07 October 2017

Race report - 2017 The County Marathon (Pacer Edition)

I know that being a pacer is all about helping others to achieve their goals.

But to be honest, having my own goal in mind helped me to give my very best to the runners at The County Marathon this year.

And the goal was simple enough:  finish within the two-second window of my three previous appearances as pacer in Picton. 
  • 2014 - official clock time of 3:29:40
  • 2015 - official clock time of 3:29:40
  • 2016 - official clock time of 3:29:42
So this year, under absolutely splendid conditions (5°C at the beginning, 15°C at the finish, clear blue sky and breezes that couldn't have topped 5kph) all of us marathoners were set up for success ...
  • 2017 - official clock time of 3:29:40
I went into this race training to be my very best, because I knew that if I did any less than that then I would not be able to hold the prescribed pace (4:59/km) and coach/encourage/goad/joke/galvanize the runners around me to hit their targets.  After my first experience (ever) pacing in 2014 at this race I quickly discovered that the role encompassed much more than crossing the finish line within 30 seconds of your assigned pace time, but that it was about creating a helpful and enjoyable 'pocket' within which to run.  If I showed up on race day just being confident of being able to pull off a 3:30 marathon myself, that would cheat the group of having someone who wouldn't rely on a gut-it-out-sprint-across-the-mat finish much less having a motivator alongside them.  As such my training since my failed redemption run at The Limberlost Challenge was all tailored to this race.

I consider myself blessed to have been invited back to serve as a pacer by the self-proclaimed 'bunny herder' for this event, my friend Erin McDougall.  This year he proved himself even more gracious by denying my request to save a parking space on his driveway so that I could sleep in my car (!) and instead opening up his home to let me sleep on his living room couch.  This was all due to my complete inability to properly schedule/space-apart events, as my wife asked me several months back "what are you doing on Sep. 30" - and since that particular date didn't set off any alarms in my head I replied with "nothing, I'm free".  Of course I didn't calculate that I would need to be in Prince Edward County that night since I'd be pacing a full marathon the next day, so we wound up joining a team with her high-school friend and husband in a charity event modeled after "The Amazing Race".

Team Treetop!  (not named because of my height or my wife's ...)

The event didn't involve a lot of extra exercise/activity (which I normally try to avoid the day before a marathon) but it was held in the region of the Blue Mountains, about an extra hour away from Brighton, ON where I'd need to be to spend the night.  This just added to the complexity of my weekend, as the plan for post-race was to hightail-it to Ottawa to take my daughter (a frosh student at Carleton University) out for dinner ... but I was most concerned for the lateness of the hour and the inconvenience that it would post to Erin's family to have me roll in when everyone else was trying to bed down for the night.  As it was, our "The Amazing Race" event wrapped up earlier than expected and I was able to make some decent time on the highway, arriving in 'The County' by just after 8pm ... where leftover supper was awaiting me and a nice relaxed chat with Erin, his wife and kids, their dog (Percy) as well as another pacer (Ned) and his companion.

Race day
Given that the details of arriving at the start line mirror the previous three years' events, I'll just note that while staying warm in the Essroc Arena I connected with a few familiar faces from previous years/other events, including Richard (a tough-as-nails runner who had run with my group at least twice before, and not yet hit his 3:30 goal), Patrick Kelly (an amazing man and runner whom I'd been privileged to meet at the 2016 EndurRun), and my good pal Taylor (with whom I'd worked for several years at The Rogers Cup in Toronto).  This year there was no Kenyan or Ethiopian elite athlete to spy on/meet since this was the first year that The County Marathon did not offer any prize money - a bit of a shame since it was always cool to rub shoulders with the kind of people who were themselves rubbing shoulders with the best runners in the entire world.

Within the first couple of kilometres of the start line I also met up with a few runners who indicated that their plan was to stick with me, including:
  • Albert - who'd just raced in the Berlin Marathon the previous weekend and notched a new PB (3:08), and was also planning to pace a friend in the following weekend's Chicago Marathon - making for three marathons in three weekends in three different countries.  He also brought with him a sportdrink that had Maurten fuel mixed in (now made famous as part of Eliud Kipchoge's Breaking 2 attempt), as they had provided some samples at the Berlin Marathon.
  • Dean - a seasoned marathoner who had posted results all in and around the 3:30 mark.
  • Nathan - a former 140.6 Ironman finisher (at Lake Placid) who had stepped away from endurance sport nearly 10 years ago and was just now trying to get back into it.
Along the way we managed to pick up a few other runners (whom we could have just as easily 'picked off' since many of them fell into the perennial racer's trap of starting out waaaayyy too fast ...) and so our pack grew to about seven, including:
  • Nancy - who was aiming for a BQ but upon seeing my "3:30 FULL" sign immediately exclaimed "Oh man - I'm going at least five seconds per kilometre too fast!".  We encouraged her that she had it in her and that she could use the group as her own personal drafting aid.
  • Shayne - dressed in a super-awesome Spider-man long sleeve tech shirt, but also running in nylon warm-up pants!  
  • Spencer - who dialed into the group at just about the 33km mark and toughed it out (saving most of his breath and energy by not speaking) for his first ever marathon.
As it was we had a really enjoyable time staying together (with a few new faces coming into and out of the group along the way) up to the 35km mark.  This was the furthest that I'd seen a group progress with me in the four years of pacing this event, and so it was a new experience for me and a super-proud moment!  The infamous hill just before the 38km mark did take its toll, but Dean (the last one to hang with me) proved to be mentally tough enough to plod his way up the hill alongside me and picked up steam after we crested it - cruising on through to a 3:29:15 finish.

To be honest I didn't do anything to try to speed up or slow down as I finished the tour of gorgeous downtown Picton and spied the finish line - I felt like I just kept to the effort I'd carried throughout the race, knowing of course that just about everyone picks up thanks to the crowd energy in the closing 150m or so.  I didn't even catch the clock time as I crossed, I was just pleased/surprised that I'd actually carried my "3:30" sign the entire way.


Post-race
I assumed my 'usual' position at the back of the finishers' chute to watch the other runners come across the line, and I suspect that I was afforded a bit more latitude than other participants (since I was a pace bunny) as the volunteers tried to keep that area clear by having racers keep moving through to the open field adjacent to the roadway.  I managed to connect with Dean (who sounded quite emotional as he gave me a big hug), Spencer, Nancy, Nathan, Shayne and Taylor - all of them pretty spent but still pumped about having enjoyed a glorious day in the sun.

Not that I do this for the vainglory, but I'm pleased that I was able to do what they recruited me to do - and some of the evidence of this came in the form of a couple of generous social media shares from the other runners:


It was yet another spectacular day in Prince Edward County, and each year I have as much (if not more) fun than the year before.  If you're a veteran runner/road-racer and haven't yet tried your hand at serving as a pacer I'd encourage you to explore this option - not just as a way to help bolster the running community but also as a challenge for your own training and race strategy.  For what my opinion's worth, I think that you will be glad that you did!

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