This past weekend was our hardest race yet – and because that is somewhat relative given our limited racing experience, we’re talking tough as in known to be a challenging, technical race and part of the Canada Running Series. We had no idea what a “technical” race course was…but we quickly learned! It means HILLS. And as for what “challenging” means? MORE HILLS. And you know what happens then? YEP, EVEN MORE HILLS.
Welcome to the Oasis 10K race at the Toronto Zoo! We arrived on Friday night in time for dinner and a swim before tucking in for our 6am wake-up call. It was still dark and raining lightly when we left the hotel, but we were optimistic that it would clear. It had to – our families were coming to cheer us on and spend the day at the zoo! Not sure that you can will the weather to change, but luckily it started to clear while we drove and, by the time we parked and got to race kit pick-up, there were patches of blue sky ahead and a bit of sun. The ground was wet from a night of rain, but the air was crisp and we felt ready to run!
This was the biggest race we have run to date, and our first race with assigned corrals and timed starts. The field of runners was definitely diverse, from the elite Canadian runners (including former Olympians) to runners dressed in full animal costumes and everything in between. I was feeling a bit out of my element placed in Corral Two, but the placement was based on estimated finishing time and my goal was firmly based on past results. It was a little intimidating, but I was determined to “own it” – no room for negative self-talk. I was feeling ready…perfect combination of calm and excitement!
Next, we found Alana’s corral. Now this was more like it – pretty purple flag, people asking where we got our funky sleeves and a woman who was running her first 10K ever after turning 40 and losing 60+ lbs. Awesome. Alana also met up with some other friends we made at the Toronto Women’s 10K last month. Speaking of that race, do you remember that we took some important lessons away from that one? Alana had promised to be more consistent leading up to this race, and I had vowed to taper and rest coming into this one. Did we keep our promises? Why YES, we did! Alana’s training was more consistent (she gives herself a solid B) and I took 3 whole days off before the race. 3 days, people! The result was that we were feeling really good. Ignorance was bliss as we had no idea what kind of course we were about to encounter.
The first corral went off and they walked us up to the start line. I was standing beside a runner who casually told me that his usual 10K time was 45 minutes. Whoa! Before I could get too psyched out, it was time to fire up the iPod and get the Garmin ready. I love this feeling as you wait for go-time…excitement, energy, anticipation! Having tapered well, I felt ready to run and sure of my legs. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get moving. I have never felt this ready to race. And soon enough, it was time! Off we went and I just knew Alana was cheering me on from her corral.
The course started great – a big downhill out of the start line and then we ran on what felt like a flat road, but was actually a gradual downhill. I know this because we soon turned around to loop back and it was a long, slow and steady incline. Flying down it on the other side, I was running under a 5 minute/km and holding myself back…but on this side, I had to fight to stay on pace. As we passed the 2 km mark, I was starting to wonder if it would ever end. No such thing as a warm up on this course! But soon enough, it evened out and we had a few rolling hills to contend with…power up them, fly down them…wash, rinse, repeat.
Around the 3 km mark, we headed into the backstage areas of the Zoo. This took us along a back service road that was quite muddy and a little slippery from the rain – I was happy when that part ended as I was running a little more cautiously while dodging and weaving to avoid puddles. When we came off that trail, I picked up the pace and was surprised to see we were already at the 5 km mark. By now, I realized the course was tough and not likely getting easier, but I was keeping a great pace and feeling strong.
I was so focused on the course and my pace that I didn’t even notice the animals! Apparently I ran right by giraffes, flamingos and zebras – how does one not see giraffes??? I did see the herd of buffalo running (mostly because it made the ground shake and shudder!) and I remember thinking, “they are running for fun because it’s fun to run…no, really…it is…or at least, it can be…sometimes”. Sadly, this was as close as I could get to a pep talk as the hills were getting to me! There were so few moments of running comfortably. It was a real struggle to keep my pace and, after about 6 km, I started to lose my focus and dwell on the difficulty of the course.
More hills. And lots of them. I could see more ahead each time I came over one, no relief in sight. After a couple kilometres of fighting hard, “Hungry Like the Wolf” came on my iPod and pulled me out of my mid-race funk: “Burning the ground, I break from the crowd, I’m on the hunt, I’m after you”. The “you” was a PR. It was hard. I was tiring. But I knew, based on some fuzzy mental math, that there was still a chance I could pull a PR out of this course. I also knew I would be so disappointed if the reason it didn’t happen was because I had given up before it was over. That would sting much worse than a few more minutes of running hard!
So I took full advantage of the next downhill, knowing full well it looped around and came back up. And as I hit 9 km, I tried to tell myself I just had to hang in for another 6 minutes max, no matter how hard. And it was HARD. It was all uphill – and when that ended, it was another hill and then another one. My Garmin was saying 9.86 km and there was yet another hill in front of me and no sign of the finish line. I had to trust that it was there and push for a sprint – and as I came over that hill, I finally saw the finish line only a few steps away. As soon as I crossed, I knew I had done it. A PR on the toughest course ever! My official chip time was 57:14, placing me well within the top 20% of all female runners. For someone who has never been an athlete, or even athletically inclined, this was quite the feat! Maybe my race shirt had some magic in it?
This was a hard race, but oh so satisfying to finish well. I was proud of my physical race, but also my mental one. I recognized when I was starting to go to that dark place that all runners go at one point or another in a race and got myself out of it relatively quickly. I never quit, and I fought hard in those final 4 km. And the man who normally runs a 45 minute 10k? He finished behind me and congratulated me on a race well run.
And now it was Alana’s turn to cross the finish line! She also struggled with the course, but she persisted and even got to enjoy all of the animals I missed! She came across the finish line a full minute ahead of her last 10K race at 1:22. No one was cheering louder than me when I saw those arm sleeves come over the hill! We got our medals and posed for finisher photos, both agreeing that these medals are by far the most special ones in our little (but growing!) collection. After this race, we almost feel like “real runners”.
Next, it was time for the Cub Run and our little ones were excited to race. Their course was the final 600 metres of our course (meaning I had to run those last 2 hills again…less cursing this time). They flew over the course in their adorable race outfits and proudly accepted their ribbons. Our butterfly and zebra even entered the kids costume contest (where everyone was a winner, by the way – whew!).
From there, with medals firmly around our necks, we proceeded to tour the Zoo with our families, trading race stories as we went. It sounded something like this:
Alana: I love the (insert animal). It was so cool to run by here.
Jodi: We ran by here? Really?
Repeat with different animal. Multiple times.
Alana: That was so tough, I can’t believe we did it.
Jodi: Copy that. I’m glad we didn’t know how hard it would be.
Pause to admire our medals.
Alana: I hated it…but I loved it.
Jodi: Me too.