Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Bay of Fundy International Marathon

It was 8:00 AM on Sunday, June 23, 2013, and I was standing at the starting line at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. The 450 some-odd runners just listened to a lady sing O Canada, followed by another lady singing the National Anthem. Once the two lovely renditions of the songs were complete, the starter said a few words. The runners then crowded up to the starting line, or as close to it as 450 people can possibly get on a narrow state park entrance road. The starter said a few more words, blew his horn, and we were off. We were about to run six miles in America, ten miles on Campobello Island in Canada to Head Harbour Lighthouse, turn around, and run retrace the ten miles back to America, with the final quarter mile or so in downtown Lubec, Maine. Breaking three hours was goal number one. Goal number two was to at least break 3:05, which was the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon for my age group.

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
Let's rewind to August 2012. I was doing a fitness assessment at the YMCA in Portland on a client of mine. Now mind you, this isn't an any average client. This client, Karen, is an avid triathlete and has also completed in many 5ks and half marathons, the Boston Marathon, the Maine Marathon, and so on. An impressive resume no doubt! However, she has also been battling rheumatoid arthritis (RA) since 2007. To say Karen is as tough as nails is a huge understatement. Her body may have slowed down since she was diagnosed with RA, but her mind has not. A few days prior to the assessment, she had sent me an email saying that she had something big up her sleeve.

So there we were, doing the fitness assessment, when she told me she wanted to do this international marathon that went from Lubec, Maine and into Campobello Island, Canada (by the way, she told me this only days after completing an Olympic distance triathlon). At first I thought she was kidding, but then realized who I was talking to. This wasn't a 5k that most people can show up to and either run it or walk it. This was a marathon she was putting on the table! People with arthritis should move and exercise in order to keep things as loose as possible, but no doctor would ever prescribe a marathon (although her doctor never discouraged her, which is awesome)! Not to mention she hadn't done anything like that since before she was diagnosed with RA. Wowzas.

My style as a trainer is to never discourage, no matter how far-fetched something may seem. Where there's a will, there's a way. Karen certainly has the will, so no doubt she would find a way. So we talked about it and decided that she was most likely going to do it. She signed up for it a few weeks later on September 24th, and started training for it shortly thereafter.

As she got into the training, she would talk about the marathon. Honestly, it sounded intriguing. You start in Maine, run to Canada, turn around, and run back? So my mind started going there: There aren't many races like that anywhere, let alone in our own back yard...And I love to race...And I've never been to that part of Maine, but always wanted to go...And I've never really properly trained for a marathon even when I did Boston (unofficially) in 2007...And if Karen is putting in all this effort then I should probably be there to support her....And if I'm going all the way up there I might as well run...Hmmmmmmm.

Next thing I know, I was signed up for the damn race. It was October 4th. Hell, I even got my girlfriend to sign up for the 10k that was happening in Lubec.

I proceeded to take the winter off from running, save for a few twenty-minute treadmill sessions in January and February and a couple of 5ks. But that was it. Come March, I put together a 15-week training program that had me starting on March 10th. There were a few snowstorms, a few really cold, windy days, and one 96-degree training day. Lubec experiences some volatile weather, and I'm pretty sure I trained in every type of weather that Lubec could possibly have had when race day arrived. One thing was for sure, the weather wasn't going to get me...

...All this was coming back to me as I kept telling myself to hold back during the first three miles of the race. Stick with the plan. First three miles at 7:10-7:20, next twenty at 6:50, and last three was going to be given whatever was left in the tank It was hard as hell to hold back in the first three miles as old dudes, some women, and several non-runner types went cruising by. But I had to stick to it as I knew, having driven the course two days before, that Campobello Island was going to have some nasty hills.

The first 6 miles went down with ease. They were flat and gentle and there were a lot of local folks out on their lawns and in their driveways cheering us on. We passed through Lubec to a crowd of cheering people, then crossed through Customs (we had to check our passports ahead of time) and into Canada. The miles continued to fall with such ease that I stepped up my 6:50 miles to 6:40 miles and felt great about it. The hills weren't here yet, and things were feeling good.

I was able to pass quite a few of the heroes that went out thinking they were running the 10k. As they faded back, I came up onto Karen, who took the early start of 6:00 AM. We shared a few words of encouragement to each other as I passed by, and she told me there were six or seven in front of me. The 6:40 miles were still happening, but they weren't feeling great anymore, probably in part due to the hills that started becoming relentless. You'd go up, then immediately back down, then immediately up again. No time for recovery whatsoever.

By about Mile 14 things started getting pretty tender. My legs didn't have the same bounce in them and my breathing was becoming a little more labored. 6:40's turned into 6:50's. About a quarter mile after Mile 15 I saw Santa Claus. Or was I hallucinating already? A quick wipe of the brow and a squint of the eyes proved that I wasn't hallucinating yet, and that the jolly red elf himself was sitting on the side of the road.

"Three quarters of a mile to the turnaround!" he yelled.Old Saint Nick was providing cheer even in June. Turns out that Santa would play a pivotal role in Karen's race a little later on, so he certainly was in the right place at the right time.

So I hit Head Harbour Lighthouse, grabbed an extra Gu pack, turned around, and headed back in the opposite direction, 10 miles from the finish line. My legs were starting to cramp, but I just kept trying to push those negative thoughts out of my mind. As I approached the turnaround, I noted that I was in 7th place, with the next three guys spread out roughly a half mile ahead, and the 6th place guy a little more than a quarter mile ahead. I could catch at least one of these guys, I thought. All I had to do was remain focused.

Easier said than done. Those hills were absolutely relentless. What seemed tough on the way to the turnaround point seemed almost impossible to run on the way back. My legs started seizing up around Mile 18 and I could tell my form was starting to fall apart. What helped take my mind off the oncoming pain was that a lot of the runners behind me, who were still heading to the turnaround point, were sparing a breath by wishing me a good job and good luck. I saw a couple other of my friends on the way out (although I didn't see Karen, who was in a group of people) and they still looked upbeat and positive. I found myself thriving off of their positive energy.

As the miles and hills wore on, I laid eyes on the 6th place guy. He was barely moving. I mean barely freaking moving. I passed him feeling like I was running a 5k and he was a bystander, and felt bad and great about it all at the same time. About 4 more miles to go.

Qualifying for the 2014 Boston Marathon was really important to me. After I bandit ran the 2007 marathon, the two friends (who ran it with me) and I made a pact that we would never do another marathon again. All that went out the window when the bombs blew up at the finish line at the 2013 marathon. My friends and family have come to dozens of my races, cheering as spectators and taking in the event...needless to say it really hit home with me.

As I passed each mile marker, I would look at my watch and calculate in my head about what pace I would need to maintain in order to come in under 3:05. Given my intense leg pain, labored breathing, left hip pain, and overall fatigue, finishing sub-3:00 was virtually impossible at this point, but sub-3:05 was still in the cards.

But the last 4 miles were absolutely brutal. All of the runners had passed in the opposite direction, so there was no longer shouts of encouragement from them. Campobello is pretty desolate, so there was a whole lot of trees and not a whole lot of people for large stretches of road. This allowed for plenty of time for self-doubt and negative thoughts.

The road straightened out as I approached the sign for Mile 25. The 5th place guy was within sight, maybe 300 yards ahead. He suddenly jumped off the road, went to a telephone pole, and started stretching his calves. Could I get him? He looked back, saw me, then jumped back on the road towards the bridge that would take us back to the USA.

So we rounded through Customs, and back onto the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. The guy was maybe 150 yards in front at this point. As we climbed back over the bridge and passed the sign for Mile 26, he stopped again, went over to a light post, and started stretching his calves again. Maybe I can get him and finish top 5! He stretched for a few seconds, jumped back on the road, and headed down the bridge and back into America. I was maybe 50 yards off him as we rounded the corner past customs, and took a right onto Water Street in Lubec. I could hear the crowd and the announcer but couldn't yet see them. Maybe 200 yards? I glanced at 5th place, who had stopped to stretch again, I think. Who knows, who cares. He stopped and I went by him. I glanced at my watch, then glanced up and saw my girlfriend, Tessa, standing on the right side of the road, screaming.

"You gotta go! You gotta go!" she yelled as she started running next to me. I glanced at my watch again and saw the time as 3:04 and something seconds. Time was running out. I poured what little fumes I had into my kick and just went. It hurt so bad but didn't hurt at the same time. The red digits on the clock said 3:04 40-something, and there were maybe 50 yards to go.

I crossed the finish line in 3:04:51, 9 seconds on the good side of a Boston qualifying time.

Checking the watch one last time before the final "sprint"
I felt terrible, maybe the worse I've ever felt. Certainly the worst I've ever felt after a run. I went to a nearby picnic table and sat with a thud. Tessa, my girlfriend, came running over yelling something about that I did it. She also said she finished her 10k in under an hour, which was her goal for herself. Delirious, I mustered a smile and muttered some words of how awesome she did. 3:04:51 still hadn't sunk in.

The medic came over to check on me. After convincing him I was okay, Tessa grabbed me a bunch of Gatorade that I wouldn't have traded for gold. Feeling a little better, we walked from the finish area to meet up with my parents, who had made a 4-plus hour trip to watch me torture myself. We walked to the library to warm up (the weather started at a warm 70 degrees, then dipped to the 50's with a cold rain and fog).

After a little rest and warmth, I limped back out to the finish line to see Karen and other friends finish what we had talked about and planned for so long. They finished, and before we knew it the inaugural International Bay of Fundy Marathon was over. Although the race had concluded and our adventure was about over, the memories were made that will last a lifetime.

Even though an event like this tends to push one to his or her physical and mental limits, it usually doesn't take long to draw upon the strength gained, lessons learned, and barriers broken to before you start thinking and talking about what to do next.

A few days of rest later and we were doing just that...


  1. Veryyyy cool blog!
    You are an excellent writer... as well as runner :^)

  2. loved reading this Nate! Wow, great job! 5th place is amazing! And you're so modest--never bragged about it in class. The only part i still need to hear is how Santa turned out to have a major affect on Karen.

  3. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information.

    Fitness Club in Panchkula

  4. Nice race - congrats on the BQ! As a middleaged midpacker it warms my heart to know that even the Contenders had issues with those hills!