VANCOUVER, CANADA — It felt like I had waited so long for May 1st to actually happen. After trying to follow Maripol’s 18-week training schedule (with way too much slackening), Alex and I did cross the finish line — strong and standing — to complete our first 21 kms. here in the Vancouver Marathon.
We came to Canada for a wedding of a niece. But as we were filling out our visa applications, I secretly searched for the Vancouver Marathon website, and without much thought, also listed “to join the Vancouver Marathon” under “reason for travel” in our visa applications. In no time, I received my confirmed registration from the marathon organizers in March — even while we didn’t have visas yet.
By the time we got here, I literally hit the ground running, amidst the flurry of family activities — running for an hour until 8pm even in 4-degree weather –which probably caused my having a bad cough for the next two weeks. (It was 32 degrees when we left Manila.) Spring came rather late this year, and winter weather prevailed until April.
Our training regimen was also set back by the road trip my sisters urged us to do along the Trans-Canada Highway. We found ourselves on the road driving eastward for 12 to 14 hours each day, traveling 4,600 kilometers. Five days and three time zones later, we reached Toronto. In between the long-day drives (we stopped to rest at night), we had to drag ourselves to do our run, even until 9 in the evening or until the sun would set.
We practiced running in small towns like Moosomin in the province of Saskatchewan, White River and Ignace in Ontario, and Portage la Prarie in Saskatchewan.
We practiced, even in minus-2-degree weather at twilight, until our ears froze and our faces were numb. (As they say in running, there’s no such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate clothing.) It was only in Toronto when I first got to do Maripol’s recommended speed and hill work, and familiarized myself with my new water bottles snug on a belt. (We had been warned enough not to try on new gear on race day.)
I was getting so psyched up for race day that all I would think of was running. One day we were driving along Lake Superior, one of the world’s five great lakes, but I was more enthralled by the name of that place of 1,000 residents — a town called Marathon.
We were heading back west to Vancouver on another five-day road trip when I was becoming antsy and kept on asking Alex, “Do you really think we can do this half marathon?” I seriously didn’t think we were doing enough to increase our endurance, strength, or speed.
Stopping by Calgary, Glenn Fernandez, an architect in Dumaguete who migrated there three years ago, also took us to a park where we practiced running on hilly terrain. It was indeed getting harder as the race drew closer.
About four days before the marathon, Alex and I agreed to simply finish our “first half mary”, and to have fun. Three days before the run, we got our running packets. Our bag included our racing bib, gloves, and a dri-fit Saucony shirt. I was so glad the organizers were kind enough to make the shapely women’s sizes (gendered). There were also some vitamins, a colored pamphlet on the event (even though all the information is on their website and on Facebook), and the timing chip.
Now on its 40th year, the organizers included a speaker program, which involved a battery of running experts and record holders who shared their knowledge and skills with the marathon participants two days before the run. This was held under a huge white tent here, together with exhibits of the latest running apparel, gear, technology, etc. It was like a fiesta on its own.
For our “last meal” on the night before the run, Alex and I had lots of pasta alfredo for our carbo-loading that I thought I was eating myself sick. (Runners need carbohydrates that produce glycogen that gives us energy.) On race day, Alex and I woke up at 3am for our pre-race fuelling: wheat bread with nutella, bananas with peanut butter, and lots of water. We skipped coffee this time because of its diuretic effect. By 4am, we had to do the usual bathroom routine, and took a cold shower.
At the starting area, it felt like a fiesta once more with thousands of runners and cheerers. My teeth chattered with the sharp chilly wind of about 4 degrees, which also carried a familiar whiff of Bengay. I was certain I wasn’t alone on that.
Alex and I were becoming more and more curious about how the organizers were conducting races like this. After runners left their bags at a secure drop-off point, some of them slipped black plastic bags over their body or around their legs to keep them warm while waiting for gunstart. More than 40 portable toilets for the over 15,000 runners had been set up at the starting area alone, and there were hand sanitizers everywhere.
Then it was time. We merged with the thick line of racers, treading lightly towards the starting line, and before we knew it, we were crossing the starting line — a mat that beeped and beeped as runners passed by with their computer chips, recording our individual start times. Because we crossed the timing chip mat about six seconds after gunstart, we never got to run behind the pace bunny for my expected time. There were pace bunnies (so-called because they wore “bunny ears” to differentiate them from other runners) for many other desired finish times.
The first 10 kms. was simply inspiring: We were running alongside people who must have been 20 years older or at least 25 lbs. heavier than us. If they could do it, we surely could, I kept on reminding myself.
We were crossing the Burrard Bridge after the 6K mark, when the lady ahead of me dropped her pair of gloves. Thinking she dropped them by accident, my instinct was to pick it up for her; until I realized that so many other runners were intentionally throwing them away — including layers of running jackets, hoodies, and windbreakers. By then, the sun was starting to shine, and our bodies had generated enough steam to get us going….
We noted more portalets in every water station. But of course, when are there ever enough? We passed runners who were patiently lined up for a pit stop — which must have been about eight minutes off one’s expected time. I didn’t see anyone taking a leak behind trees or posts.
The spirit of volunteerism among the locals is amazing; I learned that over 1,700 people volunteer to man the race each year. The race course was very well-marked, with staff in almost every intersection. But they were there not merely to marshall the runners along the route; apparently, they had been trained to cheer and encourage us as well.
There were hydration stations every two kilometers (water or electrolyte drink recommended at least every 20 minutes), 11 medical aid stations, even a motivation station. (I can’t imagine what they do there.) The organizers also take pride in the fact that they don’t give out bottled water (for environment reasons), only filtered water in compostable cups.
The atmosphere all throughout was very fan-friendly. Officially, the organizers conducted a cheer challenge contest among teams that performed with live bands and other indigenous instruments strategically stationed in areas where runners needed all the push we could hear: on uphill climbs, in quiet street corners, under the bridge, in seemingly-gloomy tree-shaded stretches of the forested park, etc. Thanks to the upbeat music that the cheer teams played, as the runners were prohibited from using iPods and headphones for safety reasons.
One cheer-dancer was jumping up and down, screaming excitedly at us: “Run faster!” The poor girl, she probably couldn’t see that was exactly what we were desperately trying to do. (Running 21K, you see, is not as easy as it may seem. Otherwise, more people would be crazy enough to do it.)
Apart from the contest, the very sports-minded Canucks and even the senior citizens came out of their homes in their walkers or baston, ringing their huge cowbells, and cheering us on. Some were holding up colorful posters, egging us on with “You’re almost there! (Kind of)” or “Just believe!” A guy shouted, “Go, Irma!”, prompting Alex to ask me, “Kaila to nimo?!” Well, that was just one of the privileges of having registered two months before race day — I got a personalized bib with my name boldly printed on it.
Although the organizers had several official photographers to take photos of runners who would give them a smile, Alex and I also had our personal crew composed of my sister May Ver and our kids Melissa and GJ who had to endure walking some of the distance we ran, mainly for the photo ops. Some runners ahead of us would stop just to take photos of the fantastic scenery, run back in line, and — to my dismay — even pass us.
As we were running the loop of Stanley Park with its picturesque views, I was getting anxious about where exactly Prospect Point was — the highest peak in the race course at 200 feet. Then someone at my back asked a spectator how much farther it was to Prospect Point. I just heaved a sigh of relief when the fan replied, “You just went over it!”
It was with much relief and disbelief when I crossed the 16K mark. Relief because I was calculating I only had five kms. more to go (or the distance of the loop from Quezon Park-Hibbard Ave.-EJ Blanco-Looc-boulevard-Park); and disbelief because I actually had never run that far!
On the last hill along the waterfront, I felt like I was just going to crash but I could see Alex up ahead signaling me it was time to sprint. I just wanted to start walking but my tired contracted muscles wouldn’t even allow me. Then as if on cue, I saw a fan holding up a placard that said, ‘Just Keep Running!’
Crossing the finish line and receiving our Finisher’s Medal for 21K and a (downloadable) certificate of completion just confirmed to me that indeed, all things are possible when one has the full resolve to complete what he started.
From the final timing mat, the finishers were corralled into an alley leading us into rows and rows of tables filled with a buffet of decent — and free — energy foods: granola bars, blueberry muffins, bananas, apples, thousands of boiled eggs, potato chips, chocolate pudding, bagels, raisins. After we picked our food, or whatever our arms (or jerseys) could hold, we were led out of the area, and only then did the organizers provide us with a bag each for our loot (obviously to prevent finishers from just stashing food into bags).
A massage corner was available for tired runners. I was almost waiting for that dreaded pain after the race but strangely, our thighs, knees, shin, legs, and backs weren’t sore nor stiff at all. That must have only been because we strictly did what Doc Mequi advised: After the race, rub your legs with ice chips, and raise them at an angle for about 20 minutes. We didn’t need to take the Arcoxia that orthopedic surgeon Mark Macias had prescribed us earlier in Dumaguete to relieve pain.
The only problem was that two of Alex’s toenails seemed to have died from the pressure of the feet pounding on the road for more than two hours.
A few other considerations before moving on to the next race: There’s nothing like training with a team of friends, or with a coach. A team, they, say, is always more fun, and it motivates you to the point you wouldn’t want them to wait on you. (Because of our tight deadlines, we have not had the benefit of learning speed and endurance from a team.) It’s also very critical to pack one’s gear the night before. (My running shoes was well broken-in alright, but I forgot to bring my favorite socks.) Running at home base, or in a familiar time zone, allows one to conveniently train right on the race course (not on snow), and you get to sleep on your own nice bed the night before the race. Do not eat/drink new food on race day. (I’m glad I broke this rule, though, as the race volunteers were simply distributing the much-needed energy gel in blueberry, chocolate and other flavors.) And a final reminder: cut your nails before race day.
By the 10K mark on race day at Stanley Park along the waterfront. (Photo by Melissa Pal)