I could feel the anticipation in Canada’s crisp morning air as colourful runners started pouring onto the streets. Dressed in gloves, ear warmers and double jackets, four Canadians, an American and I shuffled out of the change rooms to begin our warm up. We navigated through road blocks and contained our nerves with light-hearted chatter. An “Adelaide Street” sign caught my eye near the finish line and made me feel a little closer to home. Before long thousands of eager bodies were packed into the starting area, flirting with collisions during frenzied final strides. After months of devoted preparation and days of consuming energy-dense fuel it is always a relief to greet race day feeling healthy and ready to fire. I carefully placed a backup gel down my crop top and spotted my partner Dylan behind the fence. He had been fine-tuning his spectator route to provide words of encouragement where I was likely to need them most. I felt very grateful for his wholehearted support (and my coach Adam Didyk’s from afar) during the preparation for this race. Bright green sleeves and Australian flags belonging to my Canadian relatives emerged above the heads of spectators near the start line. After exchanging a few excited waves, I toed the line for my twelfth Marathon. 3, 2, 1…. BANG!
A line of men took off like rockets. I moved with the excitement and flow of the pack but my wiser instincts told me to run within myself. I found a pace that felt fast but sustainable. One mile in I spotted Shaun Creighton wearing his Australian singlet from the 1992 Manchester Commonwealth Games. I felt a sense of comfort as we exchanged “hellos” and any remaining nervous tension eased. The lead girls weren’t far ahead and I wondered what pace we were on. I flashed a look at my Garmin to check the 2km split time against my perceived rate of exertion. It wasn’t quite what I had expected and consequently ended up being the last time I looked at my watch. I generally prefer to base my effort on feel rather than figures, as it helps me to maintain composure and efficiency.
The first eight kilometres through downtown Toronto’s vibrant streets were fun. The crowds and the cool air energised me. I imagined ‘light feet’ as I danced beside the tram lines in a race rhythm that had been ingrained through years of training. I spotted my carbohydrate-electrolyte drink on table B at the five kilometre mark and was relieved to scoop up the bottle with ease. I took a few generous gulps and noted 17 minutes and 8 seconds on the clock. A tight group of about five males had formed ahead and I decided to join their flock. Our formation was certainly not as graceful as geese in the sky but I was thankful for some early company. Mutual respect exists between those who assign to the physical and mental Marathon journey. Whether or not words are exchanged, a sense of peace and motivation is gained from sharing the experience with others.
Before reaching the 9km mark I tossed my gloves to ensure that I would be able to grip my gel at the next station. I grabbed my second bottle with no dramas and tore an access point to my valuable energy supply. It was a challenge to consume the gel due to its extra thick texture in the cold conditions but with a few effortful squeezes and sips of water, I got the gooey goods down. I caught a glimpse of green to my side and realised that it was Shaun again. How special it was to be racing beside one of Australia’s running and all-round greats. I saw 34.28 on the clock as we crossed the 10km mat. We turned onto the esplanade and it was a relief to feel the wind now blowing from behind my left shoulder. I felt the pack of men begin to increase their tempo so did my best to hold on.
By 15km the pace was starting to pinch. I relaxed my shoulders, tucked my chin and made a concerted effort to appreciate the buzz - it’s not every day that runners can let loose on the main roads of such a big city. With the 21.1km mark fast-approaching, I started preparing mentally to attack the second half. The 15km fuelling station was an important one for me, so it was a relief to successfully collect my second gel and third bottle. I looked forward to what would be a timely energy boost. Upon consuming the gel, I realised that the boys had gained distance on me at the station. Experience had taught me that it was worth putting in the effort to get back onto the group but to do so gradually rather than to dramatically change pace. I managed to catch one man trailing the pack but battled to move up to the others. My effort felt sufficient so I decided to settle rather than drain more precious energy. I enjoyed some loud Aussie cheers from an excited couple and their children along the waterfront and reminded myself that I would have the reserves to run strong in the later stages.
The boys ahead weren’t slowing and the runner beside me seemed to be straining. Consequently, I decided I would dig a little deeper to try and catch the pack before reaching the most technical section of the course (22-26km). Due to the course elevation profile, runners typically ran slower in the second half and I had been warned about a likely head wind during the final 9 kilometres. I hadn’t noticed a boost from my gel yet but gained some helpful adrenaline when spotting Dylan at 18km under a bridge. He yelled at me to catch the boys, which fuelled my determination to do so. I increased my cadence and after a few minutes was within an arm’s reach of one runner from my initial pack. The remaining pack were sailing about 15 seconds ahead. I saw 72.48 on the clock and felt satisfied to have delivered myself to half way with optimism and a good level of fuel in my tank.
I reminded myself that the real mental fight would intensify somewhere after 30km and I needed to be positioned well, ideally in a group with others, to capitalise. My fellow group-chaser and I navigated the twists and turns to 25km, at which point I noticed my companion falling back. The hairpin turn here was my first opportunity to see how the race ahead was panning out. It was uplifting to see that fellow female runners weren’t too far in front of the male pack I was chasing. I counted six women in total. Despite the wind and undulations, I felt quite strong. An area of friction had started to develop under one of my big toe but this discomfort paled in comparison to the sensation of snapping my nail bed in other Marathons. I gained energy from familiar faces running in the opposite direction. Shortly after taking my next gel and a few sips of fluid I arrived at the 26km incline that I had been anticipating. I concentrated on knee lift and quick steps up the hill and running free downhill, then carefully navigated the corners to follow – seemingly simple tasks that become increasingly difficult as a Marathon progresses. I was able to pass two runners who I had not sighted until this point in the race. This boosted my confidence as I approached 30km.
My lower limbs constantly reminded me that they were working hard but fortunately never protested forcefully against my instructions. In any long race I like to have a mantra or song in my head. It helps me to overcome physical fatigue and mental discomfort, particularly during quieter sections where there are few external distractions. Given that my previous three Marathon races had either been on Australian soil or in major Championships with plenty of Aussie support, I hadn’t needed to conjure up as many distraction strategies. Rather, I had prepared myself to alternate between soaking up energy from the crowd and focusing intrinsically on my form and the fuelling processes I needed to follow. Prior to the Toronto Marathon, which I had already run in my mind at least ten times, I found an image of a lion that I planned to visualise for strength in times of need. Dylan and I had watched the Lion King musical in London a week before the race and from the moment I lost touch with the pack at around 15km, I found myself singing the familiar and entertaining tunes in my head. These lyrics provided a positive distraction and an up-beat rhythm.
Not long after the 30km fuelling station I was struck by an all over heaviness. It was very similar to the sensation of climbing off a trampoline or treadmill and trying to run. Whilst unsettling it didn’t inflict too much distress. I focused on ‘light feet’ dancing between the tram lines as I had two hours earlier and soon noticed the heavy cloud on my shoulders start to lift. This reassured me that it was just a phase of heavy fatigue and I fortunately hadn’t found “The Wall”. Regardless, I was hanging out for the opportunity to take on a gel at 35km. The wind resistance had eased and I enjoyed the opportunity to switch off mentally on a long stretch of straight road. I glanced across at the strong lead pack of men running in the opposite direction. New Zealander Jake Robertson was right up there in the mix and Canadian debutant Cam Levins was not far behind.
I had been preparing myself for the final quarter of the race and was determined to stay strong into a potential head wind. The male pack I had chased for most of the race had dispersed and my focus was now to gain a position or two amongst the women’s field. The turn allowed me to observe the form of athletes ahead and it seemed that some were fatiguing. Dylan’s green top caught my attention and his cheers gave me the boost I needed to push towards 35km. At the fuelling station I had one small gulp of gel and a swig of fluid. I could see a female athlete’s orange singlet in the distance. Knowing that we were approaching a decent incline at 39km, I told myself to stay strong and use this challenge to my advantage. An icy mist hung in the air and cool winds lapped at my body like waves. “Hakuna Matata”. At 38km I was able to move past a female athlete. I had a rush of adrenaline similar to that of moving in to third place at a similar point during the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Marathon. I was feeling stronger and bouncier than I thought I would at this late stage in the race, which fuelled my confidence. I used all of my grit to climb up and over the hill and spotted another female athlete in the near distance. My aim of working into the top five had been achieved and this was my opportunity to gain a bonus position. I worked hard to maintain my rhythm and felt a rush of excitement as I moved into fourth place.
My feet made loud slaps as they struck the concrete and I convinced myself it was just my new shoes gripping the damp road’s surface – not heavy legs. At the 39km station I grabbed a few sips of fluid to help fuel my final but crucial kilometres. Finding the energy to take a drink at the final station can be challenging but I was glad that I did. My sights were now set on catching a male in the distance and my determination was peaking. The crowds were becoming thicker as I neared the finish line in Toronto’s CBD. The noise escalated and I soaked up the energy. With 400m to go my attention was fixated on catching the male ahead. I tapped into my last energy reserves and dug a little deeper to power up a slight incline. At 42km I passed him and was determined to stay strong right through the finisher’s arch. I thought I might be on 2.27-2.28 pace which wouldn’t be a PB but I was satisfied with the way in which I had “raced” the race. I turned left and then right. The finish line and digital race clock came into view. Like my 2015 Melbourne Marathon finishing experience, I was elated to see the time on the clock. For the first time in the race I realised that I was about to run a personal best and I gave it my all across the line. With an inner fist pump and an outer smile, I took a moment to soak up the euphoric feeling of knowing that I had achieved my goal. As the shivers set in and I attempted to coordinate my cold jaw in a post-race interview, I felt nothing but warm fuzzies inside. I shared a bear hug with Dylan and felt an inner peace that I hadn’t realised I was chasing until that sweet moment.
These are the moments I run for. Thank you to everyone who made last Sunday possible.