Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gimpy Twins Take on Niagara Falls

I have always been a firm believer that a marathon is much, much more than just a race.  It's an adventure.  And not just the event itself, but also the months of training leading up to it.  One cannot truly understand the epic journey of the marathon until one experiences it for oneself.  So when my Canadian BFF Shelley told me several months ago that she wanted to train for and run her first marathon, I knew I had to be with her on her marathon adventure.

The site of her adventure: Niagara Falls International Marathon.

My long-time readers may remember that she and I ran this event last year, as a two-person marathon relay team.  So we actually ran the full marathon course once before, but we each saw two different halves of it. This year we were both going the whole way.

Despite having just run a huge PR at the Lakefront Marathon three weeks earlier, I was feeling surprisingly good in the week before Niagara Falls.  My legs had much of their pep back, and I was really looking forward to a more leisurely marathon experience.  Shelley's only goal was to simply finish, which meant no time or pace pressure.

I arrived in Buffalo, NY the day before the marathon.  My flight was on time and uneventful.  I deplaned (am I the only person who thinks that's a weird word?) and made my way out of the terminal.  As I always do when I visit Shelley, I spotted her and ran toward her to give her a big ol' American hug.  What happened next is beyond inexplicable. One second, we were hugging and squealing.  The next, we were crashing down to the floor, Shelley on top of me.  People stared.  We acted like we totally meant to fall over.

 Unfortunately, somehow during the toppling over, my ankle had gotten twisted in an unnatural way.  It didn't seem too bad, just a little sore.  I figured I'd just walk it off and be okay.  I collected my luggage, and Shelley and I made the drive from Buffalo to Niagara Falls.

Since Shelley is Canadian, she actually has to drive across the US border to pick me up at the airport, and then we drive back across the Canadian border together.  Border patrol officials are always intrigued by us and like to give Shelley the third degree.

Officer: "Where are you from?"
Shelley: "Well, I'm from Hamilton, Ontario, and she's from Illinois."
Officer: "And how do you know each other?"
Shelley: "We're friends."
Officer: "How did you meet?"
Shelley: "On the internet"
Officer: *raising eyebrows* "Oh really?"
Shelley: "Yes.  We met on the internet 6 years ago."
Officer:  *looking intrigued and a little frightened* "Is this your first time meeting in person?"
Shelley: "No.  We've gotten together many times."
Officer: "Okay then. What are your plans for this visit?"
Shelley: "We're coming back to Buffalo tomorrow morning to run a marathon back across the border up to Niagara Falls."
Officer: *looking dumbfounded* "So, let me get this straight:  You met on the internet 6 years ago.  You drove into the US to pick up your friend, and are driving back into Canada tonight, so that you can drive back into the US tomorrow morning and then run back into Canada."
Shelley: "Yep!"
Officer: "Um.  Okay then.  Well, good luck in your marathon!"

Our first stop upon crossing the border was the marathon expo, at the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls.  In order to pick up a packet for the full marathon, runners must present their passports to Canadian customs officials at the expo.  This allows us to run across the border without having to stop and show our passports during the actual marathon.  Upon clearing customs, we were able to pick up our bib numbers and race swag.  And what wonderful swag it was!

Gender-specific long-sleeved tech shirt, cute running hat, personalized race bib, and lots of FOOD! Yes, that's a whole box of spaghetti noodles.  Mmmm...  carbs.

We then proceeded to our hotel, where we found the view from our "Partial Fallsview" room to be rather ho-hum.

American Falls, as seen from our room at the Sheraton.

Did I say ho-hum?  Because I meant friggin' awesome!  Also, our room had a television in the bathroom.  If that isn't the height of awesomeness, I don't know what is.  Once we got all settled into our room, we realized quickly that we were very, very hungry.  

Commence carb-loading!

Last year, we carb-loaded at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Carpaccio's.  It was so wonderful, in fact, that we decided to return this year.  We were not disappointed.

Spaghetti! (Of which I had already eaten some before I remembered to take a picture.  What can I say? I was hungry!)

Roasted vegetable pizza!

Apple tartlet.  Amazing.

We then returned to our hotel in a full-on carb coma.  Somehow we managed to put together our race outfits and set a couple of alarms for the morning. I also got some ice for my ankle, which was now very obviously swollen and tender.  I remained positive about the marathon despite this.  We went to bed early and slept as well as anyone ever does the night before a marathon (that is to say, not very well).

Before we knew it, it was race morning.  We went through the usual pre-race preparations, except for eating  breakfast, and headed down to catch the shuttle bus to the race start at about 7:30am.  My ankle was definitely stiff, and a little sore, but I was still optimistic.  The marathon starts at 10am, which is a pretty late start, if you ask me.  Because of this, we held off eating our bagels and bananas until we were on the bus.

And what an interesting bus-ride it was!

First, our bus driver was clearly lost, as she drove around the same block a couple of times trying to find her way out of Niagara Falls.  Fortunately, she did eventually get directions and we were soon on the road.

The ride seemed to last forever.  Just like Lakefront Marathon, this marathon is a point-to-point course, and for some reason, point-to-point courses seem much longer than loop courses.  The endless bus ride really puts into perspective just how long a marathon actually is.  It makes even the most seasoned marathon veteran a little nervous.

When we reached the US border, we all whipped out our passports (mine was conveniently stored in my sports bra), ready to face the border patrol officers.  We had to wait in a long line of buses, and it seemed to take forever, but finally two officers boarded the bus and checked everyone's passport one-by-one.  Just when I thought we were in the clear, the officers pulled four people off of our bus and told the bus driver to pull of the side and wait.  It turned out those four people were neither US nor Canadian citizens, and they didn't have the required documentation to enter the US.  The documentation they needed cost money. And none of those four people had brought any money with them.  Oopsie!  Fortunately, some other generous runners coughed up their own money to help out the runners in need, and then we were all on our way.

We finally arrived at the beautiful Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY with just over an hour to kill.  We hit up the restrooms (much better than port-o-potties), and wandered around the gallery, admiring the fine works of art.

I can sense the artist's inner turmoil from the expressive use of colors and textures.  Or something like that.

Oh, and did I mention I was wearing my tutu for this marathon?  No?  Well, now  you know.  And as far as we could tell, I was the only runner in the whole race wearing a tutu.  This meant I got a lot of comments.  Shelley and I decided to make a game of it, and keep count of all the tutu-related comments I got during the marathon.

With about 15 minutes until race start, we wandered outside and positioned ourselves in the start corral.  This is a small marathon, with only about 1,100 in the full marathon.  (Incidentally, this is one of the few fall marathons that does not sell out, and for as scenic and flat as the course is, I find this very surprising.  Take note, all of you runners who like to wait til the last minute to sign up for your fall marathons!)

Before we knew it (and we really didn't know it, because there was no gun or cannon to indicate the race had started), we were off!

50 yards down, only 26.18 miles to go!
The weather was beautiful.  Sunny, cool, and crisp.  The first few miles, through the beautiful neighborhoods of Buffalo (yes, Buffalo really does have beautiful neighborhoods!), went swimmingly.  My ankle didn't hurt to run on, and we were keeping a comfortable and conservative pace.  These miles seemed to fly right by, and suddenly we were approaching the Peace Bridge into Canada.  Just as we were getting ready to turn onto the bridge, we witnessed a marathon marriage proposal!  A male spectator was holding a sign that read "I love you. Marry me." and his girlfriend was running right beside us.  She said yes.  (Everybody in unison now: "awwwwww!")

Once the excitement of the marriage proposal was over, Shelley quickly realized she was on the bridge.  And it was a big bridge.  And Shelley is, well, terrified of heights.  I was willing to do whatever was necessary to get her across the bridge, even if it meant holding her hand and leading her across while she kept her eyes shut.

Shelley, however, was a bad-ass marathon-bridge-crossing animal.  She powered through, seemingly unbothered by the fact that we were 100 feet above the Niagara River.  She even paused to take a couple photos.

As we crossed the border to Canada, we sang the Official Evily rendition of the Canadian national anthem. It was beautiful and moving.  And by "beautiful and moving" I mean "off-key and amusing". And by the time we left the US, I had amassed a dozen tutu comments.

The rest of the marathon, from Mile 6 onward, is run along the Niagara Parkway, which is the road that travels alongside the Niagara River, on the Canada side.  It's very beautiful and scenic, but spectators are few and far between.  It's actually a lot like Lakefront Marathon in that regard.  However, the volunteers at the aid stations, which were roughly at every mile, provided enough enthusiasm and entertainment to more than make up for any lack of spectators.  They were, quite simply, awesome.  And the tutu got a lot of attention from aid station volunteers.  I would say 75% of my tutu comments came from the volunteers.  At one aid station, staffed by what appeared to be middle-school-aged cheerleaders, a young girl squealed with delight, "Ohmygod, I LOVE your outfit! That is every girl's dream!"  I wasn't sure if she meant the outfit itself, or running a marathon in said outfit.  But it was fun counting the number of comments.  I set a goal of getting 50 comments by the end of the marathon; with a stretch goal of 60.

Shelley and I were trucking along quite nicely, feeling generally good (even my ankle felt fine).  But at around Mile 8, things took a turn when Shelley's IT band started hurting.  Badly.  She had no choice but to begin inserting walk breaks.  I didn't mind; I was in no hurry and had no goal time for this marathon.  Just finish.  And if walking was what it took to finish, then so be it.

Unfortunately, the walking started to take its toll on my ankle.  For some reason, running didn't hurt, but walking did.  So, for 18 miles, we alternated walking and running.  When we walked, she felt better, and when we ran, I felt better.  I could tell she wasn't happy about having to walk because she proclaimed, quite emphatically, "I am never doing this again.  I am never running any races ever again!"  Naturally, I didn't believe a word of it.

The miles passed more slowly now than they had earlier.  The sun was out in full-force, and even though it wasn't hot, it was still quite warm as far as late-October marathoning is concerned.  We were both thankful we had opted not to wear long-sleeved shirts.  I was starving.  I wanted food badly.  And beer.  But we had 10 more miles to go...  9 more miles...  8 more miles.  Hey, 8 miles really isn't that far!  We could even see the tall hotel buildings of Niagara Falls way in the distance.  The finish was literally in sight.  Before we knew it, we had passed Mile 20.  Delirium had set in.  For reasons I can't explain, we stopped to take a picture at the Mile 21 marker.

I have no idea why.

And as we hobbled slowly along, we saw one of those Brightroom photographers sitting along the side of the road with his big camera.  I said to Shelley "We have to run and look happy, so we look good for the picture!"  And so we mustered up enough energy to look reasonably peppy for the photographer, and as we jogged past him, he said in a very creepy voice "Ohhhhh yeeeeahhhh...."  Thank you, pervy Brightroom dude, for that inappropriate display of affection.

"Ohhhhh yeeeeahhhh..."
For the rest of the race, we alternated hobbling and shuffling (what would you call that? huffling? shobbling?) until we reached the most glorious mile marker: Mile 26.  And then I stopped to take a picture.

A rainbow in the mist of Horseshoe Falls at Mile 26
We were so very, very close to the finish.  And so we gathered up every last ounce of energy we had left and ran the last 0.2 miles.  There was no stopping us now.  Shelley was about to finish her first marathon and I was going to be right there with her.  Since she was worried about finishing last, I promised her that I would let her finish ahead of me so that she couldn't possibly be last.

We did it!!!
Sure enough, per the official results, Shelley finished 0.5 seconds ahead of me.

Shelley had achieved her goal of finishing a marathon.  As her coach and her friend, I was doubly proud of her.  She had trained hard for it, and even though she struggled with IT band problems, she still pushed through and finished strong.  26 miles is not easy even under ideal circumstances, but it's much, much more difficult when body parts are in pain.

As for me, my ankle took a bit of a beating on that marathon course, but it was worth it because I met and exceeded my tutu comment goal.  I garnered a staggering 69 tutu comments over the course of 26.2 miles, plus quite a few before and after the race.  In a race without many spectators, I think this is pretty impressive.

We collected our shiny medals and hobbled back to our hotel for the most cherished of post-marathon activities: the hot showers.  And then we hobbled to the Hard Rock Cafe for the other most cherished of post-marathon activities: refueling (foods with lots of cheese on them) and rehydrating (beer).

Feeling much better after showers, food and beverages!

And as for Shelley's proclamation that she was never running a marathon ever again...  Well, I was all prepared to unleash a whole big encouraging pep-talk spiel on her, maybe a week or two after the marathon, but as it turned out, I didn't need to.  Allow me to show you what she posted on Facebook the day after the marathon.

Well that was easy!  *saunters away smugly*

Peace. Love. Train.

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