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What it’s like to run your first marathon during COVID-19

Two Ontario runners share their experience at the Georgina Marathon

This fall, we finally saw the return of in-person road races across the country. While many Canadians were excited to get back on a start line after nearly two years of absence, others were entering races for the first time. Thanks to continuing COVID-19 regulations, these runners’ first race experiences likely looked a little different than what others have had in the past. We spoke with two Canadian runners who not only ran their first marathon this fall but ran a brand-new race, the Georgina Marathon.

Initially, Lorena Jones had signed up for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon “Whole Shebang,” which involved doing the 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon all in one month. When she learned about the Georgina Marathon, she decided to use the in-person race as the marathon portion of the challenge, rather than doing it virtually. Right away her peers began talking about the race as a great course for a BQ (Boston qualifier), a term Jones actually had to Google because she was so new to marathon running.

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“Unfortunately I got quite caught up with this and felt a sense of pressure with the expectation to BQ,” she says. “In reality, there wasn’t any expectation, of course, but given my competitive nature, it took quite a few conversations with myself to see it that way.”

For Kerry Mui, running his first marathon was a goal two years in the making. He had begun training in 2019 for a race in 2020, but the pandemic dashed his hopes for an in-person race. He continued running as a way to get outside during lockdowns, but made the mistake of running too much too soon, and ended up with a foot injury that took six months to fully heal. Once he was ready to train again, he began looking for a Fall race, but there weren’t very many options in the Toronto area. “The Georgina Marathon appeared as a surprise, and the October timing seemed just right,” he says. “I was excited.”

For both runners, training came down to finding the time to run the necessary mileage in between work, family and other life commitments. Unfortunately for Jones, this often meant doing the majority of her training at the beginning and end of the week, which she believes played a role in the development in an injury to her left knee. The injury didn’t prevent her from running, but it certainly made the final few kilometres more painful.

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Race day

Putting on a race in the age of COVID-19 requires a lot more planning and consideration than in years past, but both Jones and Mui were impressed with the level of organization leading up to and on the day of the race. The route was a flat, out-and-back course totaling 21.1 kilometres, which marathoners completed twice.

“This was a huge advantage to the way the course was set,” says Jones. “I have heard horror stories about other courses with the marathon section being out on a limb with no one to be seen until you rejoin the half marathon section. The A-B x 2 format was great, it meant you never felt alone as there were always other runners in either direction, and tonnes of spectators, to boot!”

A birds-eye view of Lake Drive, which runs alongside Lake Simcoe

What surprised and impressed both runners the most was not only the support they received from spectators and locals who had come out to watch the race, but from the other racers. “Racers shared encouraging remarks as we passed each other, leading to a sense of community,” says Mui.

Some of the supporters who came out to cheer runners on even dressed up for the occasion. Jones befriended one fan who was dressed as an alligator, who cheered her on enthusiastically every time he saw her for the rest of the race. Like Mui, she found the support from spectators and runners extremely helpful in keeping her motivated.  “I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to run the event without stopping on regular intervals,” she says. “But with all this support and the fabulous energy it created, I ran constantly and at a faster pace than I had anticipated.”

Jones and her family after the race

In the end, both runners finished faster than they’d hoped and had a great experience. There was no finish line party, but the energy from the crowd was high, and exactly what Mui and Jones needed to get them to the end.

I would encourage anyone to take on the challenge of a race, no matter how daunting it seems,” says Mui. “Just know that on race day that there’s lots of support from fellow racers and on the sidelines!”

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