As Shawn drove me north toward the start on Sunday morning, I tried not to focus on just how far we were traveling away from downtown Toronto - distance I'd be covering again shortly on foot. 7:30 AM approached and the small crowd of marathon runners surged toward the start line. I thought about the time two years back when I would have given anything to run another marathon. The road to recovery from a fractured pelvis finally ended there, at Mel Lastman Square.
I knew that putting time in the bank at the start of the marathon would eventually come back to haunt me. Still, with all the downhills in the first half, it was hard for me to stick to my goal pace of a nine-minute mile. I had plenty of room (the course was never crowded) and lots of interesting surroundings to distract myself with. For the first six miles, the route took me down Yonge Street, which was lined with restaurants and shops. I had studied the elevation map obsessively, and sure enough, the lone giant hill happened right after the three-mile mark. "It's all downhill from here," I reassured myself at the top. How horribly correct I was.
Running down Yonge in a pack. After the race, I like to look up the finish times of the people around me near the beginning.
After turning off Yonge, there were a few winding miles through the beautiful residential neighborhoods of Forest Hill and Casa Loma, and then a gloriously shaded stretch of Rosedale Valley Road. We seemed so inconsequential as we ran through the swath of road bound by imposingly tall trees. This was by far my favorite part of the race.
The morning after the race, we retraced the first 14 miles of the course in our rental car. I took this picture from the front seat.
That happiness is not an act. Total runner's high.
One of truths about marathoning is that your race isn't half over at 13.1 miles - you're halfway there at more like 20 miles. Having remembered how defeated I felt right after the halfway point during the Providence marathon, I expected to encounter a similar mental speedbump again around mile 13 in Toronto. Fortunately, my morale remained high. I knew I'd see Shawn at mile 14, so I soldiered through an unsightly industrial stretch after Rosedale Valley Road toward Front Street. Because I was several minutes ahead of schedule (no doubt thanks to the downhills), I stopped long enough for him to refill my handheld bottle with water and tear the safety seal off a Gatorade (damn you, Gatorade). This split ended up being my slowest of the race, at 10 minutes and 19 seconds. He gave me a bag of ice and I was on my way.
At around this point, the front of my ankles started to cramp up, a bizarre feeling I had never experienced before. I'd later realize that the significant downhills from the first half of the course were the culprit. Before I knew it, I had 16 miles behind me and I was feeling remarkably strong, ankle cramps notwithstanding. Soon I was heading up an overpass that would deliver me to the dreaded part (the remainder of the race): the out and back along Lake Ontario.
My view for 9 endless miles. Shawn took this shot while he was waiting for me. He has a short account of the race from his perspective, along with some pictures, here.
Starting out on Lakeshore Drive: still happy, and still on pace to come in under 4 hours.
I had enough knowledge of the route to know that for several miles, I had to run west along the water before I could turn around and run east toward the finish. To add insult to injury, all I had to do was glance to my right to see the eastbound runners coming at me. Talk about a morale blow. I desperately tried to remember the course map: at what mile would we turn around? WHY had I paid such close attention to the elevation chart but failed to memorize the route? My Garmin was set so that it wouldn't show distance, and because I didn't have a firm grasp on kilometers (seeing as we were in Canada, there were no mile markers), I didn't know how many miles were left. All I knew was that each step I took heading west was another I'd have to cover on my way back east, and it was excruciating. I developed a strategy at each fluid station: drink a cup of Gatorade, refill my handheld, and douse myself with a cup of water, all as fast as I could with absolutely no walking. I was soaked, but the cold, wet fabric felt marvelous. What didn't feel so wonderful were my feet squishing inside my shoes, which I accidentally doused too. When I estimated that I had about 6 miles to go, I reminded myself that my usual morning run is that length. With few spectators, a highway to one side, and runners to my other, I tried to pretend I was loping along Atlantic Avenue toward the Brooklyn Bridge on a cool, dark morning.
I was aware that my goal of coming in under four hours had evaporated (looking back at my Garmin, mile 22 was the nail in the coffin), but I was set on finishing well under my PR of 4:09.45. When I saw Shawn on the sideline, it meant I was at mile 25. I could only focus on one thing - finishing - so I barely acknowledged my husband. I flung my handheld at his feet and snatched a bottle of Gatorade from his outstretched hand and kept going.
Shawn thoughtfully had iced my race fluids. Best support crew a girl could ask for.
I did not have the mental capacity to focus on anything but finishing. My lungs were fine but my legs were like lead; another sensation I'd never experienced in past marathons or long training runs (again, those downhills were probably the cause). Little did I know Shawn was running behind me (in his boat shoes) for about a quarter mile. When he finally stopped running, he watched me continue on, weaving around walkers and passing other runners (according to my stats, I passed 73 of them in the final 7 kilometers. Only 6 passed me.) I was hell-bent on getting to the end. About a quarter of a mile before 26, my friend Lindsay jumped in with me. All I remember asking her was how close I was to being done. Right before we got to the turn to the finish, she said "you've got this - I'm going to let you run in on your own." After turning, she was correct - the finish line was right there.
And about five feet before it, I collapsed.
Lindsay, who saw everything from a few dozen yards behind, described it as a "slow crumple." My legs simply gave out. Everyone gasped. (Hundreds of people were right there.) It seemed like an eternity and a blink of an eye all at the same time. My right knee broke my fall. "This CANNOT be happening," I thought to myself. I distinctly remember hoping that the race photographers would have mercy on me and not capture the moment.
A runner next to me grabbed my left arm, a man grabbed my right, and I heard someone yell "she wants to finish!" And they were correct. I desperately wanted to finish. The next thing I knew I was across the final timing mat (at, officially, 4 hours, 6 minutes, and 58 seconds after starting) and ushered into a wheelchair. In the medical tent, I tried to convince the revolving cast of nurses and doctors that my legs failed me - nothing worse than that. No, I hadn't blacked out or hit my head - I was completely lucid. (See, look at my sanitizing wipes that I'm using to disinfect my own skinned, bloody knee with!) I was well-hydrated, I assured them. This wasn't my first marathon. I had eaten plenty before and during the race. My blood pressure and -sugar checked out fine. By this point, my calves, ankles, and feet were cramping unbearably and I wanted to find Shawn, who wouldn't even dream to look for me in the medical tent.
After I was finally discharged, I claimed my medal and posed with it.
Then I waited, rather forlornly, for Shawn to find me. When he did, I burst into tears. I couldn't have run this race without my husband, who sacrificed his share of the bread basket every Friday night, put up with my 5 AM wake-up calls each Saturday morning, and knew I wouldn't quit training even when I doubted myself. After my long runs, he relished telling people how far I had just traveled: "Can I have a glass of water please? It's for my wife; she just ran 20 miles." At customs crossing into Canada, the border agent asked us the reason for our travel. Shawn could have simply said "vacation," but he proudly proclaimed "my wife is running the Toronto marathon!" He told every taxi driver, bartender, and waiter Sunday night about my accomplishment earlier that day.
I also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my friend Lindsay, who messaged me out of the blue on Facebook last week to tell me she was driving to Toronto from Buffalo to watch the race. (Incredible!) Lindsay is my running hero; shortly after I fractured my pelvis, she was afflicted with the exact same injury. She bore this setback much more gracefully than I did, and conquered the NYC marathon soon after she recovered. It was so fitting that we ran together at the very end of this race.
Finally, how can I ever truly thank the good samaritans who helped me at the finish? It happened so quickly that I didn't get a chance to express my gratitude to them. (I've located the runner in pink, Maxine, with the help of Google and we've been emailing back and forth. Her words now, several days after the race, are as comforting as her help was then.)
The verdict is still out on whether this marathon falls into the thrill of victory category, or the agony of defeat one. I go back and forth. It's hard not to let the final few feet of my race overshadow the 26-plus miles of glorious, heartfelt running that came before it. And unfortunately, this tale has an epilogue. I'm sad to say it may not be a happy one, and it's coloring my view of the whole run. Perhaps it's a story for another day.
It's official. I finished with a new PR of 4 hours, 6 minutes, and 58 seconds. If you read the comments to this post, you'll see that, unbelieveably, my other hero found me. I am still speechless over this and have often been moved to tears these past two days at the sheer kindness of humanity. And I'm floored at how supportive you guys are. You're the best, seriously.