab a shuttle to the expo at the Kern Center. Of course, I had no idea where I was or where the Kern Center was – I just headed out the door of the hotel looking for a likely bus. After a few minutes, no bus appeared but I did see several people wearing Boston marathon jackets walking by and I asked them how to get to the expo. They had been waiting about an hour with no luck so they had decided to walk and I joined them. It was not very far, perhaps a half mile (the trick was finding my way back to the hotel afterwards – that took me quite a bit longer).

Packet pickup was quick and easy. Our names were in big easy-to-read letters on the bibs and the Champion chips did not have to be returned so we could attach them our laces and then keep them as momentos. The tee shirt was long-sleeved technical in a burnt orange color, with a nice design on front and back. No advertising since the running club is the only sponsor. Kind of nice, that. The expo was relatively small, with a few booths selling running gear, clothes, and shoes. I don’t buy too much before a race, especially when I have to squeeze everything into a small suitcase, so I usually just walk through once and leave. However, several talks were scheduled and I was in time to hear Bart Yasso from Runner’s World Magazine and a brief course description. Then I headed back to the hotel for my usual pre-race meal and bedtime.

Sunday morning was chilly, around 41 degrees, but temps were supposed to get into the 60’s around noon. I dressed warmly and in several layers, with my mittens and handwarmers and scarf. The course is a point-to-point with buses taking people to the start at Grafton, a town 26.2 miles north of Milwaukee. Impatient and nervous, I managed to get on the first bus which left at 5:45 am. After a 30 minute ride, we entered the toasty warm high school where we could sit, use the restrooms, and comfortably await the start of the race at 7:30 am. I met up with Betty and her friend Mary and we spent the time chatting. Before I realized it, the sun was up, and it was time to go.
The race began right on time. The course has a few rolling uphills in the first 5-10 miles but after that is fairly flat with the final miles blessedly downhill. We traveled south through quiet countryside and farmland (very nice), beautiful upscale neighborhoods, the Concordia College campus, and finishing along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan. At every mile, there were volunteers calling out times, which was very helpful, and aid stations at least every 2 miles or so with Gatorade and water. Quite a few spectators, mostly neighbors, lined the streets and almost all would call out my name (since it was printed in large letters on my bib).

Around mile 6, the still sore and nagging blister on my left foot began to bother me; I had to forge on and just ignore it. A few miles later and I began to feel the effects of walking on hard road surfaces as my shins began to hurt. Perhaps I hadn’t rested as much as I should have after Cleveland. Well, I was not going to let that drag me down. I pushed on, enjoying myself despite the pain. It was a beautiful day for a race; the sun was shining, there was no rain, I was surrounded by beautiful scenery and friendly people, and every mile was another step towards Milwaukee and the finish line.

By mile 20, I got a resurgence of energy and began to pass a number of people. These are usually my favorite miles in a marathon; I just love that rush of heading towards the final miles. I finished in 5:45 (right where I usually finish), pleased with the result. Bart Yasso was announcing the runners as they crossed the finish line and he did so for me, a volunteer put a medal around my neck, another handed me a bottle of water, and then I picked up a bag of food treats, stopped at the beer table for a cup, and made my way to the bus to take me back to my hotel.

One unusual thing about the Lakefront Marathon this year was the Jennipede. This was a group of 62 runners who were determined to set a Guinness World Record for the most runners finishing a marathon while tethered together by a rope. They were doing this to benefit local runner Jenny Crain who had been hit by a car while training for the 2007 Olympic trials. I believe they raised over $100,000. This was really a sight to see! For a while the Jennipede was ahead of me, but when they stopped to take turns at the lines of portapotties (and THAT was pretty funny), I managed to get ahead and stay ahead of them. For the last .2 of the race, Jenny Crain rode alongside in her wheelchair and Jenny and her Jenniped finished the race in 6:20.

I’m already planning to do this race again next year, and I hope to spend more time exploring Milwaukee and visiting some of the microbreweries. If the Gators are not playing a home game on October 7, 2012, my husband may want to come, too.