Thursday, 9 May 2013

Vancouver Marathon (how to go all-in)

"Find what you love and let it kill you" - Charles Bukowski, courtesy of Neil Gaiman

I raced the BMO Vancouver Marathon this past Sunday. I finished in 3:03:43, 2nd AG, 10th female overall, and 75th out of both genders. I found a lot of edges that race, and I am so grateful for the support of my friends and teammates.

go big or go home (sometimes, I should just go home)
This was my "A" race of the spring season. I unapologetically set a goal back in January - I wanted a sub-3hr marathon. I trained with this time in mind as the snow on the trails slowly disappeared and the grey Vancouver skies gave way to sunshine. I always knew it would be a close races - marathons are 42.2k gambles - and I usually feel pretty lucky. Training was a blast. I got to hit the trails for a lot of longer runs, then do tempos the next day on tired legs. I pushed hard, and with Coach Ian's plan I was able to show up at the start line injury free - a huge, huge blessing.

race choice
For me, doing the Vancouver marathon was always a given. The course isn't always easy (to be fair, I'm not sure if any course is ever easy), but I love everything about it: the 1km hill at Camosun, the descent along South West Marine to the beaches, and the final seawall. Vancouver is my hometown. I was very grateful for the elite entry that the BMO organizers provided me with. More importantly, I wanted to have the support of my VFAC teammates and friends on the course to help pull me along when things got tough. And things really did get tough.

how many times did I call my physio?
This year I was really lucky in my build-up to the race. I saw the amazing Ramsey several times before Chuckanut 50k, in March. Then, after that, it was pretty smooth sailing until the start of the race. My legs held up and were uninjured. The rest of me wasn't so lucky. The week before the marathon (after finishing off some April 30 deadlines and completing a move), I got sharp pain in my shoulder blade and chest. When I saw Ramsey, he told me that I had BEEN BREATHING WRONG. Yes, it has got to the point where I am high-strung enough that even if I do all my physio exercises, do core every day, and watch my footing on trails, I AM STILL ABLE TO INJURE MYSELF BY JUST EXISTING. (time to hit the yoga mat again)

race day
I woke up at 4:15 to a pale blue sky and the lights of the north shore. The sun started to rise as I walked along the seawall to catch the shuttle to the start of the race. I got to the start area way too early, and met up with Helen (who had arrived even earlier). This was good, as it gave me time to use the bathrooms approximately every five minutes, and compare weird taper "injuries".  We met up with Mary and Ellie, who were also racing, to watch the start of the half-marathon. Barry, Rebecca Reid, and Sabrina came over to find us before the start of the race. We were all some degree of nervous wrecks (me maybe more so than others, this is normal), and it was great to have the support of our teammates. When we got into our starting corral, I looked over to the side - and saw Brooke, Allison and Ramsey, who had all biked over from the North Shore. It was really reassuring to see familiar faces - plus, I knew Allison and Brooke would appreciate the running skirt I was wearing.

km 0 to km 9 - it's alright, I'll catch up
The start went off along an uphill, and I found a rhythm - sort of. The beginnings of races are always hard for me. Helen went right ahead of me, as Ben, another VFAC teammate, and some of the other guys I hoped to pace with. The weather was still cool and a bit breezy, and my legs felt good on the downhill.

km 10 to 19 - no, fuck YOU, Camosun hill
The hill up Camosun is just under 1k long, and decent elevation (for a road race). I figured, hey, I had been running up Nancy Greene, this would be easy. No, it was not. At this point in the race, I was surrounded by all guys. It was getting hot out, and many of the guys in front of me were starting to abruptly slow - some even walked. I had to weave my way around them as I kept chugging uphill. It was nice to run into Josh on this section, and run together for a bit. The best part of this hill was seeing Brooke, Allison, and Ramsey on the way up - I was sure to give an extra-loud pregnancy sigh for Brooke. At the top of the hill were Rebecca and Sabrina (and it looked like team Mom Rebecca was taking pictures of us with her cellphone?). Ryan also was there taking pictures, and this is what it looked like when I tried to smile at him (minus the trying - sorry!).

I passed Helen on an out-and-back section after UBC. She instructed me to give "spirit fingers" for the camera. Awesome! Amber was also around this section, and yelled at me to "Pound it Out!" Actually, quite a few people yelled this. It was sort of amazing to have me and Barry's trail running / life slogan used by so many people as encouragement - and it totally worked. I was back-and-forth passing a couple guys on the UBC section, and it really helped to have people to work off of.

km 20 to km 31 - oh no
The hill down from UBC opened up amazing views: completely blue sky, blue water, the snow-covered mountains. I had a huge Vancouver fangirl moment. At the bottom of the hill was the half-way point and timing mats - and, of course, coach John from VFAC yelling out our splits. I was just over 1:29. I was also starting to hurt - not great in a distance twice that long. The next section was gently rolling hills - fine. The temperature was still rising, and the route was completely exposed. I kept to pace, and drank at every aid station and dumped water on myself. I was seriously thirsty and hot - in all of maybe 20C.

At Jericho beach, I saw Nathan, who was a huge encouragement. I saw Drew Nicholson, and injured teammate, who had biked down all the way from Surrey to cheer us on. There were also a lot of people on Cornwall - and I am so sorry, I hurt a lot there, I have no idea who it was, but you yelled my name and it was amazing! Thank you for cheering.

On the way down Burrard Street I got a really bad cramp in my side. Like full-stop, searing pain. I like to think I am good with handling pain: that is complete BS. This thing killed me. I stopped. As in, full stop. Luckily, Ellie Greenwood was at this point (she did the race while rehabbing an injury and always planned to drop at the 30k mark). She was wonderful. She was right next to me. And she helped me stretch it out (it was a bit crazy to be doing yoga forward folds in the middle of a bunch of guys gunning for a sub-3 marathon time), I walked a bit, then I got started again. It still felt awful, but less awful.

km 32 to km 42.2 - bring it home
Just before English Bay, I saw Donovan. I was still walk / running at this point. I yelled out that I had a cramp,  that I wanted so badly to drop. The look of horror on his face, it turned out later, was at the prospect of dealing with an exhausted, emotional female 2hrs into a race, and not at the prospect of DNF-ing. Regardless, once I said it aloud, I weirdly felt better - so I kept going.

English Bay was definitely a turning point. Everyone was out, just where I needed cheering the most. Here is who I remember seeing: my running partner and best friend, Lucy, who I high-fived, VFAC teammates Shelley and Courtney, and I think Kevin O'Connor in there?

As soon as the seawall hit, I felt way better. A cool breeze came off the water, and the path was completely in the shade. Based on my stop before, I knew I wouldn't get under 3hrs, but I wanted to finish as strongly as I could. And just as I was feeling okay, it got even better: Allison Tai's Rackets & Runners' run club had organized a cheer stop TO MY FAVOURITE SONG! There were two ladies wearing shiny speedos over spandex blasting "Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO.

With about 8k to go, trail phenom Nicola Gildersleeve blew past me and shouted some encouragement. After that, I picked up the pace. I saw Allison Tai later on, who yelled that I was just outside of the top 10. So I found whatever it was left to find, and passed two women in the final couple kilometers. By this time, I was back in the sun. It all hurt. All that was left to find a rhythmn, hold it, breathe, and keep going. The final stretch is right near my apartment - I have run this seawall hundreds, thousands of times. I knew each curve, each marker: the lighthouse, the VFAC mile marker,  the boat club, the small incline, the rowing club. The final stretch to the finish was huge: tons and tons of people cheering on either side of the chute. I saw Donovan, Nathan, and Craig at about 200m to go, and just gunned it home to get under 3:04.

At the end of the race, I slowly started walking back towards my apartment. I ran into an incredibly energetic Nicola, who seemed ready to take on another 50k - that very day. Donovan left for a bike ride, and I spaced out on the patio a bit - until fellow marathon Ben got a hold of me and talked me into starting the very slow walk to the Yaletown Brewing Company for VFAC drinks. Miraculously, after 42 very hot and sweaty kilometers, my feet were still blister-free with my FITs ultra-light socks.

I ended the day with Donovan at the restaurant on top of Grouse mountain (I took the tram up!), watching the sunset over the mountains.

The past season, I've been lucky to have my races go well: I hit all PBs, ran mostly negative splits, and everything felt great. So having something go wrong, and still finishing, is an experience I am proud of. I couldn't have made it through without all the help and support of my friends and teammates. I'll learn from this race, and I have no doubt sub-3 will happen, someday, for a marathon. And when it does, it will feel even more awesome after this experience. Now, I am teaching my very trashed quads to learn to go down stairs again. I am so excited to join the rest of my friends on the trails this summer, and to have many more adventures.

I want to thank everyone who came out to cheer and support - it's huge to have to much love and encouragement out on the course, and it made the experience a huge celebration of the fantastic running community we have here.

"So take a lesson from the strangeness that you feel
And know you'll never be the same
and find it in your heart
to kneel down and say
I gave it all, didn't I?
I gave it big, sometimes
And I gave it in my own sweet time
I'm just leaving."

Jane Sidberry / K.D Lang


  1. Great post Alex! It was so nice to meet you this weekend and so cool to read about what an accomplished runner you are!

  2. Another impressive battle! And the funniest part - Bruno and his friend who's visiting were at Grouse that day, and he came home and was like "I think I saw Alex on the way down". I totally brushed it off because he has some questionable person recognition skills, but it was really you! :-p