I love to travel and I love running, but I might be finally ready to accept that traveling and racing like a boss don’t exactly go well together. I just got back from running a women’s 15k race in Toronto. I signed up for this race because 1) Toronto is close enough to New York City that I could do it in a quick weekend 2) I have a friend in there whom I haven’t seen in years and could catch up with 3) said friend was kind enough to let me stay with him and 4) I’ll admit that I wanted to add another finishers necklace to my collection -this was one of those Nike races where you get the Tiffany necklace in lieu of a medal- and 5) This would be a great way to explore a city.
I left New York on a Friday night directly after my teaching day. I kicked off the weekend with a cocktail and a snack at La Guardia airport. So far so good.
Despite a delay due to stormy weather (Hmmmm, foreshadowing? More on that later.), my friend met me at the Toronto airport. We bused and subway-ed back to his apartment using Toronto’s cute, little transit tokens. We then enjoyed snacks, another cocktail, and a long chat with the glittering downtown skyline and the inky blackness of Lake Ontario in the view from his balcony.
The next day, I slept in knowing I had to make up from the stress of travel and a later night than was ideal. Luckily, the race was on Sunday, so I had all of Saturday to pick up my packet, get a little bit of work done for grad school, and see a slice of the city.
My first stop was a coffee shop in a neighborhood called The Junction that was its own independent (and totally dry!) city within the city until 1909. Later in the day, my friend and I took a streetcar down to the waterfront area, where packet pickup was located. Normally I really dislike the hoopla of the Nike race expos, where they needlessly shuttle you through tent after tent of their marketing, but this one was mercifully uncrowded. I grabbed my race materials in a matter of minutes. From the shore, I could see the ferries shuttling back and forth to the Toronto Islands out about a half mile into the lake, where the race itself would be held. Then, we went on to eclectic Kensington Market for carbs, carbs, and more carbs. Finally, it was early to bed because my ticket for the ferry was at 6:00 am.
I woke up, put on my layers, which included a raincoat for the forecasted rain, and had a quick cab ride down to the ferry. Now, I have no idea how the organizers determined which women got assigned to which ferry on race morning. I only know that I had a 3-hour wait ahead of me from my ferry time until the start of the race. (Grumble, grumble.) Luckily, there were food trucks serving up healthy and delicious breakfasts and coffee on site. In that sense, it paid to be there on one of the first ferries. Also, the Toronto Islands themselves are quite pretty. They are small chain of islands with parks, bike paths, a small residential community, an airport, and an incredible view of Toronto.
After wandering around and trying to nap for a couple of hours, I shed my top layers, dropped off my bag, and grabbed a heat sheet to stand in the corrals. Normally, I don’t grab one of those space blankets, but with the rain from the night before, there was a damp chill in the air. And as I was doing a quick warm-up, the rain started to fall. Whew, was I glad for the protection of that thin layer of plastic. The pre-race announcers remained positive that the rain would clear.
A few minutes before 9:00, a local woman sang the Canadian national anthem, and even though I don’t feel any stirrings of patriotism for the Great White North, I got a little choked up. The pre-race announcements also included introductions and motivation from various Nike VIPs – Olympic athletes, Canada’s current best female marathoner, the first female paralympic to complete the Kona Ironman, and of course Joan Benoit Samuelson. Forget the rain, I was going to be in good company.
After the gun went off and I finally crossed the start, we spent the first mile dodging puddles on the island footpaths. Once we got to the airport runway at about mile 3, the rain had lightened to a drizzle. A few minutes later, with the skyscrapers as our backdrop, the sun poked out, and we had a beautiful, if humid, rest of the race. We ran on terrain from gravel to dirt paths to concrete to footbridges to a boardwalk. The supporters along the course were out in surprising numbers given the location and the weather.
How about my performance? I think the rain at the beginning motivated me to try to get the darn thing over as quickly as possible. I stayed around an 8:15 pace for the first 5k. I dropped to about an 8:30 pace for the next 5k. But by the time I passed the 10k mark, I dropped to a 9 and even 9:30 pace. I was done. Chip time, 1:23:05. I crossed the finish line, still wet and exhausted. The fatigue of my whirlwind weekend was catching up with me. Then, it started to rain again.
I tried to meet up with my friend again at the ferry, but the cell service must have been jammed with the 10,000 runners trying to reach their 10,000 friends and families. We connected again back at his apartment, after shivering through four different modes of transportation: ferry, walking, streetcar, subway.
I cleaned up, packed up, and headed out for a burger and a beer. My friend again accompanied me to the airport, and that was that, Goodbye, Canada! My flight back to JFK was full of other women in the peach-colored race shirts with glittering silver pendants around their necks. Of course I was wearing mine too. Were we crazy for flying back within hours of finishing a 9.3-mile race? The woman behind me in the security line was headed back to Southern California. We, we agreed that, sure, a 15k wasn’t a terrible distance and that the weather was crappy, but that it was overall a good race. (She had had a much later ferry ticket.)
When I got back home on Sunday night, I put my finisher necklace in my jewelry box next to the ones from San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Each of those necklaces reminds me of the places and the journeys. They were all fun trips, but they were all fraught in their own ways – with stress and with a lot of the unknown variables that come with being in unfamiliar cities. Reflecting on this recent performance where I fell short of my expectations, I wonder, should I be surprised that I bonked? I knew what I would be facing when I elected to be in and out of a city in less than 48 hours. I finished. Shouldn’t that be enough to make me happy? Overall, I’d answer yes, and that that was always my first goal. But there’s a little voice in my head that belong to my Type A personality saying I should have been able to hold the pace I’m capable of, no matter what. That why did I just give in? People do this all the time for major marathons or other goal races. Why should I be surprised that this little frivolous race didn’t give me a new PR?
This is the silly back and forth that I’ve been going through for the past week. I know it’s appropriate to set different goals for different races, but it’s still hard to accept that we can’t be our best every single time. And traveling to race brings its own set of humbling conditions that can knock even the most confident racer down a peg. Unless I want to get really Type A about it -limit my socializing, keep a strict bedtime, be vigilant over my food and drink consumption- I have to acknowledge that I won’t be setting any records if I continue combining my love of travel and running.
What’s your experience of destination racing? What goals do you set for those races?