This was my first time at a big race. I've run some 5 and 10k races, but nothing with as many participants or events as this. I must thank my friend Erik, who enticed me to take part after he did last year's marathon in a blistering sub-six-hour pace. ;-)
Not wanting to be shown up by that inspiring performance--and I mean that in all seriousness: my hat goes off to anyone who has the guts to enter and finish a marathon (and this year, Erik broke 4:30 for the marathon, bettering last year's time by well over an hour!)--I decided I should start training in earnest. My main concern, however, was that had I injured my knee at the end of last season and, not wanting to aggravate it, I embarked on a very gradual training program this spring.
By the beginning of September, I had worked my long run up to 24km and felt pretty confident that as long as my knee held out I could put in a pretty respectable time. Earlier in the season, I set my goal at 1 hour 45 minutes, which works out to a pace of just under 5 minutes per kilometer. But my training had gone so well that two weeks before the race, I revised that to 1:43, and secretly I hoped that even 1:40 was possible.
The race itself was wonderful and extremely well organized. Over 2000 volunteers helped out, and they should be commended. Race day was grey and rainy but warm, so aside from having to dodge puddles, conditions were almost ideal. I was running with my friend Jeff, with whom I had trained on a couple of occasions and whose pace and conditioning is very similar to my own. We had decided a few weeks before to run the race together.
Almost 2000 people ran the half-marathon. That's a lot of runners to cram into a start area. One thing I've learned in the few shorter races I've run is that positioning at the start line is important. You don't want to be too far in front so as to hinder faster runners; nor do you want to be too far back and have to pass a lot of slower runners. Big races like this one often have "pace bunnies": runners who are paid to run the race at a certain pace. Jeff and I looked for the 1:45 pace bunny but couldn't find her, so we settled for a spot well ahead of the 2:00 pace bunny. It turns out we were WAY too far back in the pack. It took us four minutes just to cross the start line! We spent the first 5km weaving in and out of traffic, passing slower runners. (Incidentally, I don't blame the slower runners for this; it was our responsibility to start farther up.) We finally ended up passing the 1:45 pace bunny at the 15km mark, so obviously, she started quite a ways in front of us.
The course starts in the middle of the Jacques-Cartier bridge, which spans the mighty St. Lawrence River. It then winds through the streets of Montreal, finishing up at Olympic Stadium. The course is relatively flat, with only one short uphill at about the 5km mark and a longer but less steep uphill section at about 16km. Because we spent the first half-hour dodging traffic, I found it really hard to get into a rhythm, so I felt more tired at the half way point than I expected, but by 14km, I was feeling pretty good and we were keeping up a pretty decent pace. Then we hit that last uphill section, and I really started to struggle. This is where I'm really glad I was running with Jeff. Jeff is an excellent and natural runner who seems particularly comfortable on uphill sections. I focused on the back of his jersey and kept pushing, but by the top of the hill, I was really pooped. At this point, Jeff could have taken off, but he yelled at me to keep going. Luckily, what goes up must come down, and the next few klicks were gently downhill, so I was able to rest a bit while maintaining a decent pace. By the last 2k, however, I was starting to play head games with myself. I knew I was on a sub-1:40 pace but started saying to myself that 1:41 wouldn't be so bad. "I'll just slow up a bit and catch my breath." Then Jeff started picking up the pace! I forgot all about resting and did my best to follow his lead. In the end I couldn't catch him, and he finished 10 or 15 seconds ahead of me, but I credit his run for my sub-1:40 finish (my "chip time" was 1:39'48").
After the race I was simply elated--and this may sound funny, but I was emotionally moved by the event--on an endorphin high that lasted 3 or 4 hours. My knee had held up beautifully, and obviously, I was thrilled to break 1:40! We walked around the stadium, picking up food and fluids and soaking in the joyous atmosphere that always permeates races--all these ordinary people so happy at accomplishing a goal, whether it be a certain time or simply to finish. We eventually found our respective cheering squads before heading home, tired but happy.
Last night I was awoken by the remnants of Hurricane Ike spending itself against our bedroom window, and I was glad the storm didn't pass through yesterday. But I'm sure even Ike wouldn't have stopped the thousands of runners to took part in yesterday's race from having a great time.