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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!