Well folks, I did it. I finally did it. On Saturday morning I ran the Cornwall Marathon in a personal best time of 2:56:39, nearly 3 minutes faster than what I’d run almost four years ago in Toronto. I finished 3rd overall and 1st in my category, but best of all, this race qualified me for the 2019 Boston Marathon. I’m stoked to say that I’ll be going back to Hopkinton next spring!
The Load Road Back to Boston
It’s been a weird couple of years for me running wise. After I ran that 2:59 in Toronto back in 2014, I felt like I had broken through to a new level. I’d finally taken that next step up in marathoning. I felt confident, strong, and unstoppable. In only my 3rd marathon I’d managed to shave almost 35 minutes off my time and had qualified for Boston, something that many runners spend years or even decades chasing. I felt very fortunate, but knew that I’d worked my ass off to get there.
The Boston Marathon was an incredible experience. Words can only do so much to describe how special that race is. You really need to go there and run it to understand it. From the long bus ride to Hopkinton to the screaming girls of Wellesley to the heartbreaking hills of Newton, there’s nothing like it. But unfortunately for me, the weather on that third Monday in April in 2016 was not in my favour, and as many of you know I struggled. Hard.
Humbled by my Boston experience, I took a bit of time off to figure my shit out. As 2017 approached, I was ready to tackle the marathon again. The goal: break my personal best of 2:59:17 and get myself back to Boston. At least that was the plan, until my training and hope of racing in the spring came to a screeching halt when I was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, and injury that would prevent me from running for over 4 months. Needless to say, I never even made it to the start line.
After a patient and dedicated recovery from my spring injury, I entered the summer of 2017 hungry for another crack at my goal. Sub 2:59. BQ. Let’s do this. With the Chicago Marathon on my fall race roster, I was ready to run hard and fast on the notoriously flat course. I put in a stellar training block and arrived in the Windy City full of confidence. I had this. Well, that’s what I thought until the sun came out - again - to beat me up, tear me down, and leave me lying on the street at kilometre 40.
By January of 2018, any confidence that I had built up in that Toronto race three and half years earlier was gone. I was a shell of my former running self. I knew I was fitter, faster and smarter than I’d ever been, but all I’d faced with the marathon was hardship and heartbreak. It was demoralizing. But despite these challenges and failures, the marathon kept luring me back in. It’s a funny thing.
I spent a lot of time this past year doing some self reflection. I knew that my training was on the right track and that I had been physically ready for these races. I knew that my mental game was strong - sometimes too strong for my own good. I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to become a smarter marathoner. Chicago truly taught me that the marathon makes the decisions, not you. You need to adapt to the day and what gets thrown at you. I’d learned long ago that I don’t do well in the sun and heat. I thrive in sub 10 degree temperatures with overcast skies. That’s what I had in Toronto four years earlier. That’s certainly not what I had in either Boston or Chicago. I also learned that you can’t control the weather - but you can control how you react to it.
Cornwall Marathon 2018
As I planned my spring race, I was looking for a few things:
- An early season race (better chance of favourable temperatures)
- A Boston Qualifying race
- Close to home (preferably drivable)
While the Cornwall Marathon isn’t a World Major or a sexy big city race, it did check off all three of my criteria above. And it was only $50. Sold.
As I started my training for Cornwall back in January, I changed three keys things.
I worked really hard to wrap my head around the fact that things may not go as planned on race day. I needed to mentally prepare for how I would deal with another hot and sunny day. Or what I would do if I hit the wall early, if my shoelaces came untied or if I had a bathroom emergency. It’s all about managing your reactions and adapting to the situation.
I needed to figure out how to keep myself safely hydrated, not just during my race, but during my training. Back in the winter, Katie got me a 1.5L Camelbak. I wore that thing on every run over 20km and practiced hydrating at the same intervals I’d be able to during the race. My dehydration issues in Boston and Chicago is what caused my heart rate to skyrocket in the second half of the race, ultimately leading to my demise. On that note, I also began to take note of my heart rate on long runs, making sure that I wasn’t letting it get too high. By the time I’d noticed my heart rate was at 190 in Chicago, it was already way too late.
I ramped up my mileage by about 30%. I began running to and from work each day. I added in a few extra runs a week. I started doing some 18-20km weekday tempo runs. It’s amazing how sprinkling in a few kilometres here and there add up. I peaked at 124km a week during my latest build, far more than the 90km week I’d maxed out at during my Chicago training. In total, I ran 1,300km leading up to Cornwall, while I put in about 950km for Chicago.
Heading into race week, I was feeling confident. I knew I’d but in a great training build and that I was truly stronger, faster and fitter than I’d ever been. I’d been keenly watching the race day weather report, which only got more and more promising as the day approached. By Friday evening, they were calling for 90% precipitation and about 4-9 degree on race day. Perfect.
I woke up at 4:30 AM and started my standard pre race routine. Coffee. Steel cut oats. Banana. Alabama Shakes. I had slept well and my mind and body were ready. We made the short drive from our Airbnb to the start line where it was absolutely pouring. The rain was coming down much harder than I’d expected. But hey - it wasn’t hot and sunny. So I took it in stride. I spent the next 45 minutes staying as dry and warm as I could, trying to warm up my body and legs under my car’s hatch and some umbrellas. After a last minute bathroom break, I quickly changed into my dry race clothing and shoes, threw on an old long sleeve shirt and rain coat, and made my way to the start line where I met up with my buddy Scott, who was looking for some marathon redemption of his own. After a couple of disappointing races last year, Scott was still hunting for his first BQ. They guy had it in him, he just needed to find it. He put every ounce of energy and effort over the last 6 months towards just that. To say that Scott crushed his training cycle with unprecedented mileage, effort and dedication would be a vast understatement. He was ready and he knew it. We shared a few quick words of encouragement, a high five and a hug.
It's go time
As the starting horn sounded, the rain continued to pour down around us. After a quick loop around the starting area, the course headed east towards Cornwall. Scott and another runner immediately pulled away - they were clearly on a mission. I was running in a small group with two other guys for the first few kilometres, navigating the loose gravel path and the various overflowing potholes. We soon found ourselves on a nice paved bike path that ran alongside the St. Lawrence River. After about 5km I noticed that my average pace was about a 4:05/km, faster than the 4:10 I’d planned on running. I reminded myself to run my race. Stick to my plan. While keeping up with these two guys felt pretty easy right now, it wasn’t my plan. So I swallowed my pride, scaled things back, and knew that I’d thank myself later.
By 8km, the rain had let up a bit and I ditched my long sleeve. I was totally alone at this point. The two guys I’d left were about 500m ahead of me and Scott had a sizeable lead on them, but was still in sight. I couldn’t see the guy in the lead. I took a quick peek behind me and couldn’t see a soul. I knew that this was going to be a quiet race, but we were truly alone out there. So I decided to treat this one like a long run. Nice and easy. Stick to your pace. Drink some water. Be patient. Enjoy the scenery.
“See you at Farran Park. See you at Farran Park.”
I’d been repeating these words in my head since the 8km mark. I wasn’t hurting at all yet, but it was just something to keep me busy. Farran Park. This was the first sight where Katie and her family planned on cheering me on. As I came around a bend my blue hat came into sight and they went berzerk. Screams. Cheering. Cowbells. Mayhem. Those guys are nuts. I love them.
There’s always one of those, isn’t there? As I crossed the 12km mark of the course, I grabbed one of the three gels that I had stashed away in the zipped back pocket of my shorts. I shoved the gel inside my glove to free up my hands to zip that back pocket up. After spending about 45 minutes in the 4 degree rain, and despite wearing some gloves, my hands were frozen solid and weren’t working very well at this point. As I struggled to close that back zipper I noticed that I only felt one other gel in that pocket. If one was in there, and one was in my glove, where was the third? I glanced back only to see a small white spot laying a few hundred metres back on the road behind me. Shit. I’d dropped it. There was no way I was going back for it.
Managing my reactions
As I cursed myself, I forced my hands to close that back pocket in fear that I’d lose the other one in the meantime. As I slowly consumed this first gel, I tried to stay calm. I needed that 3rd gel. Without it, I’d surely bonk in the final few kilometres of the race. Knowing that this was the marathon testing me, I stayed calm. I managed my reactions. What was my plan here? Option A: “run the rest of the marathon with just one more gel” wasn’t an option. Option B: “take one of the gels being passed out at the aid stations” wasn’t ideal. Sure it would get me the third gel I so dearly needed, but they were passing out Strawberry Banana Gu brand gels, something I’ve never taken before. You know what they say - nothing new on race day. Okay, so that lead me to Option C. I remembered that I had brought along a 4th gel which was in my backpack in our car. “Okay”, I thought to myself “I’ll just tell Katie at the next cheering station that I needed that gel." So that was the plan. Hopefully it was still in that bag, hopefully she could find it, and hopefully she could get it to me in time.
Long Sault Parkway
By the time I’d settled on Option C, I’d reached the Long Sault Parkway at kilometre 14. Up until this point we’d be running on narrow bike paths through the woods and along the water. Now, we merged onto the Long Sault Parkway, a two lane road that weaves its way through the St. Lawrence Seaway connecting 11 islands along we way, with water on both sides. It was truly beautiful. The road was flat, well-paved, and relatively quiet. We’d be on the parkway until kilometre 24 when we’d meet back up with the bike path. I treated this 10 kilometre stretch as a segment of the race which I broke down into two sections - 14km to the half, then the half to the end of the parkway. I’d banked some good time at this point and figured it was a good time to scale things back a bit and find my rhythm in the 4:10-4:14 pace range. And that’s exactly what I did. From 14-21 I was half focused on my half marathon split and half focused on communicating my gel issue with Katie. As I approached the halfway mark, there she was, cheering and screaming with the rest of the crew. I held up my empty gel and waved it at her. Knowing I was trying to tell her something, she calmed down and focused in on me as I got closer.
“I need a gel. Anytime between now and 33!” I shouted.
“No problem” she stated without hesitation or concern. "I'll be there." Her confidence set me at ease. I crossed the half marathon timing mat, and glanced at my watch.
The next 3 kilometres felt like a breeze. Happy with my half time and with the gel worries behind me, I glided effortlessly. I took my second gel at 23 and reached the end of the Long Sault Parkway at 24 where I saw coach Dave on the left, cheering me on and shouting “Looking strong Jason!”. I then saw Katie on the right waiting for me, as promised, with an extra gel in hand. What a gal! Knowing that my fingers were frozen and my hands hardly worked, I clamped down hard on the gel with both hands like an alligator as she passed it to me, then promptly stuffed it into my right glove not wanting to have to deal with that back pocket anymore.
Goodbye rain, hello hills
As I left the parkway, the rain finally stopped and the course reconnected with the bike path. At the 25km mark I was feeling good, but I knew the hard part was still ahead. I told myself “No math!”. This meant, don’t even think about how many kilometres you have to go. Just focus on the next segment. And that next segment for me was 25-30.
That good feeling quickly began to fade. After enjoying a very flat first 25 kilometres, the course became somewhat hilly. Not big hills, but short, abrupt, steep rolling hills. They were brutal. It was hard to stay in a rhythm and keep a consistent pace. At times, it felt like they were stopping you right in your tracks. I refrained from trying to power up them and actually eased up as I hit them. I was worried about jolting my heart rate up too high.
One of the things that Katie asked me to do before the race was to set a heart rate alarm on my watch that would beep if I hit a certain threshold. I chose 180. That would be my indication that my heart rate was getting too high and that I needed to cool off. To this point, I’d kept my heart rate relatively steady at around 155-160, but this never ending series of mini hills was causing it to rise to the mid to high 160’s. “Don’t freak out” I told myself “just manage it.” And so I did. Every time my heart rate began to creep up, I’d take a deep breath, eased up a bit and calmed myself down.
By the time I reached the 27.5km aid station, I felt pretty in control. As I grabbed a cup of water a volunteer shouted “5th place, 1 minute and 30 seconds back!”. I knew I'd be in 5th place the entire time, but that was my first indication in a long time how far back I was. Due the winding course through the trees, I hadn’t seen the 4th place guy since well before the 10km mark.
At the 30km mark things got a bit harder. The race had really become lonesome at this point. I still couldn’t see anyone ahead or behind my. I was all alone and going a bit crazy. I started talking out loud to myself, repeating my mantras and even singing some songs out loud. At the 30km aid station, I grabbed another cup of water. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The volunteer there repeated what I’d heard earlier. “5th place!” But then he followed it up with something a bit different. “45 seconds back!”
I looked at my watch. I certainly hadn’t sped things up, which meant that the 4th place guy was slowing down. As I reached kilometre 31, he came into view. Slowly, but surely, I got closer and closer, holding my pace steady. As I pulled even with him around kilometre 32, we acknowledged each other.
“Hey brother, how you feelin’?” I asked.
“Not good.” he responded. “Those hills man...those hills.” He sounded so defeated.
“Want to run with me for a bit?” I asked.
“No. Thanks, but no. I can’t”.
“Okay, good luck man. Hang in there.”
So I continued on alone, again. 10.2km to go. Thing were getting tougher by the kilometre. I focused back in on my next segment. Get to 34.5km. That was the Power Dam Parking Lot, the next spot where I’d see my family. They would help push me to the finish. As always, they didn’t disappoint. High fives. Thumbs up. Words of encouragement.
As I left that cheering station, I came around a corner and saw another runner a few hundred metres ahead. “Was that the 3rd place guy?” I wondered. By kilometre 35 I’d caught up and checked in with him.
“How you doin’ man”
“Not good. Not my day” he responded.
“Hang in there man, only 7 to go.”
“You too man, keep it strong” he responded.
So once again, I carried on alone in 3rd place. By now, I had shortened my segments from 5km chunks down to one. Just get yourself to the next kilometre, then take it from there. I knew my pace had slowed a bit, but I was still holding strong at a 4:09 average pace. “You got time in the bank” I told myself. “Keep it strong, keep cruising. You’re not racing. You’re cruising”.
Cruising. That was my word. Stay patient. I knew I had some time to spare. I could fade slightly and still reach my goal. So I just carried on, one kilometre at a time, cruising.
5km to go
37km. Time for the old pain train. The hurt was getting real. I was grinding it out, trying my best to hold onto something close to a 4:15 pace. But as hard as it got, it was nowhere near what I went though in Boston or Chicago. I thought back to those times. Those delirious, sickening, blackout times. This was nothing compared to that. I could do this.
Around kilometre 40, I was really digging deep. I’d shortened those 1km segments down to 500m now to make them more manageable. And then, out of nowhere, I received an insanely unexpected boost out of nowhere. As I passed the Civic Complex arena, my two good friends, Darren and Shelley, emerged from the left side of the course to cheer me on. It absolutely floored me. I had no idea these guys were coming to the race. Overcome with emotion I nearly broke down. I stretched my arms out wide. “You guys!” I shouted. “You guys are the best!”. I focused back in on the road ahead, turned things up, and ran a bit harder.
Thanks to the boost from Darren and Shelly, I made it to kilometre 42 running strong and hard. As I turned the final corner towards the finish area, I caught a glimpse of Katie’s red jacket in the distance. And then I heard it. The screams. The cheers. The shouts of encouragement. They were so freaking loud. It felt like I was heading down the tunnel toward Wellesley College in Boston all over again. I doubled down and gave it everything I had left towards the finish line. As I approached the final 50 metres I saw the number 2:56 on the clock. Pumped with adrenaline and full of emotion, I gave it everything I had to the finish line, screaming with joy and pumping my fist as I finished.
I barrelled through the finish, right past the guy dishing out the medals, finally coming to a stop on the grass where I doubled over coughing, thinking I might puke. After a few dry heaves, I stood back up, turned around and got my medal. Before I knew it, Katie was sprinting towards me screaming my name. She jumped into my arms, nearly knocking me over with a massive hug. We stood there embracing for an eternity, laughing and crying together. I’d done it. I’d freaking done it.
Personal Best. Boston Qualifier. 3rd Place.
I was elated and in absolute shock. I soaked it all in, celebrating with my family and friends. I even got to see coach Dave, which was awesome. This one felt really good. I’d run the race I planned on running. I trained right, I raced smart, and I nailed the execution. I am so proud of this race. I really needed this one.
And then I turned to Katie and asked about Scott.
“2:51” she said. “He won.”
He won. I went to find him and gave him a huge high five and a hug. What a champ this guy is. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He knew he was ready for this, and he went and did it. The guy has insane work ethic and a pure passion for the sport. He’s fierce and tenacious. Congrats, buddy. You earned it.
Scott and I had talked about this day for a long time. We’d dreamt about it over beers. We’d discussed our training regimes and pacing strategies on shakeout runs. We'd conversed about our fears and challenges with the marathon. Running a race together. PB’ing together. BQ’ing together. Sharing the podium together. This is what we wanted. It was pretty cool. Both of us worked our asses off and killed our goals. Sharing this one with Scott was an awesome experience that I’ll never forget.
An enormous thanks to all of my family who came to cheer me on. You’re all incredible. You’ve supported me through all my highs and lows. Every race. Every training run. Every injury. Everything. Thank you.
My friends. Darren and Shelley with your incredible friendship and that amazing surprise. Alex with you non-stop energy, positivity and Boston inspiration. Scott with your devotion to running and constant motivation. My entire OCRC group for the love, support, and encouragement. You all make me want to work harder and reach for new heights. You make me want to train faster, harder and longer. You make me want to be a better runner.
Katie. Once again, you showed me how much you love and care about me and my running. You slept on an air mattress the night before the race to make sure I had a good sleep. You stood with me in the rain while I warmed up. You brought me a gel when I dropped one on the course. You put up with my crazy training schedule that had me out the door at 6AM and gone for hours at a time on weekends. You deal with my smelly clothes, black toenails and massive running shoe collection. You give me pep talks to bring me up when I’m down. You give me reality checks to reel me back down when I get too far out there. You tell me you love me every day and always push me towards my goals. You never complain and you always ask how my run was today. You’re my coach, my crew, and my biggest fan. But more importantly, you’re my best friend, my wife and my other half. Thanks for being you.
Well, as most of you know, Katie and I are about to embark on a year of travel to go explore the world. We’ll be spending the next few months hiking, camping and backpacking all over North and South America. I’m going to take a bit of a break from racing while we’re away, but I hope to keep up some running where I can.
See you in Boston 2019!