On tour: Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, home of the CN Tower, rapper Drake and – it turns out – a gem of an international race weekend. The full programme comprises a full marathon, a half and a 5K. The half starts on University Avenue and heads towards the University of Toronto campus. Having scouted out the area I knew the course would lead to Queen’s Park, a manicured stretch of green where the trees glowed with autumnal hues and scores of black squirrels scrambled about like tiny idiot ninjas.

I powered through the first mile only to have my race-day squirrel-spotting scuppered by a downpour. Nothing a runner used to training in the UK can’t handle, but I’d made the mistake of running in a vest and flimsy shorts. (I know it was October but the shorter the shorts, the faster your time. Or so my helpful colleagues at RW US told me.)

Still, at the two-mile point the course took a turn down Bathurst Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares and punctuated by striking street-art murals, vividly coloured cartoonish faces stretching over shop fronts – and it was at this point that the crowd support suddenly blew up. Among the shop workers in store doorways and families out in their waterproofs, a chap in full Superman costume held a sign reading ‘High Five For Superpowers’ and offered his palm to passing runners. I slapped his hand and silently congratulated myself on my midrun coordination. If you ever worry about missing a high five in these situations, the trick is to look at the elbow.

Related: The power of race day support

I headed towards the Toronto waterfront – the point where the city meets Lake Ontario is home to urban beaches and preened bayside parks – when I spotted someone with a placard that read, ‘You think your legs hurt? My arms are killing me!’ I didn’t see the glorious soul who held this, but I chuckled for a solid minute and can only thank them for their excellent sign-writing skills, which carried me with renewed vigour onto the freeway. Yep, the freeway.

Despite the many landmarks along the shoreside, the course leads runners slightly further inland onto an out-and-back along Lake Shore Boulevard freeway, rather than along the boardwalk itself. The hefty stretch from mile 4.5 to 11 is a mental challenge, with entertaining spectacles notably scarce. That said, it’s joyfully flat and the straight, wide freeway makes it a PB-hunter’s dream, with six miles of overtaking opportunities.

Related: Beginner guide to half marathon training

One of the things I’ve always loved about out-and-backs is being able to catch sight of runners powering ahead, and using them as a source of inspiration when things get tough. I caught sight of Calum Neff, who pushed his four-year-old daughter in a running buggy to land a new Guinness world record for the fastest marathon by a male pushing a pram. His time? A staggering 2:31:21. Also taking part was then 85-year-old Ed Whitlock, who set the men’s 85-89 age-group world record that day, completing the marathon in an utterly mindboggling 3:56:33. Sadly, Ed passed away in March, but his legacy is an astonishing one.

Running for fun rather than a time, I took full advantage by easing back to a gentler pace once I started to tire, pausing at the side of the road to snap the iconic CN Tower – the world’s third-tallest, stretching more than 550 metres into the sky. It’s used as a television and radio broadcast tower, and houses a rooftop restaurant (this one revolves, offering 360-degree views of the city).

Turning towards the financial district for the final mile, the crowds grew again. Having never run a big city half or marathon before, the explosion of cheering overwhelmed me.

Though the city is home to more than 2.6 million people, I found the streets peaceful in the days leading up to the race, with no more than a handful of people roaming even on weekend evenings. Now, these streets were packed with crowds five-deep along the final stretch, and twice that as we neared the finish.

I sailed over the line, then staggered into Nathan Phillips Square (home to City Hall and, for the day, the race village), where I joined the ranks of finishers posing for photos on the square’s giant 3D Toronto sign, before taking advantage of the open-air stretching and foam-rolling zone.

It’s clear to see why this event now attracts nearly 20,000 entrants across the three distances. Its flat, fast course – with many straight stretches – is ideal for holding speed, but more than that, it’s a race with plenty of soul. Even at the remotest points of the route, supporters were there with signs, jelly babies, energy and constant encouragement – and whether you’re looking to smash a record or simply finish with a smile, that support is something every runner will enjoy.

The 2017 Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon is on 22 October. 


THE LOWDOWN

1/ Get there

Air Transat flies from Manchester or London Gatwick to Toronto Pearson Airport from £323 return.

2/ Stay

Canadian Affair, the official UK tour operator for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon event, is offering flights and six nights at the Sheraton Centre Toronto or Westin Harbour Castle Hotel (near the finish line and start line, respectively) from £605pp (based on a twin-room share). Click here for more details.

3/ Refuel

Get your vitamin fix with a visit to plant-centred, Instagram-friendly Fresh. Post-race, head to Old School for slow-cooked barbecue and American brunch classics. You’ll deserve it.


THE RUNDOWN

Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon, Canada

2016 stats

First man: Kindi Asefa, 1:08:34

First woman: Erin McClure, 1:20:40

Last finisher: 4:23:05

Number of finishers: 9,702

Finishing stats

1:00-1:29 (2%)

1:30-1.59 (32%)

2:00-2:29 (45%)

2:30+ (21%)