My husband and I love to visit Canada, and British Columbia is one of our favorite destinations (although to be quite honest, we’ve enjoyed every province we’ve visited so far). Last year, after the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage followed by a once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan cruise, we stopped in Victoria just long enough to whet our appetite for more. There are several marathons in British Columbia, but marathoner friends suggested Victoria for its scenery and unique feel. It turned out to be a good choice.
It did take 3 flights to get to Victoria, including a long 4 + hour plane ride from Atlanta to Seattle. However, all the planes took off on time and were relatively painless journeys (and considering the usual frustrations of today’s air travel, that is a real positive). We took an AKAL Airport Express shuttle from the airport to the host hotel, the Fairmont Empress, an older but elegant hotel situated directly on Victoria’s Inner Harbor. Our room was updated and relatively modern (though we could feel some bumpy areas beneath the carpeted floor) and it overlooked the harbor; both bedroom and bathroom had windows that opened so we could enjoy pleasant air circulation. During the race and immediately afterwards, we could hear the announcements and race excitement from these windows. The hotel was very close to both the start and finish lines.
Since we arrived on Friday in the late afternoon, our first order of business after settling in to our room was to look for a place to dine. Of course, my husband had done extensive research and had a list of good possibilities. We decided on the Sticky Wicket Pub just a few blocks away; it had good hamburgers, fries, and draft beer. Canada has a wide variety of excellent locally-brewed offerings and we like to try them whenever we can. I should mention here that while the Fairmont Empress has several excellent restaurants, they are all very pricey. Last year we experienced high tea at the Empress and it was wonderful. This year we decided, mainly because of cost ($49 per person, not including tip), not to indulge. If we had been staying longer than the weekend, we probably would have found a way to work the tea into our meal plans, but this time we concentrated on pub fare.
Race day was Sunday. The expo was open on Friday from 3 pm to 7:30 pm and on Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. My plan was to visit the expo on both days: Friday to pick up my bib (with chip) and shirt and Saturday to listen to an array of speakers and take bus tour of the course. This plan worked very well. Since the expo was held at the Victoria Conference Centre, conveniently connected directly to our hotel, it was easy to maneuver back and forth as needed. Packet pickup was smooth; there was a long line for the half marathoners but no line at all for marathoners taking the early start as I was. Instead of a tee shirt, racers were given a long-sleeved New Balance tech hoodie in a pretty shade of blue with the marathon insignia on the front.
On Saturday, Darcy and I had a delicious breakfast at the Blue Fox, a few blocks from our hotel. This place had come highly recommended; we were warned that it was very popular and sometimes there was a line to get inside. Indeed that was the case. We took our place in the queue and ended up meeting Michelle, another marathoner and foodie from Portland, OR, who had also heard good reviews about this restaurant. We ended up sharing a table and ‘talking shop’ over salmon Eggs Benedict served over a toasted bagel instead of an English muffin, a good choice. Then it was back to the expo, where I listened to a course overview before taking an informative bus tour (cost $10) of the course itself. When I had looked at a map of the course beforehand, it seemed that there were many twists and turns and loops. I was glad to familiarize myself with some of the streets and neighborhoods we would be running through, especially since we early starters would be essentially on our own for the first couple of hours.
After the tour, I attended several good sessions at the expo. Lucy Smith, a nineteen time Canadian running, duathlon, and triathlon champion, gave a talk on ‘Getting to Great: The Hidden Gifts of Sport’ – she turned out to be a dynamic and powerful speaker. Another excellent session was about destination marathons, a subject near and dear to my heart. Five marathoners discussed their most memorable destination races; one of the panelists was Rich Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond, one of my favorite running magazines. Dick Beardsley was also on the agenda but at that point I was tired and had to skip what I’m sure was a wonderful talk. I was ready for a meal and some race-prep time.
Our Saturday evening meal was at the Bard & Banker Pub, situated in a neat old bank building. The best part of this repast was the genteel ambience of the restaurant and the flight of local beers I ordered to go with my hamburger sliders. The long day was starting to take its toll on me but before we headed back to the hotel we stopped at Russell Books, a new and used bookstore on Fort Street. I had picked up a 15% discount coupon at the bookstore’s booth at the expo so my husband and I just had to stop by and check out the 3 floors of books on a mind-blowing range of topics. We ended up buying 4 books and I could easily have chosen a dozen more, but I had to remember that we were flying, not driving. Everything had to be stuffed into our suitcases. After eating and shopping, it was early to bed; it had been a long day and I was still adjusting to the cross-country time change.
Sunday morning dawned cool and pleasant. This race series includes a marathon with early start option (for marathoners needing over 5 ½ hours), a half marathon, an 8k, and a kids run. About 2000 people do the marathon; the half marathon attracts over 4000. The early start does indeed start early – at 6:30 am. The 8k begins at 7:15 am, followed by the half marathon at 7:30. The regular start marathon does not begin until 8:45 am. Those selecting the early start option were expected to be at the start line by 6 am for last-minute instructions. Darcy walked me to the start line a few minutes before 6; I wore a light jacket over my long-sleeved shirts (2 of them), with gloves and hand warmers. Yes, it was just cool, not cold, in the mid-40’s, but I was used to early morning temperatures in the 70’s, so over all these clothes I wore a heavy jacket that I doffed right before the race started.
There were several photographers and a race announcer who worked the crowd of about 100 early starters to get us all excited and ready to go. This was a holiday weekend since Monday was the Canadian Thanksgiving. Just before the race began, the announcer asked everyone what they were thankful for. Everyone chuckled when one lady responded saying she was thankful she would have a big turkey dinner after the race, one that she wouldn’t have to cook! At 6:30 on the dot we took off, crossing the timing mat and heading down Menzies and Michigan and onto Government Street. It was lots of fun at this point; we moved as a group and as we turned on Government and passed the Fairmont I saw my husband for a few brief moments, but all too soon we reached several streets on the course that were open to traffic. Early starters were supposed to move onto the sidewalks and obey all traffic signals until the half marathoners caught up with us an hour or so later. Until that happened, streets remained open, traffic moved as usual, and aid stations were unavailable. This resulted in problems for me and others as well. Our group of 100+ was soon split into smaller groups of people, some of whom made the lights at intersections while others (myself included) had to wait until the next Walk signal. The chances for getting lost increased. I ran to keep up with the group in front of me. Cyclists were strategically placed at some – but not all – intersections. As we entered Beacon Hill Park, we were directed onto a trail with scrum, pebbles, and pine needles. Something small and sharp entered one of my shoes and intermittently irritated me (but not enough to make me stop and try to dislodge it). Daylight helped my line of sight and once we turned onto Dallas and began racing along the oceanfront, my mood lightened as well – at least until I saw the 5k marker. I looked at my watch and calculated that it had taken me an hour and a half to do 3.1 miles. How in the world could that be? My usual 5k time is around 36 minutes. I wasn’t sure how I managed to take more than twice as long in this race.
I decided at that point to just relax and enjoy the race and the scenery. I was not going to check my watch at all anymore. Even if I continued at a slow pace I would still be able to finish the marathon within the 7 hour time limit, thanks to the early start. Once the half marathoners joined us, I would be fine. But it turned out that the half marathoners split from the full marathoners at the 13k (not 13 mile) mark, and I was well past that point before those doing the half caught up with me. In fact, it was not until I passed the 15 mile marker that the elite marathoners began to move past us early starters. Despite this, I enjoyed the long portions of the course that wound around the various bays; parts of this area were breathtakingly beautiful. The weather warmed up and I tied my jacket around my waist. Runners sprinted past me, giving me thumbs up and words of encouragement. The long out-and-back around Oak Bay gave me the opportunity to see lots of racers, including some early starters who were behind me. I realized I was not last, despite my slow start.
Throughout the race, my feet were fine and I had no problems with blisters or my bunion, with only an occasional sharp reminder of the burr in my shoe. But while my feet were relatively problem-free, for some reason my legs felt like they were encased in cement. Usually I feel light as a feather and can move fairly quickly, especially once I hit the 20 mile mark. I hardly ever hit the dreaded WALL. Instead, I usually feel inspired and ready to push hard during the last 10k. But not this time! My legs were heavy timbers and I just lumbered along. I was excited to see the 40k marker and definitely ready to hit the finish line. What a relief to see that banner and cross the timing mat! That’s when I looked at my watch (the finishing clocks were set to the regular marathon time). My time was 6:20. I received my medal, and gratefully accepted a bottle of chocolate milk, apple, and cookie. I heard my husband call my name as I made my way to the end of the runner’s chute. The first thing my husband said to me was ‘You did great! You finished in less than 6 hours.’ I said that couldn’t be; my watch said 6:20. That’s when I realized that I was basing my time on a 6 am start, not a 6:30 start. I’m not sure how I got it into my head that we had started at 6 instead of 6:30 – maybe it was prolonged jet lag or math anxiety or ??? Whatever the cause, I was relieved and very happy, especially since I have not had too many sub-6 hour marathons this year.
We walked slowly back to the hotel where I showered, took a brief nap, and woke ready for a meal. My legs already begun to tighten up and I moved very slowly but I was overall in fairly good spirits. As we walked through the Conference Centre, the awards ceremony was concluding. We went inside to check on where I placed in my age group and it turned out that I had come in 2nd out of 4 entrants! My award was an attractive star-shaped trophy which I proudly carried to our meal at Smith’s Pub. It was another early night for us because our trip home would take all of Monday and into Tuesday morning. This was a very tiring trip but it was definitely worth it!
Thing to note:
• Victoria is a great destination. If you are only going to have one opportunity to visit, try to build in at least one or two extra days for sightseeing, whale watching, browsing the unique gift shops, and other tourist-type activities
• Walkers should definitely sign up for the early start, with the caveat that the first hour will be in the dark, on sidewalks, with little support. There are enough early starters to not make this a real problem but it is something to be aware of
• The course tour is a good idea. It gives a better feel for the twists and turns of the course; I found it extremely helpful
• There are lots of excellent restaurants and several good chocolate shops. Naturally we had to buy some dark chocolate confections for post- race refueling
• Partner hotels are plentiful, although reservations should be made early. The Fairmont Empress and several others are expensive, but some (including the other host hotel, a Super 8) are very reasonable. Remember though that prices are quoted in Canadian dollars and that can add an additional 40% to the cost, depending on the exchange rate
• While the expo is medium-sized, the speaker series is top-notch (at least for 2013) and equal to many races that are much larger
• Aid stations were positioned about every 5k; I could have used several more from the mid-point of the course to the end. Water and sports drink were plentiful; a few had gels and possibly some fruit but I was too focused to eat much
• Every kilometer is marked but miles are only noted at the 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 points. Near the end, there are 1 mile and 1k to go signs. I haven’t decided whether I prefer the shorter kilometer distance (but there are 42 of them!) or the longer mile (only 26 to contend with)
• There are other race-related activities and events that some marathoners might want to take advantage of: massages, both pre- and post-race, for a fee, a pasta dinner ($40 C), a Saturday morning ‘Shake Your Legs Out’ 5k
This race turned out to be an excellent reason to return to Victoria.