It is 8:55 on a cool Sunday morning. I am standing on a street in downtown Toronto, with about 15,999 other people. The atmosphere is buzzing with the collective energy of the crowd. As the national anthem, performed live, comes to an end, the crowd breaks into cheers and applause. And then, at 9:00 sharp, a siren sounds and the crowd surges forward as the race begins. This is it. My 2011 Run For Autism, the event that I have been training for all season. As I cross the start line, I am choked up with emotion as I think of the reason I am doing this run. My son George, my boy with autism and tons of love, my inspiration.
When I started training for this race in the Spring, I had a goal to finish in less than two hours. I knew that this would be ambitious: last year, I clocked a time of 2:22:38. Knocking 23 minutes off would be a tall order indeed. But if I formulated a good training plan and then stuck to it, I might just have a shot.
It has been said that life is what happens while we’re making other plans, and that was definitely the case with this season’s training. In the Spring I had a bout of bronchitis that put me out of action for a few weeks. I also had to deal with events like the brief hospitalization of one of my kids and a shoulder injury that sidelined me right in the middle of the season. Not to mention the fact that I got married in April.
Still, I somehow managed to salvage something resembling a training plan about six weeks before the race. I ran a couple of interim races and did OK, and then, right when my training was supposed to be peaking, I caught a nasty cold. I considered running through the cold: conventional wisdom is that it is safe to run as long as all symptoms are above the neck. But I knew from prior experience that running with a cold would slow my recovery and could jeopardize my race. So for once I exercised common sense and rested. Following the advice of my friend Phaedra, who is the kind of runner who wins in her category, I adjusted my training plan and made it to race day more or less in one piece.
It was obvious to me that two hours would not be doable. I considered following the 2:15 pace bunny but when I worked out the average pace that this would require, I realized that I would likely drop further and further back and just waste energy on being stressed. In the end I came up with a goal of 2:20. This struck the perfect balance between being achievable and being challenging.
I started out with the strategy of running the first 5km at an easy pace, without worrying about what my average pace looked like. If I fell behind my target pace, I would have 16km to make up the lost ground. I needn’t have worried: I was running at my goal pace by the 4th kilometre. I was running tens and ones – meaning that I would run for ten minutes and then take a one-minute walk break. During my ten-minute running stretches, I was getting ahead of my goal pace, and this provided me with enough of a buffer to stay on target during the one-minute walks.
Throughout the run, I was following my Dad’s strategy of “fishing for runners.” It’s a simple but effective strategy: you pick a runner about 200m ahead of you, reel them in by gradually catching up to them, and then run in their slipstream for about 500m before passing them and finding another runner to fish for.
For a while, I worried that I was matching my goal pace too easily. Either my energy would run out long before the distance did, or I had seriously underestimated myself during training. I tried to rein myself in but my body wouldn’t let me. I felt good, and I just had to go at the pace that my legs were dictating. It was only in the 18th kilometre that I started to feel the exhaustion. By then, I had less than 3km to go. I was faced with a choice: I could let my mind trick me into slowing down and missing my target time, or I could dig deep and just find the energy to keep going.
I chose to dig deep. I thought of my son George. He has to live his entire life with the challenges of autism, I told myself. The least you can do is run for another fifteen minutes.
All of a sudden, I was turning onto Bay Street for the final stretch and I had just 500m to go. Both sides of the street were lined with hundreds – maybe thousands – of spectators. My personalized bib was allowing people to cheer me on by name.
300m to go… I am exhausted and my legs feel like jelly, but I can see the finish line right up ahead of me. The closer I get, the louder the cheering is.
200m to go… a little bit of vanity takes over. I want a good finish line photo, so I start positioning myself in such a way that I will cross the line without being obscured by other runners.
100m to go… someone yells out, “Congratulations, Kirsten!” I raise my hand in acknowledgement and sprint for the finish, just metres away now. As I’m crossing the finish line, I somehow find a smidgeon of energy to raise both arms in the air in a gesture of triumph.
I have done it. I cannot believe that I have done it. I have run this race, beaten my goal time, and set a new personal best time for myself.
2 hours. 19 minutes. And 46 seconds. Every single moment of it dedicated to George.