This race first grabbed my attention back in Athens in 2013 when, on flicking through the AIMS magazine for that quarter, there was an advert for the event. It appealed instantly for two reasons:
- The Falls themselves are utterly iconic;
- There’s the novelty of crossing international borders. I mean, that’s pretty cool.
Fast forward to November 2016. After getting the confirmation of my place for last week’s Chicago Marathon, I started having a look around to find another relatively close race for the following weekend. When the penny dropped that this fit the bill, entry was snapped up pronto.
After a week of sightseeing in Toronto and a slightly unbelievable ‘first finisher’ in a local parkrun (Whitby) in my quickest 5k time since January, I dragged myself round the – relative to Chicago – tiny Expo in Niagara Falls just an hour before it closed on the Saturday. There I was told I may or may not need a mysterious I-94 from the Americans to let me cross for the start in Buffalo…so off to the Rainbow Bridge (not rainbow coloured = opportunity missed) to check in. You have to pay a 50 cent toll to cross the bridge — US or Canadian, just so long as it’s two quarters — either to be allowed to leave or for the honour of entering the US.
I’ve no idea which, all I did know is I had no change! Luck was on hand, though; a very kind woman in the currency converter booth simply gave me two quarters unprompted rather than have me take out cash just to cross the bridge. Happy days!
I didn’t need the I-94. Whatever it is. Turns out all the US Customs guys wanted was a stamp in the passports within the last 90 days, as that grants you unlimited trips in/out for that time. Ach well, better safe than sorry.
A quick spot of food and a boat tour of the illuminated falls later, and on to Race Day.
But not before paying our respects to the Buffalo police officer still missing in the Niagara river following a search and rescue effort at the time of the race. It was very moving to be on the start line while a colleague of his recounts the events, with fellow officers around him.
Confusingly, someone had put the starting arch up backwards, so we were staring up at something that read ‘Finish’. It gave us a bit of practice for 42.2km’s time. If you can practice starts in F1 or free kicks in football, why not crossing the finish line in marathons?
Some weird recital of the respective national anthems via a recorded Shania Twain thing later, off we went. An added novelty was the presence of mile markers on the US side, which switched to kilometre markers in Canada. Just to be awkward. We crossed the Peace Bridge and got past 7km just before passing Canadian customs — and no, we didn’t have to flash our passports to re-enter, thankfully!
Aside from giving thanks to the marshals and odd pocket of locals, the main pastime was to stare at the mad surroundings to take my mind off the complaining my legs were doing. To one side I had Lake Erie and the other had ludicrously large houses — mansions, modern-day castles really — with massive gardens, and often boats in them. My word. After looping round either side of Old Fort Erie, a relic of colonial times, and back under the Peace Bridge, we had a ‘straight’ run in to the Horseshoe Falls with the Niagara River on our right.
Very little in the way of ups or downs here, just us and the road.
Or just me and the road. With 809 finishers — 409 of them female, which is a little unusual — us runners became pretty spaced out petty quickly.
As for the run, that was okay. I’d planned sub 3:30 pace, hoping to dip slightly under my time from last week, and that looked on with a couple of minutes build up eight miles in. But it wasn’t to last.
By mile 10 I decided to introduce a walk-run strategy. I’d read from friends starting it when you have to means you’ve already left it too late, so I crossed my fingers I hadn’t fallen into that trap. 4:30 run/30s walk was the plan.
That went well. What was even better was I got chatting to a fellow runner who’d also run Chicago last week. He’d come over from China for the race via LA, and similarly spent some time in Toronto before this. He’d run a very similar time as me, and also wanted more of the same. He went off into the distance initially, but I caught and passed him a few miles later, both putting on brave faces in tough conditions. In between times, I also exchanged a few words with another Chicago runner from Mexico.
Back in the race, things kept getting more difficult. It was hot (well, 20 degrees plus anyway) and really humid. My legs made it clear early they weren’t happy with this carry on. “Haven’t we done enough already?”, they complained.
The run-walk really helped my pace when I was on the ‘run’ phase, sticking at around 8min/miles or thereabouts until just after 20 miles. It was also a mixture of funny and irritating to pass people only to have them pass you only to pass them only to…okay, I think you get it. Pleasantly, more often than not I was the one going forwards.
It seemed the conditions were taking their toll on everyone!
I started to walk more from the 34k mark. I felt like I was both drinking too much and not enough, and pouring loads of it over my head gave only temporary respite. This wasn’t as hot as it was in Luxembourg (where yes, I ran a half!) but it felt rotten.
The one stop on the whole route that was offering oranges and bananas was *hyperbole alert* an absolute saviour. I stopped, ate one of each, refilled my water bottle all the while telling them how amazing they were and how finished I was, and off I trotted.
A misplaced half marathon marker (they ran the same route, just starting at — you guessed it — the halfway point — declaring 18km gone when it should have said 19km sent me into a bit of a panic. The idea of running that extra kilometre was just too much. I decided to believe my watch, I was positive the GPS wasn’t out by that much.
The views continued to be a distraction, as did the occasional bout of singing. The skyline of Niagara Falls got closer. The river got a little more choppy. As I moved into the last 1500m I started to pass runners already finished the (mostly, I presume) shorter events that were also going on that day.
I was passing quite a few folk still doing the half by this point. I shouted encouragement to a couple of them, and they shouted back.
Occasionally people would remark on the Chicago top I was wearing which gave a welcome boost, and with about 500m to go I congratulated a group of half marathoners sitting by the roadside, which got me another big cheer!
When you’re running on empty, you need everything you can get.
I crossed the line in 45th place in 3:41:33 with more of a whimper than any great fanfare, a relieved man to have completed that second marathon in a week.
Incidentally, the 5k timing mat appears to have failed for everyone. But look at that 17 minute positive split! Sexy.
My (almost) immediate post-race thoughts in video form are here.
On the right day, that would be a quick course. For me, it was a really difficult day. In hindsight, I perhaps should have taken it a bit easier a bit earlier, as it’s really put the fear into me when it comes to considering longer races in the next few years.
It’s a long way from the sort of achievements the folks in CAAC & BCRC have been knocking out over the last year or two, but these two runs in a week have given me a fresh sense of awe at what they’ve accomplished.
I’ve prattled on for ages. The setting was spectacular, the course was runner-friendly, the organisation was spot-on including the transport to the start and from the finish area. I saw a sign for beer at the finish, but couldn’t have faced it!
By some small mercy, my legs feel fine today (Monday), if a little heavy.
PS: Full list of videos clips here if this wasn’t enough for you.