as an aspiring social medialite, a couple of years ago i started putting more attention into developing a presence on facebook, twitter and the blogosphere. it was through connecting with the running community on twitter that i came into conversation with erin mcdougall who is the organizer for pace bunnies for the County Marathon. he asked whether or not i'd be interested in being a pacer for this year's edition of the race, and given that i was looking for more ways to become a contributor to (and less of a consumer of) the running community i agreed.
the pace was yet to be determined.
at the time of asking (early this spring) my posted PB in the marathon was still 3:18:14 - and so in terms of comfort i suggested that i might be best suited to be the 3:45 pacer. erin then let me know that was normally 'his time', and wondered if i might perhaps be open to being a faster pacer at 3:30. my response back was that i would see how the mississauga marathon went, and then get back to him. after posting my new PB of 3:14:43, i agreed to take on the 3:30 pacing duties.
my good pal lewis asked to join me for a road trip to picton, ontario and i was happy to spend the time with him - so he arranged to be a race crew volunteer. we headed out on saturday of race weekend to hit the only day of the expo (and of race kit pick-up), and what started as an uncomplicated 3-hour trip extended itself thanks to a demonstration/blockade on the skyway bridge leading into picton. apparently an unannounced protest by the native canadian community of tyendinaga over missing aboriginal women shut down the main trafficway into this little town, resulting in a 50-minute detour for us. given that we'd given ourselves enough buffer time, it was a non-issue that day, but meant that we would have to plan for a different route in the morning.
the expo took place in the "Crystal Palace" in downtown picton, a picturesque barn of a building that is an elaborate community hall. there were perhaps three or four vendors (including one local running retailer), a table selling previous years' race-branded gear, and the designated kit pick-up tables. it was a straight-forward in-and-out affair, although i did get to meet kailey the race organizer along with a few other key race team members. each of them were incredibly friendly and obliging - consistent with all that i'd heard about the character of this event.
i'd booked a hotel (prior to lewis' request to join me for this trip) at a small motel in napanee - about 30 min. away from picton ... if the skyway bridge weren't closed to traffic. we timed the trip to the motel at just shy of an hour, and adjusted our morning plans accordingly. after checking in, we headed to the fish 'n' chips restaurant next door on the hotel concierge's recommendation. a quaint little joint that was hopping with familes and seniors, and good, sizably-portioned homestyle cooking. i even had a quarter of a club sandwich leftover which i refrigerated for my pre-race breakfast.
after that it was just time to lay out my gear for the next morning - and aside from trying to figure out how to best affix the two rabbit ears to my hat the biggest decision that i had to make was whether or not to be shod in the Skechers GOBionic 2 or the GOMeb Speed 2. i'd brought both pairs with me as i was unsure what would work best ... the GOBionic 2 was the newest iteration of my #1 ranked running shoe, but the GOMeb Speed 2 had gotten me across the finish line at the mississauga marathon in BQ time. i decided that i could give no less than my best effort to the group of aspiring 3:30 runners and chose to wear the GOMeb Speed 2 racing flats. i'd prepare for this race like i was preparing to go and nail my best possible time so that there would be no sense of 'coasting it' for this race.
as part of the parking crew, lewis had to be on-site by 6am - which worked out fine for me. it meant an early 4am wake-up (anticipating the detour around the blockade area, which turned out to have been cleared up overnight ... but we didn't check twitter in time) but traffic was non-existent.
however, we did drive through plenty of nasty, windswept rain showers. all the way into picton i was hoping that there would be clearer conditions by the seaway. though we arrived in spit and mist, by the time that i boarded the shuttle bus (the race is a point-to-point, so we parked at the finish line) to the start area the precipitation had let up - but there was a distinct autumn chill in the air.
the start line was adjacent to an arena so the runners all huddled in there in the warmth, with plenty of indoor washrooms and even an indoor track for warmups! i spent the time meeting the other pacers, as well as making myself visible to anyone who had designs on trying to lay down a 3:30 time ... which was not hard to do given the size of my ears.
the headband was necessary because only two staples were holding each ear to the hat
just prior to the starter's gun firing i met some of the group who would plan to become my posse ... and it began with a barrage of "what's your strategy going to be?" questions. i let them all know that i was aiming for even pacing and splits, which seemed to set everyone at ease. there looked to be about six or seven who'd be in the 3:30 wolfpack, which felt like a nice critical mass to me.
as we started the group countdown one runner came through the crowd in a harried fashion, slicing his way to the front of the chute. his thin kenyan frame pretty much justified what would otherwise be a presumptuous and inconsiderate move - this was gilbert kiptoo, previous winner and on this day attempting to break the course record.
[photo from countylive.ca]
the initial kilometres were spent with nicole (aiming for a BQ time), robin (who knew about me from a mutual friend - whom i've only met online - anna), steve (who'd seemed to have run just about every major marathon in north america), michael (a first timer in the marathon), and a couple others whose names i didn't catch. within the first four kilometres we picked up kaitlyn (a school teacher on maternity leave who was running the first leg of the 5-person marathon relay) and settled into a relaxed, even rhythm.
well within the first 10km i began to notice that my Garmin 305 was clicking off kilometre splits some 100m before the roadside markers - and then 125m before - then 150m before (you get the picture). i've known for a while to 'not trust the GPS', but this was a bit disconcerting especially since i needed to help shepherd every across the finish line in 3:30, not just when my device decided that we'd travelled 42.195km. so i decided instead to just watch my elapsed time and compare the pace bands i'd printed against the roadside markers, and that ended up working well.
kms 13-23 were the real battlefield this day - while everyone was talking about and anticipating the 30-odd metre climb from km 38-40, it was the stretch just after the little town of bloomfield that we began to run into the wind. gusts hit about 35kph, and definitely began to break up our pack. even for michael who stayed stride for stride with me it would eat up some first-half energy that would end up making him pay at around the 35km mark.
in terms of the aid stations, they were more frequent than i'd been accustomed to in other races (at every 2km) and several stocked not only water and electrolyte drink but also handed out gels. there was only one station that seemed to have been unstaffed, but given that there were so many extras along the way this was not a big issue. and the crowds were great - with the various hand-off points for the relay race as well as the half-marathoners beginning right at the halfway mark of the full marathon, there were plenty of cheering crowds. they may have been thin at points, but they were no less supportive and vocal. what a great rally of support from the local community!
at about 29km michael and i caught up to steve (who had put some distance after the 1st km) and also picked up another runner named wynand. wynand had originally been a first-leg runner for a relay team, but also just that morning registered to finish the full marathon. he switched bibs after the first relay point, and was using this as a training run having just come off of a disappointing DNF at this year's edition of the canadian death race. apparently he had to bail after about 81km of the 125km course - but who am i kidding? i'd probably have posted a DNS for something called a "death race"! as i quickly perceived that wynand's accent was south african our conversations turned to the comrades marathon (which he'd completed numerous times) as it is on my bucket list of races.
after 35km michael began to fade (in that section which wynand described as the "marathoner's graveyard") and it was just wynand and i until about 38km when wynand paused at the aid station to take his salt tablets. i negotiated the vaunted hill without much difficulty as it was probably talked up more than it needed to be. with a quick check of my watch i saw that i was still ahead of schedule by about 45 seconds, so went into easy cruising mode for the final 2km or so. with about 1km left wynand caught up again, having worked hard to make up the lost ground - and with a quick tap on the shoulder i saw him break off ahead as he would go on to a 3:28:58 finish.
the finishing chute was loud, crowded and energetic. as i approached i could hear the announcer say "here comes our 3:30 pacer - within 30 seconds of his time. next time you want to run the County Marathon, make sure you connect with our pacers who are right on time!" i crossed in 3:29:39 (clock time) which was a real win for me, and i felt great. after receiving my medal i saw my buddy lewis helping to keep people moving out of the chute and toward the bag check area.
i hung around to see steve, michael and robin finish their races - and was immensely proud of each of them for their accomplishments. i also was watching for nicole, but when she didn't show up after the 3:45 bunny came in and it started to rain (big drops), i bailed into the Crystal Palace where there were refreshments, free beer (!), and the posted results.
inside i caught up with a number of other runners that i'd connected with, including michael who introduced me to his wife and then asked her to take a picture of he and i together. together with a conversation with robin post-race about how much she appreciated my pacing, these were the moments that provided me with a sense of accomplishment as a first-time pacer. in some small way i'd hit the mark.
lewis and didn't dawdle too long as we both wanted to hit the road at a decent time, but we did pause to say thanks to kailey and erin for their help in bringing us to the County Marathon. all in all it was a very memorable race for all the right reasons - and i have designs on checking in on it again next october.
if you're looking for a small-ish, super-well executed half or full marathon next fall you will definitely want to check this one out!
as for me - next stop, the Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope on nov. 2!