I’ve spent the last few days sugar loading and gluten bingeing, the best way to celebrate a successful race day. I have also managed to find some time to do a couple of runs when I wasn’t stuffing my face or falling asleep. In fact, I am proud to say I did a 4k run the day after the 30k race. Why? Crossing that finish line on Sunday put me at a total of 196 km of running in March. How could I not try to hit 200k for the first time? Another 8k today and I feel like I am ready to get back into training mode. The question at the moment is, do I train for a sub 2 hour half marathon, or go for my second marathon? More on that in another post. For now, a recap of ATB.
I have to say I quite enjoyed the race expo, set up in First Ontario Place. There were lots of vendors and while I had no plans to buy anything, I somehow walked away with a few purchases, including an ATB souvenir shirt. While the expo was packed, there was no line up at all to pick up my race kit. I was anxious to see the shirt and I wasn’t disappointed:
I did have a laugh about the souvenir hat that was put in the kit. The stitching of the 3 in 30k is almost torn out, making it look like I ran a 0k race. I think you call that being a spectator, don’t you?
Race kit and shopping done, I met up with Rod who was kind enough to share advice about the race. While I had read quite a bit about the course, it was nice to hear about it from someone in person. As we were busy chatting, we somehow managed to walk into the public library and set off the beepers at the door. A mild panic – no actually a major panic – set in as we wondered if our timing chips in our race kits had somehow set off the alarms. That of course quickly led to the question, “What if our chips are no longer working?????” We quickly realized that neither of us would sleep that night if we didn’t confirm that our chips were still going to record our times. Off we went back to expo to talk to the Sportstats lady. Once we explained our situation, she looked at us with a knowing look (as in I am quite sure she has had more than a few paranoid runners come back in a panic wondering about their chips) and calmly explained all was well. She did tell us we could scan our chips again just to make sure. Despite the fact she clearly knew what she was talking about, we didn’t hesitate to scan again!
Later in the day I headed out and drove a large portion of the race. I knew this was a plan that could backfire and make me stress even more. In the end though it eased my mind a little. When I drove the hilly area I knew it was totally manageable on its own, it would just be a question of how those hills would feel after 19 km. I even got out and walked the last steep hill. I decided then and there that I would run what I could of it, but walk it when needed. Seriously, this is a steep hill that would be tough in the first part of a race. At km 26 it is quite simply a mountain 🙂
At this stage my main concern was weather. Saturday was cold, grey and WINDY. I checked Enviro Canada and wind gusts were 60km! Keep in mind we were going to be running along Lake Ontario. At that point I had a feeling if anything was going to beat me it would be the wind.
Thankfully Sunday started cold but the sun came out, offering up what for me is perfect running weather; a few degrees above zero and only some wind. Given this brutal winter, it is almost unbelievable that such a perfect day coincided with the race.
I love winter/early spring races that provide an indoor venue to relax in before and after a race. ATB offers this in a big way, using the downtown AHL hockey arena as a place to gather and to cross the finish line. My only complaint is the fact that no bag check was offered. The original reason given was security. However, as many have pointed out, unless you have bag inspections when entering the arena, there is in fact no security whether you have a bag check or not. With no official place to store things, people just left them all over the stadium, hardly a safer alternative. When questioned about the logic on Facebook, the race director said that “only” about 10% of participants used the bag check program, implying the numbers didn’t warrant the service. However 10% would equal well over a thousand runners; that is a large number of people to ignore, particularly since many make their way to the race on public transit. I can’t say I would want to take a GO train into Hamilton all the way from Toronto and then have to return without a change of dry clothes. The other train riders would also probably appreciate the runners being able to change before that trip back! I will be curious to see if the bag check returns next year.
For me the selling point of this race (and the reason I would like to return) is the unique distance and the challenging course. Throw in the fact it is a very early spring race, forcing you to train through winter – even crazy polar vortex winters like this year – makes it an appealing race if you want to push yourself to new goals. All that said, there were elements of the race that I found a little disappointing. I have to admit, I realize I am a little spoiled having participated in Ottawa Race Weekend and Ottawa’s Army Run several times. I am slowly realizing that Ottawa is a hard city to beat in terms of crowd support and scenery. While I did very much appreciate the spectator support in Hamilton (particularly the enthusiastic seniors who pulled out the lawn chairs to watch), it just couldn’t match Ottawa.
When it comes to scenery, ATB just isn’t going to win any awards. I did really enjoy the last 10 km of the race through a lovely residential area of Burlington on the north shore of the harbour. I also enjoyed running across the lift bridge looking out over Lake Ontario. I could even make out in the distance the distinctive Toronto skyline. But, and this has to be said, the first 10km were hands down the ugliest route I have ever run. This part of the route was new this year, a change implemented to ensure that no runners had to stop for a train, which is what happened last year. I am the first to say that given the choice, I will take the ugly route over the stop for a train route so this isn’t really a complaint, just something to note. I have to say I have never run such an industrial route and there were a few times when I did wonder a little what chemicals I was inhaling and if they were in fact negating the health benefits of the run. Let’s face it, any Ontario city at the end of March isn’t going to look its best, but when you wind through an industrial port, well there really is no chance at all of being impressed by the scenery.
Another slight disappointment for me was the start of the race. From where I was I didn’t even hear the start gun, there was no mass countdown and it was only when we started shuffling forward that I realized the race had started. It just seemed a very subdued start for such an anticipated race.
It is worth noting that anyone I have talked to about the new route has said it added difficulty to the course. Apparently the old route was flat, resulting in a good 19km of flat running before the hills. The new route threw in some good sized overpasses, making it anything but flat in the first third of the race. For anyone looking to beat a previous year’s time, an extra challenge had definitely been added. For a newbie like me, it didn’t make a difference since I had nothing to compare to.
The middle 10k section of the route was pretty straight forward, with a little bit of wind to deal with, and some interesting steel grated footing when crossing the lift bridge. By the 19k mark the rolling hills started, a change I actually welcomed as I sometimes find the changes in elevation a good way to change up my running style. and who doesn’t like a good downhill to stretch out and let gravity do its job. I was actually a little surprised that more people weren’t taking advantage of the downhill portions of the course by increasing their pace. I don’t know if they were just trying to save energy or were too tired at that stage to go faster. Personally. I did my best to make up for any time lost by picking up the pace on those nice downhill slopes. This was particularly evident in my 26th km which has a very steep downhill just before that monster hill. My pace for that km actually dropped to a 5:29, definitely the fastest split of my race!
Of course a highlight of the ATB is the infamous Grim Reaper at the 28 km marker. Many people stop to take a picture with him but I knew there was no way I was stopping at this stage for fear I wouldn’t get going again. I did make sure I gave him a high five and then focused on those last two kms of the race. I am going to say they were two very long kms. By the 27km mark you can actually see First Ontario Place in the distance. That sounds nice but psychologically it is tough. Your eyes focus on that building and yet it feels as if it never, ever gets closer. Mentally this was the hardest part of the race for me but also a great challenge. At this stage of the race there was definitely lots of crowd support. I will admit to being rather proud of myself to be passing other runners at this stage and getting my pace back down to a 6:04. Yes, the slight downhill definitely helped!
ATB has a great finish, though don’t count on doing a final big sprint. You have to do a sharp right turn into the building and then run down a steep ramp to get to “ice” level. After 29.9 km, I can say my legs were a little shaky on that ramp! Between that and the narrow finish I didn’t even attempt to add one last burst of speed (burst being relative!)
The finish was very organized. I moved through the food line quickly and headed out of the rink area to pick up my medal. From there the only way out was up. I think I may have said “Thank God!” out loud when I saw escalators leading to the upper levels!
Would I do this race again? Absolutely. In some ways it may not have lived up to all the hype for me, but I loved the distance and the challenge of the hills. I think it is a race that any runner looking at trying longer distances, or training for a spring marathon (this race brings out many Boston Marathon runners) should try. I just wish I knew why there are not more races at this distance. If this distance ever comes to the Ottawa area, I will be there!