Toronto Women’s Half Marathon Race Report

When I first registered for this race, I meant to be competitive. I wanted to PR my half marathon and put up some impressive stats. After all, isn’t that the main goal of running? Going faster than the people around you? But I registered for this race a long time ago. And since then my focus as a runner has changed.

When I first took up running, I was incredibly competitive. I didn’t care if I was beating an old lady or a walker or a newbie. I just wanted to beat everybody. Now I’m much more mellow in my approach. I have different priorities. And between registering for this race and running it, a few things happened:

1. I’ve joined The Run Smiley Collective. This is a group that focuses on prioritizing fun for each run and enjoying the journey, not just the destination. This fits with my own personal evolution as far as what running has become for me.

2. I ran a sub-2hr half marathon in training. My fastest half marathon time is now 1:45, just on my own. I don’t consider it a PR until I’ve raced it, but I know I can run a good half and I don’t particularly feel the need to prove it with a chip.

3. I’ve become an ultra runner. As part of my training, I’ve run back to back half marathons every weekend, and then some. The half marathon for me has become a standard training run distance, and I’ve fallen a little out of love with it. My heart belongs to marathons and ultras.

4. I run barefoot. This has significantly tweaked my concept of competition and time. Yes, maybe the girl next to me can run a sub-2 hour. But can she do it without shoes? Also, not all race routes are created equal. So much depends on terrain and weather conditions. I’ve learned to be patient with my progress. It’s no longer a matter of just showing up and planning a PR. I need to understand the conditions around me and work within them.

5. I’ve become a trail runner. Trails are where I want to live and die. As I continue to transition to more barefoot trail running, road races like this one don’t seem as important.

That said, this race was the day after my birthday and seeing as I’ll jump at any excuse to run, I was excited!

I ditched my goal of hitting a PR and decided to just enjoy a fun and easy race. I didn’t do any of the normal race preparations. I didn’t taper. I didn’t carb load. I didn’t have a strategy in place. I didn’t even sleep much, since I was up celebrating my birthday the night before.

On race day I met up with my Facebook friend Robin. She’s a fellow lover of trails and ultras, and this would be her last road race as she would only race on trails from this point on. We had a lovely conversation until it was time to run. I had registered for the first coral, but decided to let them pass by and join Robin at the end of the second coral. We started in waves.

I originally had wanted to run this race barefoot, but I woke up in the morning to find the ground soaking wet. Wet concrete is harder to run on barefoot because the water softens your skin and the concrete can act as a pumice stone, wearing away at your soles and increasing the risk of injury, especially over a longer distance. I’ve run barefoot on wet concrete for 10k, but not more than that.

I also didn’t know what the concrete would be like. When you run barefoot, you quickly learn that not all concrete is created equal. Some roads are a pleasure to run on, while others are gravely torture. Road conditions can make or break a barefoot race.

Lastly, the accumulation of large puddles blocked the visibility of huge chunks of road. As fun as it is to run through puddles (and I did, at my own risk), you can’t always see the texture of the road underneath. Sometimes it’s not what you’re expecting.

For all these reasons, I decided to run in my VFFs. And it was a good call. As it turns out, the Sunnybrook Park paths are atrocious. Not particularly well maintained, rocky, and straight up gravel-like in some sections. The wooden bridges were the best surfaces, and in some areas it was possible to hop on the grass. But not always. Sometimes the grass on either side of the narrow paths were waist-high for me. I had no issues in my VFFs, but running it barefoot would have been impossible in my case.

I ran the first half of the race very enjoyably, happily snapping picture and exerting no effort at all. The paths were so narrow and congested that it was almost impossible to pass anyone anyway. So I settled into a slow pace and enjoyed the views.

This is what the puddles looked like:

And the waist-high grass:

Great bridge surface:

Human traffic congestion:

The firefighter’s water station was a big deal at this race. We had to pass it three times, and in the second half they took off their shirts. It was not disappointing. I did notice that the firemen weren’t particularly skilled at distinguishing the water from the sports drinks. Thankfully, they were very easy to forgive.

Here is a video of the firemen’s water station.

(Direct Youtube link HERE)

After the first half my legs started feeling slightly fatigued, but I realized they were just bored. I remembered what my running buddy Angie told me – it’s usually easier to go faster. And as it turns out, it’s also more fun!

I picked up the pace for the second half and immediately felt better. And I ran a negative split! For me, the real part of any race is the last half. It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts. I love speeding up and passing some of the people who passed me near the start, looking strong when it really counts.

On the last loop I realized I was making great time, and I could either speed up to guarantee a PR, or take off my VFFs and finish barefoot, which would slow me down. It was a no-brainer for me since one was clearly more fun than the other. Off came the Vibrams.

The rough pavement required all my concentration, and it did slow me down. I focused on keeping good form and even managed to pass a few people who were shuffling along. I went through the puddles, but it was a gamble since I couldn’t see how deep they were or what the road was like underneath. There was so much broken pavement.

I ran on some mud along the side of the road, but changed my mind when I realized it was only a thin layer of mud with gravel underneath. However, it gave my legs that cool look of splashed up mud patterns all over them. Dirty is badass.

As I approached the finish line, I had to sprint. This would be my first time crossing the finish line barefoot and I was loving every second.

Any finish line crossing feels like a victory, but doing it barefoot magnified the experience for me tremendously. I crossed on a full out sprint and although I couldn’t see anyone’s reactions, someone told me at the finish line that people had been shocked. It was a strong finish, and I was proud.

I chatted with a couple of lovely ladies afterwards who had questions about my Vibrams, and then I called it a day. I realized on my way home that I had forgotten to check the clock when I ran in and I don’t wear a watch. So I had no idea what my time was.

When I got home I checked the race stats after my shower and to my surprise, I had PR’d anyway at 2:02.

Good things happen when fun is the priority. It was also amazing to see so many strong ladies out there and share their company. Congratulations to all who completed this race and thank you to all the great volunteers! One of the runners also mentioned me on their race report here.

Great job ladies! Run smiley!

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