Ottawa Marathon Recap

I did it – I ran my second marathon!

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I chose the Ottawa Marathon for several reasons, one of which was that the average temperature was 60 degrees in late May. I figured the late date would allow me to train for a spring marathon without doing super long runs in the winter, and still run a moderately cool race. The race was on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend which allowed me to make the long drive up to Canada and back without missing much work. Plus, I liked the idea of running an international marathon.

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I had trained very hard for this race and set an ambitious goal of finishing under 4 hours. I ran my previous marathon (NYC 2014) in 4:34:40. Sub-4 would be a big jump but Ottawa was a mostly flat course and wouldn’t be nearly as windy (NYC 2014 was the year of the 40mph headwinds!) and my recent PR at the NYC Half in March indicated that a sub-4 marathon was within reach.

(I trained using the NYRR Virtual Trainer online program that my friend who works at NYRR designs and coaches. I loved the flexibility of the plan and that it was tailored to my goals and current fitness level; it even adjusted my paces and predicted finish time when I set a new PR at the NYC Half. I would highly recommend it – totally unsolicited review.)

Unfortunately, the weather forecast kept getting worse as race day approached. When I checked the Ottawa forecast two weeks before race day, the current forecast showed a frost warning, but an unseasonable heat wave was hitting the region on race weekend and temperatures were expected to reach the high 80s on race day. I took extra measures to prepare. In addition to carb-loading for the race, I made sure to take in a lot more salt than I normally would before a marathon. I even bought electrolyte-enhanced salt tablets and had one on Saturday morning with breakfast. I carried them with me during the race but didn’t end up taking any. I also drank Nuun and Gatorade in the two days leading up to the race so that I would be fully hydrated.

On Friday morning, before embarking on the long drive north, we received an email from the race director warning about the extreme heat and saying that while they were taking extra precautions, there was a possibility of the race getting cancelled altogether because of unsafe conditions. When I read that email, I cried. Maybe it was the taper and race nerves messing with my emotions, but I was heartbroken that at the very best, my goal time was out the window, and at the worst, I wouldn’t even get a chance to run this race that I had trained so hard for. I knew rationally that race times are just numbers that don’t define us, but all the same it was hard to let go of my time goal.
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Luckily, the race went on as scheduled, and we visited the expo on Saturday afternoon when we arrived in Ottawa. They moved the half marathon (which my mother was running) from a 9am start time to 8:15am, but the marathon start remained 7am. I went into it determined to run a strong race and not end up in the medical tent. I had let go of trying for a sub-4 but I was still hoping to PR. I also made the slightly unnerving decision to leave my singlet in my checked bag and run in just my sports bra. That’s not something I ever do, and I wanted to represent my running group, but I wanted to wear as little clothing as possible in the heat.It was a good decision, because I poured so much water over my head at water stops, squeezed sponges over my head, and ran through so many sprinklers that my clothes were soaked for most of the race. I figured I wouldn’t love my race pictures, but anything was better than overheating!

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We drove around for a while after dinner looking for a place to buy sunscreen on Saturday night (I had forgotten to buy it earlier but knew I would need it for the race…oops!) and caught part of the Ottawa 10K along the Rideau Canal at sunset. It was so hot that it was hard to imagine that in the winter, this canal becomes officially the world’s largest skating rink!

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I got a good night of sleep on Friday night, so I wasn’t too concerned that I only got about 6 hours of sleep on Saturday night. I woke up at the very early hour of 4:30am on Sunday morning and ate a cinnamon raisin bagel with honey peanut butter and banana (with extra salt), as well as a shot of espresso with almond milk. I left our Airbnb just after 6am to do the 1 mile walk to the start.

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On my walk to the start line, a Canadian policeman said to me, “Good luck, eh?” so I knew it was going to be a good day. I found my friend from NYC, Rachel, who was also running the marathon, in our corral. It was nice to have a friend to talk to; it really helped distract me from my nerves! I had carried a frozen bottle of water with me to the start and had a salted caramel Gu about 20 minutes before we started running. (In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t do this again; I think it was too much fuel in my stomach too early in the race because I got a cramp around Mile 2.)

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When we started running at 7am, it was cloudy and in the mid-60s, and felt quite pleasant. I cursed myself for having to take a quick porta-potty stop at Mile 7 (I guess I drank a little too much that morning, even though I had tried to limit myself to just a few sips of water and coffee…oops!) but I was in and out in under a minute. The first half of the race continued to be cloudy, and although it was getting warmer, I still felt comfortable. I drank Nuun at every water stop (Nuun was served instead of Gatorade) and also grabbed a cup of water to pour over my head at every stop. Before the marathon, the race director had sent out a plea to local residents along the course to set up sprinklers for runners, and those definitely saved my race!

For the two days after the race, when I would pass a lawn sprinkler in Ottawa or in upstate New York on our way home, I would have a reflexive reaction to run through it and then laugh at myself a split second later. It was almost like I had been through a battle and my body knew instinctively that lawn sprinklers were the only way to survive.

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The course itself is mostly a blur in my mind, but I know that we ran through the city center, along the canals, through parks and wooded areas, and through several suburbs. We also crossed the Ottawa River into Quebec which was fun, and on the way back got a great view of the beautiful Parliament buildings, one of which looks like a European castle. Half of the spectators were cheering in French and since my name was printed on my bib, it was fun to hear my name pronounced correctly with a French accent! The race had three sponge stations in the second half, which were great, and they also handed out orange slices. At two points spectators handed out frozen ice pops and the sugary ice tasted like pieces of heaven. It cooled me down significantly for a bit. I even grabbed a watermelon slice someone was handing out along the way. I had also made sure to pick flavors of gels and chews with extra sodium (salted caramel and chocolate peanut butter Gu, margarita shotbloks) which was helpful.

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I sped up a little after the second half of the race, but I still wanted to run cautiously. The forecast for 10-11am (which would be my final hour of the race) had said it would feel like above 80 degrees, so although it was still cloudy, there didn’t seem to be any shade along the course. I didn’t want to have a rough final 10K if the sun came out. After Mile 16, I still felt great but reminded myself that there were still 10 miles to go. At this point I knew that I was on track for a PR unless I hit a wall, and I told myself I didn’t need to speed up but just needed to maintain my current pace. You never know how you’re going to feel in the last 5K or even 10K of a marathon, so I didn’t want to push it to the pain place just yet.

The sun finally came out at Mile 21 and the race got exponentially harder. I felt very lucky to have had shade up until that point, and I knew this last stretch would be the true test. I ran through every single sprinkler and poured one or two cups of water over my head at water stations to make sure my hair stayed wet for as long as possible. My sneakers and socks were completely soaked and my headphones started to short-circuit from being water-logged. My quads started hurting intermittently around Mile 23 but by then I could start telling myself that there was less than a 5K left and to just hold on to this pace. Around this time I had a vague realization that I might finish close to the 4 hour mark, a lot closer than I had anticipated, but couldn’t really calculate how close because the race was marked in kilometers, not miles. By that point I didn’t really care about the time on the clock as much as I cared about finishing strong and as soon as possible, so that I could stop running.

The pain place

The pain place

In Mile 24 I started passing a lot of people and that was definitely a boost. Spectators lined the city streets in the final two miles (we had joined up with the half marathon runners by this point), and their cheers helped push me on. Somewhere around Mile 24 one of my headphone earbuds died (from all the water I’d poured on my head) and the other one went down to a very low volume. I was determined not to let it faze me but kept fiddling with it for the rest of the race to try to get the music louder, and lost an earring (which I had forgotten to take off that morning) in the process.

I knew my dad would be cheering right by the 40K sign, so I was looking forward to seeing him right near the end. After that, I had just over a mile to go, so I tried to run faster and give it all that I had left.

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My watch showed that I would be very close to 4 hours, although I couldn’t calculate how close. My final mile, according to my watch splits, was my fastest!

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I crossed the finish line in 4:02:44, which was a 32-minute PR. I also ran a negative split (the second half of the course faster than the first) by 45 seconds!

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I won’t deny that I was a bit disappointed that I had been so close to running under 4 hours but didn’t quite make it. If I had known how close I was, maybe I could have pushed a little harder in the beginning of the race. But there was no way of knowing the sun wouldn’t come out until Mile 21, and if I had pushed harder earlier in the race I might not have felt as strong at the end, and might have hit a wall, which I never did.

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I had done what I set out to do – run a strong race, and PR if I could – and had enjoyed almost every step of the way. I know that a finish time doesn’t define me, but it’s so hard not to fall into that number trap. It was a very hot day, and at some point race officials re-routed marathoners behind me so that they only ran a 20-mile course instead of 26, because conditions had become unsafe for them to continue running, so I am lucky that I was even allowed to finish all 26.2 miles. The high for the day ended up being 32.5 C, or 90 F for us Americans.

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After hobbling through the post-finish area, I found my mom after she finished the half marathon and we got a photo with a Canadian Mountie:

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Now, several days after the marathon, I’ve let go of any disappointment in my finish time and am very proud of the race I ran. Ultimately, we do this for fun (or something like that) so my real goal was to enjoy myself and reap the rewards of my hard months of training.

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After the race, I enjoyed a big burger with poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds, a Canadian specialty) and a sampler of local beers.

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In the evening (post-nap!) we took a walk along the Rideau Canal and went to get ice cream. I had maple gelato – it was delicious!

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Frutti di bosco and maple gelato

The next morning we visited the Parliament buildings before leaving Ottawa. The skyline was on my medal so I had to check them out!

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I’d definitely recommend Ottawa as a beautiful city to visit and a great marathon course…just try to avoid a year when there’s a heat wave!

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Hottawa is right!

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Ottawa Marathon Training:
Week 1 – Long Weekend in Norway (25 miles)
Week 2 – Back to NYC (23.5 miles)
Week 3 – I Just Bought a One-Way Ticket to London! (27 miles)
Week 4 – Bow-Ties with Tomato, Basil, and Avocado Sauce Recipe (30 miles)
Week 5 – Spring is Here! (26 miles)
Week 6 – NYC Half (22 miles)
Week 7 – From PR to PR (21 miles)
Week 8 – April Showers (34 miles)
Week 9 – Oops…I Registered for Another Marathon (35 miles)
Week 10 – The Power of Running Buddies (27 miles)
Week 11 – To The Lighthouse! (37 miles)
Week 12 – One Month Countdown Begins! (25 miles)
Week 13 – It’s Taper Time! (39 miles)
Week 14 – Birthday Week (26 miles)
Week 15 – It’s the Final Countdown (24 miles)
Week 16 – Race Goals and Tracking (11 + 26.2)

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