October 23, 2012

Race Report: Niagara Falls Marathon

Friday started out uneventfully enough – flying from Dallas to Atlanta to Buffalo. The only unusual thing was how tired I was – I ended up actually taking a nap on the Atlanta to Buffalo leg, which was very unusual for me! My mother was driving from Albany to Buffalo and we met at the airport without a hitch… but it was when we tried to cross the border into Canada that we ran into some difficulty. I carry my passport with me at all times, since I never know when I might head out of the country, but my mother travels internationally very infrequently and hadn’t been able to locate hers. “Well, Niagara Falls is in New York state, so I should be fine!” she reasoned. Unfortunately for her, the town of Niagara Falls is actually split between New York and Ontario – and we were going to be staying on the Canadian side for the weekend! Were we going to have to leave her on the American side of the falls while I headed to the Canadian side alone??

Luckily, the border crossing guard was very nice, and accepted her driver’s license along with some extra questions about her birthplace, current home, etc. He warned us to leave extra time on the return trip into the USA, though, as they might want to question her further before letting her back into the country. Who knew that our relations with our friendly neighbors to the north were apparently not as friendly as they had been in past years? Note to readers: bring your passport if you’re going to Canada!

Once we finally made it to Canada, my final marathon weekend of October started with a lot of talking. I had been invited to speak at the Niagara Falls Marathon Expo as a guest speaker, and I was completely thrilled and humbled to do so! Three years ago, I had come to the NFM Expo and gotten to hear the incredible Kathryn Switzer speak about how she forever changed the sport of marathoning by being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. And now I was going to be speaking on the same stage? Boy, those were some tough shoes to fill!

My first talk was, to my ears, a little bit rough – but my mother assured me that it had actually been fine. I’m too much of a perfectionist! After an hour break I spoke again, and I felt a lot better about the speech the second time. Both times I had conveyed the same info, but I thought that I engaged the audience a little better the second time around, and also used more polished language. And with that, my duties as a speaker were over – I could now spend the rest of the weekend relaxing! (Oh, yeah, and running 26.2 miles.)

My mom and I were invited to the VIP cocktail party later that night, which turned out to be an incredible affair. It was held at Elements, a restaurant that was situated right on the edge of the falls and afforded spectacular views of the rushing water. My mom wondered aloud if anyone had been in there when Nik Wallenda walked on the tightrope over the falls, and another partygoer told us that in fact, this had been the headquarters for people to watch, with scalpers selling tickets for crazy prices!I could certainly see why, though – the view out the floor-to-ceiling windows was gorgeous, especially with the falls lit up in pink light (for breast cancer awareness month).

After consuming a lot of delicious food and drinks (yes, I sampled the local wines!) and listening to some inspiring speeches about the race organization and some of the people running, though, I was beat! I haven’t gotten much sleep over the last week, which probably didn’t help me any with recovery from my two marathons last weekend. My mom drove back to the hotel, since I was a walking zombie, and I fell into bed pretty much as soon as I was back. Time to rest up for the race!

I woke up late on Saturday morning (8:45am), which caused me to miss the 8:30am “Friendship Run” 5K that the race organizers had scheduled to celebrate the many nationalities in town for the weekend. Regardless, I was thrilled that I had managed to get 10 hours of sleep. Clearly, I needed it!

I spent the morning lying around in bed and catching up on email – such a luxury! – before going to lunch and then heading back over to the expo earlier. Turns out that my talks on Friday had gone so well that the organizers wanted to add me to the Saturday schedule too! I was really excited to hear that, and I think the positive reinforcement made my speech even better than ever.

Believe it or not, this is real – not a blue screen with a fake backdrop. Pretty!

Post-talk, my mom and I again headed back to laze around the hotel room for a little while before dragging ourselves out at 6:30pm for dinner. Can’t skip the carb loading! Thanks to some help from Yelp, we found a great Italian restaurant, Bravo’s, that wasn’t touristy and was actually quite delicious. Our server was sympathetic to our desire to eat and leave quickly, since he had done the marathon the year before, and he told me not to worry about finishing, since he was sure I had put in the training. Ha, what training? πŸ™‚ I thanked him for the advice and didn’t tell him that regardless of my lack of training, I had a feeling I was going to do okay.

After a night of getting to sleep later than I wanted (because I got sucked into some airline mistake fares that were quite intriguing… stay tuned for that resolution and a potential international marathon), I woke up with a start to my alarm. All I wanted to do was go back to bed! But marathon mornings have become routine enough for me that I can at least just remind myself that all I had to do was run for 4-4.5 hours and then I could sleep as much as I wanted afterward. Piece of cake, right? πŸ™‚

The downside with today’s race, however, was that we had to take a bus from the Canadian side of the falls over to the American side, where the start was. Since everyone on the bus had to clear customs before being allowed to pass, this meant that we had to board the buses at 7am, but the race wouldn’t start until 10am. Instead of being done at 11am or noon (as is the case for races that start at 7am or 8am), I wouldn’t be crossing the finish line until after 2pm! That dampened my spirits a bit, since it now seemed much longer until I could finally get some rest. Is that sad that I sometimes look at races as “when will this be over so I can lie down”?

But as with the last time I had run Niagara Falls, the bus and the wait at the start were actually quite enjoyable. My seatmate and I chatted for most of the ride and also made small talk with the people around us, and then once we arrived at the start, I made a few friends in the bathroom line. Runners are so friendly! If you’re nervous, chances are a more experienced runner will chat with you and make you feel better, and I love how everyone bands together and takes the waiting period as a chance to make instafriends.

Furthermore, the start of the Niagara Falls Marathon is among the nicest starts of any race I’ve done. Instead of waiting out in the cold, you actually get to wait in the famed Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which affords you the chance to use real (flushing!) toilets, be warm and comfortable, and wander around to look at the art. I ended up using the time to charge my phone one last time before the race, so I didn’t get to take any pictures of the artwork, but it was pretty neat to see it all. Not to mention that it was a great distraction for any runners who were nervous about the race!

About 10 minutes before the start, I headed out to the bag check. I usually don’t check a bag for races, but we had to have our passports to get through customs and I didn’t want to run with my passport in hand! (Though I did see one runner out there doing just that – iPod in one hand, passport in the other.) I used the black marker to write my number on the plastic drop bag not just once, but four times, since I didn’t want to take any chances with such precious cargo!

Heading over to the start, I arrived just in time for the national anthems. That’s right, plural – this race featured both O Canada! and the Star Spangled Banner, which was a nice reminder of just how international it is. The Niagara Falls Marathon is the only race in the world that starts in one country and ends in another, and my fellow runners and I were pretty excited to get to take part in such a unique experience.

And then, to the sound of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”, we were off! I held off for a few minutes before turning on my music, instead getting buoyed by thinking about how I was going to “shake that” and do a good job in today’s race πŸ™‚ From there on, given that the race was mostly in Canada, I decided to listen to all country all the time. (Did you know that Canadians love country music? I learned that from a bunch of the guys on my college hockey team, but would have had no idea otherwise.)

My legs felt very sluggish, and while I finished the first mile in 8:30, I knew that today was not going to be a speedy race. As with last week’s races, I didn’t have a time goal for the day, but just wanted to be happy with my own performance – which, honestly, I think is the best goal you can have for a marathon. Too many things can happen on race day that you don’t have any control over, so rather than pinning all your hopes and dreams on achieving a certain time goal on one specific day, I think it’s best to just know that you’re giving it your best… and try, try again if you really want to hit a certain time.

In mile 2, my pace dropped just a bit – to 8:40 – and mile 3 found me finishing in 9:15 thanks to a quick walk break at a water stop. I hoped that at some point, the slowdown would, well, slow down! If I was destined to go 10 seconds slower on each consecutive mile, I was going to be in big trouble by the end of the race. Furthermore, while a 9ish pace per minute usually puts me squarely in the middle of the pack, it felt since the beginning of the race like everyone was passing me. That’s no fun!

But before I could dwell too much on my speed (or lack thereof), we approached one of the most exciting parts of the race – the Peace Bridge, which we would use to cross the border into Canada!

The view from the bridge was gorgeous, and it was here that I realized just what a perfect day we had for running. The sky was a beautiful, cloudless blue, and while the wind was blowing, it only helped us to better see the Canadian and American flags in the middle of the bridge. Onward to Canada!

Past the flags, we got a nice downhill coming off the bridge and circling around the exit ramp down to the street level – I tried to take advantage of it as much as I could, remembering that this was really the only non-flat part of the course from here to the end. While many people enjoy flat courses, I actually find them much more difficult because you’re fatiguing the same muscles throughout the entire race instead of breaking it up and sometimes using quads, sometimes hams, etc. Plus, when you run a flat course, your feet are striking the ground at the same angle with each step – causing some pain there as well.

But for now, at mile 5, I wasn’t in any pain. I was just enjoying the glorious day and the sight of the lead runners heading back my direction from the quick out-and-back we were about to do. The course had kind of a lollipop design at this point, so I didn’t get to see everyone, but I did notice that a lot more runners seemed to be ahead of me rather than behind me. Bummer! I guess when you choose a course that’s known as “flat and fast” (unless you’re me who considers that combination an oxymoron), you’re bound to get more experienced runners looking to PR or qualify for Boston.

Once again, though, I was distracted from my slow pace by the pretty scenery as we turned from a neighborhood out onto a road that ran parallel to the Niagara River. With the sun shining off the water and the Buffalo skyline in the distance, it sure made a pretty picture!

We would follow this river road straight for the next 17 miles before a few turns at mile 24 that would bring us to the finish at Niagara Falls. So, basically the rest of the race. Time to settle in and do this!

In a reversal of how my mind usually feels during a race, the early miles had seemed to tick by quickly, but now miles 10-13 were dragging. Was I really not even halfway done yet? My times reflected my sluggishness as well: while miles 6-10 had split times of 9:00-9:30, miles 10-13 had split times of 9:40, 9:41, 9:56, and 9:55, respectively. It didn’t help that there were water stations every mile, either. On the one hand, it was awesome of the race organizers to offer us refreshments that frequently; on the other hand, I didn’t have the willpower not to stop for a walk break every time water/Cytomax was offered, even if I probably didn’t need a drink.

I crossed the halfway point in 2:04 and was somehow disappointed in that split. I know it’s actually a pretty fast time given how exhausted I was going into the race (I seriously wondered if I was going to fall asleep while running a la the Route 66 Marathon), but since I was only doing one marathon this weekend and didn’t need to “save myself” for another race, I felt like it should have been faster. Nevertheless, I pulled out my phone to text my mom my split and let her know when to expect me – probably around 4:15, since I figured I was pretty tired and would be slowing down even more in the second half.

But when I turned on the screen of my phone, I discovered that I had an alert: low battery. What?! Usually my phone’s battery lasts me till the end of the race, with the recent notable exception of Nike Women’s Marathon (probably because I was tweeting like crazy). Today, I had been using a bit, but not excessively. Since I was feeling so tired already, the last thing I wanted was to have to run the rest of the race without any music to entertain me / spur me on. I love taking photos/Tweeting while I’m racing (you all give me such great encouragement that it’s like having personal spectators all along the course!), but to conserve battery, I put my phone into airplane mood and vowed to leave it alone as much as possible. Hopefully it would make it to the end of the race!

As I approached the mile 14 aid station, I started smelling something delicious – turns out that there was a grill going, and all the volunteers were enjoying hamburgers as they helped out. On the one hand, I really appreciated that they had come out today to support the runners (I try to thank as many volunteers as possible when I’m running a race). On the other hand, I did not like that they served us our water/Cytomax in one hand while they munched on a juicy hamburger with the other hand. Can I upgrade from Cytomax to a burger, please?? Darn it, those smelled incredible! Should I just drop out of the race and join the ranks of volunteers handing out drinks… and eating burgers?

Silly Laura – when I finished, I could eat whatever I wanted, but until then there was nothing to do but keep running. I busied myself for the next few miles deciding that I wanted to cook dinner when I got home, and figuring out what recipe to make. I eventually decided on pumpkin black bean chili paired with Southern Tier Pumking beer. A little healthy, a little indulgent, and the perfect way to celebrate such a quintessentially fall race!

One of the biggest things that stood out in my mind from the last time I ran this race was all the beautiful fall foliage – both in the Buffalo neighborhoods and also along the river. Furthermore, the weather last time had been absolutely perfect. One of my fears going into this year’s race was that I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much if the weather wasn’t as perfect for running. I suppose I will still have that fear the next time I come back for Niagara, since it was another picture perfect day! Fall is one of my favorite times of year to run, and so far, all my fall races have had such perfect weather that it makes me want to get back to running a marathon every weekend like I used to do. (And now I’m coming close to putting that into practice – check out the updates to my upcoming races page!)

Miles 15-17 went by a little faster than the preceding miles, perhaps because I felt like I was really starting to zero in on the finish line. At mile 15, I thought of it as just 5 miles to the 20 mile mark, and then a quick 6 from there. At mile 17, I got the boost of less than double digits left in the race. Plus, since this was a Canadian race, there were plenty of kilometer markers (in addition to the regular mile markers) keeping me busy with metric conversions. 15K to go at mile 17 somehow seemed way shorter than 9 miles, and completely doable.

And so at mile 17, I started picking up the pace just a little bit: 9:27, 9:31, and then 9:07! I reached the 20 mile mark in a total time of only 3:12 – which meant that I would finish just under 4:15 if I could maintain a 10:00 pace per mile. But forget a 10:00 pace; with the end of the race approaching, I was getting my mojo back. Further calculations helped me figure out that if I could keep my time down to a 9:30 pace, I’d squeak in just under 4:10. How amazing would that be? I decided to go for it.

My next mile was slower than my speedy 9:07 in the last mile, but I blamed that on choosing to stop for water. But 9:18 was still pretty awesome! Mile 22 was just a hair faster, 9:13, and I began to think that I could really do this. Unfortunately, while the course was flat, we had been experiencing headwinds ever since we turned onto the river road at mile 7, and they definitely made me feel heavy and slow. There’s nothing worse than seeing a flat road and being unable to go as fast as you think you should be able to! I considered trying to get near enough to another runner to help block the wind (oh yes, I am not above drafting!), but unlike the first half of the race, I was now the one passing most of the people around me. Go, Laura, go!

Despite my best efforts, mile 23 clocked in at 9:27, and then mile 24 was a dismal 9:36. Every time I would hit a mile marker, I frantically did math in my head, trying to figure out if my sub-4:10 goal was still attainable… and every time, I figured out that it was, but it was going to be very, very close. At least I had my Garmin with me today! Last week, I finished the Nike Women’s Marathon in 4:20:02, and I wished more than anything that I had shaved just 3 seconds off my time in order to finish sub-4:20.

I tried to push the pace in mile 25, but only got it down to 9:24. Forget that final water station, though – I was in this to win it, and I didn’t need a walk break to slow me down! In 10 minutes, I would be at the finish line and I could have all the water I wanted. For now, it was time to push it hard and see just what my body could do.

That last mile was tough – by now, we had taken a few turns that brought us out to Falls Road. This meant that we were feeling the mist of the falls, but also even more wind than before. I gritted my teeth and did not have the prettiest expression on my face, but I wanted this, badly. This mile was the make-it-or-break-it mile, and I knew I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t give it everything I had.

I finally reached the 26 mile mark, and while I still couldn’t see the finish line, my Garmin beeped to alert me that I had done the last mile in 9:12. That was all I needed to succeed! Once I saw the finish line in front of me, I knew I’d be able to sprint it at least a little bit, so the final 0.2 should be over with in about 90 seconds. Meanwhile, my watch had not quite ticked over to 4:08, so I had an extra thirty seconds to spare!

I ran through the crowds triumphantly and with a genuine smile on my face. Three marathons in nine days, and I had gotten successively faster in each one: 4:23, 4:20, and now 4:09! My smile grew even bigger when I saw my mom in the crowd, screaming for all she was worth, and holding a homemade sign: 77th Marathon! Cheers, Laura!

The finish chute had one final curve before I was faced with the timing mats in front of me, and I pushed it for one final sprint to pass two other runners before crossing. (Though who knows if they were full marathoners or half marathoners or 10Kers or what.) Elated, I stopped my watch at a glorious 4:29:30, and a huge wave of pride washed over me. I did it!

Next up? Well, in addition to the Fort Worth Marathon on November 11, I’ve decided to really challenge myself – I’ll be attempting the NYRR 60K (37 miles) on Saturday, November 24. The longest distance I have ever run in one shot is 33 miles, but I think it’s time to see if I can push my limits further than they’ve gone before. And hey, since I’m hosting an early Thanksgiving dinner the night before, I know I’ll be sufficiently fueled! (Though perhaps not rested – alas.)

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:09:37
Pace: 9:31/mile
Overall place: 378/1043
Gender place: 110/476
Age group place: 20/69


6 thoughts on “Race Report: Niagara Falls Marathon”

  1. CONGRATS on another one, Laura! That is just incredible. So cool that you are running the FW Marathon too. Maybe I can some support πŸ™‚ And you are going to totally dominate the ultra distance!

  2. The one and only time I drove to Canada (Montreal – so much fun!) I was with a fun who didn’t have his passport. Sidenote: Who doesn’t carry their passport with them? Mine’s been in my backpack since February. Anyway, we crossed the Canadian border without a problem that morning. We had a lovely day and we left Montreal somewhere around midnight. SW were promptly stopped at border patrol, asked to come inside and questioned. My friend was taken into a separate room for interrogation. Two hours lately, we were allowed to reenter the country. Moral of the story: always have your passport.

  3. Wow! CONGRATS!!

    I’m a new reader here! Just a couple of days ago, I decided to commit and run my first marathon next year…I also wrote about how this Niagara Falls marathon is the one I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to do.


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