At the starting pen, the first thing I notice is that the runners here don’t really do the annoying thing they do in Singapore where they squeeze together to the point where no one can breathe properly. I am able to have space for myself, and space around me to stretch a bit, do some arm rotations. Szu was standing by the side of the start pen, so I felt slightly less nervous. I had already done my warm up and stretches up to this point, taken the pre-race dump, and so all there was to do was to just go. I took out my first gel and ate it right before the runners all crowded to the start line.
When the starting gun fired, I could only think of one thing: don’t go out too fast. My plan was to run the first km in 4:20, so I scanned the crowd for the 3-hour pacer, and just ran beside him. He was of African descent (though I never got to find out exactly from where, I am aware that Africa is a continent made up of many countries, each with her individual identity) and looked like he was just jogging, graceful as can be as if he were running at 5 min pace. And so I felt assured that we weren’t going that fast, and for the first km I felt smooth, really smooth, and felt like 4:20 was probably the pace I was going at. But at the kilometre marker, the watch showed that I was running at an astonishing 4:04 per km.
I was worried, but everything just felt so smooth. I decided to have faith and continue following the pacer. Things evened out eventually. The first 5km goes along the river, a pleasant scenery to my left, so I just cruised along beside the pacer, and enjoyed myself. Though 2km was still at 4:07, he ran 3, 4, 5 km at 4:13, 4:13, 4:13. To add to that, my GPS watch tended to overmeasure the distance, so the km markers on the route got further and further ahead from when my GPS watch made the km splits. Still, I passed through 5km in 20:56, 19 seconds faster than my goal pace of 21:15, or 4:15 per km (which translates to a barely sub-3 hour marathon).
At 6km, the route makes a turn away from the river and into a neighbourhood of houses and shops that winds through west Ottawa (or Westboro, as they call it). This is the part of the race I enjoyed the most. There were people who came out of their houses to cheer the runners on, and I still had a lot of energy left in me to appreciate these cheers, and really take in the race atmosphere. They called the pacer a rabbit, and when he passed by there were cheers of “THE THREE HOUR RABBIT!!” which made the sub-3 dream seem suddenly very real, although I was only in the 8th km of the run.
It was at this juncture that I felt incredibly blessed that I was even running at all. Just a week before, I came down with a terrible bout of stomach flu while I was travelling with Szu in London (of all places in the world to get stomach flu). I could hardly eat properly, and could only do soupy foods and water. There was no carb loading to be entertained, and there was one day that I could hardly walk, with buy-two-get-one-free stomach cramps hitting me like I was a punching bag. I doubted if I could even be at the start line of the marathon, which made me angry at first. But I decided that there was nothing I could do but to hope for the best. And sure enough, with just three days to go before the race, the sickness cleared, and I could (most importantly) eat as much pasta as my heart desired without fearing that it would all be expelled in explosive diarrhoea.
So the sub-3 dream aside, I was thankful to be running down the streets of Westboro, cheered on by an insane number of spectators and race volunteers. I was running with a group of like-minded runners who had trained hard and we were all following the 3 hour pacer, having formed a large pack and were just cruising along with him, all gunning for that Boston qualifier. At that moment, it felt really good to be running, the activity that made the most sense to me, and it felt even better that I was smooth and able to enjoy this spring day.
10km passed in 42:04, 26 seconds faster than my goal pace. I kept calm and told myself again to trust in the pacer, that he would bring us through in good time. Everytime I would speed up a bit, I would force myself to slow down and be “eaten up” by the pack again. At 12km, however, the plan changed. While taking in a gel and running to the side to get water, I unintentionally sped up. I opened a 10 meter gap ahead of the pacer, and was suddenly running with a different pack of runners that was just slightly faster. I made a gamble, and decided to follow this pack. I was feeling good, but more than that, this decision was based on a book that I had read about marathon tactics, about how runners at the amateur level should be running the first half slightly faster than the second due to glycogen depletion. And so, to run a sub 3-hour marathon, I had to run a considerably faster than 1:30 for the half marathon. It was a gamble for sure, and at a bad timing: just as I made this move, we turned away from Westboro at 14km, and onto a desolate highway with almost no supporters, and just a strong, cold headwind.
It was on this highway that a runner that was in the pack I was following spat on the floor, and narrowly missed me, at which he offered an apology. With this opening, I asked him for his goal time (so as to gauge if it was a good idea to follow him), and he said that he had just run a 2:56 seven weeks prior, so he was aiming for the same time (turns out this 2:56 was run at Boston!). But, he told me, that he didn’t do well in heat, and so might need to adjust his goal later in the run. I would understand why he would say that, today was slightly warmer than the previous two days I had been in Ottawa, with the temperature lingering between 16-18 degrees through the duration of the race. Having been through a harsh Canadian Winter, 17 degrees might be warm, but to me it was a slice of heaven, having trained exclusively in the high twenties with roaring humidity back in Singapore. But I wasn’t about to belittle the heat soon, because at this point, just 16km into the race, there was no telling what might be a factor in the later stages in the race, of which I had no idea about.
I told the runner (I later found out that his name was also Justin) that it was my first marathon and he looked at me and said “you’re doing good, you look really smooth”. I told him that I came from a middle distance background, and had no idea what happens after 30 km, and he responded with some advice. “You want to go through the first half feeling totally fine. 20-30km you have to work a bit to keep your pace, and then at 30 – 40 km it gets really hard. the last two km is just about making it to the finish line.” I hoped that I could still be in a position to push towards the finish line, because all that lay ahead was indeed dark and murky; my longest training run was only 36km, and so there was no telling what would happen after that.
After taking another gel, Justin and I ran across the bridge towards Gatineau, towards 20km. Things were still feeling smooth, my legs were moving fine, and my breathing was well regulated. It felt like only a stray car coming to run me over could stop me at this point. I passed the halfway point (21.1km) in 1:28:43, which was an optimal amount of time under 1:30 to positive split. In the short distance between 20km and the half, there was a slight uphill, and in that time somehow Justin had forged a 20m gap in front of me while I was zoning out and trying to maintain a constant effort.
I was running alone now, not really wanting to chase Justin because he was aiming for a 2:56 which was way too fast to strive for. The next few kilometres I could not help but think to myself that by 30km I had to feel good, I had to feel good, I had to feel good. I repeated this in my head with every km that passed, making sure that I still felt good. I took a gel at 24km, and kept telling myself even up to this point that though I had a lot of energy left I had to conserve all the energy I had for the assault coming up past 30km.
The 20-28km section of the course was a lonely one, not only was I running on my own, it was also through a neighbourhood where not many came out to support. It was also a decidedly hillier neighbourhood, and I suddenly recalled from all the race reviews that I read that the second half of this race was generally hillier. I wasn’t so worried, because I had done a few 6am long runs up and down the hills of rifle range road, all for the purpose of preparing for this part of the marathon. I also remembered this piece of advice I’d heard, to not go too fast uphill but maintain the same effort so as to not build up lactic. There was also no sense in sprinting the downhills, because it might result in calf cramps, and so I took that slightly quicker but not too fast. I had to keep thinking about these things, measure every step, and so in a sense I never got bored when I was running, there was always something new to see around me and always something to think about.
At 27 km we crossed another bridge back to Ottawa, and it was here that I began to overtake a few runners who had been overzealous from the start. I tried to sit behind a small group of runners at about 28km, but realising that they were too slow, elected to speed up and just overtake them. I was still feeling good up to this point, which honestly does not make for a good story, and so far you might notice that this whole time has just been me asking myself if I feel good and me actually feeling good. Well, that’s all about to change. I passed the 30km mark at 2:06:45, 45 seconds faster than goal pace. I took another gel, and at this point I must admit, I still felt good. I overtook a few more runners, saw a few who had walked and tried cheer them on but saw that it was as good as reviving ashes, with their faces of defeat looking resigned to the wall.
The 30-35km section winded through Rockcliffe park, and as the name suggests, to was quite a bit hillier, but I already knew what was ahead for I did a practice jog around this segment two days before to get used to the hills. I knew every uphill and downhill of this section and so I was never caught off guard by the course. What I was caught off guard by, however, was a sudden twitch in my hamstring at 33km. I had just passed by a sponge station and had cold water stream down my face, when the first hint of possible cramps came about. And I had 9km left to run. I was still ahead of pace, but I had read up a lot on how people could slow to a 5 minute pace within a short span of a km despite feeling perfectly fine the km before. I told myself again not to panic, that all my training had led up to this moment and that I was well prepared to forge ahead without incident. I couldn’t slow down to a 4:40 pace to accommodate these doubts, and so had no choice but to keep up 4:15 per km and just hope that these cramps didn’t knock on the door again.
I passed 35km, and began to understand why this was the worst part of the marathon. My breathing became heavier all of a sudden, and I started to adopt a slight grimace. The neighbourhood I was running through was lively, and that helped tremendously. A woman cheered me on from the sidelines, and upon reading my name on my race tag, said “come on Justin”, which was a simple cheer but it helped a lot to keep me focused. “Come on, Justin” was exactly what I needed to tell myself as well.
With 7.2km left in the race (which feels like an eternity after you’ve run 35), I began to carry out a visualisation technique that I had read up on, where you imagine that you’re running a short loop that you’re familiar with, so that seven km can seem more bite-sized and manageable. My mind wandered back to the 7.2km route that I would run around my neighbourhood, the route that introduced me to running proper, and a route that I had found myself through exploring the neighbourhood. I had run this route countless times from when I was younger, sometimes I failed, but eventually I conquered the route and could do a sub 30 minutes easily on it. I looked at my watch and saw that I just had to run under 32 minutes to break 3 hours, and so I just kept thinking of myself as that kid again, trying his best to conquer this 7.2 km run, trying again and again and loving running more and more as I did.
As soon as I began this visualisation, my left calf began to twitch, and a full blown cramp threatened to hit me. I quickly took my last gel and drank an electrolyte drink they offered at the next station to battle the cramps. At 37km, the twitch in my calf became more pronounced, and I thought about stopping to stretch my calf at the side, thinking if that would be a good idea to help assuage the cramping. I then thought back at my various attempts at the half marathon, and how stretching at the side did me no favours, not only did it slow me down, but it also made other parts of my legs cramp up from stopping and starting again. I had to keep my body in fight mode all the way or it would crumple and give in altogether, there would be no in between. And so I decided to continue. Every time I cramped up, I would transfer by body weight to the other leg, and try to shake up the cramp in my calf. There would be a few hundred meter stretches that it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and I could run smoothly, and then it would hit me again as if reminding me that it won’t be so easy to run that sub-3, that a huge cramp could reduce me to a walk at any time it fancied, and crush all my hopes. I kept thinking about my running form, and kept telling myself to maintain good form and to not let bad biomechanics get in the way and induce more cramps in other parts of my leg. The 38km split was the slowest thus far: 4:27 per km. I didn’t panic or try to increase my pace, I remembered that I had already given myself some leeway from the first half by running more than 1 minute faster than the target split, and so had all that time to spare.
Not that I could go much faster; at 38km I was already in a full on grimace. I passed by Justin, who was reduced to a short walk to take in a gel, the weather probably getting the better of him. He looked over and told me “good job”, which helped a little. With 4km left, I thought about another run I always did, which was my 4km warm up. I thought about how easy it was to run 4km, and how I did it before and after most workout sessions. With only 4km left, it seemed silly to slow down now. The crowd around this part of the route, known as Sussex drive, was teeming with what seemed like the entire town. There was a wedding going on at a church and some of the guests came out to cheer. There female students with banners around their necks saying “You can have a piece of this after you’re finished” (which was of no motivation to me because my allegiance is only to Szu) and even little kids and old ladies cheering on. The atmosphere was immense, something you’d never find in Singapore for numerous reasons.
My calf threatened to cramp a few more times; but I limped it off, let out a silent scream, or ignored it altogether. At 39km, we were back at the canal again. We were to run down the canal, and then turn back via Pretoria bridge and to the finish line. I had this all in my head, having done another practice jog here the day before. However, I had done that little recce on fresh legs, and so it was particularly torturous to see the same sights that I saw but in such an excruciating filter. This part of the race was strange, there were a couple of people who tried to overtake, but they too seemed to succumb to cramps and I was overtaking them again within a few hundred meters. We were all trying to claw our way to the finish line; everyone that was around me all had the same dream, to break 3 and get that Boston qualifier.
At 40km, I felt a different sensation, my legs felt like they were on fire, so numb and stinging with exhaustion as they were. Forget calf cramps, my entire lower half was threatening to give way and reduce me to a heap on the ground. Every muscle involved in running was burning. I was at 2:49:59 at 40km, which gave me a grand total of 10 minutes to run 2.2km. It would have been easy in any other circumstance, but running 40km prior did not happen to be one of them. I had faith though, that I wasn’t entirely out of it, for I had run a 4:18 min 40th km, and so just kept my head down and told myself that I had the mettle to finish this off. I told myself that I had to give this everything. I thought about all the kilometres I had put in to make these last 2 km survivable. I limped when my calf threatened to cramp up, and tried to actually run when there were windows of respite. I crossed Pretoria bridge, and turned around where there was 1km left. In that last km, I thought about every last km I had ever done in my life and decided that none were as painful as this one. I probably looked like I was running to the toilet, or that I had just survived a bomb blast and was jog limping away from the blast. I tried to follow this guy who was also finishing, then decided that i would just run my own pace. I looked at my watch and saw that I had a little less than 5 minutes to run the last km, so I looked down and took it one step at a time.
And then, I saw it. The finish line. It was 400m in front of me, yes, but there it was. There was no indication prior to this that the finish line was anywhere within reach, but there it was, in all its glory on a sunny Sunday morning. I had about 2 minutes left to run 400m, and so I just opened up my stride. I felt like I was stepping on coals, every impact of my leg on the ground felt like I was punching myself, but it didn’t matter anymore. I was at once the heaviest and lightest I’d ever felt, as if all the weight of the past 4 months of training, the last 1660 km I had run, was lifted off me. I ran past all the spectators, past a screaming Szu, and onto the carpet that led to the end. I looked at the clock as I neared the end, and it read 2:59:30 as I was running the last 20 meters or so. I clenched my fists and pumped them into the air, and crossed the finish at 2:59:34.
Typing this exactly 24 hours after I crossed the finish line, it still feels like a dream. I still don’t know how I did it. I remember the last two workouts I tried to do involved trying to hold 4:15 pace and I could not even complete them both, stopping approximately 15km into both. How I could maintain that pace for 42 km will always be a mystery to me. I shook hands with some people, and then with an exhausted Justin who finished just behind me (I had beaten a 2:56 marathoner!) and he told me “you did it”. At this, I began to tear. I was embarrassed at first and tried to hold it back. I walked on and composed myself, took some water, walked to collect the medal. It was the most ceremonious medal collection ever; there were a large group handing out medals that cheered loudly as I arrived. I thought there was someone behind me that was being cheered for, but I looked behind and it was just me. I hobbled over to receive the medal, and finally began to cry when I walked past them.
I thought about all the sacrifices, and the distant belief that I had in myself from the start that given the perfect conditions, that this feat would just have been possible. I thought about all the 4:30 am alarms I had to set every Saturday, the 30 plus km runs I did with Yik Siong at East Coast park, at West Coast Park, at Punggol. I thought about how I trained 6 times a week, hardly had rest days. I thought about all the sacrifices I had to make, the times I had to say no to drinking sessions, that I had to have late dinners with a super understanding Szu whom I could not feel more grateful for, who came all the way down with me to obscure Ottawa to support me. I thought about the group of people I trained with: Yik Siong, Josh, Wen Sheng, who were all stronger that me in various ways and had pushed me beyond my limits, my training buddy in y1 -y3 Philip who had always shown me what running was all about. I thought about my parents who supported me all the way, providing me the resources and space to succeed, who would never stop me from achieving this crazy dream though it was precisely the kind of activity that I knew would worry them.
Last of all, I thought about my love for running. It all began when I was 13, progressed till I was 17 and then it became murkier during army when I had an injury, and then even murkier coming into uni when I could not get my priorities right. After failing to make the Sunig team for the 3rd time, I sat myself down last August and decided that I wanted to achieve something amazing in my last year of university. It was with this renewed focus and planning that I began to enjoy every workout I did, qualified and did well for my 1500 IVP and then decided foolhardily to go for the marathon because i wanted to feel like I did everything I could in running before I graduated. I followed a strict training plan, and loved every minute of the journey. The joy of running never left me, but had stayed dormant for a few years before erupting in its full glory. I could not stop thinking about running, about what I needed to do to rest, to fuel up for the next workout, to be my best at every run I did in any small way possible. I made no excuses. I constantly reflected on the journey, read up about the marathon and watched a lot of races. This sub-3 journey, in a way, isn’t just about running, it was pretty much about a lifestyle that I consciously chose to keep up despite every temptation to just take my final year easy and not dream such big dreams.
I cried maybe because it hurts to love something so much only to finally be validated in some form or another.
I soon discovered that I could not really walk, and so hobbled my way to the meet up point where Szu was waiting for me with open arms. I raised up my hands with a medal in one and a banana in another, and she walked towards me with a big smile on her face, the smile of someone who had never doubted me for a second even though I had doubted myself a thousand times over.
“I did it,” was all I could manage.