This year, I had lofty goals to complete my second half marathon as well as my first 25km trail run. Unfortunately, those goals were thwarted by a sudden back problem that started in early July and just wouldn’t go away. After selling my bib for the half marathon in September, I had resigned myself to not participating in the 25km race I’d signed up for. However, the runner’s gift was so good (a Nike backpack), I couldn’t bring myself to let it go so I decided I’d drive the 1.5 hours to Cambridge anyway to pick up my pack and then would go hiking in the area instead of participating in the race.
However, as race day drew closer, I started thinking ‘well if I’m going to go hiking, I may as well hike the race route for a bit to check it out for next year.’ I spoke to my physiotherapist who cautiously gave me permission to do part of the race as long as I agreed to walk the first 2km, then gently run/walk before bailing out at the halfway point. Of course I did none of those things, and so: here is my race report for the Run for the Toad 25k.
To spare myself an early morning wakeup, I got a cheap hotel in Cambridge via Priceline for the night before and enjoyed a nice leisurely drive to the race site arriving at a respectable 8:30. Parking was getting full but they had lots of attendants directing us which made it go very smoothly.
I had read that it’s a bit of a hike to pick up race kits and that’s true, but I treated it as a warm-up so I didn’t mind. (This is also how I later justified not walking the first 2km of the race as I’d promised I would. After all, I’d already walked 2 kms or so back and forth from the car so that’s gotta count for something, riiiight?)
Arriving at 8:30 gave me plenty of time to pick up my race kit, go to the washroom, have a coffee and check out the exhibitors. I was glad I hadn’t arrived any earlier, especially since it was a cold day. Happily, Tim Horton’s was very well-stocked with lots of free coffee, timbits, and cookies for everyone – I think most of us were drinking coffee just to stay warm.
Each distance had its own wave, so 25k runners waited a while for their turn to take off. As we all gathered at the start line, one of the race organizers walked through the crowd, front to back, shook people’s hands and wished us good luck – what a nice personal touch! It reminded me why I prefer smaller race events over those huge several-thousand people races.
When the race started, we all took off running but that didn’t last long because within the first kilometre the path narrows a little and goes up a hill and everybody – I mean everybody – walks. I could feel the diehard runners were frustrated at being herded like cattle, but I had purposely started myself at the back of the pack and expected some clogging so I didn’t mind. I imagine you’d have to start yourself pretty close to the front of the pack to avoid that traffic jam, there’s just no getting around it once you’re in it.
The first few kilometres were an easy run over mostly dirt roads and paths. Although it felt like a while before we got into forest, the run was pleasant and the slopes weren’t too bad. It wasn’t long before I started getting cocky, thinking ‘why does everyone say this course is so hilly? I was really being overzealous with all that hill training in June.’ I kept reminding myself that I was only a few kilometres in and really had no idea what the rest of the course would look like, which was a good thing because around the 11th km I met the hill that all runners groan about in race reports. It looks like this (except worse in real life):
At this point I’d like to remind you that the 25k race is two 12.5km loops, so what you encounter at 11k you will encounter again at 23.5km. Ew. I tried not to think about that.
However, one thing you can look forward to encountering a second time is the breath-taking lookout at the sixth kilometre (and again around 18.5). After running on dirt roads and through forest, it is such a lovely surprise to turn a corner and emerge onto the edge of a field with a view as far as the eye can see. It’s one of those moments that just fills your lungs with air and makes you want to spread your arms out wide. (And then the cold, unbroken wind hit and it felt a little less glorious!)
As I approached the end of the first loop, I was feeling pretty strong. I knew the sensible thing to do would be to pull out of the race at 12.5km as my physio guy had instructed, but I was feeling good and figured I knew what was in store for me and that I could handle it.
I was wrong.
There is a reason people follow training plans to prepare for races, and my IT band decided to start reminding me of that around the 14th kilometre. Walking became painful, and downhills were downright excruciating as my knees started locking up. At the 18th kilometre, I hobbled over to the aid station to speak with a medic who offered me a ride to the finish. I hummed and hawed. Once again, I knew the sensible thing would be to accept his offer, but at this point I had come so far and I just hated the idea of a DNF next to my name! I decided to carry on and make judgement calls at each aid station. (A side note on the aid stations – they’re great! So many tasty treats like ju jubes, M&Ms, and chips which I didn’t take advantage of because I was in so much pain but, believe me, next year I will come better prepared!)
At this point I was fully resigned to walking the rest of the race and taking as many knee-resting breaks as needed. The goal was simply to finish without causing too much damage to my IT band. I had seen that, in the previous year, someone had taken 7.5 hours to complete the 25k so I figured I had plenty of time to get this thing one. It was a good lesson in swallowing pride, and the beautiful thing is that I didn’t feel at all looked down upon for walking.
That’s the thing about running – it has a community of amazing and supportive people, which seems to be even more true of the trail running community. I loved how encouraging random strangers were to one another, and I was so grateful when one woman suggested that if I walked backwards down the hills, the IT band pain wouldn’t be so bad. She was right! I really think she saved the day for me. And this woman (below), who was in the same painful boat walked along and chatted with me for a while, telling me about her training goals. (She was training for the Disney Dopey challenge – 4 days of racing starting with a 5km, then a 10km, then a half marathon and finally a full marathon – which sounds absolutely insane to me!)
As I crossed the finish line, a man was directing me to get my medal. With his arms outstretched and my sheer joy at having actually completed the full 25km, I leaned in and announced, “I’m giving you a hug!” He laughed and hugged me back. Man, I love runners. I moved on, got my medal, and hurried to the tent for the meal I’d heard so much about.
The post-race food was catered by St. Jacob’s Catering and it was delicious – salads, grilled chicken, cherry pie. Given that it was such a cold day, it would have been nice if at least some of the food had been warm, and it would have been really nice if the tents had been heated, but I really appreciated that it was more than just a bagel and a banana. This event is a class act.
Unfortunately, I was so completely frozen through that I sat and shivered while I quickly wolfed down my food, then grabbed a coffee (Tim’s was still serving!) and hustled to my car where I sat for several minutes with the heat blasting just to warm up. Next year I’ll either leave a bag by the finish line with a warm hoodie, or I’ll go back to the car to change before I sit down to eat. Lesson learned.
Overall, this was a really well-organized, fun event which offers, in my opinion, great value for the entry fee. I’m really looking forward to doing it again next year, injury-free, and taking full advantage of all those M&Ms along the way!