Monday, May 5, 2014

Mississauga Marathon Race Report: Staying Strong

Yesterday morning, Greg and I ran the Mississauga Marathon in Ontario, Canada-- just outside of Toronto.

I chose this race because I wanted to run a later spring marathon due to a hectic work schedule in January and February. I figured I should find one up north with a better chance of cooler temperatures. I had heard about the Mississauga Marathon from one of my friends who lives in Canada who raves about it every year. The elevation profile looked flat, and the first 10 miles were actually a net downhill. And the fact that Toronto is only an hour-long flight made the race even more appealing.

Goals for the Race and Mental Prep
My primary goal for the race was to build on the mindset I had during the Cherry Blossom 10-miler: continue
to push hard when things get tough. Expect for the race to be difficult. Have a plan for staying mentally
positive and pushing through tough times. Be confident in knowing that I will be able to deal with whatever the race throws at me.

I focused heavily on this goal during the two weeks leading up to the marathon. I knew I needed to have a
Cherry Blossom 10-miler
mindset of "I push through and I don't give up." Every day I sit in traffic for 45-60 minutes. And I never get angry or frustrated or annoyed by the traffic. I expect it, accept it, and deal with it. I rarely arrive home in a bad mood because of it. I signed up for this traffic when I took this new job last July and so I have ways of coping with it so I stay relaxed. Similarly, when I sign up for a marathon, or any race for that matter, I should expect that it will be hard and it will hurt. And sometimes it will be a lot harder than I think it "should" be. Regardless, I need to accept it and know exactly how I will deal with it when it happens. I'm not somebody who gets angry at traffic during my commute. And I'm not somebody who gets discouraged when a race throws a curve ball.

So that's where my focus was going into the race. I wasn't hung up on a particular time goal, although I had a range of times that I though was realistic given my fitness level. As I result, I slept better than I ever had in the week leading up to the race. Not only did I get enough hours, but they were quality hours. I woke up feeling completely rested and relaxed, as opposed to practically jumping out of bed like I used to do.

I think it's fair to say that I had very little, if any anxiety about this race. And that's because I felt completely in control. When I used to focus so much on my goal time, it would stress me out because I didn't know if I would get it. There was this huge fear of the unknown. But by focusing on what I could control-- my mental will to stay strong-- I remained as cool as a cucumber.

Before the race ever began I felt like I had achieved so much.

  • The taper didn't feel like something to "survive"-- it was just a normal two weeks. 
  • My sleep was restful and I got enough of it
  • I was injury free: I had felt a hip injury coming on in mid-March, which I staved off through strengthening exercises and religious foam rolling
  • I had come to terms with Boston. Years ago I decided that it was a huge goal of mine. And when I kept missing my qualifying time, it became a monkey on my back. So I changed my attitude toward Boston and I ignored it. I just pretended that it didn't exist and that I wasn't going to let it influence my running at all. But finally, a few days before the race, I realized that I want to run Boston but it doesn't define who I am as a runner or a person. It's just something I'd like to do eventually and the fact that I haven't done it yet doesn't make me any less of a runner. It's not a goal or a dream of mine. But it's also not something that I am ignoring. It's just a race with a qualifying time that I'll run eventually. 
I felt really proud of myself for overcoming so many mental obstacles, that executing the race would just be icing on the cake. 

Before the Race
Greg and I were cutting it close with a flight that was scheduled to land in Toronto at 1:00pm. The expo closed at 5:00pm, so it was a short window of error given customs and potential flight delays. But thankfully, everything went extremely smoothly. The flight was on time. There was literally no line at customs. We got a cab and arrived at the expo at around 2:00. Phew. 

The expo was great. Unlike most races in the U.S. that have stopped giving out real goodie bags, this marathon and expo had plenty of free stuff to give away. And everyone was so nice! Also, the physical ChampionChip was being used instead of a B-tag or D-Tag which was a blast from the past. I have to admit I always preferred the actual chip because it seemed more reliable than a flimsy strip of paper.

One of the volunteers at the expo even drove us back to our hotel! Because the expo was located in a suburban area, we weren't able to get a cab. They tried calling us one, but it never showed up, so a really nice young man personally drove us to the hotel. We were there in time to get several hours worth of rest before going back out for dinner.

Race morning arrived and Greg and I did our pre-race routine: bagels, bathroom, bibs. I had hydrated really well in the week leading up to the race and had been taking Salt Stick Caps to help maintain electrolyte balance. This worked well for me in Chicago so I figured I would do it again. I used to drink G2 and Pedialyte, but I didn't need all the extra "stuff" in those drinks. I just wanted water + electrolytes. No flavor needed. 

I felt really bad for Greg because the iPod that I had charged for him, filled with a playlist that I made for him, was completely dead. I have no idea how it happened, but the newest version of the Shuffle is a piece of junk. I had to read multiple online help articles to figure out how to get a playlist to play in order, and the design is not at all intuitive. I offered him my iPod, but he told me he'd go without music. Also, his Garmin didn't charge overnight because the outlet was broken, so we only had about an hour to charge it, starting from 0 percent. He handled both of these technology failures well and didn't stress about them. We were only able to get his Garmin to 57% before it was time to leave for the start line, but figured that was enough to make sure he could pace the first half properly, which is what is most important.

It was 41 degrees and very windy. We both had throwaway hoodies that we ended up wearing for the first two miles. I knew the wind would be a factor in the race, but I was hopeful that it would primarily be a tailwind. The wind was out of the WNW, and the course was a net east, but there was a lot of back-and-forth running and turns along the way that I was mentally preparing for.

There were no corrals, but the race seemed relatively small so I wasn't worried about crowding. The marathon actually had less than 800 runners. It felt much bigger than that, though, because we started with the half marathoners and there were at least twice as many of those. 

It was pretty cool to hear the Canadian national anthem at the beginning of the race. There were very few Americans in the race and looking at the results afterwards, the majority of the other Americans were from upstate New York. Greg actually grew up in upstate New York and had never even heard of Mississauga until I told him about this race.

Pacing Strategy
The plan was to run the first half in around 1:50-1:51 and the second half in 1:48 or faster. I planned to run the first six miles at a pace of around 8:30-8:35 and then speed up. I had enjoyed a two-minute negative split in Chicago and felt great at the end, so I figured I would try the same approach here. My time goal range was 3:35-3:45.

Miles 1-6
The race was actually measured in kilometers-- 42.2K. It was pretty cool to have kilometer markers instead of mile markers because there were more of them. However, I paced the race based on miles and I had my Garmin to tell me what mile I was on so that I could execute a pacing strategy that I was familiar with.

I decided to listen to music during the race since it worked so well for me during Chicago. In fact, about half of the playlist was an exact repeat of Chicago to bring back those positive memories. I spent these miles taking in the scenery, relaxing and just enjoying the race. I noticed the wind, but the course was relatively sheltered at this point, and the winds weren't as strong as they would be later in the race. About 15 mph during this early portion.

The Mississauga course advertises itself as a net downhill course, which is true, but very deceiving. The net downhill occurs within the first 10 miles and then the rest of the race is rolling hills. My coach always advises runners in the Boston marathon to run the first half very conservatively, despite all of the downhills. I took this advice and tried to restrain myself on the downhills but at the same time, I did want to take advantage of them.

Mile: 1: 8:35
Mile 2: 8:32
Mile 3: 8:16
Mile 4: 8:32
Mile 5: 8:31
Mile 6: 8:20

Miles 7-13
The half marathoners turned off at around mile 8, and the crowd really thinned out. But I preferred it with fewer people because I liked knowing who was in my race. Mile 7 featured a long hill, which I
wasn't expecting. That would be the first of many uphills that you don't really see when looking at the course elevation profile. Typically in races I run an even effort so I slow down on hills, but yesterday I decided to try and keep an even pace, knowing that the hills would be tough, but that I would recover from them. I think my reluctance to push up hills in the past was due to my fear that I would expend too much effort and then blow up. But yesterday I had a great deal of confidence and my goal was to push through the hard stuff. Which meant toughing it out on the hills. Which I didn't really expect many of! 

About 8 miles into it, I realized that I did the "work" of restraining the pace early on that would set me up for a negative split. Most mistakes in the marathon are made within the first 10K, and I felt like I had done a great job of being conservative early on. I ditched my throwaway arm warms and gloves as the sun rose and the temperatures climbed into the upper 40's.

The scenery during this part of the race was really nice. We ran through some residential areas with beautiful houses and I found myself really relishing the experience. Waving to people, smiling, and just feeling a huge sense of happiness. I was carrying a water bottle, which I stopped to refill during mile 10. This took about 30 seconds, which I figured was worth it because it would be my only stop during the whole race. 

Mile 7: 8:48
Mile 8: 8:12
Mile 9: 8:19
Mile 10: 8:42 (re-fill water)
Mile 11: 8:31
Mile 12: 8:26
Mile 13: 8:15

Miles 14-20
I felt amazing during miles 14-17.  I saw people holding Boston signs and I thought to myself "I'm going to Boston!" and this huge excitement swept over me. Everything was great. No stomach issues. No anxiety issues. Legs felt strong. Everything felt wonderful. Okay, yes, there was a tailwind and a downhill. But to feel so great at mile 17 of a marathon was awesome! 

During these three miles, I noticed two runners with marathon bibs running on a path alongside the road
in the opposite direction. I wondered if they dropped out and why they were running the course backwards. And then I saw more runners on that path. And then it hit me-- pretty soon, this nice downhill/tailwind combo would turn into an uphill/headwind combo. That was a scary thought. I put it out of my mind and told myself I would deal with it when I encountered it.

I saw Greg at around mile 16 as he was on his way back and I was wondering how he was coping with going in the other direction. At the turnaround there was a sign that said something like "Sorry-- just a little out and back." That made me smile. I think it was about three miles out and three back. 

I turned around and things started out okay but it wasn't long before the 20 mph headwinds came. I tried drafting, but I found that I was wanted to run faster than the people I could draft off of. I kept passing people instead of drafting. This was both good and bad. Finally, there was a guy in a bright orange windbreaker who I was able to draft off of. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. I didn't feel any relief from the wind by being behind him and his windbreaker. 

This mile 18 was when I started to really push. Unlike with Shamrock, I had no thoughts of "this sucks" or "this is unfair" or "this is so hard" or "there goes my sub-3:40". I didn't think about it. I just ran through it. I didn't even need to tell myself anything mentally. I just kept listening to my music and kept running. My mind was pretty quiet as I just pushed through the wind and up the long hill, passing people one by one. 

Finally, at mile 19, we turned around and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Orange windbreaker guy looked back at me and I smiled.

Mile 14: 8:13
Mile 15: 8:16
Mile 16: 8:22
Mile 17: 8:16
Mile 18: 8:47 (20mph headwind)
Mile 19: 8:24
Mile 20: 8:38

Miles 21-Finish
I did not like how the course was setup during these last miles. There were so many turns and hills and I prefer longer stretches where I can see far out in front of me. Greg later told me that he liked the variation of so many turns and weaving through the area, but for me it was mentally draining to keep having to change direction and from road to path back to road and then path. We ran down by the water,
which was beautiful, but only for about 5 minutes at time before we were routed away from the water and back onto the streets. Because of the continued back and forth, there were a lot of hills, which I wasn't anticipating. And it also meant that we spent a lot of time running into the 22 mph headwind. 

So many people were struggling. I passed people who were walking up the hills and people who were doing the survival shuffle. Orange windbreaker guy stayed strong and I kept him in my sights at all times. Not a single person passed me after mile 17, and I'm very proud of how smart I ran. I glanced down at my Garmin and saw that I had an 8:29 pace average for the race. I was hurting pretty bad and the wind was really taking it out of me bit I did not want that number to slip too much. I had gotten this far with it, and I was going to do whatever it took to hang on. I took my last gel at mile 21 (which ended up having bits of the wrapper in it) and then ditching my water bottle. It felt great to not have that in my hands anymore as I used my arms to push up hills and against the wind.

The last three miles were so mentally exhausting because of all the curves and turns. I just wanted to zone out and run in a straight line. I didn't like not knowing where I would be going. But never did a negative thought enter my mind. I just kept pushing. I was definitely hurting and worn out, but I was going to give 100% and have no regrets.

Even with 0.2 miles to go, I still couldn't see the finish line! But I gunned it anyway, running the last 0.2 miles at a 7:46 pace. They called my name right before I crossed the finish line and it felt amazing!!!

Mile 21: 8:24
Mile 22: 9:10
Mile 23: 8:35
Mile 24: 9:14
Mile 25: 8:44
Mile 26: 8:53

The Finish
I finished in 3:43:44, which is a PR by over 4 minutes! I was thrilled to finally see some major movement on that marathon time. 

This was a much more challenging course than I expected. I thought it was going to be flat during the second
half, but instead it was hilly. I didn't think the 22 mph winds would be headwinds for as much of the
race as they were, but I pushed through. I am super proud of myself for hanging in there, never having negative thoughts and just pushing all the way through to the end. That's what this sport is all about.

I didn't qualify for Boston, which means I will have to wait until 2016 at the earliest, but I am totally cool with that. And hey-- if this was two years ago before they changed the qualifying standards, it would be a BQ. 

I ran the first half in 1:50:58 and the second half in 1:52:46. This is a positive split by less than two minutes, which by some schools of thought, is actually the ideal amount of fade at the end. I had been trying to negative split, of course, but I will certainly take this.  The second half of the race was windy and hilly, whereas the first half of the race was a net downhill and the winds had very little impact. I looked at the half marathon splits of those who finished around me, and most of them ran the first half significantly faster than I did. Some as fast as 1:40. It was an easy day for a bonk, which I did not do!

My major takeaway is that I am finally at a place with my marathoning where I am feeling confident and relaxed going into the races and not afraid to face wind, hills, or heat. 

Up next: The Columbus Marathon in October.  



  1. Congratulations on your marathon! You did a great job and that's an amazing time, your splits were great too. And it's so cool that you did a race in Canada, another country, with kilometer markers instead of miles (that would also throw me off but I agree, it would be cool). Sometimes I think not stressing and being mentally prepared is way harder than being physically prepared, but also way more important- especially in a really long race like a marathon where you have more time to think (a 5K, you don't think, you just move. Fast). Great job and hopefully someday you can qualify for Boston... a 4 min. PR is definitely amazing at your speed too!

  2. Congrats on your marathon! Fabulous result! Found your blog searching for other Mississauga marathon race reports - that wind was absolutely brutal. And if you aren't familiar with the back half of the course the elevation profile is definitely deceptive. Those hills are really tougher than they should be.

  3. Congrats on your huge PR! That is awesome! I'm finally finding my mental game too in the marathon. My times haven't shown it yet, but I'm dealing with the mental setbacks so much differently now. It makes the process so much less stressful.

  4. Congratulations on a great race and a huge PR. I've run Mississauga 4 times and I agree, the last few miles are rough. Not sure why but they are. Nice work out there in tough conditions.

  5. Congrats on your awesome race a PR. You talk so casually about the winds when to me they were the WORST EVER!!! LOL. This is the only marathon course I've run (three times now) and I agree that the twists and turns and rollers at the end SUCK. I also need a 3:40 for Boston until fall 2016 and I'm determined to get it as well!

  6. Wow! I'm really proud of you! Your head is in such a good place, actually I think I'm jealous of your head! :) The fact that you didn't let the wind bother you is huge! Wind just sucks the mojo right out of me. Awesome! Congrats on your PR! This was your day!

  7. Congrats on your marathon and PR! You deserved it :-)