Toronto Marathon: Down By The Waterfront

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.