Thinking of doing the Vancouver marathon? Here’s my take on the race! From the 2018 edition of the event.
Perhaps it is not fair to write a race report when your feet still hurt from the race But I have 4+ hours to kill on the train to Seattle so here goes!
When my friend Christopher suggested the Vancouver marathon as a spring race, I was all in. I like Vancouver and the route looked amazing.
Why do it?
In terms of beauty the route did not disappoint! There were several spots along the route where I took a moment to simply appreciate the view. Whether it was a glimpse of the mountains in the distance across Burrard inlet, the stunning array of colors at the entrance to the UBC rose garden, or the driftwood along the beaches. From km 31 to km 41 you run along the Seawall, one of my favorite places in the world. No matter how tired you are or how focused you are trying to keep a particular pace do pause and take in the surroundings from time to time!
I love Vancouver. You will find, great food, amazing sushi, art galleries with stunning Haida art, plenty of Tim Hortons and Starbucks, tons of vegetarian options if that’s your thing, lots of waterfront paths for biking or walking, and the gorgeous mountains in the background. There are a good number of hotels, so you should be able to find accommodations, although downtown hotels are pretty pricey. Vancouver has got a bit of a rough underbelly. Within Canada, Vancouver is the city with the worst drug problems and largest number of homeless, probably due to the fact it has the mildest winters of any city in Canada (it would suck to be homeless in Montreal in February) so you do need to be a little careful about where you go wandering around.
One challenge with Vancouver is they don’t have Uber or Lyft type services. Your only option is a good old fashioned taxi. It’s not too hard to find a cab downtown, but if you are outside downtown expect a wait, especially if it is raining! Download the eCab phone app ahead of time. Ecab is your best bet for requesting a taxi if you can’t hail one down on the street.
So how was the race?
The race expo – 3/5 stars
The race expo was quite efficient for bib pick up, but, they made sure the sponsors got value for their money. T-shirt pick up was on the far side of the expo and you had to wind up and down every single aisle, past every single vendor to get there. They even had people to stop you cutting across aisles between booths! Fortunately there were only 5 aisles of vendors, but is was a little annoying to say the least!
You’ll find the usual assortment of shoes, clothing, gels, nutrition bars & races as you walk through. I didn’t see any great deals or discounts so I escaped with my wallet unharmed. I was interested in trying out some Stance socks so I stopped by their booth. I had a good chat with the knowledgeable staff but they were regular price so no real reason to buy them at the expo.
When we finally got to the end of the expo we picked up our shirts and a transit pass and transit map for race day to get you to the start line. For those a little further out, you could also sign up for a shuttle pick up. The volunteers can help you figure out your best option for getting to the start.
My favorite touches were
- free blue gloves for all runners (perfect disposable gloves for race day)
- a couple of good backgrounds for the mandatory “hey look here I am with my bib photo”
- A bear mascot (my sister and I have a tradition of always trying to get our picture with a bear at races!)
- a video booth where you can record a message for a runner that is played on a jumbotron when they run by. Christopher and I recorded one for Karin, when she wasn’t around, I wonder if she saw it!
Getting to the start line – 5/5 stars
The marathon starts at a very reasonable time: 8:30 AM. Bag check doesn’t close until 8:15 AM. So as marathons go, you can sleep in quite late! I set my alarm for 6 AM (as all runners know, you have to leave time for the digestive system to settle down), but I did not leave my hotel room until just after 7 AM.
If you stay downtown, getting to the start is really easy on the Skytrain. Just make your way to the Canada Line (don’t forget your transit card from the race expo!) and go north to Oakridge and 41st St station. It’s a 10-15 minute ride from downtown. From the station, it’s a 10-15 minute walk to the start area. This year (2018), it was a nice day and the walk was pleasant. You didn’t need to worry about getting lost, since pretty much everyone on the train was going to the same spot! I didn’t talk to anyone who took a shuttle, so I don’t know how well that service operated.
The start area – 4/5 stars
I got to the start area with time to spare. I had more than enough time to hit the port-a-potty lines. I think these may have been the shortest port-a-potty lines I have seen in a marathon start area. This might be due to the “Pit Stop”. A fenced off area of urinals, allowing the gentlemen at the race a quick and easy option for last minute bladder relief. The ladies also benefited from the reduced number of gentlemen waiting in the port-a-potty lines.
There were grassy areas where you could sit or lie down. Some large trees even provided some shady spots which I appreciated given it was a sunny and a touch warm. There was a road where you could do a bit of a warm up run. The gear check trucks were easy to spot. The start map shows a hospitality tent, but I never saw it, so I’d play it safe and BYO water & nibbles. I couldn’t find any official drop off place for my disposable pre-race gear, so I left it on a fence next to other discarded sweatshirts and PJs so hopefully someone collected it all for donation. I appreciated the effort to recycle and compost as much litter as possible. They even had a volunteer to help you figure out what garbage goes in each bin.
It was also at the start area that I appreciated the ability for runners to specify the name to appear on their bibs during online registration many months ago. I bet the fans enjoyed cheering on the tall lanky guy named “Sparkles” and I got a laugh out of “John 3:16” Such a simple idea, and fun to spot the occasional runner who got creative while waiting around at the start.
Corrals 4/5 stars
There was signage indicating which way to go for the different color corrals. No-one checked my bib when I entered, but looking around, most of the runners in my corral did have the correct bib colors, and I didn’t have any issues with runners who were clearly in the wrong corral after race start. After the usual warm up and national anthem the first corral was off! Then the next corral walks up to the start line and waits for their designated start time. It was simple and efficient
Water stops 2/5 stars
There are water stops at kms 3, 5, 7.5, 9, 11, 12.5, 13.5, 16, 18, 19.5, 21, 22.5, 24, 26, 28.5, 31, 33, 34, 37, 39, 40. Basically they are anywhere from 1 to 3 km apart. There were a decent number of stops but it was a little confusing because the distance varied. I did appreciate the water stops at the bottom of the two toughest climbs.
The volunteers at the stops were amazing, frequently cheering you by name, and always making it very clear whether they had Nuun or water (FYI – I am NEVER going to complain about volunteers! Anyone who gets up early to work at a water stop and cheers on the runners for hours always has my gratitude! THANK YOU!)
Unfortunately, almost all water stops were only on one side of the road and there were multiple stops where the number of tables was a little low and you ended up with a crush of runners all trying to move into a small space to grab a drink. Given the weather was on the warm side this made it almost impossible to run through a water stop and just grab a drink without a near crash. A couple of water stops looked like they were having a tough time keeping up with demand, I was in the four hour marathon range so there were plenty of runners looking for water after I went by. They had Nu’un at about 80% of the water stops. There was one stop with CLIF gels ( I brought my own gels) and there were two stops with CLIF bars. There were apparently bananas at one stop as well. Sadly no sponges or ice at any of the stops which would have been really nice! I guess Vancouver doesn’t get as much heat as our races out East!
This is first race I have ever run where the hills are in the first half of the course and it flattens out in the second half.
There are steady rolling hills the first few kms but nothing too nasty.
There is one really *good* hill at 8.5 km : fairly steep and quite long. They even have timing mats at the top and bottom so everyone will know how much you slowed down. There were good crowds along the hill cheering us on, and because it was so close to the start of the race I found it tough but manageable. I didn’t see many people stopping to walk which is always an indication of a crushing hill. I would say it is similar to the toughest of the Newton hills in Boston. I am also told it is similar to Stone Mountain in Seattle, a well known hill to Seattle runners in the Green Lake area.
Then you have some more rolling hills, but as you come to the far side of UBC you hit a big downhill! It felt like about 2 km of downhill, some of it quite steep. Looking back I wonder if the reason my feet were so sore from the half way mark onwards was due to that long downhill stretch. Then you have a nice flat stretch along the beaches and THEN just when you are getting used to nice flat stretches, you hit the bridge. I would compare it to the Queensboro bridge in the NYC marathon. A long steady uphill climb. Not as steep as that first hill, but because it appears at around the 30 km mark it takes a lot out of you. I saw a LOT of runners walking on that bridge.
Once you get to the far side of the bridge, you have a nice little downhill and then the awesome flat of the Seawall. Once you hit the seawall you don’t really see another serious hill until the very last km where there is a gentle uphill to the finish. But the crowds, the Air France team cheering you, and the sight of that Finish Line banner will get you through it without too much difficulty (beyond the difficulty we all have in the last km of a marathon).
The crowds 3.5/5 stars
A huge shout out to the threesome who wore the big inflatable T-rex costumes and appeared at least 3 times along the route cheering us on. That brought a smile to my face every single time. Some of the volunteers had good race signs including “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon”, and I laughed at the radio station sign “Find a cute butt and follow it to the finish”. I think my favorite was the woman holding a sign that said “run like there’s a cute guy in front of you and a creepy guy behind you “.
I have to give kudos to family and friends who were not there in person, and posted pictures on Facebook with signs to cheer me on
The spectators who came out to cheer us were great! Thank you to each and every one of you it really helps. Extra thanks to the lady who handed me a freezie around km 28!
The reason I only give the crowds 3 stars was just a question of volume. It was gorgeous weather for spectators, but the crowds seemed thin. I wonder if the part of the reason is due to the half marathon starting 90 minutes before the full and on a completely different route. Anyone cheering on a runner in the half is unlikely to spend 2 hours there then traverse downtown to start all over again cheering on the marathon. There were a few spots with good cheering, and the finish line was wonderful, but for a race this size I expected more. Ottawa Race weekend has similar numbers in the marathon but better fan turnout. On the positive side, it was easy to spot any friends you have cheering and If you run the half marathon, you can get back to your hotel, shower and change and have plenty of time to go watch your friends cross the finish line, right Karin? If you are really dedicated you can catch them at the 32 km mark and again at the finish right Christopher? And yes it was appreciated!
One other word of warning, there are almost no crowds at all along the seawall. So as a volunteer told me at the race expo, you may want to save your best mental motivation tricks for the seawall, whether that’s dedicating different miles to different people you care about, or finding that upbeat song on your playlist, for the seawall.
The finish area 4.5/5
I love races where I can see the finish line from a distance. This race was great from that perspective. I also found the flow across the finish line to get your medal, water and food moved along nicely. There were lots of photographers and background for you to stop and get a picture with your medal if you so choose. I had my medal, a bottle of water, a banana and a bag of Old Dutch Chips (a personal favorite) in short order. The walk from finish line to the meeting area was blissfully short compared to other races I have run (Notably New York who torture you with long walks uphill to the exit)
It was sunny on race day with the occasional clouds. The temperature was 12 C (54 F) by 6 AM and the high was 19 C (66 F). There was a light wind that I appreciated on the seawall. Average race day weather is a low of 7 C (46 F) and a high of 16 C (61 F) so it was a touch warmer than usual but not outrageously hot.
Whether you judge that as good race weather depends on where you train of course! I had just trained through what seemed like an endless winter in Ottawa, so anything over 6 degrees would have seemed warm to me! There were over 300 runners from Mexico who probably thought it was perfect running weather Spring in Vancouver could be 5 degrees and rainy or 25 degrees and sunny. This year, we got the latter. Fortunately there was some shade on parts of the course and there was a cool breeze along parts of the seawall that made it bearable, but it was pretty clear in the last 10 km or so that the sun and heat took it’s toll on a lot of the runners.
So how did I do? Well, despite being a little nervous about heat I decided to try and PR/PB. I started out feeling strong, easily running my desired pace for the first 8.5 km. I slowed down on the big hill, but quickly found my pace again. I was feeling great! I kept to the shady parts of the road as much as possible. I dumped water on my head at every aid station. But, sadly the heat and the hills was clearly taking a toll. I slowed down a touch but then made it up on the long downhill at km 15. It was around km 19 that I realized I was likely in trouble. My feet hurt and my pace had started to drop even though we had a nice flat stretch. At 21 km I removed my large print pace band for the first half of the race, still on track for a Personal Best. Then about 3 km later I knew I was done for and decided to throw out the other pace band and just accept it was not a good day to PB. A few km later I turned off my Garmin, there were plenty of km markers to help me track the distance and I really didn’t need to know how much I was slowing down. I kept it slow and steady all the way up and over Burrard bridge and was very happy to see my friend Christopher at km 32 (although he would not give me a hug claiming I was too sweaty. I was happy to hear the other girls he was cheering on ignored his protests and hugged him anyway, sweat and all!)
As I mentioned at the start of this post, the Vancouver Seawall is one of my favorite runs ever! So I decided I would walk each water stop along the seawall and make sure I took a moment here and there to look out over the water to try and spot ducks (sadly only mallards and Canada geese today) or herons (one Great Blue Heron around km 40). It is all too easy in a marathon to completely miss the views because you are so absorbed in trying to run an exact pace or simply trying to run through your misery. I was determined not to let that happen on the seawall. My form was falling apart, my feet hurt, but I did still appreciate the smell of the ocean, the breeze off the water, the driftwood on the beaches. I was more than a little jealous of a couple of people taking a nap on the beach, stopping to lie down would have felt soooo good. But of course likely I would need medics to get me upright again. Fortunately I know pretty much every twist and turn of the seawall and as slow as I was, there were others even slower. Seems I was not the only person who took a beating on the course.
Once we left Stanley Park and back into downtown the steady build up of the crowds made up for the slight hill. I spotted Christopher once again exchanged a fist bump and continued on towards the finish. Apparently his wife Karin (the photographer in the photo above) was a little further up but at that point the finish line was within my reach and I was on a mission to cross that line!
Once at the finish I decided if I can’t have a great time, maybe I can have a great finish photo and did a little jump into the air (based on the effort I put into that jump I’d like to think I got huge vertical, but chances are I only got a couple of inches off the ground). I landed on both feet and almost tripped landing face first on the pavement, but fortunately I managed to recover my balance and no medics were required I fought my way past the photographers and headed to the volunteers with the medals. A 7 or 8 year old boy was at the end of the row with one medal to give out, so I walked over to him and he carefully placed the medal around my neck. Maybe not quite mission accomplished, but another marathon in the books! Around km 28 I really never wanted to do another marathon ever, but I do have a bib for Chicago this fall so…..
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