Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweat Like A Pig goes international: The Niagara Falls Marathon

This past Sunday I ran my first race in a foreign country: the Niagara Falls International Marathon. Now, many of you may not think of Canada as a particularly exotic foreign country. Indeed, many think of Canada simply as America's hat - a stylish accessory for the US of A. But I'm here to tell you that it's totally different. For one thing, they use the metric system. So when they say "It's going to be 17° today!", you do not need to get out your puffy down coat. Also, they have a strong accent that can be difficult to understand at times. When they say "oot", they mean "out". And when they say "hoose", they mean "house". And when they say "eh", nobody is really sure what they mean. It's like a whole other language, really. So, as you can see, Canada is very exotic and therefore, a potentially exciting place to run a race.

My best friend, Shelley (who happens to be Canadian, and does say “oot” and “hoose” in that cute Canadian way), and I were planning to run the 2-person marathon relay together, with me running the first 13.1 miles, and she running the last 13.1 miles. Since this was a team effort, the race report would simply not be complete without her input. So I’d like to introduce the first ever Sweat Like A Pig guest blogger - Shelley The Running Canadian! She will be writing in purple

Well, I AM very exotic and foreign, but I do NOT say “oot” and “hoose”. You’re the one with the funny accent!

If you say so, eh. I just know I've been "oot" to your "hoose".

So, getting back to the race... This marathon claims to be the only marathon that starts in one country (the US) and ends in another (Canada). This unique feature presents a logistical challenge to the race coordinators in that they have to arrange for all the runners to clear customs prior to race day. This allows the runners to run across the border without having to stop and present their passports to a border patrol officer. Let's face it, it would be pretty hard to get a PR if you had to stop for 5 minutes and explain that you were not bringing any liquor, tobacco or gifts into Canada.

This race is in its 36th year, so the race organizers have a pretty good handle on the customs arrangements by now.... BUT, this year was the first year they offered the 1812 Peace and Friendship 2-person marathon relay. This threw a big, huge, case-hardened wrench into their well-oiled machine. Allow me to paint you a picture:

Race expo, Skylon Tower, Saturday afternoon (10/23)

Shelley and I entered the expo and sought the direction of a helpful (?) volunteer.

"We're doing the marathon relay," I told the volunteer. "I'm running the first leg, and she is running the second leg."

"Oh, uhhh, okay," said the volunteer, looking obviously confused. "Uhhh... you (pointing at me) need to go over there to check in with customs. And you (pointing at Shelley) need to go over there because you don't need to check in with customs."

"Okay, thanks!" That seemed easy enough. Ha. Ha ha ha...

I wandered over to the customs table with passport in hand. I told them my name. They flipped through their list of names, looking stern and official. I was not on their pre-approved list. I told them that it may be under Shelley's name since we were a relay team. They flipped through their list again, looking even more stern. Yes, her name was on the list. But mine was not. They argued that I could not run the first leg of the race (which runs across the Canadian border) because my name was not on their list. They said Shelley should be the one to run the first leg. I argued that Shelley is certainly not running the first leg because it involves running across a very large bridge, and she doesn't "do" bridges. They laughed sternly at that. Customs officers have a strange sense of humor. Or humour, rather, since they're Canadian and they spell things funny. I began to panic. I knew Shelley didn't bring her passport because she didn't think she would need it. I pleaded with the customs officers. I don't know why her name was on the list and not mine. Nobody from the race organization ever asked us who was running which leg - why would they assume? Finally, they agreed to write my name in their official list and let me through. They gave me a smiley hand stamp of approval. I found this ironic since the customs officers are anything but smiley.

I proceeded to bib number pickup. The nice lady at the relay table asked for my name. I told her it's probably under Shelley's name, since everything else seems to be under Shelley's name. She asked "Well, where's your friend? She needs to check in with customs too!" I ran frantically around the check-in area looking for Shelley. I finally saw her back at the customs table, arguing with the stern and official customs officers. I began to panic again. Why would she need to check in with customs? She wasn't going anywhere near a border for her leg of the run!

I think I was actually beyond panicked at this point and was just about to descend into a full-blown anxiety attack. I think the nice lady at the relay table could probably sense that and didn’t want it happening on her shift.

It's true. Shelley was starting to hyperventilate. After much haggling and panicking and arguing and begging, we finally got things sorted out with customs and they gave her a smiley hand stamp of approval. We were finally able to get our race numbers and shoe chip. The nice lady at the relay number pickup table took down notes of all the issues with customs so that they could work on those issues for next year - such as making sure that both relay runners get onto the customs list. I appreciated that they were obviously intent on improving the process.

We proceeded to get our official hooded jackets and goodie bags. They did not disappoint:


This is almost everything that was in the goodie bag. Some things are missing because I ate them (hey, I was hungry!). But look closely, folks - that's an entire box of pasta, and an entire bottle of vitamins, not to mention an assortment of granola bars, cereals, a rain poncho and such. The jacket is actually pretty nice - it's a lightweight windbreaker, perfect for those breezy, cool fall days. I was curious if it was also waterproof, so I ran the sleeve under a streaming faucet for about 20 seconds and only a little bit of moisture got through. So I think it would keep a person pretty dry in a light rain shower. Not too shabby for a $96 CAD entry fee (which is like, what, $20 USD? Kidding! I'm kidding!!!).

The actual race expo was bigger than I expected as well. This is not a large marathon. There were about 1000 full marathoners, 30 marathon relay teams, 2400 half-marathoners, 450 10k-ers, and 400 5k-ers. This event is just a little larger than the Steamboat Classic in Peoria. So I expected the expo to have a someone handing out protein bar samples, maybe a chiropractor doing "free spinal analyses", a few local races handing out brochures, and a Spibelt booth. There was actually quite a bit more. Brooks, a major sponsor of the race, had a large selection of official race-logo'd apparel as well as other Brooks gear. There were several other running apparel shops set up, not to mention many other booths for races, gear, nutrition, and more. It was certainly nowhere near the size of the Chicago Marathon or Flying Pig expos, but it was decent.

Fast forward to race morning. I had set my alarm for 6:00am. This was entirely too early for anyone to get up for a race that started at 10:00am, but the buses to the starting line in Buffalo, NY were to depart between 7:00 and 7:45am. Now, I can see you doing the mental calculation... trust me, none of it makes any sense. First of all, a marathon that doesn't start until 10:00 am? Seriously? And second of all, buses that leave 3 full hours before race start??? It's only a 45 minute drive (including time spent going through US customs) to the race start. I'm sure there is some logistical reason why the race starts so late and the buses leave so early, but I'm not privy to that information, so all I can say is... Seriously???

I got up, had some coffee and a banana and got all my race gear on. I had to bring my passport with me, since we would be going through US customs. I didn't have any pockets large enough to hold a passport, so after a bit of experimenting, I figured out that I could stash it comfortably in my sports bra. It's nice having multipurpose cleavage!

Practicing my passport-in-the-bra trick

The bus stop was just outside of the hotel we were staying at (Sheraton on the Falls), so shortly after 7:00, Shelley, who was still in her PJ's (Hey, I put sweats on!), walked me down to the bus stop. She had packed me a "lunch" - a bagel with peanut butter (it's the mom in me), so I got in line clutching my lunch in both hands and feeling like a nervous kid on the first day of school. There were several buses already filling up with people, and it wasn't long before I was boarding a bus and waving goodbye to Shelley.

Getting on the bus with my "lunch"

The bus ride was relatively uneventful. I sat next to a nice Canadian woman who was getting ready to run her first full marathon. We chatted about the addiction of running, and told stories of how we got hooked. The drive seemed to go on for quite a while, and it really made me stop and think about how far 26 miles really is. It seems much longer on a point-to-point course than on a closed loop course. We drove over the Peace Bridge, the bridge I would soon be running back over, and stopped for a few minutes while US Customs checked everyone's passports. Soon enough, we had arrived at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which was the start of the race. It was a beautiful area, and the weather could not have been more perfect. It was about 55° with a mix of sun and clouds and a light breeze.

Runners warming up near the art gallery

There were still two hours until the race start, and the museum had kindly opened its doors for the marathoners so we could enjoy the artwork, relax, use the indoor plumbing, and stay warm up until race time. They even had a live band playing mellow world beat type music. It was an interesting departure from the typical amped-up-driving-beat-get-fired-up type of music that is typically played before a big race. I liked it. It made me kind of feel like napping, but I liked it. It went well with the art gallery.

Live entertainment in the gallery

As race time grew nearer, I decided to make one last visit to a real restroom. But it turned out that everyone else had gotten the same idea, so there was a rather long line outside the ladies' room. So I did what anyone who had just downed 20 oz of water and had 15 minutes until race start would do... I used the men's room. The guy using the urinal seemed amused. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go!

I made my way to the starting line and seeded myself behind the 4:30 marathon pace group. I wanted to run about 2:20 - not a super-hard all-out race effort, but not an easy walk in the park either. The start of the race was signaled by the blast of a canon (War of 1812 style!) and off we went.

Gettin' the party started!

Miles 0-4.5 - Buffalo, NY

One word can describe this part of the course: Spectacular. I never imagined I would see so much beauty in Buffalo of all places, but the neighborhoods we ran through were incredible. Gorgeous old homes with huge fiery and golden trees - it looked like a scene from a movie. (But did you see any buffalo? Well, um... no. I didn't run near the Buffalo Zoo though.) But we digress... This section of the course was a gentle net uphill, but in these early miles, it felt very easy. There was a spattering of spectators - mostly people who lived along the route who had come outside to cheer us on. Most of these people had brought their young children out to cheer too, and it was very cute. I high-fived several little kids. There was only one aid station that I can recall in these miles. The website says there were stations at Miles 2 and 4. I only remember there being one at Mile 3-ish. The next water stop I remember wasn't until after the bridge, at Mile 6.

Miles 4.5 - 5.5 - The Peace Bridge

The bridge that links Buffalo, NY to Fort Erie, Canada is actually about 3/4 mile long, but the ramp going up to it and the off-ramp on the other side make it about a mile altogether. Buffalo is at a higher elevation than Fort Erie, so there's a just little bit of a climb up to the top of the bridge, followed by a nice long downhill into Canada. Running over the bridge was really cool. There were customs officers pointing the way for us. I felt so privileged to be able to cross the border without stopping and showing a passport. I blew a mental raspberry at all the poor motorists who were stuck in line waiting to get through.

The Peace Bridge, seen from Old Fort Erie, Canada

Miles 5.5 - 13.1 - Fort Erie and Niagara Parkway

After exiting the bridge, the course ran through some back roads of Old Fort Erie for a mile or so before making its way to Niagara Parkway, where the remainder of the marathon ran. There were some nice people standing out on the sidewalks cheering us on, and a local fire department had gotten out their big fire truck for the occasion. The fire fighters were cheering us on in uniform. As the spectators became sparser, the aid stations became louder. One aid station featured goth-looking people dressed for Halloween. Another aid station featured very loud yelling boy scouts (or whatever the Canadian equivalent is). Since the aid stations were every mile from Mile 6 onward, that meant there were frequent "entertainment breaks". As I approached Mile 10, I felt a little fatigued, but my breathing was still under control, so I held pace. There were no clocks at the mile markers, but I estimated from my Garmin that I was roughly on track for a 2:20 half.

As I rounded a bend at about Mile 12, I could actually see the relay point in the distance. Knowing that it was so close, I picked up the pace because I knew Shelley was waiting anxiously for me. As my finish line came into focus, I could see and hear Shelley and her cheering squad. I crossed the timing mat and the clock read 2:18:16. They didn't provide a chip time for the individual legs of the race, but I believe mine was 2:16:39 (since it took me 1:37 to cross the start).

Running into the relay point

My Garmin data - nice negative splits

A race volunteer quickly pulled me to the side and started untying my shoe. We had to get the timing chip off of my shoe and onto Shelley's shoe as quickly as possible, because the clock was already running on her leg of the race. While the volunteer worked on the chip, I reset my Garmin and handed it over to Shelley so she could try it out. In a flash, she was off.

Miles 13.1-26.2

Waiting, waiting, waiting…. Emily had left at 7:30 to board the party bus to the start of the marathon. I went back up to our hotel room and so began the endless waiting. She wasn’t due to start running until 10, which meant that I wouldn’t be running until sometime after noon. That’s a looooooooong time to wait when you’re raring to go! (What, you couldn't, like, take a nap or something?) My ride to the relay point arrived and we finally headed out, getting there with about half an hour to kill. The mood was fun even though the weather was grey and a bit rainy. There was music (not great music, mind you, but music nonetheless) and lots of cheering spectators and all the B leg relay runners, who looked as anxious as I did to get running.

The A leg relay runners were trickling in to lots of fanfare – “RELAY RUNNER COMING” and everyone would buzz around to get chips changed over, medals dispensed and mylar blankets handed out.

Finally, I saw Emily! I started jumping up and down and screaming my head off “There’s my girl!!!!”. She crossed the relay finish line, they got the chip off her shoe and onto mine, she gave me her Garmin and I was off!

There she goes!

It felt great to finally be moving!
The route was beautiful and the Garmin helped me keep a good pace and not go off too fast, which is something I think I’m inclined to do. I was running around a 9:50 pace, no heavy breathing, no burn. I have to say that the first five miles just flew by. I passed a lot of marathoners, which made me feel good until I realized that, uh, yeah, they already had way more miles in than I did. The aid stations were fantastic. Lots of excited teens and kids handing out water and Cytoplex (or whatever that stuff was – blech) (I believe it was Cytocrap... er... I mean Cytomax).

I was on track for a great PR! I should have known the gods of fate would have something to say about that. Between mile 6 and mile 7 (I think), I started feeling some muttering from my intestinal region. Stop here if that was TMI because, oh boy, it gets better! (It's okay. As we say in the running business, "Sh*t happens" - I think we have all been there before.)

I stopped at the next aid station and grabbed the thankfully vacant porta-potty. Aaand…. nothing. Okay, fine. Back on the road, things were vaguely uncomfortable, but still okay. Next aid station, I stopped again. Nothing. Now things were far more uncomfortable. Two aid stations later, while the sun beat down on the plastic, turning the portapotty into a kind of sauna that was filled with ladybugs, there was some relief.

That’s when the aid stations ran out of water. WHAT???? How does that happen? I ran on. I walked some. I started eyeing the Niagara River. How bad would it be if I just scooped some up? Hmmmm… it probably wouldn’t help much with my gut issues. I was slowing down, walking more, but at least I was in good company. Finally, at the Mile 24 aid station, they had water! I guzzled two cups and soldiered on. I knew I wasn’t going to make my stretch goal, but I figured I could maybe still PR.

Suddenly, I could see (and hear) the Finish. It was just up there, around that bend. And when I got around that bend, there was my Coach (that's me!), ready to run with me those last few hundred meters (I had just had a big lunch and a beer, so I wasn't sure of my ability to sprint to the finish, but I was sure gonna try!).

I picked it up. She started yelling at me. " COME ON, YOU CAN DO IT!!!" I think I yelled back – "I CAN’T!!!!" (I kept yelling at her, and I think she ran faster just to get away from the yelling - hey it worked, didn't it?) Then I sped up and kicked it across the damn finish line, where I immediately ran to the fence and crouched down because I thought I was going to toss my cookies.

Our big team finish!!!

A nice paramedic man came over to make sure I was alright and I think I might have uttered a few choice words about the lack of water at the aid stations. I do distinctly recall saying “I’m NEVER doing this again.”. (Yep, she did say that, and I responded with hysterical laughter, because she said the same thing after the last half-marathon she ran. Maybe that's what we were laughing at in those pictures. Yes, I suspect that was it.)

So…. Flying Pig Half-Marathon, anyone?
(See what I mean? She's already planning the next one. Never doing this again, MY FOOT!)

After Shelley got over her initial nausea, she proceeded through the finish area and collected her medal, space blanket and bag of food. Then our cheering squad met up with us and took some pictures of Team Ooo A Shiny Medal donning their shiny medals. It's amazing how normal I look in this picture. In reality, I was dying on the inside. DYING! You wear death very well, my friend.
Ooo, TWO Shiny Medals!

The relay medals are very cool. I think these may rank in my Top 5 favorite (or favourite, for you Canadians) medals of all time. The A Leg medal has a star (for the USA) and the Peace Bridge on it. The B Leg medal has Niagara Falls and a maple leaf (for Canada, eh) on it. Put them together and they make a complete picture, kind of like those Best Friends charms from way back when. And it's rather appropriate considering I ran this relay with my best friend.

BFF medals!

Next year we could run opposite legs of the relay and get the other medal, then we'd each have both medals. But it would mean I'd have to run over the Peace Bridge, and as previously mentioned, I don't "do" bridges. That would be due to my absolutely crippling fear of heights. Well, I seem to recall you running over some pretty long bridges over the Ohio River in the Flying Pig, and you lived to tell the tale. You know what they say: if you want to overcome your fear, you must face it head-on. Joey from Friends said it best when he said "You're afraid of bugs? Get a bug!" So, afraid of heights? Get high! No wait... that's not right. Run across a bridge!!! I am sure you could do it.

Incidentally, upon reviewing the final race results, it turned out that Shelley and I placed 4th in the Women's Relay Team division. We were only 8 minutes away from a 3rd place award! That's pretty darn close in marathon minutes.

So, to sum up a very long race report (probably the longest ever in the history of Sweat Like A Pig)... This was a beautiful race that was mostly well-organized (not counting the customs issues and the whole running-out-of-water thing) and had great swag. I would definitely recommend this race to anyone (anyone with a valid passport, that is). With the breathtakingly scenic course and plenty of elbow room, it is a nice change of pace from a crowded, big-city marathon like Chicago. So get on "oot" to Canada and enjoy Niagara Falls with a nice marathon, eh!

Peace. Love. Train.


  1. EVILY! NEITHER of you mentioned ME! AND I was the one who told you to get the CANADIAN beer!

  2. LOL Sophie! I apologize most deeply... you're right - you were instrumental to our success! Thank you for being there to cheer us on, and to help me select the proper beer! :) <3