“We had absolutely no idea the magnitude of this!” my mother exclaimed to me following my first in-person marathon, at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. She didn’t realize the event attracted 12,000 runners, and my parents were not prepared for the crowds, the street closures, or the lack of parking. They were there last year for my (previous) first marathon, but the homemade, “virtual” route and personalized finish line in front of my own house were a far cry from the screaming crowds in front of City Hall in our nation’s capital.
Numerous friends found Covid and virtual racing to be a strange time for me to have taken up marathon running. They worried about my running alone, and how I would manage mentally without the energy of the crowds and the support of training partners. I love to run alone, though. I pastor a church in St. Catharines, Ont.–a job that requires me to be much more extroverted than I naturally am, and I am the mother of two teenagers whose busy lives and thoughtful chatter mean that quiet moments can be hard to find. So I was worried about what it would be like to run with a crowd.
It had been at least three years since I ran an in-person race. I have always had good experiences at the various running events I have completed over the years, but I got addicted to the many benefits of virtual racing. I like the mental relaxation of running the same route often; I like making my own electrolyte mix, and find it easier on my stomach than most commercial drinks; I like planning bathroom breaks in my own bathroom; and I like customizing my route to loop back home to re-stock on supplies. I felt like the luckiest person in the world last year to have a group of friends and family show up at that homemade finish line—with music and laurel wreaths—to cheer me on in my first marathon.
Here’s the biggest thing I came to love about virtual racing: the flexibility. I can’t race on Sundays, when most events are scheduled. Also, 11 days before the Ottawa Marathon, I came down with Covid, and it was a stretch to be ready to run 42.2 km after having been bedridden leading up to the big day. If I had the option, I would have postponed this particular effort long enough to allow myself a full recovery.
But for all my stress about how I might manage being tied to the route, fuelling stations, porta-potties and a schedule I had not designed, experiencing one of Canada’s biggest marathon events provided an energy that I had forgotten can also be part of why I love to run.
May 29 was everything a spring day in Ontario should be–warm, windless and a perfect mix of sun and cloud. It felt to me, a visitor to the city, as if Ottawa had been waiting for three years just for this: to come out of their homes and businesses for the sole purpose of cheering us all on. The route wound its way past national landmarks, local cafes and residential neighbourhoods. Children stood on their front lawns with garden hoses, cooling down hot runners. Local businesses hung encouraging signs in their windows. Throughout the city, people lined up to cheer on loved ones and strangers alike. By the end of the day, they were all surely hoarse from their non-stop cheerleading.
What I found most meaningful about being back to in-person racing is that I got to participate in the same race as some of the world’s best runners. It’s empowering to be included in a journey that allows me to go at my own pace, and to realize that I deserve to be cheered across the finish line, too. But it also drives home the fact that I am not diminished by the excellence of others, that I can celebrate those who are at the pinnacle of athletic prowess and still feel good about myself, too. I am grateful for the welcome the running community provides, as well as those whose running gifts help lead the way.
Thank you, Ottawa, for making this long-anticipated return to in-person racing an occasion that makes me even more excited to keep lacing up my shoes and racking up my mileage—alone or with a crowd.