Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Toronto Waterfront Marathon, I did it! The marathon I didn’t think I’d be fit enough to start, I started AND I finished.

I could stop there, I don’t know if there’s a story in this race or not. There should have been the most amazing story had the best laid plans not gone AWOL but life has a habit of happening, and anyway this Toronto story was never just about a marathon, it was as much about the family as it was running.

Which is how I ended up playing football, in ankle boots, with my 8 year old niece the afternoon before the marathon & not sitting on the sofa resting my legs. It’s also why I shared a couple of glasses of wine with my sister-in-law & a pizza with my brother the night before the race, this was after walking 8 miles around Toronto taking in the sights with the husband. As day-before-a-marathon-prep goes it was a pretty poor show, but so is not seeing your family for years at a time because they live on the other side of the world. Sometimes it’s all about choosing what’s important to you. And Saturday afternoon playing football was more important to me than Sunday’s marathon.

She beat me 10-9 in case you were wondering.

So onto Sunday, race day. The race started at 8:45am, but as always I’d woken hours earlier. I’d like to say pre-race nerves woke me but in reality it was insomnia being a bugger as usual. I took my time getting ready & at 8:35am I took one last look out of my hotel room window at the gathering crowds below & sauntered down the 15 floors to the start line. It could not have been a more perfect arrangement, none of this waiting around in the cold & standing in portaloo queues for the standard three pre-race nervous wees. I waited in the comfort of my wonderfully warm hotel room. I stood there, drinking coffee & looking out the window for about 30 minutes, watching the hustle & bustle of the race village below.

The view from my hotel room, the start line is on the left hand side, the finish on the right, the race village in the square below!

Looking out on the gathering crowds queuing for the portaloos below!

It was a cool 5 degrees at the start. I looked around at other runners in my starting corral decked out in full winter running gear & wondered if I’d under dressed in shorts & t-shirt (with arm warmers for the first few miles). The answer was no. I got it bang on. Any more clothes & I would have moaned that I was too hot. The day gave us perfect running conditions; cool & dry with the occasional burst of sunshine. I honestly don’t know how those in thick winter jackets & hats didn’t suffer in the heat. 

I’m used to races with a few hundred entrants, my last race in July, the Serpent Trail 100km, had only 61 starters, so standing here in a crowd of 25,000 was something quite alien to me. This was a mixture of full & half marathon runners. There was music, there was cheering, there was a hum of nervous anticipation but I have to say I was so caught up in my own little world, trying to physc myself up for 26.2 on the roads, that I barely noticed it. It took me about 10 minutes from the starting gun to cross the line, I hit start on my Garmin, pressed play on my iPod & settled in for the ride.

My feet quickly got into their stride, my shoulders relaxed & I started to think about how I should approach the race. This was probably something I should have done before the starting gun went off, but I was so unsure as to how I would feel on race morning I’d blocked all thoughts of the race from my mind for the previous couple of days. With the exception of eating lots of carbs (that I was totally on board with) I’d barely given a thought to a time goal or pacing.

This was my sixth visit to Toronto, I know the city & the route fairly well. We started downtown, ran up University, one of the few ‘gentle inclines’ in the race, to Bloor & past the museums, taking in a few of the sights before turning & cruising down the length of Bathurst to the lakeshore. Bathurst is the street my brother lived on when he first came to Toronto 15 years ago.

Toronto is built on a grid system, a bit like New York with streets running for miles in practically a straight line (there weren’t going to be many corners to turn in this race!). Building numbers can go up into the thousands & you don’t want to get your east & west muddled up, 2522 Queen Street East is literally the other side of the city from 2522 Queen Street West. Think Fulham to Poplar in London. And Yonge Street, which starts on the edge of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto, runs for 1896km north of the city!

7km in & we hit Lakeshore Boulevard. Lakeshore Boulevard runs, somewhat obviously, along the lakeshore of Lake Ontario. And is probably where the Waterfront in Waterfront Marathon comes from. Except it’s not really the lakeshore, and it’s not really the Waterfront. It’s essentially a duel carriageway 50+ metres from the waterfront. We ran along this in an out & back for about 15km. As a trail runner who thrives on the views, I probably don’t need to express too much my dislike of this. The light falling onto the lake was beautiful, but I was too far away to take in the views. This saddened me.

A couple of quick snaps of the ‘waterfront’

I felt as if I was running fairly consistently along this stretch. I’d decided a couple of miles in to aim to keep my average pace in the region of 8:50 min/miles & I was fluctuating 4 or 5 seconds either side of this. I felt comfortable. Pacing at times was tricky as when we ran through some of the downtown sections my gps went haywire & for several miles I was essentially running blind. It didn’t help that I’d forgotten/not paid attention to the fact that Canadians work in KM so all the distance markers were in KM whereas I work in miles so I couldn’t really work out my splits manually either. Oh well. It’s not like I’d really prepared much for this race!

23km & we turn up Don Valley. A very uninspiring 3km out & back section that felt like it was put there to make up the distance. This will make some of my Striders friends smile, about half a km after the turnaround point I hear my name being called… yep, someone I know! A guy from parkrun back in London, I didn’t know he was doing the race so I gave a slightly bemused & delayed wave back. Sorry Oliver!

And then it was back to the duel carriageway for another 5km. The only complimentary thing I can say about Lakeshore Boulevard is that the surface was very smooth… I can’t really think of anything else positive to say about it. If you were racing, I can see it being a fast course but otherwise it was tedious & I was VERY thankful for my super awesome playlist to take my mind away from it. I may have had a little out loud sing-a-long to Justin Timberlake here to to ease my boredom.

Pleased to see my brother!

32km & we turn onto Queen Street East & the Beaches. I had spent the previous 32km looking forward to this section, one because it’s a pretty cool area of town & two because I got to HIGH FIVE MY NIECES!!! Not once but twice! Ok, so the first time Lola was getting her face painted & missed me running past but I got cheers from my brother, Ana & London. 2km later & after the final turnaround I got ALL the high fives & hugs & post-race dinner plans were made! This made my day & ZF’s given for the minute of time lost!

The Beaches, with the exception of downtown, was also the best supported section of the race. Most of it was pretty barren. There’d be the odd few people here & there or an official cheer station with a band or cheerleader troupe but otherwise it was pretty quiet. The shouts & cheers in the Beaches with 10km to go were most welcome. Something I’ve noticed in both of the Canadian races that I’ve done is that people don’t have their name written on their t-shirt like we do in the UK, it’s printed small on the race bib & that’s it. This made it extra encouraging when someone shouts out “go Ally” because you know they’ve really had to squint hard to read it from your bib!

Coming out of the Beaches I knew the last six miles were going to be a struggle. As they are in any marathon. The first 20 miles are the warm-up for when the real race starts at mile 20. Only I was running this marathon on just one 20 mile long run due to the injury issues I’d had over the summer. Whilst I knew I had the endurance base & I knew I had the determination to get to the end I didn’t know how my body would deal going into this now unfamiliar territory. Basically at 21 miles my legs stopped, I was also beginning to feel the familiar dull ache of the tendinitis in my foot, my body was giving up on me. But my mind remained strong.

I had ALL the energy & if I was in a room I would have been bouncing off the walls, but my legs were done. I went from consistent 8:50ish min/miles down to 10, 11 & very nearly 12 minute miles. It was SUPER frustrating, I wanted to run, I had the energy, but my legs just would not corporate. The last five miles were going to be a MASSIVE struggle, but my mind was strong, I’d followed a runner earlier in the race with the phrase “the mind leads the body” on the back of her top. This stuck with me. I dug deep & knew, even as I saw sub-4 slipping away from me, that my mind would lead my body to the finish line.

36km & I again hear my name being called. Julie is an incredible runner, a 2:30 something marathoner & she recently represented Canada at the 100km distance in Croatia. My brother hooked me up with her on Instagram 12 months ago & she said she’d be out on the course supporting today & would keep a look out for me. I was shuffling along in serious pain when I saw her, but as always a friendly face & shouts of encouragement were the boost I needed.

We’re now heading back downtown, towards the familiar sight of the CN Tower. No matter how much I run (aka shuffle), it doesn’t seem to get any closer. I don’t remember much else, it’s all I can do to put one foot in front of the other. Finally, at 41km, the crowds begin to gather, the volume increases, I walk for 10 or seconds so that I can run the final stretch & turn my music off, I want to take this all in. We turn into Bay Street, 400m, 300m, despite not thinking I could, I do gradually pick up my pace, the husband is cheering me on to my left, 100m & done.

Thank fuck for that.

4:06:25. So, so close to four hours.

I cannot be disappointed with that considering four weeks ago I wasn’t sure I’d make the start line, let alone the finish line. However, a tiny part of me is disappointed to be so close, especially as after a strong first 21 miles it slipped away at the end. I got the time I deserved. A PB would have been lovely, a sub-4 would have been nice, but I didn’t deserve it. (Due to injury) I hadn’t put the work in & it wouldn’t have been to fair to all those who had put in the miles over the past 12 weeks if I’d strolled in & nonchalantly run a PB on one 20 mile run. 4:06 is a fair reflection & I’m so pleased to have ticked off my 12th marathon, and my final road race. (You can see my full race stats including my spectacular crash & burn here click ‘more’ under stats for a full breakdown of my breakdown)

I somewhat stagger away from the finish line, have a medal placed around my neck & a foil blanket around my shoulders. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so beaten at the end of a marathon as I do today. If I could stop & lie down on the pavement (sidewalk in Canadian speak) I would. A coffee in the race village perks me up enough to take a couple of post-race medal pics (obvs) but being able to see my hotel room from the finish line is too bigger draw. Now shivering in the five degree temperatures I head for a hot shower.

So, did I enjoy it? There were moments when I felt ‘at ease’ but for the large part I really didn’t.

I hesitate to really review the race & I would hate anyone to form a judgement on it because of my words because I realise this is not my kind of race & therefore I can’t review it objectively.

For a road marathon it was superb, looking at is as that, I can’t fault anything & I would say it supersedes many of the UK races I’ve done. But I’m a trail runner. I like mud, hills, tree roots to jump over, rocky descents & pretty views & this didn’t have any of those things. I found it boring. Toronto has so many wonderful places but I don’t feel the route made the most of them. There were lots of long straight stretches of tarmac which would be wonderful if you were ‘racing’ or chasing a PB. I can see that attraction (and my original plan, pre-injury, was to chase a PB so I may well have enjoyed those stretches under those circumstances). The section along Lakeshore Boulevard East was soul destroying. Both on the out & back. The loop up to Don Valley superfluous. I enjoyed the Beaches. I enjoyed downtown (my Garmin didn’t, it went awol & ran over 27 miles among the tall buildings…). The expo & race village were excellent, the post run goody bag most welcome, the t-shirt surprising nice, the medal a little random (it has a streetcar on it…) but those things don’t make up for the lack of mud, the hard tarmac & the fact that if I hadn’t had my iPod I would have gone out of my mind with boredom.

Would I recommend this race? If you want a fast, flat road marathon then yes. The Canadian men’s 43-year-old marathon record was broken, a number of Brits had key breakthrough races & 13 world records were set. It’s fast, it’s flat & it would be great for a GFA or BQ attempt.

Would I run this again for the race itself? No.

Would I run it again as a cheap way to come visit Toronto & see the fam-a-lam? Hell yes. Because let’s face it, if I’m here & there’s a Marathon & a bib with my name on it as part of an awesome travel package, I’m running it, road or not!

It’s three days post race & I’m sat in Toronto airport waiting for my flight home. I’m sad to be leaving a city that in many ways feels like my second home. I always leave knowing that one day I’ll be back but not knowing when that day will be. The marathon may have been the catalyst of the trip (read my last post) but the real reason was to spend time with my brother, sister-in-law & nieces & whilst I’ll treasure my marathon medal, I’ll treasure the memory of the girls waiting at the airport for me, the hugs they gave, the game of football in the garden, the pumpkin London painted for me (don’t ask!), the afternoon skating & of just sitting on the sofa with them, more. Running is important to me & a large part of my life, but sometimes other things are more important.

Me & my nieces

So that is my Toronto story & that also rounds up my 2018 races. I was going to sneak a cheeky 50km in in December to finish the year off but to be honest, I’m exhausted & feeling pretty run down & if I’m going to hit some of the lofty goals I have for 2019, I think I need to take the last two months of the year fairly easy.

So, here’s to the next story, 2019, the big one…

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