When Jill announced her half-marathon plans way back in the spring, I spent some time hunting for great tune-up races. I knew two things: I wanted to run on the island at some point and I wanted to run a relay. I never seriously considered the Island Girl Half Marathon before because the thought of doing two loops of the same course seemed torturous. But as soon as I saw they had a relay option — with each member doing one 10.5k loop — and it was 3 weeks before Jill’s race, I signed us up. I think it’s important to try new races each year, so I was eager to give this one a go. We had a great plan: run the race, then spend the day kicking back on the island in the sun.
Months later, I realized the race was the same day as Word on the Street. The timing would still work out — race in the morning, WOTS in the afternoon — but there’d be no relaxing post-race.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I was running, but not a lot. Once the Scotiabank half marathon was removed from my schedule, I lost focus. But I knew I was in shape enough to have a strong run, it was just a matter of how strong. I wanted to come in around 1:00 for my 10.55k loop (the more ambitious goal was sub-1:00 but my run needed to be amazing in order for that to happen) and I knew Jill had it in her to come in under 55. So we set out team goal for sub 2:00.
Jill slept over the night before and we woke to a chilly, cloudy morning: perfect for running but terrible for the ferry ride to the island. It was magical and surreal being in a park that’s jam-packed all summer long when it’s empty and early. The island is beautiful. And the vibe for this race is really fun. It was small — maybe a couple hundred runners — and from the moment we arrived at the ferry terminal, it felt like a party. We caught the 8am ferry over, cheered for the 5k racers, then walked around to keep warm. We were a bit nervous as to how the relay exchange would work. I was going to run the first leg and Jill was going to run the second. So I stripped down, got in the corral, laughed (with delight) at the Groove Crew warm-up and we were off.
The beginning of the race was crowded, but it cleared out quickly. I headed towards Hanlan’s point. I came out a bit too fast: 5:17, but I felt good. I slowed a bit because I didn’t want to burn out. I quickly fell into place with a blonde runner with about the same build and same pace as me. We didn’t talk, but keeping her in my eyeline helped me through the next 2 kilometres (5:29, 5:35). At the 3k mark, there was a water station. I felt good, so I powered through and said good-bye to my pace pal. My hip started to twinge here, not in a painful way, but in that yes-you-have-hip-problems-don’t-forget-about-them way. I focused on breathing and slowed down a bit through kms 4 and 5 (5:45, 5:52).
The midpoint of the race comes through the centre, so I knew Jill would be cheering! Kilometres 6 and 7 were tough (5:58, 6:02) but then I learned that the course took us along the boardwalk! I was excited about running on wood and by the awesome views. Once I hit the 8k mark (6:03), I knew sub 1:00 was in my reach if I picked it up. So I did. I was tired as I rounded the corner at Ward’s Island to head back to the relay exchange, but found a surge of energy thanks to Carly Rae Jepsen and a chatty fellow runner I decided I needed to finish ahead of. As we passed the Rectory Cafe (5:55) I saw a wedding part crossing the path and felt bad the had to deal with a race on their wedding day. I yelled an exhausted congratulations anyway (I loved that I was seeing a wedding while running and wanted them to know that! That, and the bride’s vintage dress was so beautiful) and picked it up for kilometre 10k (5:45). By then, I was spent. The relay exchanged seemed so far away. Then I heard the announcer yelling “40! 40!” crossed the mat, high fived Jill and saw her speed off. 1:01. Close, but not enough. But I ran well and knew out team goal of sub 2 was well within reach. It was up to Jill now.
The high five portion of the race was by far the best part! As I saw Erin come roaring around the corner of the Centre Island turn I was ready for my turn. Erin looked good and strong out there as I cheered her on at the half way point. I wanted more than ever to do the same. When the announcer yelled our number I thought “Erin’s here already!?”. I was pumped there was no way we’d not break out goal time, I just knew it. But to add to that, Erin told me I had to run my loop of the race in 52 minutes — no pressure at all — but as soon as she said it, I really wanted to run my loop in 52 minutes.
Being the faster sister, Erin made me the anchor of the team. This was perfectly okay with me. But while Erin was running I was waiting around. Runner number 2’s (myself included) got the short end of the stick: not only did we have to wait around for the 5k race we had to wait for our partners to run their share. This was something I had not thought about until afterwards. We ended up waiting around for what felt like hours (because it was) and I was getting rather antsy. Catching the 8am ferry felt unnecessary at this point. Keeping to the fun aspect of the race and the Hawaiian theme there were hoola dancers at the transition point to entertain us. With Jimmy Buffet playing in the background the wait wasn’t really that bad. And Erin did run her part very quickly too which also helped. The weird part about this race, however, was how my nerves really got to me before a race. And I’m not entirely sure why. Yes, San Francisco is all I could think about up to this point, and the fact the race was creeping up ever so quickly, and Cecilley and I still had more than $2,000 left to fundraise. Plus, work was getting insane and my training was suffering because of it. I had a lot on my brain leading up to the race and to top it all off Jackie Szabo was getting ready to leave me and Moksha Downtown forever. I had more than enough to think about.
But having the Island Girl race was a good distraction, which was something I needed. Running races with Erin was always been fun, but this time we would be a team! When Erin took off at the beginning I was so happy to watch her go. But then confusion set in and I had no idea where the exchange point was. I did not want to miss her or miss my part of the race. I had a lot riding on me, me being the anchor and all. Luckily, there were other runners lingering around nearby. I followed a group of ladies who looked like they knew what was going on. We found the very nice organizers who then explained everything we needed to know. Perfect! I could relax and would not mess anything up. All I had to do was let Erin cross the mat at the transition point, high five her, then run! That’s exactly what we did.
It was more of a jump high five actually. As Erin yelled “Are you ready?” when she saw me jump out from the crowd, I yelled back “I’m ready! I’m ready!”. This got us a few laughs from the crowd – I was really ready to run at this point and I took off along the route Erin had just done.
As ready as I felt watching Erin, my body was not. I felt very heavy and slow the entire time. Not uncomfortable, thank goodness, but slow. It was a weird feeling and an new one for me. With all the races I’ve done I could not relate to this feeling. I’ve had plenty of hard training days where walking would have been faster than my running speed. Mentally this is not what I wanted at the point in my training. I made the loop around Hanlan’s in dire need of a boost. I grabbed a Gatorade and tried to speed up. But I still felt the same. The race felt long and that 5k mark could not come fast enough. There were two sets of signs and I was too confused and frustrated with my body and legs to know exactly how far I had left to go. My stellar tacit of casing my competition wasn’t working either I was more often alone on the route then with bunches of people. The I saw Erin – the half way mark arrived! She yelled at me to pass people (in true Balser competitive spirit). And so I did. I passed more and more ladies until the Centre Island bridge was in sight. I held on and sprinted to the end. I had one opponent left and Erin yelled for me the “pass her!” And so I did. Coming in at a time of 53 minutes. This felt bizarre. There was no way I was that fast. But I was. All my NWM training must be paying off. The course is flat, fun and being on the Island is the best! We will run this race again next year. It was so fun! But next time I might have to run first. It’s only fair.
The race: 21.1k in 1:54:30