After 10km of rolling hills and one very steep climb, I’m left at the top of Hamilton with a clear shot at Copps Coliseum. Passing the 27k marker, I check my watch. 2:42. This race is going to end in 18 minutes; I get to choose whether I’m crossing the finish line or stuck out on the course.
I tell runners to divide a race into thirds. Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart.
– Mike Fanelli
These words especially suit the Around the Bay Road Race. It is loved or loathed by distance runners. At 30k, it’s the either the gateway drug to the full marathon or a reminder to some that they are better suited to flat half marathons. It’s logically broken up into the three sides of the triangle that frames Hamilton Bay. My plan is to run at a steady effort for the first two legs, which for me, 5:45/km pace. Then, I will slow down to 6:00/km for the rolling hills and 5:45 again for the last three flat kilometres.
The first leg runs through the residential streets of Hamilton and on this day, it was unseasonably warm. Not summer-hot, like the previous week, but toasty enough that I’m wondering if I overdressed. The Hamilton leg was very much by-the-numbers and I was able to maintain that 5:45 pace within a few seconds on each kilometre.
The second leg is along Bleach Blvd., underneath the Burlington Skyway. This year, the quaint lakefront homes are oddly punctuated by the smell of bacon. Yes! There was bacon being served on the course! I only wish I noticed during the actual race – I was so focused on the run, I didn’t actually see it, but only heard about it afterwards. ATB is well known for its regular annual roadside attractions. The people griddling up bacon will become part of the epic legend.
After the lift bridge, my pace begins to falter. The effort feels the same, but I’m slowing down to 6:15/km. Then, I start to feel the cramps start to creep along my calves. I needed electrolytes, stat. Apparently, my winter temperatures feeding schedule wasn’t keeping up with my fluid and electrolyte needs on this warm day. Fortunately, I packed a couple of electrolyte tablets in my hydration belt. Unfortunately, they need to be dissolved in water and I only had a half bottle of Gatorade left. I was regretting not learning where all the water stops were on the race. I decided to hang in there and pick up the pace on the hills a bit to avoid losing much more time.
Luckily, I hit the water stop in a few minutes and plunk both tablets into a single bottle (which holds only half the water volume intended for a single tablet). The electrolyte tablets fizz to dissolve quickly, and the quad-concentrated solution starts to react in sync with my stride. The bottle on my belt geysers volcanically with each step. It would have been more comically impressive if I were not losing nutrition, sprayed into my armpit. Despite the fluid pyrotechnics, I’m able to consume most of it and that took care of the muscle cramps.
My hill training over the past month pays off and I’m able to dispatch many runners lacking the cardio and/or pain tolerance to meet the demands of the hills enroute. My pace keeps me in the game, if not actually gaining time. Finally, at kilometre 26, there is Valley Inn Road, the famous hill of ATB, which is a 500m climb at a cardiac-arresting grade. While running up, I noticed that some other were fast-walking and also able to keep a good pace. I decide to modify my strategy and take a couple of short 20 sec. walk breaks to allow my heart rate to recover slightly, allowing me to otherwise continue steaming up the hill at full-tilt. It works – I am shocked when I check post-race and saw my pace was a spritely 6:15/km.
Nonetheless, I’m quite tired by the time I get to the top, and there is a strong temptation to just kick back and cruise to the finish. Or have a nap. But. checking my watch, I see I still have a shot at a sub-3 hour race if I can maintain that magic 6:00/km. On normal runs, this is a fairly relaxed pace for me, but at this point, it feels like I’m running for my life. Nothing is actually wrong with me – my achilles tendon and joints are fine. My muscles are not cramping. My feet are fine, if a bit tender. I have some cardio left. Yet, the sheer exhaustion from the prior effort means that I am running the last 3 km on Sheer. Force. Of. Will.
My body wants to quit and shut down at every moment. But, I know that even the slightest lapse could cost seconds and prevent me from reaching that magic goal. I buckle down and just start running as cleanly and smoothly and as fast as my mind will allow. I am cheered on by good friends along the way to the finish, where I cross the line at 2:59:36. With 24 seconds and 100 metres to spare, I slide in under the 3h mark, taking 2 minutes off my PB.