What a weekend here in Ottawa!
You can’t possibly recap this weekend without talking weather. I long ago decided that I would never plan for Ottawa Race Weekend to be a race to PB in, regardless of distance. Training isn’t an issue for me, I quite like winter running. But in this city we seem to jump directly from winter to summer and often that seasonal change comes right around this race. It takes me forever to acclimatize to hot weather, a few days just doesn’t do it for me. While I don’t plan for PB’s, I do always participate and this year did so in a completely different way; pacing for the marathon.
But first, the weather. After a rather cold spring (the kids and I ran the CHEO 10k three weeks ago in 2C with multiple layers), we were very suddenly hit with a forecast for a heat wave. During the week before the race the predicted temperatures just kept rising. Every time you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. In fact, it ended up being the first 3 day official heat wave in the month of May since 1911. Needless to say panic set in amongst runners everywhere. The only people who were more panicked? The race organizers. What do you do when predicted temperatures are at least 31C/88F with humidex climbing towards 40C/104F? By Friday it became clear that the entire weekend could be cancelled due to concerns for runner safety. The organizers were in a no win situation, anger more than 45 000 runners and cancel or deal with life-threatening heat stroke in potentially record numbers.
In the end, two of the races had their start times changed. The Saturday evening 10k ran half an hour later and the Sunday morning half marathon started 45 minutes early. Unfortunately logistics prevented an earlier start time for the marathon while Saturday’s 2k and 5k times also remained unchanged. Even with the changes there was no guarantee the race would go on and the organizers noted that if necessary the dreaded black flags could go up mid-race and runners could be diverted to the finish.
On Friday during all of this weather related chaos I headed to the expo downtown. ORW has my favourite expo and I admit I never walk away without spending a chunk of cash. Before shopping, however, I was going to be doing a 2 hour shift at the pace bunny table. On my way in I was nabbed by a CBC reporter and immediately asked about what my thoughts were with regards to the race continuing or being cancelled. At that point I was still hoping for an earlier marathon start but also noted that runners had to be sensible and change their goals. Let’s face it, in the end we make the decision as to whether we run and how hard we run. My theory was as long as people took that responsibility seriously all would go well. Of course we all know that runners are not the smartest group after four months of training.
Once in the expo I grabbed my bunny ears, pacer shirt and my sign and then hung out chatting to other runners who visited the both. The two hours flew by and I had a great time talking to lots of excited and nervous runners. It was during this time that I truly realized how much runners appreciate pacers. I actually have never run with a bunny. I usually just find a space of my own and once in a while look around at what bunny is nearby. But wandering around expo wearing those pink ears was an amazing experience. Lots of people want to talk to a bunny and they are all so appreciative of the work done by pacers. There was a little part of me that wanted to spend the whole evening walking around but once I had been there for 4 hours I figured it was probably time to go. Mind you I left only after buying a marathon jacket, a discounted ($10!) long sleeve marathon shirt and 2 pairs of compression socks. I made up for the fact that my entry as a pacer was free!
Saturday I headed downtown again for a 9:00 a.m. friendship run, a tradition at races sponsored by Running Room. John Stanton was there to give everyone advice as to how to deal with the heat and keep safe and then all of the bunnies were introduced. The top three bunnies from last year were awarded golden ears – all of them being less than a second from their goal times. During the run I got to meet twitter friend Tracey who had come from the East Coast with friends for the marathon. It was a 3k easy run along the canal in sweltering heat. It was then I realized that there was no way I would be able to wear the somewhat heavy pace shirt given, this was tank top running weather.
I spent the afternoon eating rice, drinking electrolytes and wearing compression socks.
I opted not to head downtown yet again for the 5k race which Mike and the boys were participating in. All three did phenomenally well given the fact that the 5k race really ended up having the worst conditions of the weekend. Starting at 4:00 the city was
truly baking in temperatures well over 30. The lack of a water station before the 4k mark – something the race has since acknowledged on its Facebook page as something they have to re-evaluate – made the race all the more challenging.
Sunday morning came early when I got up at 4:40 a.m. I was very focussed on making sure I ate at least 2 hours before the 7:00 start. In all that focus I somehow forgot to think about what time I had to leave. In a sudden panic, I realized that in fact I was already late leaving and not even organized! All I could think of was this was my first pace bunny gig and I wasn’t even going to make it to the corral in time. I grabbed everything, flung it all in the car and headed out at speeds I won’t admit. I applied sunblock at red lights. Rather than risk porta potty line ups I hit a virtually empty Tim Hortons. I applied body glide on a side street downtown. Not the smoothest start but I told myself the adrenaline rush would do me good. Yes, that is grasping at straws.
I managed to make it into the corral at about the right time and had the chance to meet many of the people who wanted to start running with me. They were so grateful that this race supplied a 5.5 hour pacer as many races don’t. Given the heat, many runners also wanted to start very conservatively and just enjoy the experience. I told many people to do it for the party rather than the pace.
And what a party it was. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a race experience so much. I loved chatting with the runners following me. In fact it amazed me how quickly you can start to have a “mother hen” feeling for those around you. I wanted so much for each and every runner to have a positive experience. And that is what is the hardest part of pacing; as you go you do lose people – thankfully not to medical emergencies which had certainly worried me with the heat – but just because people have to run their own race and when they decide the pace isn’t right for them they have to adjust. As we were told by the pace team organizer, our job was to pace a time, not a group. But as some people left the group, falling behind or ready to go ahead, others joined and new people were met.
One moment that will always stay in my memory was when we turned the corner at the War Museum. At this point we had merged with half marathons and there was such an energy in the air. There were lots of spectators cheering and as we passed, one of the men in my group kept shouting, “Give it up for the pace bunny!” Talk about feeling like a rock star! (Thank you Francois!!!)
In the back of my mind I was still worried about the possibility of the race being stopped. We started on green flags but somewhere along the route we noticed they had been changed to red. There is only one colour left after red, the black flag indicating that the race would be over. It was only after I got home that I discovered runners in the after 6 hour group were diverted and had to do a shortened course.
Because I was not running my regular pace it is hard for me to judge how bad the heat was. The first couple of hours were under cloud cover and whenever we ran towards the east we would catch a breeze. The race organizers did an amazing job of making sure there was plenty of water and Nuun. The only station that ended up under-supplied was the final sponge station where volunteers apologized that they had no sponges left. There was still the trough of water though and I saw a few runners stop at it to splash themselves. As for me, I for the first time brought my own sponges and started with them under my tank and bra straps. I poured water on them at the first station and kept them wet for the rest of the race. I highly recommend this to anyone running a hot race as I have no doubt the sponges made a difference in my body temperature.
I have to give a massive shout out to the people of Ottawa. Organizers had made an appeal in the news and social media asking for residents on the route to bring out hoses and sprinklers. Letters with the same request were delivered to the homes along the race course. These residents were amazing! There were more hoses and sprinklers than I had ever seen. But they didn’t stop there. Kids were out with water guns, families handed out water bottles – with the lids already off so you could just drink or soak yourself right away. By far my favourite were the young kids handing out freezies somewhere around 36 or 37k. Never has a freezie tasted so good. These people stuck around for the back of the packers and cheered with gusto.
As for being a marathon pace bunny, I would do it again in a second. It was such a great experience on so many levels. I loved talking to the people following me and learning a little about them. Some were running their first marathon, others were just coming back from injuries. There were runners who had made extraordinarily lifestyle changes to make sure they were around for years to come. What a privilege to be part of their marathon experience. The thank you’s they passed on to me in person and even in social media mean more to me than they can imagine. I was incredibly impressed with their determination and will to run in some very tough conditions. We always hear about the Boston Qualifiers, but the people closer to the back are working just as
hard and spend far more time on their feet. I have so much respect for each and every one of them.
I stuck around at the finish line for a while and managed to catch some of the runners who had run part of the course with me cross the finish line. I managed to get a picture with these lovely ladies who ran the whole race with me and then were able to take off at the end to get their sub-5.5 hour time. Amazing!
Ironically I do feel it was me, not those with me, who got the most out of the experience. All I could think of when I finished the race was, “When can I do this again?” Believe it or not the 5 and a half hours flew by and there was a part of me that didn’t want it to end. Needless to say I am very much hoping that I will be part of the pace bunny team again next year. Maybe I will get even closer than 3 seconds to my goal time 🙂