I ran the Niagara Marathon on June 23 after a mini-marathon of travel where I went straight from a wedding weekend trip to St. Louis for a week-long work conference in Boston to Canada for the race. I fell just more than two minutes short of reaching my goal of qualifying for Boston – so close, but so far – but still had an amazing race experience! I bettered my PR of 3:40:36 set at last year’s Marine Corps Marathon with a 3:37:21 finish.
This was my ninth marathon, but my first small race experience. Participants in my past marathons numbered in the tens of thousands, but this one featured just more than a hundred runners. We were the third of four races on the day as others ran the 100k, 50k and half marathon distances.
My training was rushed, but pretty solid. I decided late in the game to sign up for the race, but had a solid foundation as I’d been seeing speed gains in many shorter distance races and thought I should give qualifying for Boston in 2013 a shot. I jumped into week 8 of one of the 16-week Runner’s World Challenge training plans, which had me running 6 days a week with some speedwork, hills and weekly long runs built in. I noticed the jump in mileage – I went straight from a long run of 13 miles to three consecutive weekend 20-milers – slowed me down a bit, but I was encouraged by how well my body held up to all the miles and how strong I felt.
Race day came quickly and I found myself gathered near the start line with other runners waiting for our 7:30 start. Temps were in the low 60s to start. This is my first marathon I’ve worn my Newton’s for and I will absolutely keep training and running in them. I also sported my Nathan hydration pack since there would only be aid stations every 5k. The other runners were really friendly and it had the comfortable feeling of going out for a usual Saturday group long run.
The race director called us all in and went over the ground rules without even having to use a microphone or megaphone. He reminded us to be on our best pedestrian behavior at several road crossings throughout the race since no roads were closed. I got to start right up at the front of the pack. All of this made me smile a little and relax. This was definitely not like any race I’d been in before. I went out fast. I know most wisdom says you should try to negative split a marathon (run the second half faster than the first), but based on my shortened training period, my strategy was to bank some time at the beginning and try to hang on at the end for a sub-3:35 finish.
I didn’t realize quite how quickly I was going though and needed to pull in the reins after I hit the one-mile mark in seven minutes. The out-and-back course started off running through a field before connecting with a paved trail that would follow along the Niagara River. It was billed as a relatively flat course, but I would like to know what they were comparing that to. For those that run around the D.C. area, I was expecting something like the Capital Crescent Trail and got something more like the Custis Trail.
At the 5k mark I was actually the lead woman. I couldn’t believe I was actually leading a marathon! I managed to hold on to that for the first 5 miles. The 5k mark was also the first spot I saw my support crew – my parents and boyfriend – who were amazing all morning driving from spot to spot along the course to cheer me on. They had some fun with it, writing different motivational messages on a big whiteboard and waving at me while yelling that they were enjoying breakfast from a diner around the half-way point. Being able to see them at so many points along the course was absolutely the coolest thing about a small race.
Thankfully most of the course was shaded, so I ditched my sunglasses when I passed by the “support crew” at the 10k. A slight up and down throughout the first 6 miles turned into a steep and steady, winding hill starting at 6.75 miles and not ending until just past the 8 mile point. The course was only marked in kilometers, so I was relying on my GPS for mileage. The hill took a lot out of me, especially as we went off the road into the woods for a short, but very steep section of it near the plateau. Mile 7 was by far my slowest mile, taking me 9:36 to finish.
By mile 9 or so I’d recovered from the hill – my heart rate felt like it had gone back down, my breathing was more relaxed and I settled back in. After spending most of the time under shade along the river, I ran out into the sun but got an awesome view down at the hydro-electric power plants near Niagara Falls. I cruised down a nice downhill to the halfway point and was ahead of pace by about a minute. I had to turn around and come right back up that hill unfortunately, but was able to stay right on pace.
I felt like I was starting to lose it around mile 17, but picked it up and was able to gain some time when I got to go back down that long hill I’d fought my way up in the first half. I tossed my bag aside the next time I saw Ian and the ‘rents and they refilled it and Ian handed it back about 4 miles later at the 5k point. I took advantage of water at some of the aid stops, but being such a small race you really had to stop and pick up a cup off of a table rather than just grab it on the run, so a few times I just passed them by with a wave and a thank you to the volunteers cheering me on.
I made a decision at the 20-mile point not to eat my last round of Power Bar Blasts – my gummy candies that I use to fuel along the way. I didn’t feel sick at all like I did at the 18-mile point in MCM, but I just didn’t feel like I was capable of eating anything. I’m not sure if that would have made any difference, but I’m going to try and come up with something else that’s easier to take and different from what I’ve been eating at earlier points for my next marathon.
At mile 23 I had fallen off pace, 10 seconds behind what I needed for the sub-3:35 finish. I kept telling and trying to will my legs to go faster, but they didn’t seem willing to listen. Mile 23 was rough and much slower. I picked it up a little for the last two miles, but was still too slow to get back on pace, let alone make up for the lost time. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but really happy with my new PR! I also finished 15th overall out of 109 and was the 3rd female finisher!
There was a post-race party, but unfortunately it looked like the half marathoners had done a number on the food already when I walked in. All I really wanted was a Coke, but they were out of soda and I wasn’t thrilled with the ginger ale they offered me in place of it! I looked to the pizzas and all that was left were veggie slices or ham and olive (maybe that’s a canadian thing?) – neither of which I would eat on a normal day, let alone a post-marathon day. Instead I
walked hobbled over to the nearby pool for a quick post-race shower, hopped in the car and we found a great spot in Niagara on the Lakes. I quickly devoured my Coke, grilled cheese and fries, and it tasted awesome!
I’ve enjoyed the last week and half of taking it easy on running and cross-training, but I’m ready to get back into things. My official training plan for the 2012 MCM starts on Sunday – so, here I go again!