After traveling for the better part of a year during which I did little to no running, we slowly started to make plans for our return to Canada. This involved choosing a new city, finding a place to live, getting new jobs and, of course, planning out my 2019 races. I had qualified for Boston the year earlier and wanted to go back in April 2019. I knew I had a lot of work to do to re-build my base, endurance, and speed, but I was up for the challenge. Since 2014, I’d been sort of stuck in a rut with running. While I’d gained a ton of experience and appreciation for the sport, my performance was somewhat stagnated. After running a 2:59 in Toronto in the fall of 2014, I only managed to go sub-3 one other time, right before we left on our trip. During that time I’d had a tough go, bonking and blacking out in my first trip to Boston, battling a nasty case of plantar fasciitis which kept me from running for 6 months, and my horrible experience in Chicago which lead to a scary hospital visit and some deep soul searching about what running meant to me.
Five years removed from that first breakthrough race, I wondered if I had peaked with marathoning. Was I a guy who could on occasion slide under 3 hours? Or did I have more in me. Katie and I talked about this at length on our long car rides through the Yukon and on the trails in the Peruvian Andes. She was convinced that I had so much more in me. “You can go sub 2:50” she told me. “Hell, I think you can get to sub 2:40 one day” she added boldly. “Okay, let’s not go crazy” I’d respond, deflecting her ambitious belief in me. But deep down I believed it too. I knew I could. Or I thought I might. But maybe — probably not... It was a crazy thought. Or was it crazy to not even try? So I decided to give it a shot.
If I was going to go sub 2:50, I would need a change. I would need some help. I decided to reach out to Hugh Langley to see if he’d take me on as a coach. Hugh had started coaching a few friends in Ottawa and their process and results under his tutelage was nothing short of incredible. Hugh agreed and told me that sub 2:50 was doable in 2019 — maybe not in time for Boston, but definitely for the fall.
Hugh introduced me to a whole new world of marathon training. It was astoundingly simple, yet incredibly effective. Run high mileage (100-130km per week). Run on tired legs. Run most of your miles easy — very easy. Run two hard workouts a week. Keep your workouts at least three days apart. Eat well, sleep well, stay healthy. And it worked. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was extremely challenging, but the results were there.
After only 15 weeks with Hugh, I ran a 2:52:45 in Boston, a 4 minute personal best on a challenging course in the sun and heat. I knew deep down that I was in sub 2:50 shape that day, but I couldn’t help but be over the moon with this result.
The following 8 weeks after Boston were all about recovery, while keeping my mileage high enough the maintain a solid base (60 to 80km a week). By mid-June we were ready to get back to work. With 18 weeks until the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Hugh threw me right back into the high-mileage weeks and intense workouts. Despite the summer heat, I saw faster progress than I did in my spring build. I ran more miles. I ran harder workouts. I even started running to and from work every day. I also introduced one off-day every week, something that I was not good at in the spring. Back then, I maybe took one off day a month and it really wore on me. Knowing that my body needed that weekly reset, I’d load up my miles into a 6 day week to give myself that relief and recovery on day 7. One of the best decisions I’d ever made. While I was thrilled with the progress I made during those summer months, I tried to stay patient and in the moment, despite endlessly calculating potential marathon times based on the paces I was hitting.
Harvest Half Marathon
As my summer training progressed, I sought out a fall half marathon 5 or 6 weeks out from Toronto. I came across the Harvest Half Marathon in St. Jacob’s, just outside of Guelph. It was a small race, but the timing of it was perfect for a pacing trial and test run before my goal race in October. Rather than flat out racing this half marathon, Coach Hugh had me run the first 18km at my marathon goal pace then told me to giver to the finish. If I got to 18km at my marathon pace feeling pretty good and was able to kick things up a notch, that would be a good indication. My marathon pace in my workouts was hovering around 3:47-3:50 at this time, so I decided to try to hit 3:50 during the first 18km of the half marathon. If all went well, and I was able to kick hard, I could go under 1:20 in the half marathon, which would be a significant personal best for me. But I kept reminding myself - this is a workout, not a race!
The course was three 7-ish km loops of country roads surrounded by the rolling farm lands of Woolwich Township. After a short 15 minute warm up, I lined up at the start alongside the other racers, most of whom were training for their own fall marathons. And then there was Wesley Korir. The elite Kenyan marathoner, who lives and trains in the area, was a late addition to the race. With a personal best of 2:06 in the marathon, and a Boston Marathon win under his belt, he would certainly destroy the field.
As the horn went off to signify the start of the race, I burst out of the gates. For the first 300-400m, I found myself running alongside Wesley at the front of the pack. I was hammering way too hard, yet he was gliding effortlessly. I laughed at the thought of me running beside this marathoning great and quickly cooled my pace from the 3:15/km I started out with, trying to find my 3:50 legs.
The field spread out quickly during that first loop. There was Wesley who swiftly separated himself from the rest of the runners. Rob Brouillette and Adam Hortian, two fast dudes who I knew would probably run around 1:15, found themselves in 2nd and 3rd and quickly peeled away from myself.
And then there was me and one other runner, in 4th and 5th. The other runner picked up his pace suddenly and breezed past me. “I’m doing repeats today” he informed me as he passed. “I’ll be picking it up and cooling off all day - don’t mean to mess with you!” He too was treating today as a training run in his prep for the Chicago Marathon, only a few weeks away. “All good man!” I responded, trying to settle into my goal pace of 3:50. But it was hard — I was going too fast. My paces were hovering between 3:43 and 3:49. I told myself to slow down, but I was in a groove.
As we approached the end of the first loop, I passed Sean, the runner who was running repeats, as he was in his recovery pace. The crowds of family members and friends cheered as we passed the start/finish line area as we began loop two. Katie, along with her cousin Meghan and her family, cheered me on as I flew by. Crowds, no matter the size, just uplift you. I clipped that 8th kilometre in 3:38, way too fast. As we ran west, the headwind picked up and I settled my pace a bit. Even though I’d found more consistency in my stride, I was still notching off 3:46 and 3:47 kilometres. Sean passed me again and we chatted briefly before he took off ahead.
As I entered the final loop of the course, I took a Maurten 100 gel and gave myself a hard time about my pacing. While it was cool that I could hammer out these quick splits, one after the next, I knew that running foolishly like this in my fall marathon would lead to disaster. I would need to be much more disciplined come October. I ran kilometre 16 in 3:49 and 17 in 3:50. “Much better” I thought to myself. I had worried a bit about being able to kick for the final 3.1km as planned after running a faster pace throughout the first 70 minutes of the race.
After running 3:47 in kilometre 18, Sean ripped past me again. This time, instead of staying patient and watching him take off ahead of me, it was time for my kick. So I picked things up and hung on to him. He carried me along in that 19th kilometre as we notched a 3:36 split, which felt amazingly do-able. By kilometre 20, I’d caught up to him and passed, running a 3:26/km pace. “See you at the finish” he uttered between breaths as I passed by. 20-21 was a grind. Things were starting to hurt. My legs were beginning to burn and my lungs were searing. “Only a few more minutes” I said out loud to myself as I carried on, running hard. As I passed the 21st kilometre marker with another 3:26 I opened things up and ran as hard as I could to the finish. As I came around the bend into the parking lot towards the finish, Katie, Meghan, Greg, Grayson and Audrey cheered me on furiously.
During that final stretch I ran a 2:53 pace, a speed that I could only possibly run in a race, and crossed the finish line in 1:19:05, finishing 4th overall and 1st in my category (Men, 30-34).
I barrelled through the finish, standing tall and feeling strong. I was astonished with this result. This was a 3 minute personal best in the half marathon and would be a huge confidence booster for me heading into the final month of my marathon build. Despite my pacing challenges during this race, I was thrilled with the result. My fitness was coming along and this proved it. I was mostly amazed at my ability to kick — and kick so hard — at the end of this effort.
It’s starting to come together and I’m seeing the progress that I want. Hugh and I were both quite pleased with this result, but we both also knew that my work isn’t done yet. I still have 5 more weeks of work to do.
See you in Toronto on October 20th.