The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October 20, 2013 was my seventh marathon in as many years. Put on by Canada Running Series, the entire event was top-notch with a flat course around Canada’s largest city.
Hugging much of the city’s waterfront, the course is known as a fast, but sometimes windy, race.
But this year, runners couldn’t have asked for more ideal weather. The temperature at the start hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, warming up to 55 later in the day. Clear skies brought plenty of sunshine, and wind was negligible. It was a perfect day to run a marathon.
More than 20,000 runners tackled races at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon: 3,655 runners finished the marathon, 10,094 finished the half-marathon, and 6,493 finished the 5K. Runners came from every Canadian province, more than 40 U.S. states, and 60 countries around the world. I heard runners speaking a myriad of languages, and heard even more end their sentences with, “Eh?” Only in Canada.
Expo and Bib Pick-Up
Bib pick-up at the Running, Health & Fitness Expo was a breeze. The Expo itself had a great array of vendors and booths to entertain both runners and non-runners. While I got my knees taped at the KT Tape booth, my husband and his non-marathoner friends watched a soup demonstration at the Vitamix booth. The result? Said friends are putting a Vitamix on their wedding registry.
With my race kit I got a long-sleeve women’s cut shirt by Brooks and the best personalized bib I’ve ever received at a race. Many races put runners names on bibs. But few have the brilliant idea of making the name much larger than the race number. As a result, I didn’t need to put my name anywhere else on my shirt. I got tons of cheers along the course. This was probably my favorite touch of the entire race.
Finding the baggage area was easy, even for someone with no knowledge of Toronto whatsoever. Street corners all around the start had clearly marked signs pointing the way to baggage and corrals.
Bag drop off was also simple with minimal lines. From there it was just a few blocks to the start. Port-o-potties were plentiful: in the baggage area, on the way to the corrals, and alongside the starting corrals themselves. There were 314 of them at the event, to be exact. I waited behind just one person to use the bathroom 45 minutes before the start. That has to be a new race-morning bathroom line record.
Getting into the corrals was equally easy. They were clearly marked and had plenty of room for all the runners. And the race started perfectly on time, with corrals starting every five minutes.
Best of all, the atmosphere at the start was incredibly festive among both the runners and the spectators. There was definitely a marathon vibe in the air.
I’ve been to Toronto a few times, but didn’t really know what to expect from the course itself. I asked my Torontonian friends what I could expect to see.
“Condos,” they joked.
And they were right. There are indeed plenty of condos along the Toronto waterfront. But we also passed through downtown Toronto, ran beside Lake Ontario, traversed quiet stretches of highway and charming neighborhoods too.
The race’s motto is “Flat. Fast. Festive.” In that respect, the race didn’t disappoint. The course is delightfully flat with only a few teeny, tiny highway overpasses and hills to challenge legs. There really wasn’t anything threatening in the hill department, whatsoever, making Toronto a fast course, indeed.
Twelve neighborhood cheering zones lined the course, and they were certainly festive.
Liberty Village-Queen West had a Brazilian Carnival vibe with samba dancers in feathered showgirl costumes. South Riverdale had a Caribbean steel drum band. Little Asia featured Chinese lion dancers and drums. Cabbagetown-Corktown in the Distillery District had at least 50 kids, if not more, from the Cabbagetown Youth Centre doing high-energy dance routines and cheers. They might have been my favorite. The Beaches easily had the most and the rowdiest spectators, and Greek Town, which won the Neighborhood Challenge last year, was loud as promised. These entertainment zones were probably my favorite part of the course.
But outside the cheering zones I did find the spectator support underwhelming. Of the seven marathons I’ve run in five different cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Walt Disney World, and Toronto—it was definitely the weakest spectator turnout.
That’s not to say the course was empty. Downtown Toronto and the neighborhood known as The Beaches were highlights, with throngs of cheering fans.
However, many stretches of the race go through low-density areas that have no spectators whatsoever. Once the nearly 11,000 half-marathoners turn off to their finish, it’s a lonely road for the 3,700 marathoners. I don’t mean this as a knock on the race at all. It’s just something to note if you’re the kind of runner who thrives on crowd support.
But with a super flat profile and many long straightaways, the course was built for running a personal best. Only one section, which I’ll call “The Gauntlet” between 36K and 40K, proved to have a series of challenging twists and turns. I heard other runners refer to it as “The Maze” and course marshals call it “The Shuttle Run.” When a series of turns is the worst a course throws at you, you know it’s a good one.
With 17 Water and Gatorade stations sitting roughly every 1.5 to 2 miles, I had all the fluids I needed. The stations were packed with volunteers and there was always someone placed well ahead to let runners know Gatorade would be first and water second, or Gatorade on the left and water on the right, whatever the case may be. More than 3,000 volunteers worked the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. They were warm, welcoming and wonderfully Canadian.
Coming back into downtown Toronto brought with it many more spectators to see you into the finish. The last kilometer was packed with people, and I was pleased to find a sign every 100 meters counting down to the finish: 500 meters to go, 400 meters to go, etc. This was a kindness, as the finish itself was just around a corner, out of sight.
Once I got across the finish line, I got a medal, heat sheet and bottle of water right away.
The food was just a few paces further, though I did find the food options rather lackluster. I got a plain bagel and a yogurt. Though the yogurt was actually my favorite brand, Liberte, I would have loved something crunchy too: an apple, pretzels or granola bar.
Where was the Gatorade or juice from race sponsor OASIS, like we received at the expo? I would have sucked down an OASIS juice box like nobody’s business. This was really the only time the race disappointed. It was the only hiccup in an otherwise flawlessly organized event.
The baggage area was a few blocks from the finish, just across Nathan Phillips Square. Within minutes of crossing the finish line, I was in warm clothes with family and friends. Perfect.
I was running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon Media Challenge for the Sarcoma Cancer Foundation of Canada, in memory of my cousin Laura, who died of clear cell sarcoma last year.
I knew going into the race that pulling out a personal best was going to be a tough ask. As I chronicled in my pre-race post, I’d been sick for almost two weeks with a cold that I just couldn’t shake. My husband, Phil, was in even worse shape with a nagging cough that still hasn’t gone away.
The night before the race, we made an emergency stop at a pharmacy as a last-ditch attempt at getting healthy, having used up all our previous medicine. We bought cough suppressant for Phil, nighttime sinus medicine for me, and cough drops for both of us.
Taking a pharmacy’s shelf worth of over-the-counter cough medicine the night before a marathon does not bode well. Nor did the cold, rain that persisted all day Saturday as we ran around the city. I went to bed with a pounding, warm head, sinus pressure and stuffed nose.
I woke feeling OK, and ready to give it my best effort despite the cold. I successfully slept off the headache, so I was feeling optimistic despite still being congested. I sucked on a lozenge as I waited in the starting corral, ready to face Toronto’s waterfront.
I started in the third corral of runners, heading out at 8:55 a.m., checking my watch regularly in those first few kilometers to make sure I kept my pace in check.
It was definitely exciting. Toronto’s streets were packed with spectators cheering us on.
But I managed to keep it cool, and just enjoyed those early miles. I cruised along at an average pace of 9:50. I was thinking of going for 4:15, which is a 9:45 pace. But I really wanted to listen to my body. And mile after mile, I seemed to be locked into a 9:50 pace, so I went with it. My PR of 4:28:06 was a 10:14 pace, so I was still good.
Phil started in the first corral 10 minutes ahead of me. From 7K to 17K, the course is an out-and-back run along Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard. As I headed out, I saw the leaders of the race heading back. So I started hugging the left side of the course, looking for Phil close behind them. He was hoping to run 3:00 at a 6:52 pace per mile. (Yes, he’s waaayyyy faster than me.) His PR is 3:03:36.
Soon enough, I spotted him. We high-fived each other and I shouted, “Right on it!” as we passed. But I felt bad for him. I’d given him a toss-away scarf to wear to the start. He was still wearing the scarf wrapped over his nose and mouth. Once we finished, I found out he wore the scarf the whole darn race.
For my part, I started with a scarf and ditched it after 5K. I kept my gloves on until 25K and almost took my arm warmers off too. But they’re my blue shiny arm warmers and I was getting lots of shout-outs for being so sparkly and bright, which helped, so I kept them on. I also got lots of cheers for New York because of my New York Harriers singlet.
There’s really not much for me to say about those early miles. I got lost in a meditative trance. Exercise is, and has for many years, been how I do my best thinking. It’s the time when I’m able to completely tune out the world around me. I don’t race with music, instead opting to spend the hours alone in my head. And marathons allow for some of the best meditating of all.
As I ran, I dedicated each mile to a different person in my life, both living and gone, Laura and her family among them. And as I ran, I prayed for them, I talked to them, I thought about them.
Before I knew it, someone was tapping me on the shoulder and shouting, “Marathoners that way!” At the 20K mark, half-marathoners broke left to the finish and marathoners broke right.
I was running on the left side of the course, completely lost in a trance. A few runners around me noticed that officials on the side of the road where waving at me and motioning to me to break right. Thankfully, one of them finally managed to get my attention.
I crossed the halfway mark at 21K or 13.1 miles in 2:10:39, at a 9:58 pace. While I was so busy being lost in thought, my pace had flagged just a bit. But I was still in great shape for a PR.
I knew my sister-in-law, Anne, would be near the 25K or 15.5-mile mark, so I concentrated on making it to her. I was just starting to feel the distance, getting warm and feeling my breath become more labored. I struggled to maintain that 10:00 pace.
When I saw Anne, I handed her my gloves and gave her a big hug. I was really happy to see her. She asked me how I felt.
“It’s not as easy as I’d like it to be right now,” I said. “How’s Phil?” I knew she’d have seen him well ahead of me.
“He’s hurting,” she said. “I just saw him at 33K and he was running maybe a 3:16. But I’ll see you around then too!”
And with that, I pushed off again. I frowned knowing that Phil’s PR bid was over. I felt bad for him. I didn’t feel great—my sinuses were blocked and achy, my nose stuffed and runny. But he was in way worse shape with his cough.
Come Mile 16, I was still on pace for my own PR by 6 minutes, holding a 9:59 overall pace per mile. But the next few miles proved to be a struggle. It wasn’t hitting the wall, so much as slowly melting. My legs felt good, but breathing proved difficult. I just couldn’t get air deep in my lungs. My lungs felt shallow and hollow. It was my cold coming back to haunt me. I continued to slow down to Mile 19.
I looked at my watch at the 30K mark, and saw that I had fallen behind pace. I crossed 30K in 3:12:20 at a 10:19 pace per mile. I knew I had no push left in me. Not with the way my lungs felt. There was no way I could have made up the time with seven miles still to go.
I let myself slow to a walk and I mentally called it a day. My PR attempt was over. I’d given it nearly 19 miles, but it wasn’t meant to be. I decided to slow it down for the rest of the race and not kill myself. Once I knew I wouldn’t be PR-ing I really didn’t care if I finished 3 or 30 minutes behind. So I gave myself a generous walk break at every kilometer marker and water station, and jogged between a 10:30 and 11:00 pace the rest of the time.
I saw Anne again after the 33K mark, slowing to a walk when I saw her. My breathing was still really labored. We walked and chatted.
Then I heard my name from behind. It was my blogger friend, Kristi, who I’d met for the first time at the expo the day before. We’d been trading training stories and sharing our journeys all these months, so it was so nice to meet her in person. She was running her first marathon. She looked great and I wished her luck as she passed me.
“I’m sure you’ll catch up to me,” she said.
“I hope not!” I shouted after her.
I started jogging again and Anne stayed with me for a while. It was nice to have the company. She bid me adieu near the 36K mark to find Phil at the finish, while I entered “The Gauntlet.”
It was a twisty, turny out and back and over the river and through the woods maze. I spotted Kristi again near one of the turnarounds. I was heading into the turn and she was coming out of it.
“Come on, Kristi! You’ve got this!” I shouted to her.
“I told you you’d catch up to me,” she said.
“Not yet, I haven’t!” I said. And with that we were past each other.
Runners exited the maze at the 40K mark, and once I saw that, I picked up the pace. I wanted to be finished.
I’m happy to say that I ran the last 2K, and it was my fastest pace of the last 8 miles of the race.
I was so happy to see a sign saying just 500m to go. The crowds picked up and I rode their energy into the finish.
Marathon #7 done.
I finished in 4:49:59, nearly 22 minutes behind my PR. It’s my third fastest of the seven, so at least there’s that.
Phil and Anne found me just as I exited the finisher’s area. Phil finished in 3:29:31, 26 minutes behind his PR. And he was still wearing the scarf I’d given him.
It seems that running a marathon with a cold isn’t the best recipe for PR success. At least we gave it a shot, and listened to our bodies when they told us to stop.
The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon Takeaway
I won’t be ending my marathon-training season with a personal best. I’ll have to hang onto the 5K and 10K PRs from earlier in the year, and take solace in the fact that my last 20-mile training run before I got sick was indeed my fastest 20-miler ever, and on a tough course too. Those will be my wins for the year.
The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon may not have been a PR-course for me, but the event was still a highlight of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed running Canada’s largest city—it’s downtown and waterfront—and heartily recommend this race for anyone looking for a big-city marathon with lots of charm.