Toronto Marathon: Down By The Waterfront

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon is a big-city race with small-town convenience

Posted: 18 October 2006
by Daniel Benson

I’m not a good flyer. There. I’ve said it. My name is Daniel Benson and I’m not good with airplanes. Perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t like being stuck in a pressured 450-tonne tin can, at 30,000 feet, as the pilot is kicking back with an airhostess in one arm and a drink in the other.

So as my first eight-hour trip across the Atlantic tears off from the runway and the sedatives I’ve so readily ingested begin to kick in, my mind wanders back to the day I was offered a trip to the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Called into the editor’s office and given the opportunity, there wasn’t a chance I could say no. “You’ll be seeing a new country, Daniel. It’s a pancake-flat course. Did you know it’s North America’s fourth-biggest city, too?” Put like that, it was almost going to be worth the ordeal of flying there.

Twenty minutes into the flight and as the plane rattles through its latest batch of turbulence, my hands grip the legs of the passengers next to me, my knuckles turn a brighter shade of white and I try to find the “happy place” that my homeopath prescribed to me before I left. As I do, it dawns on me with some confusion that my “happy place” involves running the marathon. I’m striding along an open road, holding a comfortable pace, with the only sound being of my steady breathing. Surely there’s a mistake? Can the visualization of running 26.2 miles really have a sedentary effect, or is it just the drugs working? Either way, my face is starting to go numb and I think I’m about to black out for what will in fact turn out be the first of many times.

Having landed, reached my hotel and awaken from what can only be medically described as an 11-hour coma, the details of the flight start to come back. The in-flight meal I managed to eat; the episode of Mr Bean I found hysterically funny and the drinks I managed to persuade the hostesses to give me. However, there’s one small problem. Was it just a dream, or did I really imagine the marathon was going to be fun? I’ve run marathons before. They weren’t fun. They were hard. Hard and unquestionably painful.

Yet just from flicking through the official race guide it’s clear that the event certainly has a lot going for it. A short but impressive history dating back to 1990 - when the race started as a half-marathon - through to its present format of marathon, half and 5K, along Lake Ontario and Humber Bay. Each year entries have increased, with both races expecting a combined entry of 10,000 runners for the first time and with competitors from more than 30 countries. Toronto has come a long way from the 500 runners who lined up for the inaugural marathon in 2000.

As I begin to become more compos mentis it’s clear this event – although smaller than most of the world’s top 10 marathons - is not only far bigger than all of the UK marathons bar London, it’s getting bigger.

A cosmopolitan city with a population of over two million, Toronto has more to offer than just a race. Once the drowsiness has lifted, the first two days of my trip were spent exploring the city’s downtown district. Clean, vibrant and with plenty to occupy you on the days and nights leading up to and after the race, it was hard trying to check everything off my ‘to do’ list. Whether it’s museums, shopping centres, markets, shows or bar-hopping, the trams and underground train system are cheap and easy. Of course if you’re looking for an excuse to venture out of the city boundaries then there’s none bigger than Niagra Falls, which you can reach in less than two hours.

The razzmatazz that surrounds the London, New York and Boston marathons isn’t there, but then neither are some of the negatives that such huge races inevitably create. You’re guaranteed a race place as soon as you enter and unlike some other transatlantic destinations, airfares are very reasonably priced.

It seems this race has duplicated the some of the more successful aspects of the big-league marathons and compressed them into a smaller although less glamorous format, with the Expo being a prime example. Not only does slow-runner guru John Bingham speak to audiences of anxious runners before the race, and leads a pace group in the half-marathon.

Competitors also receive free tickets to a baseball game and an open-air concert. The organisers are trying to go beyond just staging a race, to promote a whole ‘racing experience’ with added frills.

With a 7am start there’s certainly a tranquil beginning to the race, with the sun beginning to creep up from behind the large skyscrapers that dominate the central district of the city. Pacers huddle together in their matching kit, while nervous runners – myself included – cling to their every experienced word regarding route and pace. We’re over the start line faster than in many smaller races, and pounding along the wide, well-surfaced route. Once I’d found my stride the race route began to unfold and I was greeted with the main road that would carry me out along the Waterfront, with Humber Bay and Ontario Place to one side.

With the field quickly starting to thin out, it’s not hard to find a good pace along the flat course and although spectators are sporadic, they’re enthusiastic. The Oasis Neighbourhood Challenge brings 10 different cultures and groups from the city out onto the streets. With music, dancers, and food (if you fancy stopping), streets became awash with patches of colour and noise. From Caribbean steel drums, Bhangra dancers and of course pom-pom-waving cheerleaders, with each community competing to be the most animated and colourful, the support they offered was invaluable as they day went on.

However not even the most exuberant and gung-ho support could keep my pace from slowing as the race turned back on itself and along the outskirts of the city. By mile 15 the mid-morning temperatures had crept up to nearer 20 degrees as the route passed out along a spit and towards the outskirts of Tommy Thompson Park. With moored boats along either side, it made a nice break from the main roads that had dominated the race.

With the Skydome baseball stadium and breathtaking CN Tower coming back on the horizon, I was left wondering whether I would have compromised some of the flat route for some of the more undulating roads in the city centre. They may have added to the pain that was building up in my legs, but the downtown market streets, theatre district and parks that I’d pottered round before the race would have been perfect additions to the route.

With only two miles in front of me and a final high-five from one of the last neighbourhood supporters, it dawned on me that the tranquility and enjoyment I’d had during my flight hadn’t been too misplaced. As I finished I came to the realisation that I was left with one question. What’s my ”happy place” for the flight home?

So you want to run the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon...
The next race takes place on September 30, 2007. More information.

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Discuss this article

I too went to Toronto to run my first half marathon and I thought it was a terrific experience! The organisation was great and the folk who turned out to support were amazing - great having your name on your bib as it made it seem like they really knew you and were cheering you on. Only thing Daniel didn't mention was that first 12Km was into a 30mph headwind - this might not bother the hardened runners but I found it really hard going. However I would definitely do it again :-)
Posted: 21/10/2006 at 09:09

Who is Daniel?
Posted: 21/10/2006 at 11:10

Daniel's my brother.
He is older than me.
Posted: 21/10/2006 at 11:14

I havce fancied this race for a couple of years, maybe next year.
Posted: 21/10/2006 at 22:06

My friend did the race as part of the GB team and she was reallly disappointed with her experience and without a doubt said that the wind played a massive part in that and she really did struggle against it. So you werent the only one to notice Helen! Glad you had a great time though. I lived in Canada for a while a couple years back and loved it so much and am very tempted to go out and do this next year- though would prob be my first as havent done a full one yet!
Posted: 22/10/2006 at 14:48

Just a quick feedback from my Toronto Waterfront Marathon experience:

This was my first marathon and I was very happy to finish it together with my husband in our target time of 3hours 49 minutes.
For me it was an amazing experience: impressive skyline, great cheering crowd and bands, to see the elite runners and lots of friendly fellow runners.

I agree that the wind was rather strong towards the end and I needed my stamina to fight against it with a very sore knee. But living near the coast in Devon we are certainly used to the wind, so I have experienced much harder battles against it (and rain of course in the UK)!

If anybody is interested to do a marathon overseas, I certainly recommend this one highly. It was very well organised and the Fitness/Running Expo 2 days prior was most interesting too.
Moreover Toronto is a great city and we took the opportunity to fly out a week before the marathon. This gave us plenty of time for sight seeing, shopping, Blue Jay game, NIAGARA FALLS and even two short runs.
Even if you don't plan to run the marathon, Toronto is a great place for running - never have I seen as many runners in a city and it's great that nobody stares at you when you are running!
There are also plenty of very professional running shops.

In short: Just go for it on 30th September 2007 (only 335 days to go)!

Posted: 29/10/2006 at 13:27

I too ran in Toronto and enjoyed the experience, the wind did slow me down a bit but on the waterfront the views were stunning, problem with next year my three fave races all fall on the 30th sept.toronto, great north run and Loch Ness MARATHON
Posted: 11/11/2006 at 14:13

I've got bored of the Great North Run, too big now to be fun so I've entered this one. This will be my second marathon as I've entered Lochaber in April (didn't get into London) but I'm not bothered now.

Its good to know that people rate this one highly.
Posted: 14/11/2006 at 12:54

would it be good to do if you take 4hrs30 or would I be on my own ?
Posted: 21/11/2006 at 17:56

I think it would still be great! If you check this year's results, there are over 700 finishers who took longer than 4 hrs 30.
When we still saw runners when we walked back to our hotel (after more than 6 hours) and we cheered them on of course!
Again, I highly recommend this marathon (it was exactly 2 months ago...) and I have already put in for a spring mrathon (London - if I don't get in either Rome, Zurich, Prague or Madrid).
Posted: 24/11/2006 at 22:44

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