Race Report: Niagara Ultra and ideal conditions

Laying on the grass in the cool shade, I could feel the clippings start to cling to my sweat-soaked body. The wave of disappointment engulfed me. I worked so hard in training. So hard during the race. I had great preparation and a solid attitude. So why did I fail in my quest to break my PR in the half marathon at the Niagara Ultra races?

“It was too hot,” Mark said to me.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait -a-MINUTE,” I replied. “Before the race you told me it was a great temperature to run in.”

“I say a lot of the things in the morning,” he retorted with a smile.

Two things: 1. It was a great morning to run, had my race started at 6 or 7 a.m. The 8 a.m. start was a bit late for me and the day got warm. Quickly. 2. Mark was not going to allow me to talk myself out of a good race, even if it meant a bit of truth stretching. I appreciate that.

As I sat up  from my post race savasana pose,  bits of grass, dried leaves and general dirt clung to my body. You know what my coach would be shouting at me right now? IDEAL CONDITIONS. As in, my time goals for a workout or a race are given considering ideal conditions: temperatures in the low 60s, no humidity, light winds. The temperature was in the low 70s around 8 a.m. and shot up from there. These were not ideal conditions.

I felt good at the start of the race.

The Niagara Ultra included four races — a 50K, marathon, half marathon and 10K. The course started with about 100 yards to dash across a grass park at Niagara-on-the-Lake then continued over to the paved Niagara River Recreation Trail, which followed the Niagara River. All the courses were out-and-backs and the half marathon had only a few spots of rolling hills, inclines if you will. A low-key, no-frills event, the course was marked every 5K with water and Gatorade approximately every 5K. But on the way out, we had water stops at 3K and 10K and those 7K without water got to me. Combine the heat with pushing my pace and I got thirsty. Really thirsty. By the time I hit up the second water stop, I drank a bit too much and ended up with sloshy stomach. I needed to walk to calm it down, twice battling a feeling of wanting to throw up the shot block I had just consumed.

By Mile 8 I started to break down. My average pace, which was right on PR target, kept creeping up. Walk breaks became a strategy to (a) calm my stomach, (b) give my legs some recovery time and (c) to right my mind. Doubt came on strong. So did a familiar voice from the past, spouting, “Who do you think you are? PR at a half marathon. You shouldn’t even be running these races let alone trying to do well.” But I shook them off. I was out here. I was running. I was working hard. There are plenty of people who would love to be here, but won’t try. I chatted with my new friends, who helped pace me through those last few miles. I kept asking people if they were hot. They all were. Good. It wasn’t just me.

Showing off my medal and enjoying some carbs.

I pushed through the final miles, crossing the finish line three minutes off my PR. It goes down as my second fastest half marathon to date. The winning time was even slow by half marathon standards. And given that every race I enter in Canada always has speedy Canadians, well, that said something to me about the conditions. I wandered over to the hall containing post-race food, grabbed a bagel and debated whether I earned a post-race beer. Mark convinced me I did, and so I replenished my carbs.

My disappointment lingers, not so much at failing to get my PR but because I worked so hard, I did so much right, and feel as if I have nothing to show for it. Some good friends have helped offer perspective, noting that not every race is a PR, that I showed up and worked hard (so many don’t even attempt either let alone both of those two) and that what I have “to show” for it may emerge much later. If I take the results out of the equation, I know I raced well. I can feel it in my legs. There were no mind games waged and the negative thoughts were pushed aside with a focus on my stride.

And finally, here’s a thought on ideal conditions: We rarely get them, those moments in life when all the stars align just so and absolutely every variable is perfect. The conditions on Saturday were not ideal for me to run a PR, but were they perhaps ideal for something else? Maybe the conditions in front of us are already ideal — perfect for what we need in the moment, even if they defy our narrow definition of ideal.

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