Hammering the Half

There are rare, startling moments of confluence where everything comes together. Such a planet-aligning event crystalized for me, running down the Red Hill Valley Parkway in Hamilton. Watching the flow of runners ahead of me snake down the on-ramp, I notice a paper cup from a recently circumvented water station. Briefly transfixed by its eccentric spin, I observe it pacing me, matching my speed exactly. From motion of the cup and the still air enveloping me, I know I am surfing the wave of a tailwind. Watching the sprawl of fall colours extending downhill, I can tell – this was going to be a hell of a ride.
As I get to start of the Hamilton Half Marathon, I reflect that I’m fortunate to run with such a large and excellent group at Commerce Court Running Room. It’s gratifying to see many familiar faces, most of which I have been running with for a season or more. Hamilton sits in the shadow of bigger, more glamorous races, but the course layout means it’s fast and popular with experienced runners looking to PB or BQ.

The race starts innocently enough, moving along quiet, gently rolling residential streets for the first 5 km. It’s good that nothing much is happening, as I’m very internally focused during those first few kilometers. Not only warming up, but establishing my pace, listening to my body and learning about what sort of day I’m about to have. It’s something I never really figure out until I start running. I could tell by that point, that it’s going to be a decent day. I’m maintaining my goal pace without too much effort.

The course then heads north along the highway. I drove the course the day before, and it’s striking to me how much different the route feels on foot. Everything is slower and magnified. Each incline, crest and bump is much more apparent. At running speeds, there is so much more time to take it in. Heading downhill on the ramp, I can feel the impact on my legs increase exponentially with speed. I consciously shift to a midfoot to toe strike to help alleviate the impact and pick up a more speed. I’m gaining many seconds per kilometre now, banking time that I knew I would need to cash in later.

Legs spinning freely now, I revel at running down this stretch of road. It’s a rare opportunity to enjoy a highway without cars, outside of the zombie apocalypse. This is a treat in the traffic dominated GTA. Th\rough Stoney Creek, I see fans cheering on the overpasses and I wave back, feeding on their motivations.

At 10k, the fun ends and the drama starts. The free ride is over and we are back on the streets of the Hammer. It’s getting harder to maintain the pace, and I dig in to stay in the game. I tell myself it’s too early to be struggling and I straighten up and run as efficiently and smoothly as possible, while staying on pace. This part of the course follows the Around the Bay Race, and I’m glad to finally run it during a sunny fall morning, and not blustery late March. As I cross the dreaded train tracks, I recall not the threat of a freight train impeding my progress, but wonderful, squishy, silent rubber, lining the level crossing. One of the major sensations I feel during the run is texture. Amongst the thud of my footfalls, I can detect the road underneath my shoes. The smooth bits, the cracks, the gravel and the uneven parts. As my feet get worn and increasingly sensitive, the apparent volume of the road gets louder as the distance rolls by.

The last part of the race is along the Hamilton Beach Trail. I have a special disdain for running along my skating haunts – I have my special speedy memories of such locales. Among them, the Hamilton trail is the worst offender; if only because it’s the ultimate skating trail in these parts. I put my head and try to ignore where I am. We are heading south now, into the wind. My pack instincts kick in. I speed up and bridge the gap to the nearest runner ahead me. Instinctively, I opt for a large runner to draft behind. It helps, not only to have someone else break the wind, but to help maintain my pace. I keep a careful watch on his speed, and at first signs of faltering, I latch onto a more suitable candidate.

As the miles draw to a close, I’m in a constant battle with myself as to when to really light the turbos. I usually go too early and peter out soon thereafter. I need to maintain some restraint and really pay attention to how I feel. Eventually, I kick it with about a kilometre to go. All inhibitions gone, I go for broke and plan to leave everything I have on the course. My season ends here. Finally, there is a quick U-turn and the finish line and cheering crew pleasingly snaps into view.

At the finish, my time is nearly two minutes faster than my PB, and five minutes faster than this time last year. Everything came together and I bask in the confluence of the perfect day. The conditions were favourable and I executed my plan as ideally as humanly possible.

I am far from first. I am neither the swift nor the graceful. Physical activities for me, believe it or not, are a struggle, a challenge. These things do not come easily or naturally to me. I have to work hard! On some days, pays off. On some days, the sacrifices are worthwhile.


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