It was inevitable. After sixteen rain-free marathons, my lucky streak ended with a race-day weather forecast for the 2010 BMO Vancouver Marathon that had changed overnight from a chance of showers after noon to showers for most of the morning.
Considering how much it rains in this part of the world, I’m pretty fortunate to have made it through three marathons each in Vancouver and Seattle and two in Victoria, without any measurable precipitation. Even in Boston, amidst the Storm of the Century™ in 2007, we had wet roads and a sprinkling before the start, but no rain that I can recall during the race. All that came to a soggy halt as almost on cue, a light drizzle began with the the crack of the starter’s gun and would continue unabated for the rest of the race.
There’s a crazy left hairpin turn about 200m into the Vancouver Marathon course so despite warning members of my Running Room marathon clinic about starting out too fast, I did just that, practically leapfrogging an old Mexican guy who had planted himself right on the starting line in front of me, and then almost elbowing another dude who appeared to be wearing a Wayne’s World wig and trucker hat as he tried to cut inside me right at the corner.
After settling into a less hectic rhythm for the rest of the first kilometre, I was joined briefly by Aaron Case who paused briefly to check in, as he always does during the first kilometre of full and half marathons we run together, before tearing off. Aaron apprised me of his plans to run a 2:41-2:42 and pulled away as we approached Abbott a hundred or so metres later.
Before long, I found myself surrounded by a host of familiar faces: Dario Herrera, Mike Palichuk, Guy Smith and Brian Wynhoven who wasn’t exactly registered but would join us and others at various points on the course as part of a training run in preparation for the Ottawa Marathon later this month. I’ve really come to enjoy the social aspect of this early part of the course over the past couple of years. A year ago I ran the first 10k at the head of a large pack with Doug Alward and Sparky Wickstead. The course does an out-and-back along 2nd/6th/4th Avenues so local runners see a lot of friends both running and cheering from the sidelines. Sparky had kept a running total of people saying hello to each of us, and as the marathon clinic instructor at the Run Inn, Sparky had a solid early lead in that department when he called it a day somewhere around the 10k mark. Teaching my own marathon clinic this year meant I had my own cheering squad following me on the out-and-back, a fact not lost on Guy Smith who admitted after the race that he was jealous his name wasn’t Dave.
I missed a few of the early kilometre markers, and many of the ones I did see were clearly misplaced according to some of the crazy splits we were hitting, but averaging out the discrepancies, we were comfortably cruising along at a 2:46-2:47 marathon pace.
On our way back from the turnaround at Burrard, Mike Palichuk, still buzzing from pacing Ellie Greenwood to the overall win at the Elk-Beaver 100k the day before, pulled ahead about 30-50m on the way back along 6th. Mike’s been running well this year and came into the race with a PB of 2:50, so even with yesterday’s questionable 10k or so warm-up, I found it a little unnerving to see him take off like that and I suspected that wasn’t part of VFAC Coach Hill’s race plan for Mike.
We regrouped after crossing the 10k mat and I soon realized that despite all the marathon experience in our group, the guys were all really lousy at running tangents — the shortest possible line around the course and the line course designers use to measure the actual distance of a race — and I occasionally found myself running alone on one side of the road or the other while the guys dutifully followed the yellow line painted down the middle of the road.
Another thing I noticed was that the guys were all pretty aggressive on the uphills. I’m not used to trailing up most hills I run, so I was a little concerned when Mike, Guy and Dario easily pulled away from me on the short hill on Prior Street. I reeled them in again quickly on the downhill, but it left me wondering if my legs were going to let me down later in the race since I’d had a similar experience at the Chuckanut 50k in March. After a few such hills, I thought, if those guys want to hammer the uphills, I’ll just catch up on the downhills and we can continue to run pretty much together over what’s left.
Our group was still intact as we ran down Cordova and Hastings, past Sparky Wickstead and his band of cheering Lululemon girls, and then onto Georgia and into Stanley Park. Soon after hitting the Seawall something changed. I didn’t intend to surge, but I think something about dodging pedestrians and half marathon walkers boosted my adrenaline and I soon realized our pack had been strung out a bit. We caught a few marathoners along the way, including the eventual women’s race runner-up, Sharleen Jackson, who almost fell victim to a group of young girls walking the half who hit the narrow marathon halfway timing mat and decided that was as good a time as any to stop for an impromptu celebratory dance party, right in front of her.
By the time we reached Lost Lagoon, there wasn’t much left of our pack. I knew Dario was close behind, and I’d later realize Guy Smith was hanging tight as well. Merging with the half marathoners again at Ceperley Park, I sought the shortest line along the inside curb and by the time we shed the halfers at Sunset Beach, I was down to just Guy. A year ago, I made the same approach to the Burrard Bridge crossing with Doug Alward tucked in my pocket. Incidentally, Guy and Doug were the two previous recipients of the Truelove Trophy as the marathon’s 50+ age category champion, and — spoiler alert! — Guy would go on to win it again this year, prompting Vancouver Marathon Society chairman Daryl Doyle to ask just after I’d crossed the line, “What’s with you and the old guys?”
The rain was probably its heaviest as we climbed Burrard Bridge and it was tough finding a line down the backside of the bridge that wasn’t like running through a creekbed. Once we hit Cornwall, I caught a glimpse of another Masters runner and Guy’s VFAC teammate, Dave Stephens, about half a kilometre ahead, and mentioned to Guy that we were gaining on him. “I can’t tell, I don’t have my glasses,” he replied. Such is life among elite Masters, but I suspect that Guy’s blindness heightened his sense of smell, for next thing I knew Guy surged on the rise just past Kits Beach and was gone in a flash, his predatory instincts kicking in as he caught a whiff of the ailing Stephens ahead.
Considering we were over 30 kilometres into the race, Guy’s acceleration was remarkable as he must have put 50-60m on me over the next kilometre. Brian joined me for a bit on Point Grey Road and let me know about the carnage ahead. He’d said Aaron was running well and had caught Paul Slaymaker, a recent addition to the Masters ranks with a 2:34 PB to his credit, suggesting that I had a shot of getting him too. That idea quickly vanished when I hit 4th and saw Slaymaker coming back from the turnaround right about the same place I saw him last year when he finished over four minutes ahead of me (he’d only beat me by three minutes this year).
After the turnaround, I saw the remnants of our early pack behind me: Dario, Mike, and the assortment of other runners who had at some point tagged along for the ride. The sight of Suzanne Evans made me nervous. Suzanne is a strong finisher who reeled me in about three-quarters of the way through Victoria last year and then held on to finish four seconds ahead of me. With 10k still ahead, knowing who is behind you can be a great motivator, and I will admit I ran a little scared the rest of the way.
I picked up a few stragglers on the long road back, including Dave Stephens on Highbury, the quiet, demoralizing quarter mile between 4th Avenue and Point Grey Road which has offered up a few trophies for me in the past: Sparky Wickstead in 2008, Chris Barth in 2009. Rounding the turn onto Point Grey Road and crossing Alma, it was really uplifting to see so many members of my marathon clinic on their way out. They were looking great and it confirmed that we’d have a few BQs on the board by the time it was all done.
Guy still seemed to be putting distance between us and I had pretty much conceded that I couldn’t catch him until I crested the hill to Kits Beach where I’d originally let him get away and realized that he had less of a gap on me this year than he did two years ago when I caught him about a mile up the road near the Space Sciences Centre. The only difference, of course, was that this year Guy was still running strong.
As I made my way around Kits Point and under the green mesh netting installed a day earlier to keep Burrard Bridge from shedding on marathoners, I had a few well-meaning fans — including some family friends — tell me that Guy was “fading” and that I could catch him. Ha! You don’t know how long I’ve been trying, I tried to say via ESP since I couldn’t manage to get the words out through conventional channels.
Brian met me again at the south end of the bridge for the final crossing. Guy was about thirty seconds ahead by Brian’s estimation and he suggested I could catch him on the downhill side of the bridge, a pretty astute observation, I thought, considering Brian had only seen us a couple of times during the race and wasn’t present for the uphill-downhill cat-and-mouse games earlier in the race. It did appear that I had chipped away at Guy’s lead by the time he reached the top of the bridge and I reminded myself that if I wanted a shot at Masters prize money, I had to catch him. Get him on the downhill, I told myself as I went over the top, but I still had a huge gap and just didn’t feel like I had enough gas left to close it.
Then around 40k, toward Pacific at the far end of the bridge, something clicked. Perhaps triggered by the steep bridge descent, I found another gear, a little extra jump, and went with it. Was it enough? Would I have enough energy or did I start my push too early? Did I have enough race left? Two things I did have going for me were the long, gradual downhill stretch to Drake to make up ground and Guy meandering like a lost tourist along the centre line of the curving final mile of Pacific. I quickly gained on Guy and with Steve King’s voice becoming clearer in the distance it was looking more and more like Guy and I would be engaged in one of those crazy sprints to the finish that leave you wondering why the hell the guys involved still have so much energy after 26 miles?
I caught Guy under the Cambie Street off-ramp where Pacific straightens out for the final 400m push to the line. I’ve run a lot of shorter races with Guy over the past few years and know he’s got some good wheels for a man in his fifties so I didn’t dare look back. About 300m out I heard people along the fence yelling “Go Guy!” as I approached them. Crap, he’s coming back. Run! Don’t be the chump who gets caught right before the line! With 200m to go, I could hear Steve King talking about my 2:44 PB from last year and something about how I will still be pleased with this result. Hell yeah, if I can just get Guy off my back for the final 100m! Steve King continued on, mentioning my past life as a rugby player, so I took that as a good sign that Guy couldn’t be that close behind. I glanced with satisfaction at the 2:46 on the clock and pressed for the line to the sound of Steve King announcing my name. Done! I turned back in surprise to see Guy still at least 50-60m behind, getting his well-earned Steve King welcome as the winner of the 50+ age group. Was that epic duel to the line all in my head?
I ended up 21st overall and fifth in the Masters race — two spots out of the money — and in spite of the sloppy conditions, my time of 2:46:49 was the second fastest marathon I’ve run and I positive split by a scant seventeen seconds. Aaron finished just off a PB in 2:42:10 in spite of a potty break, Dario ran his best marathon in a while in 2:52:25. Guy ran a 2:47:02 and Mike a 2:53:37.
Rain or not, I told my marathon clinic that it was going to be a good day and I’d say that it was. I answered a lot of questions I had going in to this marathon: yes, I can run a decent marathon in the rain; yes, I can run a marathon in racing flats; yes, I can still post a pretty decent time while running my long runs with my marathon clinic at a lower intensity than usual; and yes, knowing I had 38 clinic members chasing me around the marathon course, many running a marathon for the first time, was tremendously uplifting.
Incidentally, my brother took the blame for the rain. He has run the Vancouver half and full once each before this year and it rained both times, so he said he knew it would rain on race day as soon as he signed up. Why his bad karma trumps my good karma, I don’t know, but I’ll keep it mind next time we register to run a race together. He did run a PB so the kid’s not completely cursed with bad luck.