May 31, 2010

Marathon Madness

Ok, so I'm afraid that this post is entirely about a road race but I'm a true believer that road running benefits trail running and I still enjoy the challenge of road racing! There is something so fun about racing against the clock, checking kms splits and going for a PB that is way easier to do on roads rather than trails.

When I moved to Banff in the fall I decided to run Calgary as it is my new home city marathon and I have not finished a road marathon since Victoria in October 2008 (I dropped out of Vancouver with injury in May 2009). I had already trained for Elk Beaver 100km four weeks prior so there would be no need to really train for Calgary in terms of mileage, I could just show up and hopefully put in a solid effort. Pre-race day I was aware that I lacked any speed training at all - I had focused so much on mileage that any concept of short yet fast training runs had long gone out the window. I had clocked 3h07m at the 42km split in Elk Beaver and had then continued to run another 58km, but even so would I have the speed to run much faster over 42.2km? Well, I decided to make a good stab at it and prepped my pace band for 2:55:00, with my existing marathon PB being 2:55:18 from Vancouver in 2008.

I was lucky enough to get a comp elite entry from elite organiser Jeremy Deere, one of the main benefits of which was having elite bag check right at the start with no lining up. I drove down to Calgary the day before the race and the closer we got the Calgary the worse the weather got. Low clouds were rolling in, the sky was grey and as the temperature barely hovered above zero the percipition that started to fall was as much snow as rain. Hmm, not exactly the weather I had hoped for but not much could be done other than figure out how many layers to wear!

Come race morning however as I peaked out the window just after 5am, I was pleasantly suprised to see that it looked like a dry and slightly bright morning and although it was still only 2 degrees it felt much warmer as it was dry. I wolfed down my standard pre-race brekkie of a bagel with peanut butter and a cup of tea, wanting as much time for my stomach to settle before the race. The race start area was less than a 2km walk from our hostel so it was good to stretch the legs and also preview the surrounding streets of the race start/ finish. I did an easy warm up, saw some familiar faces and then got in behind the start line, even with the half and full marathons starting at the same time the elite field was pretty small so I was close to the front.

The gun went off and we were away! I was careful not to get carried away with too fast a start but it was hard to guage my pace when I have not road raced in so long and didn't know any of the runners around me. I only knew Graeme Wilson of Vancouver, a sub 2:30 marathoner so I just made sure that I stayed well back from Graeme! First km I was a little fast - 3:50, when I needed to hit 4:08's but it was slightly downhill so I wasn't too worried. In the first few kms I was glad to see that the km markers were super clear and although I was a little fast I soon reined it in so by 5km I was about 1min up on a 2:55 finish time but back on track in terms of pace.

As the marathoners and half marathoners ran the first 13km or so together until the half marathon route branched off, I was trying to guage who was in which race. I got into a good rhythm with a female half marathoner and there were a handful of men around us but I didn't know if any women marathoners had gone off ahead. When we got to where the half marathoners branched off I just prayed that some of the men were marathoners, but as they all peeled away I realised they weren't and now I had one marathoner male about 100m ahead of me and he was the only racer I could now see. Ok, this would be tough if I was going to have to road race solo! At about 14km we hit a significant hill - a steady climb for about 1km that I had seen on the route map but this didn't worry me. Although I would class hills as my weakness in trail racing, I think I'm better on them than most roadies! So I climbed up and had caught the guy in front so at least now I had some company, plus when I crested the hill I saw a lead cyclist waiting for me - not only company but 100% confirmation that I was lead female. The cyclist immediately asked me my name and right away I knew she was going to be critical in my race, not only would I no longr feel like I was running alone but throughout she gave me helpful hints, like calling out my pace having checked that I didn't have my own GPS. After a few kms working our way through the university I had lost the male runner and had settled into my pace and the rolling terrain. The hills were nothing drastic but some nice ups and downs to break up the monotony. I was checking my km splits every 2km or so and was glad to see I was on pace for sub 2:55 finish but I was also feeling like I was running the unknown, having not specifially trained for a marathon. What is I crashed and burned? What if this pace felt fine now but I fell apart at 30km? But on the other hand I knew that if I wanted to try get 2:55 finishing time then I had to take a leap of faith and go out at that pace.

At half way there was a weird out and back in a cul-de-sac where we crossed over a timing mat and it also allowed me to see that 2nd place woman was probably a little over 1min behind me. I wasn't phased when I saw her as I was happy with my 1:26:47 split and knew if I could keep up this pace I was on for a PB. We then headed through what I found to be the toughest section of the race. We went into a nice residential area with large houses and yards but this was at about 9am on a Sunday morning and save for 2 residents there was not a soul in sight so there was little atmosphere and nothing to push you along. Again I was spurred along by the lead cyclist who cheerily shouted out to all the marshalls and occassionally said a few words to me. I was really impressed by the organisation of the race, at every possibly place that a runner could have queried which direction to take there was a marshall standing by to point runners in the right direction.

The advantage of having had to climb the long hill at 14km was I knew that we got to go back down it! I had checked out the km markers on my way up and knew that the descent began at about 32km, so this was a double motivation - get to the downhill and get to the 10kms to go mark! As I hit the downhill I let my arms pinwheel around and I enjoyed picking up the speed a little, although my legs were beginning to tire a little I know from trail racing that my quads can take a good downhill pounding so I wanted to take adavntage of opening up my stride and gaining some time. At the base of the hill we the course then was relatively straight to the finish, keeping fairl close to the river. It was here that I began to pass slower half marathon runners and got the boost I needed. I knew I was going to make it to the finish but was digging deep not to let up on the pace and lose what was now looking like was going to be a new PB. The lead cyclist was shouting out 'elite female marathoner coming though, move to the right!', I had to laugh, I felt like I had a VIP escort and lots of the ladies who were walking and jogging the half took off their iPods and cheered me on, which was a great boost. I really wanted to cheer them on too but now I was just clinging on to not losing the pace. My personal escort even went one step further and would tell some upcoming marshalls my name so when I passed them I got a 'Go Ellie!' from people I didn't even know. I tell you, this cyclist gets a gold star for how to lead a marathon!

In the last 10km I kept imagining that I was on my last loop of Elk Beaver and how fast that had seemed but this 10km seemed so much longer. I was checking each km split and realised that I might now post 2:51: something - woo hoo, that definitely kept me going! I was literally counting the kms - 5km = 20mins to go, 4kms = 16mins to go and by 4okm I was so excited to get this race done. In the last km there were a few uphills that slowed my pace and drained my legs to feel super heavy, but it was great to get cheers of encouragement as I came around the final corner and saw the finish banner. The cyclist peeled away, 'Go Ellie, it's all yours!'. I looked at this section after the race and it seemed so short - maybe 15om - but at the time it seemed miles away as I tried to sprint to the finish. The clock had clicked over to 2:52 but as I broke the tape to win I saw 2:52:21 - a PB by 2m57secs!!!

I am absolutely stoked at the time that I got. Having gone into the race on high mileage but blind to the course and what type of speed I had I did think I was maybe being optimistic to shoot for a PB. Of course, I am now thinking that if I can just throw in a few speed work outs into my mileage then maybe there is a sub 2:50 out there! And of course, Calgary is about 350m lower than Banff but it is still over 1000m, so maybe a race at lower elevation.....!

The Calgary marathon route was new as of last year so I got CR too, and fastest female time since 1990 (and apparantly the new course is tougher than the old course!), and 5th runner to cross the finish line. Fellow Vancouver Falcon, Graeme Wilson, narrowly missed the mens CR but still placed 1st in 2:32:14 - just 4 weeks after racing Vancouver! And I've got the bug back for road racing, so now looking at what marathons I can squeeze into my schedule and see if I can push that PB a little lower still....

The Calgary Herald did a neat little video montage if this link stays active for a while

And check out the race details and results at


  1. Fantastic race - more evidence of you making a complex task seem like it is simply done.

  2. Another awesome effort Ellie, keep the inspiration coming. Only 4 weeks for me before Gold Coast Marathon, hopefully I to have a PB in store.

  3. Congratulations. Amazing. It sounds like you've already come to this conclusion, but you really should look at focusing on a marathon to see what you can do. The trails and ultras will always be there (as much as it's painful to say) and more marathon speed will help that much more when you return to them.

  4. What an awesome race and time!! Congrats to you!!

  5. Outstanding Ellie!!! Congrats...
    You have a great biker thing going on here.

  6. Congratulations ELLIE-O-NATOR !

    Great report, fantastic performance !

    No doubt in my mind that you can break
    2:50 easily in a future race.

    But for now, put those road running shoes aside, get-out the trail runners and start re-charging for the SCORCHED SOLE 50Miler
    here in Kelowna on June 26. :-)

    I ran up the UPPER CRAWFORD TRAIL on Sunday,part of the 50K & 50Miler and it's steep, rocky and at the moment like a ...CREEK. :-o

    Tough anyway...

    See you here !

    Dirk "Ike" Handke

  7. Congratulations. Your hard work and trail running skills paid off for the big road race and I was inspired by your perseverance and calm of running.

  8. Congrats Ellie! I was the "sweep" cyclists for the half distance riding a pink bike. I saw you heading east on Memorial when I was still heading West. I heard them calling your location over the radio throughout the race.

    I'm also the volunteer coordinator for this event and Calgary's Ironman 70.3. Glad to hear it all went well for you. You write a great race report.

  9. Thanks for all the comments guys! KiwiCam - your marathon sure sounds like it'll have better weather than Calgary - enjoy the last few weeks of training and taper. Dirk - thanks for the trail report - I'm going to try get some hill workouts in in the next few weeks! Lin - were you lead bike? If so, you ROCK! Dawn - thanks for all your volunteering - I emailed Lynn today to say how awesome the volunteers were - it really was a slick event and a job really well done, and thanks for braving what can have only have been a very cold job of sweep cyclist on a day like Sunday - hope you have defrosted!

  10. I really enjoyed your race report, Ellie. Cool to hear what it's like from your perspective.

    Karen, halfway mat volunteer and split time caller in your race :)

  11. Ellie Oh how we wish we had been there with you. WELL DONE. We are so proud of you and delighted for you at having such a great success. lolfymap

  12. I am not the lead bike but one of the runners who ran 6 Calgary Marathon in a row. I am much slower runner and I enjoy reading your well-writen and inspirational trailrunning and training stories since I saw you smashed course record of Frozen Ass Fifty by more than 30 minutes. Try Edmonton Marathon(Aug. 22, 2010) or OIM(Oct. 10, 2010) if you want to set another PB and win it.