Chafing the dream – Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (#STWM), 2015 race recap

I have been beaming since running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (#STWM) on Sunday. It was my second full marathon. I’ve run #STWM for the past two years. It was my first full in 2013 and last year I did the half. What a difference two years make. Caution: This post is very long…just like a marathon.

Mei after marathon #2.

Me after marathon #2.

Friendship Run and Race Expo

friendship run group pic

A group picture at the Friendship Run. Photo by Canada Running Series.

John Stanton and Alan Brookes at the 3k Friendship Run.

John Stanton and Alan Brookes at the 3k Friendship Run. This is the first time that I’ve made it to the run.

On Saturday, Dan and I headed to the expo to pick up my race kit and participate in the 3k Friendship Run. The run opened with a few inspiring words from Canada Running Series Race Director Alan Brookes, Running Room founder John Stanton and Canadian elite marathoner Krista Duchene. I ended up running with my training buddy Nanlee and we both marvelled at the perfect weather conditions. I hoped that it would carry into race day.On my way out I ran into Dawn, a digital champion who has a stress fracture. Even though she couldn’t run the race anymore (she was in a boot when I saw her) she still took the time to come to the expo to say hello and support other digital champions.

Mei with her race bib at the expo.

My annual picture with my race bib.

Race Day!

Flat Mei's race day outfit.

“Flat Mei” I spent a lot of time thinking about my race day clothing due to the drastic change in weather. It was over 20 degrees celsius the week before. For race day they were calling for 1 degree celsius feels like -2. I concentrated so hard on the individual pieces in my race clothes that I didn’t think about how colourful it all was. Dan said he liked it because it made me easier to find.

On race day Nanlee and her husband Dave met us at our condo and we walked over to the Sheraton Hotel together. I felt strangely relaxed. We met our running group in the lobby of the hotel, which was full of runners trying to stay warm and taking advantage of the washrooms.

Beaches Running Room group before the race

A group picture with my Beaches Running Room group before the race. Half of our group ran Chicago the week before so they were volunteering as course marshals.

I also tried to meet up with Kevin (aka Sexy Chad) but in all of the chaos didn’t hear my phone and didn’t see him. Leading up to the race my clinic instructor Olivia had asked me what my race plan was. I told her “First half – have fun. Second half – survive.” I also had two other major strategies. One was to draw as much energy and excitement that I could from the crowd and other runners. The other was to draw energy from my music in the latter half of the race.

The green corral shortly before the race.

View from the green corral.

I joined the green corral with Nanlee and our other training friends Brian and Dara. We huddled together, took a quick selfie, laughed at the piles of throwaway clothes people were leaving on the fence and before we knew it, we were off. The four of us started together, but within two kilometres we lost Nanlee. She was on fire and took off. None of us had really planned on running together but decided to start together and see what happened. The first few kilometres are a blur. I remember getting to Bloor and Bathurst and realizing that I had totally zoned out and missed seeing the ROM! I don’t know how you can miss noticing a big building, which is a landmark, but this time I didn’t see it. As we headed down Bathurst we reminisced about how far away it had seemed during our long runs. As we reached Fort York Boulevard Brian asked us “Is there a new episode of The Walking Dead on tonight?” Dara and I couldn’t stop laughing. Here we were running a marathon and he was asking about The Walking Dead. It was one of my favourite moments in the race.

selfie in the corral

Brian took this selfie of the four of us waiting in the green corral. (Photo by Brian)

Shake It Off

As we started on Lakeshore we could see the elite runners coming back. I could see Canadian runners Eric Gillis and Lanni Marchant, who were both running to qualify for the Olympics. They were amazing! Swift, fluid and moving like gazelles. The spectator signs we saw along the way were hilarious. Our favourites included “Chafing the Dream” and “If marathons were easy they would be your mom” (we saw this sign three times along the half course). At one point Brian’s shoelace came undone and he had to stop to tie it. It happened in almost the exact same spot where my shoelace undid in 2013! What a strange coincidence. Brian and Dara stopped at the water stations while my plan was to run through them and only use what I was carrying unless I ran out. Because of this, I sometimes ended up running ahead alone. I always knew (and hoped) that they would catch up to me, based on how well they ran (often outrunning me) in training.

STWM is known for being fast and flat, but there are still a few small inclines. As we approached the 12k point I heard a runner from Manitoba and a runner from Halifax debate over whether or not this course was “flat.” I guess it really is all about perspective. When we were approximately 16k in I looked over to the other side and saw a runner decked out from head to toe in purple. It was my friend Karen who raised money for the Alzheimer’s Society! I think her initial goal was $500 and for every person who donated after she reached her goal, she added another piece of purple to her race day outfit. She told me before the race that she was now aiming to raise $2,000. I screamed her name and she waved back and informed me that she had exceeded her goal (she ended up raising $2,160). I was really excited to hear that and so proud of her!

This year, #STWM used the RTRT.me app for runner tracking. It showed our pace based and expected finishing times based on when we crossed the timing mats. At about 17k Brian got a text saying “Let the Kenyans go!” I guess we were going faster than expected.

We were keeping pace with a group of runners that had “Run like a Queen” on their shirts. We hoped that they were also running the marathon (they were running the half, so unfortunately we couldn’t follow them in the second half). As we were getting closer to the halfway point a woman ran next to me and Brian said “Beaches runner!” and I looked and it was Christine, who I’ve done some training runs with. I yelled her name and we ran together for a few minutes, talked about how our training had gone in the past few weeks, how our races were going, and then wished each other luck. After that I let her go again (she’s faster than me).

When we reached the dreaded halfway point (very clearly marked for the half marathon and the marathon) we started cheering for the half marathoners and saying “Go finish it! You’ve got this!” and they started cheering back at us. A man was dressed in a full bunny outfit and walking along the sidelines. Dara told him she liked his outfit and they high fived. I could feel all of the energy and felt amazing.

A little after the split, I saw Dan and Dave spectating. Dan had my jacket in case it was too cold and he asked if I needed it and I said no. The weather was actually warmer than expected. I asked how far ahead Nanlee was and they said she was a few minutes ahead. We crossed at about 2:11:24. Last year when I ran the half in 2:28 I couldn’t even dream of running a half in 2:11. Now this year, having PB’d at my last three half marathons, this pace felt easy to me. It was amazing to think about. Just after the halfway point it got cloudy and cool again. The dark clouds were ominous but we continued to run.

Don’t Stop Believing

Brian, me and Dara running STWM. I'm so glad the photographer got a picture of us.

Brian, me and Dara running STWM. I’m so glad the photographer got a picture of us.

Running with Brian and Dara was a lot of fun and our conversations kept my mind off of running. It almost felt like a training run at race pace. As we ran under the underpass between 22 and 23 km one of the volunteers had a whistle that sounded like a train whistle. We couldn’t stop laughing at it as we ran past him. At this point my watch went crazy and told me that I had run a kilometre in 4 minutes. I knew it hadn’t been a kilometre so after that I had to guess at my approximate pace. I saw Allison and Karyn on different parts of the race course and cheered to them and they cheered back. It was uplifting. I also saw someone dressed as Oscar the Grouch (holding their fabric garbage can up). I’m always amazed at the types of costumes people can run a marathon in. The next part of the race took us on an out and back section on Bayview. They had changed the route since 2013 and it was better now. In 2013 I had to run to the Beaches, run back and then do the out and back on Bayview, which was kilometres 36-38, before heading back into the downtown core to the finish line. That sucked. This time we hit the out and back on Bayview first, then ran to the Beaches, and then ran back. This route was much better for me mentally.

Thunderstruck

On Bayview we turned around partway through the 24th km. As we came around Brian reminded us to do the “Edwing” and we all bent our right arms like Edwin Encarnacion as we ran around the turn. It was hilarious. I also saw Kevin and we cheered for each other. We saw the store manager for our Running Room and started screaming her name. She was walking and looked like she was having a rough time. We caught up to her and cheered for her some more and she ran with us for a little bit. We talked about some of the Guiness Book World Records that people were trying to break that day (fastest half marathon by a man wearing a suit, fastest half marathon by a woman in an animal costume, fastest marathon by a woman wearing a gas mask, fastest marathon by a man dribbling two basketballs). Then the manager was gone (back to walking again). We found out later that she still powered through and finished the race.

Mei being silly while running.

They didn’t get a picture of me doing the “Edwing” but this one is kind of close. I don’t know what I’m doing here. lol

After this stretch on Bayview we headed across the bridge towards The Beaches. This was the steepest part of the race and we kept saying “This is nothing! I used to run on Scarborough Road!”  At this point it was noon and Brian joked about stopping for brunch at Lady Marmalade. I also remember him saying “I’m so glad that I didn’t just feel that drop of rain hit me just now.” to which I replied with “There is no spoon.” Thankfully it didn’t rain. We saw more runners coming back across who were in the red corral (the fastest corral). They all looked rough as they headed to the 40th kilometre. I saw Andrew who I met via Instagram and later in real life (he’s a Community Leader for Canada Running Series) and we waved and cheered for each other. We saw Olivia fly by in her pursuit for a Boston qualifying time. She was so focused that she didn’t hear our screams. She ended up BQ-ing by over 10 minutes!

Fight Song

At 28k we were on Lakeshore and heading to The Beaches. This was a familiar stretch that we were very comfortable with. We ran past a man dressed in a pink tutu and Dara cheered for him saying “Hey Batman! Way to go! Awesome outfit!” They high fived as we ran by. We also cheered for somebody dressed as the Blue Jays mascot Ace. My watch also started flashing the low battery warning. I have a Garmin Forerunner 15 and it’s supposed to last up to 8 hours with the GPS function on. While I had fully charged it the night before, I had some issues finding satellite signals at the start line (a combination of a being in a new location for my watch, in the downtown core where the buildings interfere with the signal and probably being surrounded by thousands of other runners doing the exact same thing). Because of this it had drained one bar of battery before I even started the race. I ignored the warning and hoped for the best.

As I got closer to the 30k mark I felt so many mixed emotions. I had dreamt of this moment during my training runs and now I was actually doing it. We crossed the 30k mark at 3:09:54 and then we were on the last tough stretch. 30k is the sweet spot for me in a marathon. After that point the rest of the race feels like soul crushing destruction. My thoughts started alternating between “Marathons are hard”, “We have a long way to go” and “Best day ever!” There were so many mixed feelings and these three thoughts would stay with me for the rest of the race.

Chariots of Fire

One of the houses was blasting the Chariots of Fire song as we came up Woodbine and approached 31k. We started screaming and cheering. At this point Brian walked for a bit and told us to go on ahead of him. He seemed ok so we kept going. I was so excited to run on Queen East. This was my running turf and I couldn’t wait to see my friends, who are members of the Beaches Runners Club, volunteering as course marshals. At close to 32k I saw a big sign that said “Nanlee!” on it and then I realized that Nanlee was there! She told me later that she hadn’t fuelled properly and that her friend gave her a banana. Dara and I screamed her name and Nanlee joined us. Then Dara, who had friends and family waiting along Queen told us that she was going to run ahead. Once again it was me and Nanlee and it felt just like our training runs. As we ran past 32k we saw Dave and Jose and they cheered for us. We also ran past The Running Room, which was decorated in signs with our names on them. I was touched.

Beaches Running Room store

The Beaches Running Room store was covered in signs congratulating and cheering on their runners (including me!). Photo courtesy of Beaches Running Room.

We also saw Christine, Mark and Isabelle cheering for us along the course. We hit the turnaround and started heading back. We saw Ginny, Cathy, Sam, Jose (he had crossed the street), Susan and Maureen along the way and they all cheered for us. I felt like my heart was ready to burst with happiness and gratitude. It meant so much to have their support during these difficult kilometres.

Mei and Nanlee at the final out and back section in The Beaches.

Nanlee and I running just beyond the 32k mark in The Beaches.

Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat

After 34k we headed back down Woodbine and back along Lakeshore. “Only 8k to go!” Nanlee said. “We’ve got this!” I announced, though in my mind I knew we still had a long way to go. Right before 35k I started getting a bunch of text messages, which made my music stop and start. I really needed my music at this point because this was the hardest part of the marathon, with barely any spectators around, so I did something that I never do; I pulled my phone out and texted back. It turned out it was Arlene! She was telling me how great I was doing and what my pace was. I was happy to hear from her but also let her know that her texts were making my music stop and start. After that I put my phone away and continued. “Only 7k to go!” said Nanlee. “We’ve got this!” I responded. Though again, in my mind, I was screaming “Marathons are hard! We’ve got a long way to go!”

Carry On

We continued in silence in our run across Lakeshore. Again, it almost felt like a training run. I would get a surge of energy, push ahead a little and then feel tired again and slow down. Then Nanlee would surge ahead and I would pick up the pace to keep up and then she would slow down. And it continued. Nanlee later told me that I pulled her through this section, which is funny because she pulled me through! So there we were, pulling each other along in the final stretch on Lakeshore. As we got closer to the 37k mark we saw Hal from our group run by and cheered for him. He looked good and again it gave me a boost. My original plan had been to try to pick up the pace for the last 5k. I was feeling tired and said to Nanlee “I wanted to try to pick up the pace for the last 5k but I don’t know if I can.” She said “You’re running strong. I think you can do it.” So I picked up the pace.

Mei running.

Trying to pick up my pace.

My watch died and my left shin was threatening to tighten for the rest of the race. I had no idea what my time was but I knew I was close to my goal so I tried to will my leg to be ok with my mind. I started doing things like exhaling so that it matched my left footfall and drinking more eLoad. Something must have worked (likely the eLoad) because the tightness went away and I continued. Somebody cheered “加油!” (jiayou) at me and my feet felt lighter for a moment. Again I felt grateful but also thought that marathons were hard.

At around 39k I saw Bonnie’s Dream Team out on the course. They’re a group of volunteers who are spread out in the last part of the marathon to help runners and walkers finish strong. If you’re struggling, a Dream Team member will motivate you, cheer for you and even help run you in. They are incredible. I saw a runner standing with a Dream Team member and I heard her say “I can’t do it!” She was near tears. The Dream Team member responded with “You can. You’ve come so far.”

Mei looks serious as she runs.

Me looking very serious. It was almost the home stretch.

At 40k I was back on Eastern and saw Dan and Dave again. They cheered for me and I felt tired but strong. I remember how I felt at the 40k mark in my last marathon. That’s when the hope returned and I started getting excited. As I was reflecting on this, the runner who had said she couldn’t do it at 39k blew past me with a member of the Dream Team. I almost laughed. I’m glad she found it in her to keep going.

At 41k I was really tired but there was a group of people with signs who were cheering. I started screaming at them and saw Cheryl, another digital champion who unfortunately couldn’t run due to a stress fracture. Despite this, she had continued to support the rest of us. Seeing her (and the other spectators with signs) gave me the final push I needed to keep going. As I headed toward Bay there was a man in the middle of the road high fiving people as we ran by and shouting “Way to go!” I made sure to high five him.

Home We’ll Go

Mei heading towards the finish line.

Heading towards the finish line. I knew I was about to do it.

With less than a kilometre to go disaster struck. I had a horrible stitch in my right side, which caused me to slow down. I never get stitches and this would have caused me to stop if I had been on a training run. Since this was a race I was too stubborn to do this. I kept thinking “I just ran over 41k without stopping to walk! I’m not stopping now!” So I kept going. The song “Home We’ll Go” by Walk Off the Earth started playing and I thought about how appropriate it was. With 500 metres to go I saw the Parkdale Road Runners cheering and screaming. They threw confetti around and surrounded me. I felt like a rock star as I high fived a bunch of them. They told me that I was almost there. I pushed some more, rounded the corner and then I could see the finish line. They called my name and this time I didn’t throw my arms in the air or slow down to acknowledge it. My A goal was to finish in 4:30 or faster and I knew I was close. I ran across the finish line, only daring to put my arms up at the very end. And then I was done. I finished in 4:29:30 and PB’d by 29 minutes! My last marathon time was 4:58:11. I couldn’t believe it.

Mei raising her arms and finishing the marathon.

I raised my arms as I crossed the finish line.

Mei finishing the marathon.

I was so happy to be finished.

Mei with her medal and foil cape.

Pure joy after finishing the race.

Mei with her medal.

My official finisher’s picture. So fancy.

As I started to walk my legs began to stiffen up and I was glad I kept running. I find it hard to stop and start in a long race like this. As I was standing in the finishing chute thinking about what I had just done I heard a voice say “How’d you do?” It was Nanlee. She finished less than a minute behind me. I later found out that Dara finished approximately 3 minutes before me and Brian finished right after Nanlee. We all did great and I felt so proud! Next, Nanlee and I got our food, I exchanged my race shirt for another size (it was really easy to do this at the Help Desk) and then ran into Bill from Night Terrors Run Crew (who is also a Community Leader for Canada Running Series). We congratulated each other on our races. Afterwards, Nanlee and I met up with Dan and Dave and headed off to Amsterdam Brewery for the race after party and a well deserved beer.

Mei and Nanlee after the race.

I felt so lucky to have Nanlee with me for 7k of the race. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Mei with her beer and marathon medal.

I earned this beer!

Since running this race I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the support of friends, family and other runners in the community. It has been incredible. I even felt the support from Sault Ste. Marie, where Paul and Kristen were keeping track of my split times and cheering for me remotely. If I had one word to describe this race experience, it would be “gratitude.” I’m so grateful for everything (and if you made it to the end of this very long post, thank you for reading it!). Marathons are hard. But we did it. I am so proud of all of us.

Mei and Olivia with their medals.

Olivia and I at our running group’s “Brag Night” – when we get together and celebrate our accomplishments.

Mei, Dara and Brian with their medals.

We didn’t see each other at the finish line so this is our official “finish line photo.” We never intended on running together for the race. We thought we would start out together and see what happened. I still can’t believe we ran over 30k together. They helped make my race day!

Mei's STWM medals from 2013, 2014 and 2015

Now for next year I need to decide…the half or the full? We’ll see…

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3 thoughts on “Chafing the dream – Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (#STWM), 2015 race recap

  1. Pingback: STWM 2015 Blog Round-Up | Canada Running Series / Circuit du Canada

  2. Loved reading every word of your post! You look so joyful in all the pictures. What a great experience you had but I know how hard you trained, you earned that joy and great experience. I vividly remember running through the Beaches last year. Best part of the route! Great community support and super runner training ground. Thanks for the mention 😊 and huge congrats on your PB accomplishment!

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