It all started with a book
This story starts about two-and-a-half years ago, in December 2019, thanks to a book.
At the time, I’d say I was in a bit of rut – not a professional rut, not an emotional rut, more of a physical rut. I’ve always done a good job at staying active, playing sports and leading a healthy life, but I was bored with working out at the gym.
While I played a lot of competitive sports growing up, as I got closer to 30 and had to assume real adult responsibilities, sports became less of a priority and I usually defaulted to working out in the gym.
Nothing wrong with working out in the gym, but after years of it, it got stale and I was feeling unmotivated.
I needed a change.
Coincidentally, a good friend of mine had been recommending a book to me for a few months. I’m a very avid reader, especially when it comes to business, personal development and biographies/memoirs about entrepreneurs and CEOs.
Eventually I caved and bought the book, and I’m glad I did.
The book was Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. I won’t go into detail because if you’re interested in it, I recommend reading it yourself, but it was just what I needed at that time (shoutout to Sergey for continuing to push me until I read it!). Goggins talked about his rough childhood, his life as a miserable, overweight cockroach exterminator, and how he turned it around to become a Navy Seal, ultra marathon runner, and more.
It was a great story and a great lesson about how most of us get complacent and are probably only operating at about 40% of our true potential, and that really pushing ourselves to our physical limits is so important to, among other things, build our mental toughness for everything that life throws at us.
I didn’t have a rough childhood and I wasn’t overweight working a dead-end job, but I completely related to his message and knew I needed to give myself a big, bold challenge.
That’s how it all started.
The big challenge
I started thinking about what I could do, what challenge I could give myself, that met 2 criteria:
- It had to be really hard – something I’d never done before, something that would push me to the limit, and something that had a real chance of failure
- It needed to take at least 4-5 months of prep time. I wanted a slow burn and I wanted it to be something that required a lot of consistency and determination to complete
When thinking back on some of my proudest accomplishments in life, it was the things that took months and months of preparation to complete that felt the best. And in a world full of instant gratification, I wanted to break through and feel a real sense of accomplishment that could only come from months and months of effort
While I played plenty of competitive sports growing up, I was never into running. I found it boring and had never ran more than 7-8km in my life.
But my favourite chapters of Goggins’ book were the ones where he shared his experiences running marathons and ultra-marathons. There was something about the journey of a runner, just being alone out on the road, you against yourself, that drew me in.
I was going to run a race.
I started researching the different lengths to determine what would make for the best challenge. Common sense and advice from others said to start with a half marathon. But the more I looked into it, the more I was convinced it wouldn’t meet my criteria.
Was it hard to run a half marathon, especially as someone with zero running experience? Probably. But I was convinced that if I trained hard for 2-3 months, I could finish it pretty easily.
It was the beginning of December, 2019 in Toronto, and I looked up the Toronto Marathon – scheduled for early May 2020.
Could I go from zero to a full marathon in a little over 5 months?
I made myself a promise: go to the gym tomorrow and run 5km – if it goes even somewhat well, you’re signing up and running the Toronto Marathon.
I woke up the next morning and ran 5km. I was huffing and puffing because my cardio wasn’t great, but it went pretty well all things considered.
That night I signed up for the Toronto Marathon. The race was on.
A turn of events
I did some research online, asked around and put together a training plan. It seemed like 5-6 months was calling it close, but was enough time to prepare assuming I trained well and stayed consistent. The first few weeks were rough as I hadn’t run for longer than 5 minutes in years – but as the weeks went by, it got better.
I started to enjoy the runs, with the exception of the fact that it was winter time in Toronto and because I had no interest in running outside, that meant running at the gym in my building.
That also meant using the treadmill facing directly at a wall with no window.
I also got it in my head that I wanted to do all of this “naturally”, which meant no music, no podcasts, no headphones – so my running consisted of me on the treadmill, alone, staring at a blank wall.
Just me, myself and I, and I started to love it. As my cardio got better and the runs less painful, it was almost therapeutic. For 30-60 minutes, I could completely unplug and run off any stresses, feelings, anything.
And then Covid hit…
It was early March and news of this “Covid” thing was just picking up. Of course, the thought of a global pandemic was crazy at the time, but to make a long story short, in mid March the race got cancelled.
At that point I was over 3 months into training. I was running a half marathon per weekend (and happy I picked the full marathon as my challenge, because as expected, within 3 months I was running 20km without a problem) and felt confident that I was on track.
When I got the news that it was cancelled, I was devastated.
Not only did it mean that all of that training was for nothing, but we had no idea how long the pandemic would last, so I couldn’t come up with a Plan B. After a few days and no official race on my calendar, I gave up and decided to put the challenge on hold.
The second challenge
The world went into lockdown and as we all know, it was a weird year or two. While I stopped running and went back into my usual routine of working out and lifting weights in the gym (when it wasn’t closed due to lockdowns), I still had the marathon challenge in the back of my mind.
In December of 2021, almost exactly 2 years from the day I signed up for the Toronto Marathon, I decided it was time to give it another try.
This time it was a week or two into December and the Toronto Marathon was scheduled for the first week of May. Because my cardio was back to near-zero again, I thought that just over 5 months might be tough, so I looked up the Ottawa Marathon – it was set for May 29, 2022.
I was born and raised in Ottawa, spent the first 22 years of my life there, and a lot of my family and friends were still there – so I usually visited every 3-4 months. I signed up for the Ottawa Marathon in early December, and as I’ll explain later in the story, I’m glad I did.
The race was back on.
With another marathon officially on the calendar, I dusted off my old training plan and got to work. For me, that meant mapping out each run, each week, all the way until race day. My plan included 4 runs per week, and I printed it out and checked each one off whenever I finished it (screenshot is further down to avoid spoilers).
I mostly followed the Hal Higden beginners plan which you can find for free on his website (thanks Hal!). I highly recommend mapping the entire plan out ahead of time.
I started to run, again, and this time had the added benefit of living in a new condo where the treadmill actually faced a window. While it looked out into a small courtyard with virtually no activity, it was better than staring at a blank wall…
1) Back into lockdown
Training was going well for the first month as I started 4 shorter runs per week until the unthinkable happened – Toronto went back into lockdown.
I think it was the omicron variant at the time (I’ve lost track…), but in mid January 2022, Toronto shut everything down again, which meant that even the small private gym in our condo was closed.
If I wanted to keep running, I had one option: to hit the snowy streets of Toronto.
My girlfriend (Sam) and I went to Winners the next day to load up on jogging/sweat pants, long sleeve t shirts and sweatshirts. I couldn’t believe Covid was still souring my plans, but figured eventually it would blow over and the world would be back to normal by May.
The first run outside sucked.
Because I’d never run outdoors in the cold, my lungs weren’t used to running in cold temperatures and breathing was harder than I expected. Within the first kilometre I was huffing and puffing – it felt like I had no training at all.
The first 1-2 weeks were hard, but after that my lungs adjusted and it got much better. While it was more difficult running in the snow, I also understood it would be really good training because my lungs could handle anything and running on smooth roads once the snow melted would feel like a piece of cake.
Eventually I even started liking them because we don’t spend much time outside in the winter in Canada. Getting extra time outdoors and all of that fresh air made the runs a pleasant part of my week.
Then I made my first mistake.
2) A bad mistake
It was about 3 months into training and it was going well. Each week consisted of 2 shorter runs (usually Tuesday and Friday), a medium run on Wednesday and a long run on Sunday. All of the distances slowly increased over time, with the longest week at 3 weeks before the race, leaving me with 3 weeks to taper down and rest my legs so they wouldn’t be tired on race day.
I never stretch before a run and instead start off by walking for 3-5 minutes, then a very slow jog for the first few minutes before settling into my usual pace. On one weekday in mid March I set out to do a shorter run, and had the bright idea of skipping my warm up walk.
I think it was because I had a busy day at work on my calendar, so I immediately broke into a jog as soon as I left the condo. Within a minute, I felt a tweak in my left hamstring and knew it wasn’t good.
When you’re running a lot, you naturally get some tweaks, cracks, sounds and an assortment of random things happening to your body. You get used to it and I felt more in-tune with my body. In this case, as I continued the jog for a few more minutes, it was clear it was something more serious and for the first time in my training, I ended a run early.
It wasn’t painful – more like I had pulled something in the back of my left leg – but I didn’t want to risk it getting worse. I decided to skip my long run for that weekend and took the next 4 days to rest, stretch and foam roll it out.
I was nervous, because I knew that half the battle of running a marathon was just to get through training.
While I knew the race itself would be hard, getting through 4 runs per week for 5+ months obviously meant that there was a risk of injury. I’d also been following a few subreddits (shoutout to r/running and r/firstmarathon – highly recommend these as they are incredible communities!) and there was no shortage of threads about people facing injuries, how normal it could be during intense training and how important it was to avoid them.
After 4 days of rest, I decided to try it out again with a light 5km run. By then my “short runs” were longer than 5km, but I didn’t want to risk it yet. I made sure to do my walk before, started out very slow and the run went well.
My hamstring didn’t feel perfect, but there was no pain or tweak like I had felt the last week. Two days later I ramped it up to around 7km, and again, it felt good.
I learned my lesson the hard way: no matter how short the run, or how rushed you are, never skip a warmup. Ever.
3) Covid strikes again
I quickly got back on track with my training plan and things were going well. Heading into early April – less than 2 months from race day – the runs were getting longer and excitement was building.
It had also been over 2 years since the Covid pandemic started, but Sam and I had been lucky enough to avoid catching it.
Sadly, my luck ran out.
As if there hadn’t been enough bumps in the road, I got Covid in the first week of April. I was in pretty darn good shape by that point and had 3 doses of the vaccination, and thankfully my symptoms weren’t that bad.
It knocked me out of training for 7 days which doesn’t sound bad from a Covid standpoint (it was basically a glorified cold for me), but I was concerned because I lost a full week of training so close to the race, and I was also worried that my lungs/breathing might have on-going issues.
Just like after my hamstring setback, I got back into it slowly by trying a 5km run on the 8th day after testing positive for Covid. On the plus side my legs benefited from the rest and felt nice and fresh, but my lungs weren’t great. There was no pain or soreness, but it was harder to catch my breath.
Two days later I went for a 7km run. Again, I didn’t feel perfect in terms of my breathing, but it didn’t feel bad either. Two days later I went for 10km and felt back to normal.
Another bullet dodged.
I was happy, and hoping that it would be the last of the setbacks.
The longest runs
I got back on track quickly, which meant getting into some of the longest runs of my training schedule. I learned the hard way that not only is it important to do long training runs for your body, but it also helped me learn about how to properly hydrate and fuel before, during and after the runs.
To put things into perspective, my “short” runs on Tuesday/Friday got as long as 8km each, my medium run on Wednesday got as long as 15km (it was real fun running for an hour and half before starting the work day…) and my longest Sunday run was 30km.
Once my long runs got to 20km or more, it really took a toll on my body if I didn’t plan accordingly. At 6 feet 3 inches, I’m a bigger guy with a bigger appetite on a normal day, but when you’re running 50km or more in a week, or 20km or more at a time, proper drinking and eating was very important.
The second longest run I did was 26km – 5 weeks before the race – and it was the hardest. I ate a little bit before, but didn’t eat or drink enough during or after the run. This made the last 5km very difficult; my legs felt like cinder blocks and I started cramping up.
It also left me sore and stiff for days afterwards, which wasn’t a good thing because I only had 2 days to recover until my next run.
It taught me 3 key things:
- I needed more food and liquid before, during and after long runs
- I needed a better recovery plan to get back to 100% quickly
- This was much more than a physical challenge. The long training runs also build mental strength, and taught me that I could keep pushing through physical pain if my mind was strong enough.
On that 26km run, I wanted to quit so badly. Around the 18km mark my legs started to get heavy, and by the 22km mark I was cramping, sore and basically dragging the bottom half of my body. I could have stopped at any moment and walked the rest of the way home, but didn’t.
This is where the mental part comes in. Because as I’d read about and been told many times, everyone hits a wall in a marathon. At some point in the race, you’ll reach a point where you get tired, or sore, or cramped up, or something. And you’ll want to quit.
The real reason I wanted to run the marathon, the real reason I wanted more than just a half marathon, was because I wanted to hit that point and prove to myself I could push through it. Yes it was very much a physical test, but it was also a mental test.
And as I was learning from these long runs, maybe even more mental than physical.
I fought through the pain and finished that 26km run. I was a little concerned because I had a lot longer to run on race day (42km to be exact), but I felt good knowing which areas I had to improve and also that my mind was getting stronger so it could handle more tough times ahead.
Because they were going to get much tougher.
The final month of training
I did some more research and better planning leading up to my longest training run. The 30km run was 3 weeks before race day, and I made sure to:
- Eat more before the run, which included a bunch of crackers with peanut butter, a banana and a ton of water and Nuun (An electrolyte drink. This was the drink that was going to be provided at the aid stations for the Ottawa Marathon, so I made sure to use it in training so I knew my body could handle it)
- Bring gels with me for any run longer than 10km, and take one every ~45 minutes. I used the Gu berry gels. Some people have different stomach reactions to different gels, but they worked for me and I liked the flavour so I stuck with them
- Take more water with me on the run, and also set up an “aid station” so I could refuel during very long runs where I’d run out of water (more on this below)
- Spend time on active recovery after any run at or longer than 20km. This included stretching, a hot epson salt bath (these made a huge difference in reducing the soreness in my hips, knees and ankles) and walking a few hours after the run to shake out my legs so they didn’t get too stiff
Sam and I were living in a condo on the 2nd floor, which made it a pain to have to go back into our unit in the middle of a run, so I enlisted her parents to help with a makeshift aid station.
They lived about 5km from us, and for my 25km+ runs, I’d ask them to leave an extra bottle of water or two and a granola bar for me on their front steps so I could swoop by, pick them up for a quick break and keep going.
I’m pretty sure they thought I was nuts (spending 2+ hours running isn’t exactly your average Sunday activity), but they were nothing but supportive the entire time and I can’t thank them enough. I even let them know when I’d be stopping by (usually around the 18-20km mark) and sometimes Sam would meet me there and they’d be waiting to cheer me on sitting on the front steps with their dogs.
With my new strategies in place, I completed the 30km training run. It was hard, but it actually went better than the 26km run two weeks earlier. The proper food and hydration made a huge difference, and it was a big confidence boost.
The next weekend I completed a 20km run with Sergey – the friend who suggested I read the book that inspired the marathon in the first place. It was a really hot day and neither of us brought enough water, but we got through it and it was fun to finish my last 20km run with him.
It was also the first time I’d ever ran with someone else. It was a great experience, but nothing compared to what I’d experience on race day…
The trip to Ottawa
The rest of training went according to plan, and as the days went by I started to get more and more excited. Not only was it going to be my first marathon, it was going to be my first official race. I’d never even been to one as a spectator and didn’t know what to expect.
Sam and I took the train to Ottawa on the Friday before the race and spent the day on Saturday relaxing, going with my dad to register to get my bib and to explore the start and finish lines.
I heard that the Ottawa Marathon was a really incredible event and the most popular race in Canada, and you could feel the energy at the Expo and downtown Ottawa the day before.
The night before the race I had a big pasta for dinner with my family, went for another walk with Sam and then back to our room for an early night. I had all of my clothes and gear laid out the night before and went to bed at a decent time.
As expected I didn’t sleep well. After years of thinking about the race and 5+ months of training, it was finally here. I tossed and turned for hours, sleeping a bit here and there, and eventually passed out fully around 3am.
I woke up to my alarm at 5:20am. While I didn’t get a lot of sleep, I didn’t expect to get much anyway and I was confident in the training I had done.
Time to find out if it was enough.
My dad met me in the lobby to take the 10 minute walk with me to the starting line. I was feeling pretty good – excited but not too nervous. I had come to terms that I had done everything I could to prepare and it was just another run.
It would be the hardest run – maybe the hardest physical challenge – I’d ever do, but it was just a run. I was also told many times to make sure to enjoy it. After all, it’s an experience and the Ottawa Marathon especially was something to soak in.
As soon as we got in sight of the starting line, I knew everyone was right.
It was a sight to behold – thousands of people in downtown Ottawa with runners packed in getting ready to start and many more there to cheer us on. My dad gave me a big hug, wished me good luck and I went to find my starting spot.
I had about ten minutes until the start of the race and made sure to focus on breathing, staying relaxed and just enjoying the event. It was really cool standing there with more than 3,000 runners, fans giving words of encouragement and music in the background.
I thought back to everything that led me to this point – the first few months of training on a treadmill facing a blank wall, running in the snowy streets of Toronto, overcoming an (thankfully very minor) injury and Covid, and doing dozens of runs over hundreds of kilometres.
I also thought about the 2 goals I set.
The first goal was to finish the marathon. This was a non-negotiable. After all this time and training, I told myself there was no option other than success. If I had to walk, crawl or collapse over the finish line and into an ambulance, I was going to make it through.
I also set a goal of 4 hours and 30 minutes, based on how I felt and how my training runs had gone. Of course it’s hard to gauge how my pace might be affected after the 30km mark, and I told myself I wouldn’t be upset if I finished the race beyond the 4:30 mark, but I wanted to have a time in mind.
The clocked slowly ticked closer to 7am, and I was ready.
This was it. This was the challenge I wanted and was finally getting.
The first 10km
Because there were so many runners, we started in waves every 3 minutes. I was in the 3rd wave, which meant I didn’t get out until 7:06 – 6 minutes after the scheduled start time. I made sure to store that number away in case it came into play for my goal of 4:30.
Finally I was off and made the first turn out of the starting line to tons of cheering fans. For the first time I was running in a huge group with people cheering me on (including my dad), and it was incredible.
But I made sure to start slow.
As I’d been told and read about many times, it’s easy to get caught up in the early excitement, start out too strong and use up too much energy at the beginning. I made sure I wouldn’t make that mistake – after all, it was quite literally a marathon, not a sprint.
One tip I read on Reddit weeks before stuck with me the whole time: run the first 5km with your head, and the last 5km with your heart.
I started nice and smooth. The race info said there would be an aid station with water and Nuun every 3km, and so I trained with that in mind. My plan was to run 3km, then walk for 1 minute at each aid station so I could drink and catch my breath. Every 3rd stop (~9km), I’d also eat a Gu gel.
I stuck to this for all my training runs and it turned out to be very effective.
The only problem was I didn’t see an aid station at the 3km mark. I made sure not to panic, but was concerned because I didn’t bring any liquid with me and I knew how important hydrating was. I had plenty of Gu gels on me but that was it.
It wasn’t until around 4km that we hit the first aid station and thankfully there were tons of volunteers handing out water and Nuun, so I made sure to drink 2-3 and from then on, there continued to be an aid station roughly every 3km.
I was feeling good and going at a pretty good pace, and the scenery was beautiful. It started along the Rideau Canal and into the city, and there were people out on the streets, on their lawns, everywhere, to cheer us on.
Around the 7km mark I saw my first fan, my dad. To say he’s been an overly supportive father for my entire life would be a massive understatement. As I mentioned, competitive sports played a huge part of my life and he rarely missed a game (or practice…). Heck, he even came to a lot of my men’s league games once I graduated from school and was living in Ottawa.
I pulled over for a quick high-five, words of encouragement and got back to the run.
So far, so good.
The run was going well and I was enjoying running through the streets of Ottawa. I’d spent so much of my life there that it was kind of bittersweet that it’s where I ended up running the race.
Around the 12km mark is where I started to first feel some irritation in my right foot. I don’t know why or how, but on most of my runs that were 15km or longer, I’d get a small blister on the inside of my right foot. The best solution I found was Body Glide, which looked like a deodorant stick that you could put on your skin to protect it from blisters and chafing.
It worked pretty well on my longer training runs, but I was starting to feel that same itch on the inside of my right foot a little earlier than usual.
Oh well, there’s no turning back now.
I continued on at a good pace, and made it to the parkway that runs along the Ottawa River which made for a great running route. I was really focusing on fuelling as best I could (3-4 cups of liquid at each aid station and a Gu gel every third stop) and my legs felt pretty good.
Around the 17km mark I got to my second group of fans – my dad was there as we had planned, along with an amazing friend who still lives in Ottawa (shoutout to Lianna for showing up and taking an epic selfie). It was uplifting to see them and gave me an energy boost.
Unfortunately the next two legs of the race took us over the bridge into Quebec then up north of Ottawa into Rockliffe. These would be extremely inconvenient for anyone to get to because a lot of the roads were shut down, so it was the last time I’d see anyone I knew until around the 39th km (my dad and I mapped these out the night before).
It was going to be another 22km – over half of a marathon – until I saw my parents and Sam, and it wasn’t going to be easy…
Around the 18km mark we crossed over into Quebec and ran through and around the streets of Gatineau. It made for a scenic run and just like in Ottawa, there were thousands of people all along the route – on their lawns, at stop lights, everywhere.
The world has been a crazy place for the last few years, and it was so uplifting to see so many happy, supportive people cheering us on.
I’ll never meet all of the people who came out to cheer for the Ottawa Marathon in 2022, and I didn’t have any extra energy to spare that day – but for anyone who was there to show support, thank you. It helped more than you probably know (or could tell from my exhausted expression…).
My legs still felt good, but my feet were becoming more of a pain. Not only did I feel a blister forming on the inside of my right foot, but I could also feel one closer to the toes and also one on my left foot. Still early stages, but at just over halfway I knew I’d have a lot of pain to push through.
I continued on and eventually over the other bridge back into Ottawa. We turned up Sussex Drive heading towards Rockliffe, a beautiful neighborhood to the north of downtown Ottawa, and on the other side of the road we could see the route as it looped back to downtown Ottawa where the race finished. I saw the sign for the 37km mark on the other side of the road and thought “oh man how I’d love to be there right now”.
But I still had a lot of work to do.
I continued to push and was happy that I’d been able to follow my plan so far; run for ~3km, and walk for 1 minute when I hit an aid station so I had time to drink lots and catch my breath.
At this point it was starting to get hot. At 7am when the race started it was perfect – around 15 degrees with some sun and clouds. But by the time I got to the 30km mark, the farthest I’d ever run in my life, the sun was out in full force and it was hot. Probably around 25 degrees or hotter with the humidity.
I made sure to keep pumping in as much liquid as I could handle at every aid station and downing either a Gu gel or an energy candy they handed out at every second aid station. I also started to see more people taking breaks on the side of the road – either sitting, stretching, or in one case, almost passed out with a medic helping them out.
I knew that if I wanted to finish in one piece, I had to stay as hydrated as possible.
It was getting harder and hotter by the minute; both my feet were starting to hurt more, my legs were starting to get tired, and I was sweating much more due to the heat. Thankfully the people and volunteers in Rockliffe were also awesome.
Tons of people lined the streets to cheer us on and some even stood on their lawns with a hose offering to give us a quick spray to stay cool. At each aid station, from the start of the race to the finish, there were dozens of volunteers handing out liquid, snacks and cheering us on.
They made such a big difference. Not just because they helped us stay hydrated, but because of how excited and positive they were. It was nice to see a big group of them every ~3km. I made sure to say “thank you” to each one I took a cup from, but again, didn’t have the energy to spare to thank each and every one.
But a huge shout out to the reported 2,000 volunteers at that race, and really any race. I know I really, really appreciated it.
By around the 33km mark I was really starting to get tired. My feet continued to get more sore and my legs just weren’t moving as quickly. I was also in unchartered territory, having never run this far before.
In my long training runs, especially when times got tough, sometimes I’d start drafting this blog post in my head. It probably sounds silly, but I’d start “writing” it out in my mind, going over the story of why I signed up for the race, the ups and downs, and even the race itself. I told myself that if things got tough after the 30km mark, to start doing that because it helped pass the time.
But I couldn’t.
I hadn’t experienced this before and it’s hard to describe in writing, but I was getting so tired (and probably dehydrated) that I had to use all of my mental energy to focus on four things:
- Keep my legs moving. No matter how hard it gets or how much you slow down, just keep moving, because it’s much harder to start up again if you stop
- Don’t forget to breathe. As slow as possible in through the nose, and out through the mouth. I knew how important it was to keep oxygen flowing properly, and it also kept me focused mentally
- Just focus on the next 3km. Don’t stress over the rest of the race, just focus on getting to the next aid station where you could refuel and take a short walk break
- Get to the 39km mark. I knew my mom, dad and Sam would be there, and seeing them would give me the boost I needed to push to the finish line
Despite the pain, I was also making mental notes of the small wins – every kilometre I finished was now a new personal best, and I started counting down from 10 once I passed the 32km mark.
I kept telling myself “it’s just another 8km”, “it’s just another 6km”, “it’s just another 4km”.
And in a weird way, it was where I wanted to be. This is what I signed up for – not a walk in the park, but a physical and mental test harder than I’d ever experienced before. If anything, one of the biggest reasons I signed up for the race was to see if I was tough enough to do it.
To push through when things got hard. Because it wasn’t “if” it would get hard, it was “when”.
“This is just what you wanted Josh. You wanted to know what it would feel like to push yourself to the absolute limit – this is it. Embrace it. There’s going to be something incredible on the other side.”
I kept pushing.
On my way out of Rockliffe and back towards downtown I passed that 37km mark I had seen on my way in. It felt amazing, and then we approached the National Gallery of Canada. The final 4km would take us back into downtown Ottawa, down around the Rideau canal once more and back up towards City Hall.
When I got back onto Sussex leading into downtown, the scene changed – the streets were flooded with people cheering, and those running the half marathon converged onto the same road as we all ran the final 4km together. It was truly an incredible experience, running through downtown with thousands of people cheering us on. I’ll never forget it.
I was more tired than I’d ever been, but the big crowd gave me a mental boost.
I passed the 38km mark and started keeping an eye out for my family. At this point I was pretty beaten up – both feet were very sore, my legs were extremely tired and while I hadn’t cramped up, I had felt a few quick spasms in my calves.
This happened sometimes if I was dehydrated after a lot of running, and I knew I needed to keep drinking and breathing so they didn’t turn into a full-on cramp. It was still late morning, which meant it was continuing to get hotter and more people were pulling over to walk and stretch.
While I avoided hitting a hard wall up to that point, I felt like a zombie and had ran more than 20km since I last saw my dad and Lianna.
Then I saw my mom off to the left of the road.
She’d been up ahead scouting for me, and I saw her just after the 39km mark. I went over to hug her and took a quick walk break with her over to Sam and my dad. It meant so much to have them there.
My dad gave me a quick hug and reminded me that I had less than 3km to go – I was so close. I got a kiss from Sam, one last hug from my mom, more words of encouragement from all of them and then I got back on the road.
They were all I needed to keep going.
It was harder than ever to start back up again – both physically and because it would have been so nice to just stay with them – but I was so close and knew they’d be waiting for me at the finish line.
The last leg
I kept pushing, but every step was hard at this point. Just getting my legs up to move them forward felt like a mission, and every time they stomped down I felt the blisters on the bottom of my feet.
I hit the last aid station, chugged another 3-4 cups of liquid and told myself this was my last break. I think it was around the 40km mark but honestly don’t remember because a lot of the last half hour was a blur.
This was it – I turned the corner to cross over the canal for the final stretch and the final kilometre.
It was pretty surreal. The entire last kilometre was lined with fans cheering us on, all the way up the canal to the finish line. Despite all the planning and training, the one thing I didn’t know was how it would feel to cross the finish line.
I’d thought about it so many times before, especially on longer training runs and in the weeks leading up to the race. I knew it was going to be the toughest thing I’d ever done, but didn’t know what crossing the finish line would feel like.
The curiosity kept me going, and at this point, it was 100% mental.
To get me through the pain I was feeling, I started thinking about all of the time and effort I put into this:
- All the runs I did years earlier on a treadmill staring at a blank wall
- All the runs I did outside in sub-zero weather when the gym was closed
- Getting through the injury and Covid
- The hours I spent planning, hydrating, eating, recovering
- All the time I spent running by myself, sacrificing mornings and weekends, pushing myself to the limit when I just as easily could have slept in
I choked up a bit thinking about it. I certainly picked a hard enough challenge, and I was about to finish it. I’m not an emotional guy, but couldn’t help from feeling so proud of how far I’d come – literally and figuratively.
I set out to push myself beyond my limit, to – as Goggins put it – callous my mind. To put my body through so much difficulty that the only way to break through it would be to push so hard mentally that you can ignore your body and do things you otherwise wouldn’t think possible.
After all, if I was listening to my body, I would’ve stopped about 15km ago.
The road took a slight curve to the left and I saw the finish line about 100 metres away. I choked up again… “I’m so close”.
Fans were cheering, music was blaring, but all I could focus on was keeping my legs moving.
I also saw the clock for the first time. The race got so hard and hot in the second half that I hadn’t even thought about my goal of 4:30. As I got closer, I saw the clock ticking at 4:33.
Holy crap – if I took out the 6 minute delay from the start, I was going to beat my goal by 2 minutes…
The rest was a blur.
I got to the finish line, put both arms up in the air and crossed.
I did it.
I slowed to a walk as the road continued for another few hundred metres to the final aid stations and exit. I smiled wide and started to tear up.
I did it. I did it. I did it.
It was all I could think. I was done, I did it…
I was hobbling, broken down and dehydrated – but on Cloud 9.
I kept walking and although every step was painful, I didn’t care. I was the happiest person in the world. The path went under the Laurier Avenue Bridge that we started the race on, and when I looked up I noticed my mom, dad and Sam on the bridge.
I waved, trying to get their attention. My dad finally noticed, pointed me out and they all waved back. They were probably more relieved than anything based on how rough I looked at the 39km mark, and seeing them there as I walked under was the icing on the cake.
We had arranged a meet up spot for when I was done because it was absolute mayhem downtown. There were still thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people, in and around the finish area, and I went through Confederation Park where they handed out more liquid, a medal and a bag of snacks.
Every step was painful at this point, but I headed out of the exit and towards my family, finally spotting my dad. He didn’t see me coming until the last minute when I went in for a hug, and broke down in his arms.
The tears started flowing out – tears of absolute joy. I held on for a while, to let it all out and because I was afraid if I let go, I’d collapse on the ground.
I hugged my mom, I hugged Sam, and sat down for a breather.
It was all over. I did it.
Running and completing a marathon was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, one of which I don’t think I’ll ever do again.
I set out to push myself beyond what I thought possible, and the challenge was everything I could have asked for and then some.
My official race time was 4:27:54, so I completed the race and also beat my goal by just over 2 minutes – the cherry on top!
I learned a lot from the experience. I’ll probably save the key lessons I learned for a separate blog post, but the main lesson was this: we’re capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, but only if we push ourselves to find it.
Especially if you’re feeling down, or unmotivated, or in any form of a rut, give yourself a big challenge. Make sure it feels right for you, make sure you have a proper plan and the right support in place, but give yourself a big challenge, create a plan, and push yourself to never give up.
It doesn’t have to be a marathon – maybe it’s a weight lifting goal, or starting a new business, or a healthy eating habit, or finishing a piece of artwork you didn’t think possible. Find the sweet spot right between impossible and doable, and get started.
Even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot along the way and come out stronger than before.
Lastly, I want to thank a whole bunch of people who helped me on this incredible journey.
Again to all of the volunteers, staff, and people who came out to cheer all of the runners on, thank you so much. I had heard the Ottawa Marathon was a special race, but it still exceeded expectations. Thank you for making it an experience I’ll never forget.
To all of my friends and family who supported me before and after, sending words of encouragement and/or congratulations, thank you. There are too many to name here, but when you’re focused on a challenge like this for so long, every message, text or call helps.
Special shoutout to Sergey for forcing me to read the book that inspired it all, and for keeping me motivated along the way. To Lianna for showing up on race day and being supportive as always. And to Nick, Lorne, Uncle Kenny, Tommy, Tony and Sandy for tips and advice on how to train and what to expect on race day. I appreciated every piece of advice and felt like I had an edge up because of it.
Another huge thanks to Sam’s parents for being my makeshift aid station and supporting me for months while I prepared. It meant so much to me.
For everything I’ve ever done or accomplished in my life, my parents have always been by my side – and in most cases, in-person. Sports games, graduations, and in this case, a marathon. I have the most supportive, caring parents in the world – it’s not an exaggeration – and their love and support as I prepared for the race, and most importantly, having them there on race day, made it that much more special. Words will never be enough to thank you for everything you’ve ever done, and continue to do, for me. You truly are the best.
And lastly, to Sam. I don’t think she realized what she was getting into when we moved in together and I said I wanted to run a marathon, but she quickly learned it meant a lot of time running, stretching, eating and complaining about being hungry/sore. And she never complained. She supported me every single day, and having her by my side made getting through the months and months of training that much easier. Thank you for being there for me and always believing in me, every step of the way.
I love you all, and may everyone find and finish their own “marathon”.
P.S. If you made it this far, thanks so much for reading. My posts aren’t normally this long and usually focus more on business and personal development, but if you like the sounds of that and want to keep following my journey, make sure to sign up for my email list here!