Tuesday, May 2, 2017

2017 Forest City Road Race Half Marathon Recap

Posted by CheapRunnerMike

This past weekend marked the 35th running of the Forest City Road Races, the premier running race in Southwestern Ontario and my hometown race.  I ran in the half marathon in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and took last year off to volunteer at the race.  I was back to run again on Sunday morning.

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The forecast had been calling for rain in the days leading up to the race but the rain passed through overnight.  It was still cool and overcast, with plenty of wind, but conditions were pretty favourable for racing.  We arrived at Victoria Park around 7:30 with the race set to begin at 8:00.  I met up with a few friends and passed some time before getting a nice easy jog in around the park to warm up.  After that I stripped out of my warm gear and checked my bag before walking to the start line.  I was going to be running with my buddy Spencer who was racing his first half.  We were both looking to run sub-1:25 and hopefully closer to 1:22 so we decided to work together as long as we could.

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Start to Western University (1K-5K, 19:12, 3:50/km)

After singing the National Anthem the gun went and we were off like a shot.  Spencer and I were solidly holding 4th & 5th place, with 1 through 3 gapping us quickly.  Chris Balestrini was out running, so I was pretty sure who would be winning today…the guy is a beast and has won this race every year I have run it.  He was pretty much out of sight about 500m in.  Spencer and I were cruising though and clipped off the first couple of kilometres at a really good pace to establish ourselves before settling in around 3:55/km.  We were chatting away and holding our pace steady, although Spencer would point out that I really liked to pull hard at every intersection we came to.  I couldn’t help it, I was fired up…especially when a pickup truck with a trailer pulled into our lane to attempt a right-hand turn just as we were about to come through the intersection.  Thankfully the police officer at the intersection put a stop to the guy.  We continued our run up Western Road, climbing the hill to the university.

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Western to Old North (6K-10K, 19:59, 4:00/km)

We turned into Western and into the teeth of the wind…it was stiff.  We kept the effort up but the pace dipped a touch once we headed into Gibbons Park.  I could tell that Spencer was fighting it just a little bit at this point as his breathing was getting harder so I told him to tuck in behind me and I would take on the wind for him as best as I could.  I slowed just a touch to let him try and get his heart rate and breathing back in line.  It seemed to help as we were able to get back on our pace just in time for the London Pacers water station (always one of the best water stations for FCRR!).  I knew that we had the big climb of the race coming up though…we were about to exit the park up St James hill, a 20m incline over just 800m.

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We turned up the hill and started our climb.  Spencer’s heart rate spiked again and he had to slow it right down.  He told me to keep going and he’d catch back up, but I knew the last thing he needed was to take a breath just to put in a surge to catch me so I slowed down to stay with him.  He got going again but it wasn’t long before the problem came right back.  All of a sudden I could hear another set of footsteps right behind us as the pack behind us closed the gap.  We were at 9K and if I wanted to hold my position I knew I had to let Spencer go.  I took off just before the pack caught me and didn’t look back…I didn’t need to look because I could hear them right on my heels.

Old North to Western (11K-15K, 19:06, 3:49/km)

I really started to pick up the pace after leaving Spencer, knowing that there was a pack trying to run me down.  I was able to enjoy the run through the beautiful Old North neighbourhood and took in the cheers from the spectators out supporting us as well as the delightful strains of the bagpipes…I had a big Scottish grin across my face as soon as I saw the piper ahead.  I continued weaving my way through the streets of Old North and soon came to the corner of Waterloo and Victoria, which happened to be where Michelle was volunteering as a course marshal.  As soon as I turned onto Waterloo I could hear her screaming from the other end of the street…”Come on Michael!  Woo Hoooooo!!!!”  I run up towards her and attempted (and failed) to grab one of the licorices she was handing out.  She informed me that there were three guys right behind me and probably said something like run faster.  I got hustling and picked it up a tad, dropping my pace down to the 3:40’s, despite running into the wind.  Soon enough I was making the turn north on Adelaide and then west onto the long Windermere stretch, which is a little climb followed by a big descent, and with the wind finally at my back!

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Western to Gibbons (16K-20K, 19:03, 3:49/km)

As I made the turn off of Windermere and onto Richmond I decided to allow myself a quick peek behind me.  I could see back around the corner nearly 500m before the Windermere Mount blocked my view and there was nobody.  I was entirely clear of the pack that had been chasing me.  Obviously there was no one that I could see ahead of me either, as those three bunnies took off right from the start and I hadn’t seen a trace of them since around 5K.  I was all alone, just me and that stiff stiff wind in my face.  I was really wishing I still had Spencer with me at this point (or anyone, really) as it would have been nice having someone to work with against that headwind.  I just tried to make myself small and powered through it though, pumping my arms and legs as hard as I could.  Back into the university I turned and quickly back onto the path through Gibbons.  Really fighting that wind but still feeling good and strong.  I was working hard but never really struggling.  I passed the Pacers water station a second time and continued up towards St James hill where I kept straight instead of turning as I began to head back to downtown and the finish line.  I crossed under the Oxford Street bridge and one of the volunteers cheered me on, telling me that there was no one in sight.  I took a left out of the park onto Ann Street and then back into a brutal headwind for the homestretch on Talbot.

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Talbot to Victoria Park Finish (20K-21.1K, 3:43/km)

It was actually a really nice boost to come up out of the park and onto Talbot, despite the wind and the final climb, because I was hooking up with the tail end of the 5K race…there were actually other runners!  I felt like the climb and the wind had knocked me well off my pace, but I looked down at my watch and saw that I was still cruising in the 3:40’s.  I shouted out encouragement to the 5K runners as I went past them and cheered them into their finish line.  I headed up Central Ave and made the final victory loop around Victoria Park, finishing up strong with a big kick down Dufferin into the finish chute.  The commentators saw me coming in my Team Sheri shirt and shouted, “Here comes Mike Cooke, the Tye Dyed Streak!”  Across the finish with a time of 1:22:13…4th place overall, 1st in my age group and even a 2 second PR!

It ended up being a great day of racing as I had a whole bunch of friends setting new PR’s and a number of them even running their first races at these distances.  Thanks to all the folks at Forest City Road Races for putting on yet another great race, they really have this race thing figured out after 35 years!  Also a big thank you to all of the awesome volunteers (my lovely wife included) who braved some pretty nasty spectating/volunteering weather to support us all out on the course.  Really appreciate you all being there.  Cheers, and thanks for reading!

Monday, March 27, 2017

2017 Around the Bay Recap

Posted by CheapRunnerMike

Race report!  My first race of the season was this past weekend in Hamilton, the Around the Bay 30K Road Race…oldest road race in North America, this being the 123rd anniversary.  This would be my third time doing the race.

I had signed up to take the bus down with the New Balance group, who provide bib pickup as well as the bus to and from the race for only $30…the only way I will ever do this race!  Michelle, my Mum and I caught the bus at 5:30am Sunday and we were pulling into Hamilton shortly after 7:00.  The race didn’t start until 9:30 so we had a bit of time to relax and enjoy the warmth (and toilets) of First Ontario Centre while we waited.  Once the race start was near we all headed off to our corrals to begin the race.  I ran into a few familiar faces I hadn’t seen since last season and said my hellos to Zindine, Brad and Luke.  I was at the start line with Brad and Luke but knew that their opening pace would be a bit rich for me as I had wanted to hold back a bit at the start.  The horn (a train horn since CN was the presenting sponsor) signaled the start of the race and we were off.

The Out (1K-10K, 4:00/km)
The first 10K of the race was through the Hamilton downtown and then out into a more industrial area as we headed towards Lake Ontario.  There was a pretty stiff headwind all through this section and that knocked my pace down a wee bit.  I was moving along well but just wasn’t able to find a good group to tuck in with to hide from the wind…everyone that I came up on was going a little too slow for my liking.  I made sure to not push too hard in the wind and tried to hold the pace around 4:00/km.  I came through the first 5K in 20:03 and began to run side by side with another guy and we held a similar pace through to nearly the 20K mark.  We were holding our own on the flat sections and every overpass we came to we bounded pass other runners.  Looking good for the hills on the back half, which I knew I needed to save the legs for.  We hit the highway offramp and looped around to the 10K mark in 40:03 to begin the next stretch of the race.

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The Across (11K-20K, 3:54/km)
As we crossed the 10K timing mat we were also turning out of the wind…it was still there to be sure but it was a much more manageable crosswind.  This is the section of the race where I knew I could bank some time, yet being careful to keep enough in reserve for the hills.  I found a group to run with this time and stuck right on the heels of a woman that was absolutely dialed in to her pace.  We cruised along at around a 3:55/km pace and it was feeling relatively easy after the headwind on the first 10K.  There was another woman a little bit up the road from us and I commented to my new running buddy that she was reeling her in…she just chuckled.  We were certainly closing though and it wasn’t long before we passed her, and good for her too as she ended up placing as the 10th overall female.  We came across the lift bridge and made the turn towards the neighbourhood hills and began the swaybacks with the wind assisting us for the first time all day…

The Hills (21K-27K, 3:56/km)
This section is the meat of the course, where the rubber really hits the road.  It starts out easy enough with some gentle rollers and builds up to a few really tough hills and ends with the Valley Inn Road Hill, the signature climb of the course which was returning after a 2 year hiatus due to construction.  The hills in this section quite simply will make or break your race.  I managed to hold my pace steady through the first couple of rollers and then I saw a familiar sight up ahead.  There was Luke, chugging up a hill.  I came up behind him and made a lame joke about using the force, then proceeded on my way.  Luke was using this as a training run for Boston in 3 weeks, it is a really great pre-Boston course as there are plenty of similarities.  Up on the next hill I recognized another runner ahead.  This time I was pretty sure I knew who it was because of their form and I was right…it was Trevor, the young kid that I ran almost my entire Ironman Mont Tremblant run leg with, along with his mom on the bike beside him.  I pulled up beside him and said, “Fancy seeing you here.”  He just looked at me funny and said, “Do I know you?”, to which I just replied “Tremblant”.  “Mike!” he shouted, “Hey Mom, it’s Mike from Mont Tremblant!”.  He was pretty stoked and I think it was a nice little boost for him to see a friendly face out there at a tough point in the race.  Again I was off though, bounding up the hills and on to the final big Valley Inn hill.  I used the big downhill approaching it as much as I could and then proceeded to chug my way up the other side.  Head down, lean forward, pump the arms.  I chewed the final hill up and spit it out at the top.  I could hear some heavy breathing from someone that was right on my heels the whole way and once I crested the top I just stuck my fist out for a fist bump and it was my female running buddy from earlier…she crushed the hill too.  In fact she nailed it so well that she took off once we were at the top and left me in her dust as she flew towards the finish.  Beast.

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The Back (28K-30K, 3:53/km)

The final 3K stretch after the hills back to the finish is all downhill, so you can really hammer it home.  Unfortunately the wind had other ideas on this day…yup, the headwind was back.  I knew how close I was though and I pushed the pace with everything I had left in my legs…I was now chasing a sub-2 hour run which would net me a gold medal.  I ignored my screaming quads and kept the pace rich, passing people all the way back to First Ontario Centre.  As we neared the finish there were cheers from the spectators and we made the turn into the arena to the finish.  I crossed with a bit of time to spare for the gold, official time 1:58:25.

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Brad and a couple of his buddies had just crossed the line and both Trevor and Luke were in just shortly after me, so we all congratulated each other and got some pictures together.  Then I was off to the bus to get changed and have a couple of beers before Michelle and my Mum finished their races.  I cheered on some runners and saw the ladies cross the line and then before long we were back on the bus heading home to London. 

Oh, one other cool thing…on the way to the race there was a clipboard passed around the bus for people to guess their finishing times.  Michelle decided that she would guess my time and went with 1:59:16, only 9 seconds off of my actual time.  Turns out I was closest to my guess and I won a $25 New Balance gift card!  Sweet!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2016 Vulture Bait 50K Trail Race Recap

Posted by CheapRunnerMike

The triathlon season ended for me last month but that didn't mean my race season with done with…I still had my first ever 50K Ultra to look forward to, the Vulture Bait Trail Race.

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The race is local for us as it takes place at Fanshawe Conservation Area, just the other end of town.  The setting is beautiful as you run through the woods around the lake, one of the best trails to run in our neck of the woods.  I was looking forward to it, but really didn't know what to expect as my longest training run was only 30K and I had never run further than the standard marathon distance of 42.2K (26.2 miles).  Nothing to worry about, right??

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The race was Saturday morning and we were blessed with absolutely perfect weather…a true anomaly for this race as they were quick to let us all know.  Apparently this was the first time in the 14 year running of the race that the weather has been decent.  I did the 25K last year and we had snow flurries, so we were quite fortunate.  It was cool to start, probably around 10ºC or so, but the sun was shining and it warmed up to 20ºC during the morning.  Michelle was with me as well as she was taking on the single-loop 25K, her first trail race!  She was running with our friend Nancy, and we met up with her and her husband Tom in the parking lot on the way in.  There were plenty of familiar faces to say hi to and catch up with so the time went by quickly as we waited for the race start.  The wait wasn't completely uneventful though as I had to seek out first aid before the race even began.  I went to unlock the bathroom stall and the door was a little tight…as I slid the lock open I though to myself, "I better be careful or I'll end up slicing my finger."  Sure enough.  Knuckle gashed and dripping blood (it was just a flesh wound), I found a lovely volunteer to bandage me up (she also happened to be a nurse, lucky me).  Hopefully not a sign of things to come!

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9:00 rolled around and we all made our way down the steep (slippery) hill to the start line.  I scampered to the back of the pack and found Michelle to give her a kiss and wish her well, then made my way back up through the crowd to the front.  The 25K and 50K start at the same time (can't really call 300 people a "mass start", but you get the idea) and I wanted to make sure I got out quick enough to avoid the crowd as we headed into the single-track.  If you are looking for trail racing advice, that's about all I've got…get in the lead pack and avoid congestion…once the trail narrows you do not want to be stuck behind people that have nowhere to go.  Frustrating for you and frustrating for them too.

A group of about 10 took off and set the pace right from the start.  I had tried to scope out the bib numbers at the start to see who was wearing a 300+ (meaning 50K) as I had no desire to chase the 25K rabbits for very long.  It didn't take long to see the front 5 putting in a bit of a gap on us, and I called back to my buddy Abe (who was doing the 25K race) to let him know that this first 5K stretch was one of the only places on the course where you could book some time as it was pretty open and easy running.  He nodded and took off after the pack.  Shortly afterwards the runner in front of me called back to let me know that he was off the pace of the leaders in case I wanted to chase, but I was quick to let him know that I wasn't interested in running anyone down today.  It was pretty easy to tell who the 50K runners were!

I bridged up to this guy and we chatted for a little while…he had travelled all the way down from Sudbury (about 600km away) because he had heard how great this race was.  We ran for a bit until we hit the aid station at 5K…I just grabbed a quick sip of water and he stopped for a beat or two longer and that was the last I saw of him for the day.

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I made my way across the dam and ducked back into the woods again, beginning the real traily part of the race.  This section was a bit twisty through some pine forest with lots of roots to tiptoe through.  I was finding that I was able to run the road/easy trail sections around a 4:20-4:30/km pace and once I got back into the more technical sections I was down around 4:45-5:00/km…paces I would be very happy to hold.  Coming up on 10K and I saw a runner in front of me that I was reeling in…I recognized his blue shirt (or maybe purple?  Not sure, I'm colourblind #colourblindessdidnotwin) and knew it was Abe.  As I got up behind him I told him not to worry it was only me…nobody was overtaking him.  We started running together and chatted a bit along the way.  He was dealing with some hamstring issues but was holding a really good pace.  We spurred each other on through the next 9 or 10K before Abe eventually had to pull off for a moment to stretch out his wonky hammy on the Thorndale bridge.

Back into the woods for the last 5K of the first loop…last year this was the area that featured an unofficial "Hillbilly" Aid Station (which featured three types of beer…light beer, dark, beer and root beer.  Plus banjos)  This year was a different take with a beach party going on, complete with Bob Marley & Jimmy Buffett tunes and the Jamaican flag.  The guys were decked out in hula skirts and Hawaiian shirts and offered me margaritas, Red Stripe beer and cerveza…I downed a margarita (LOADED with tequila!) with a Red Stripe chaser, then tried my hand at their limbo station, all while some other guy went zipping by saying something about catching them on his second loop.  Jeez man, taking the lead from a guy doing shots and limbo???  Where's the fun in that?!?  I figured I better say goodbye to the Rasta-party-ans and chase this guy down before he got too far ahead of me.  I closed the gap and got on his heels after another kilometre or so and we ran together the last couple kilometres back to the start/finish area and our halfway point.  We chatted briefly about race position and wondering if anyone was out ahead, which neither of us believed was the case…we were fairly certain we were the first two runners.  We cruised into the halfway point and both of us stopped at the feed tables.  He quickly refilled his water bottle while I downed Coke and water and grabbed a couple handfuls of peanut M&M's and ju jubes.  As I was pigging out refueling the other guy was already out building up a lead of nearly 200m…time to chase again.  I took off and right away I felt gross.  I had been running a bit quicker than I knew I should have been when I was running back to halfway with the other fella and now I was feeling it.  I wasn't exactly letting him go at this point, but I wasn't going to burn all my matches trying to stay with him now either.  I still had a long way to go and I had to run my race.  I settled back into a more sustainable pace and was once again running solo.

I made my way through the quicker section of the trail again and as I popped out by the first aid station near the dam I caught a glimpse of the lead runner already heading up the hill, but surprisingly no further ahead than he was when we started our second loop.  he aid station volunteers confirmed we were 1 & 2 and urged me on to go get him, saying I was about 30 seconds back.  I grabbed some goodies at their station and took off again, keeping to my steady pace.  Back into the woods again I saw a couple out walking their dog…as I got closer I realized that it was Ralph, one of my buddies from work.  I'm not sure who was more surprised to see who.  A quick "hey Ralph!" was all I could muster as I trudged onwards.

Eventually I made it to the cottages section where we were back onto some road and coming up to another aid station…I knew it was coming so I downed my second and final Gu gel (Root Beer, yum).  This aid station was great…more Coke & water along with candies, cookies, chips, crackers and watermelon (which I downed in one big bite).  Seriously, when you are racing there is nothing better than watermelon.  Also at the aid station was the lead runner, once again refilling his bottle.  He left just as I was pulling in, but I knew that I was closing the gap.  Once I took off again I decided to try and make up some ground while I could on the faster surface before ducking back into the woods.  It was about a kilometre before we hit the woods again and I pulled up beside him just as we were going in.  I saw him stretching his arms out above his head a few times and asked him how he was feeling.  He replied that his stomach wasn't great and he was having trouble eating, as well as some cramps.  I wished him well and took off…he didn't even try to chase me.

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By now I was 40K in and was just focusing on making the next aid stations.  As I cruised into the next station the volunteers were still putting their finishing touches on for the 50K runners.  She told me I was about 3 minutes earlier than they were expecting people…that's gotta be a good sign!  I refueled with more Coke, water and sport drink as well as some delicious oranges and was back on my way.  I tore down the black diamond hill and noticed my watch beep at 42K…I was crossing the marathon threshold at 3:31.  I was now into uncharted running territory and way past that 30K training run.  I came out on the final stretch of road and took a peek behind me as I was turning back into the woods…you can see back close to 500m from here and there was no one in sight.  The race was mine to lose, I just had to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.

The next aid station was the unofficial beach party again and all I wanted was water.  I asked the Rasta-party-ans if they had anything non-alcoholic and one of them said, "sure, there's plenty of water down that hill…in the lake".  So Red Stripe it was!  No limbo this time and for the first time ever at their station nobody passed me!  I thanked the guys and headed off towards the final aid station up at the top of the hill.  By now I was wondering if I would see Michelle and Nancy and sure enough as I was just about up the hill I could hear Michelle's voice as she was leaving the aid station, saying something about not letting her husband pass her.  One last Coke, Ginger Ale, water fill up for me at Jeremy's aid station and then off to the finish line.  I came up behind Michelle and Nancy shortly after and they cheered me on as I passed them…I still think Michelle was trying to block me but she'll deny it ;)  There were actually quite a few 25K runners still out finishing their races and they all cheered me on as I went by and I tried my best to encourage them as well, but truth be told I was a little grumpy and tired at that point…the energy level just wasn't there.

I emerged from the woods and made the final 2K run to the finish.  Tom was there to cheer me on as he was heading out to cheer in Nancy and Michelle, and at the finish line there was a decent sized crowd gathered to cheer me in.  I crossed the finish line with a winning time of 4:11:34.  I knew the guys at the finish line handing out medals too and got mine from Kevin, which was kind of a nice touch.  I found a comfy picnic table to sit at and waited for Michelle to finish.  I gave her a big cheer as she crossed the line to complete her first trail race.

We were unfortunately unable to stick around for the amazing post-race food spread and awards ceremony, but I did get hooked up with some pretty sweet swag for my win.  I walked away with a $50 gift card for MEC, and I will soon have a new custom embroidered Columbia Sportswear jacket as well as a new pair of Montrail shoes.  Not bad at all!

Big thanks go out to the organizers and all of the amazing volunteers on this one…without you the race doesn't happen.  Vulture Bait is definitely on the must-do list if you are looking for a trail run here in Southwestern Ontario, highly recommended!  Cheers for reading folks :)