Former Queen’s University runner Branna MacDougall raced her debut half-marathon over the weekend in Bracebridge, Ont., at the Muskoka Marathon. Surprising herself more than anyone else, the 22-year-old MacDougall, who now races for the Kingston-based club Physi-Kult, won the race in a blazing-fast time of 1:11:42 – three full minutes faster than the previous U23 national half-marathon record of 1:14:46, which was set by Anne-Marie Comeau in 2018. It puts MacDougall at ninth all-time among Canadian women. After years as one of the top names in U Sports cross-country and track, it looks like MacDougall is destined to find success on the roads, too.
Going into the race, MacDougall didn’t have anything close to a sub-72-minute goal in mind. In fact, when submitting a seed time to race organizers, she wrote down 1:20. Her coach, Steve Boyd, talked her down to a quicker time, and she ultimately changed it to a 1:15. She says her workouts in the lead-up to the race were around 1:12:50 to 1:13 half-marathon pace, but even that felt quick. “I would have been happy to run anything between 1:13 and 1:14,” she says.
MacDougall’s uncertainty or doubts ahead of the race were due in large part to injury. “I got a sacral stress fracture at the end of March, and didn’t start running again until early June,” she says. Before her injury, the plan had been to run a half, but that was derailed when she suffered her stress fracture. After recovering, she refocused her sights on that goal, but she had no idea that she would be able to run such a quick time. “It was definitely a really surprising result,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that at all, going in. My workouts were going really well, but nothing that indicated that level.”
With social-distancing measures in place at the Muskoka Marathon and runners leaving one at a time in staggered starts, MacDougall ran solo for the entire 21.1K. On her own, she was left to pace herself. With a pre-race plan to run 3:30 per kilometre, she opened the race with a 3:35. Disappointed by this pace, she sped up and didn’t check her watch for 9K.
“I guess I picked it up, because when I checked it at 10K I saw that I went through in 34 minutes,” she says. A few hundred metres later, she reached the halfway point with a 36:06 split. “I thought I was either going to blow up or that it was going to go really well, but I felt really, really good. I didn’t know if the distance would catch up to me, so I tried to keep my emotions in check.” Still feeling good at about 14K, MacDougall says she started to get excited. “I was like, ‘I’m still feeling good, maybe I can do something special.’ But then I thought, ‘No, don’t get too excited.'”
Things got tough in the final few kilometres, she says, but it wasn’t anything that she hadn’t experienced before. “I knew how to handle that pain,” she says. She gritted her teeth and pushed through the last stretch, arriving at the finish to find the clock reading, to her surprise, 1:11:42.
“I was shocked when I crossed the line,” she says. “When I saw the time, I teared up a bit. It’s been a really hard year, both personally and with injury as well, so it was really this moment of, ‘Oh, my gosh, I finally did something that I thought I could do for so long.'”
MacDougall says she doesn’t know what’s next for her. With the current uncertain times, instead of planning ahead, she says she’ll try to race any events that pop up in the next month or so. In the more distant future, though, she says she can see herself running more road races. “This result definitely changes things for me,” she says. “It kind of gives me a hint of where I hopefully will succeed the most.” She cites the careers of Natasha Wodak and Rachel Cliff, two former national half-marathon record-holders who “run really well on the roads and then come to the track and bust out an amazing 10K.” She says she will certainly devote some time to the roads, but she isn’t done with the track yet.
Whether MacDougall transitions to road racing now or in a few years probably won’t make a difference. With her result from Bracebridge, she has proven that, whenever she makes that jump, she’ll be a prominent force on the Canadian road running scene. She’s ninth all-time in the national half-marathon standings right now, and that was just her debut, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if and when she starts climbing higher on that list.