From the Archives: 2018 Race #1: Road2Hope Hamilton Marathon, Hamilton, ON

  • Date: November 4, 2018
  • Gun Time: 4:05:51
  • Chip Time: 4:05:27
  • Placing Overall: 465th out of 765
  • Placing in Age Group: 53rd out of 78 (M40-44)
  • Theme Song: “Never Going Back Again“, Fleetwood Mac

Well, they say that when you run your first marathon, your goal should be simply to finish. So, I guess I did that. Barely.

It’s time to talk about the, um, difficult time that I had when I finally, after almost 4 years of trying, laced ’em up and set out to do 26.2. As I alluded to before, I had some difficulties with training for this race, and ended up at the start line undertrained. Let me say first of all that I do NOT recommend this. In retrospect, I should have bailed and done the half. I just couldn’t face doing that again. So, I found myself nervously anticipating the start gun on a very cool but clear morning at a pavilion in the boonies outside the city, hanging with my friend and training partner Michael. Conditions looked to be pretty good – temperature around freezing, sunny, and not a whole lot of wind.

Now, the Hamilton Marathon bills itself as the #1 Boston Marathon qualifier in Canada, for the primary reason that it starts up on a higher elevation plateau above Lake Ontario and descends to the lake shore, which makes the run a net downhill. (Apparently this will no longer be the case as of this year’s race, as they’ve changed the route from a point-to-point to a loop.) I can tell you that there is a relatively long downhill section, run on Hamilton’s Red Hill Expressway, but the race does not really feel like a downhill. At the time, though, I felt like I’d be able to handle the race even on my abbreviated training schedule, and I had caffeinated and non-caffeinated gels on board for my run, as well as doing the usual nipple taping, vaseline-ing, and all that stuff.

So, I was targeting a 3:45 finish as we set off, and at first things were OK. I was rolling along at about a 5:30/km pace along the dirt roads and past the farmers’ fields outside the city. I used my first gel at about mile 6, with the plan to save the caffeinated ones for an extra kick later in the race. The critical mistake, though, was not bringing additional electrolytes. I didn’t think I would need them as it was quite cool out and I didn’t expect to lose a lot. How wrong I was.

So, things seemed to be going according to plan as I hit the 10K mark at around 56 minutes and the half-marathon mark at about 1:50. This was the point at which the course started to turn downhill to the lake. Good, I thought – I can just coast downhill and have good momentum heading into the last, flat 12K of the race. But there was a problem. Actually, a couple of them. First, a stiff wind was blowing in our faces coming off the lake, so not a lot was really gained by me by the downhill. And also, I was starting to get tired already. It was clear that the lack of training was starting to take its toll. But, I soldiered on gamely, and got to the bottom of the hill and the 30K mark still within reach of my 3:45 goal.

That’s when things started to get gnarly.

There were a couple of small uphill rises and we headed over a bridge, and I was finding that my legs were pretty much jelly. I could tell I was starting to slow down considerably, and a lot of people were starting to pass me. This was probably me starting to hit the wall, but things got worse. In the sun, I had lost more fluids and electrolytes than I thought, and the cramping that I had with my last long training run (outlined in my last post) was back with a vengeance. And I still had 12K to go. I’m not talking about little cramps here. This was full on seizure of my quads that made me look like I was trying to run on the world’s smallest pair of stilts. So, I was forced to run 200-300 meters, cramp, stop, walk it off for 3-4 minutes, then repeat.

For over an hour.

I tried to take some water at a water station, but it didn’t really help, as the problem was obviously sodium/potassium loss. I also wanted to stop about 50 times. But I didn’t. I was seeing my odds of a sub-4:00 marathon slowly slipping away, but I was still holding out hope (as I mentioned, at the time I didn’t run with a timing device, so I wasn’t sure). The stretch coming back along the lake seemed brutally interminable, and I got passed by a guy running in a giant bunny costume, for fuck’s sake. I could see as I approached the finish line I wasn’t going to get under 4 hours, but I performed with enough grit that I wasn’t that far over, which I guess is something, and I was faster than the average time posted by male US runners in the marathon the previous year (4:18) so I guess that’s something. But I was still pretty disappointed.

They had cups of chicken soup being offered at the finish line and I think I guzzled about 12 to put the sodium back. The cramps were still seizing up my legs and I could not sit down. Which was a problem, since I had to drive 40 minutes home. I managed to massage my legs to the point where I could at least get in my car, but every attempt to press the pedals sent me into spasms of pain. I actually called my brother and told him I might need an emergency pickup, but at some point things subsided enough for me to be able to drive. The next problem, it transpired, was getting home and realizing… I couldn’t get out of the car. I eventually solved this by sort of rolling out the door, getting to my hands and knees, and crawling into my house.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the next couple of days, but suffice it to say that I was really worried that I had rhabdomyolysis (I didn’t) and I couldn’t climb the stairs to my bedroom, so I had to sleep on the couch. Overall, it was a pretty miserable experience, and I doubt I’ll ever do it again. It was no doubt the hardest bucket list item I’ll ever do, but it’s done. I’m happy to stick to the shorter races which I actually find fun, and not have to do a training regimen that’s like having another part-time job. Kudos to you all who do this on a regular basis, but I suspect you are built differently from me. I’ll leave it to you.

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