The TCS New York City Marathon was one of those races that University of Guelph dietitian Rachel Hannah just wanted to run so when she got into the elite field for this year’s race, she made it a memorable one.
“I've always dreamed of doing that race,” she said. “I've just heard so many good things about it."
Hannah, who turned 35 about a month before the race earlier this month, completed the New York marathon in a time of two hours, 39 minutes and 15 seconds, the fifth-best time of her marathon races on what is known as a slow course. She was 96th overall, 16th among the women and second among Canadian women.
“I didn't know what to expect,” she said. “I just tried to save my energy because I knew there were going to be a lot of bridges in it and hills and just inclines. I tried to just kind of go by effort and not by pace. That was my strategy.”
As is the case in some of the major marathons around the world, the elite fields start by themselves ahead of the mass of everyday runners. The wheelchair racers went first, followed by the elite men and then the elite women’s field of 43. The number of elite runners in the race’s 50th anniversary event was about the same as usual, although the total number of participants was capped at 33,000 as per COVID protocol. There were more than 53,600 finishers in 2019 while the 2020 race was cancelled due to the pandemic.
All participants did COVID testing prior to the race and Hannah said she felt safe throughout.
In order to run the race the way she wanted, Hannah had to make sure she didn’t get caught going out too fast, something that can easily happen in the excitement of the start.
“I knew the front pack was going to go out at a really good pace, sub 2:30 (two hours and 30 minutes) and I knew I wasn't in shape to do that,” she said. “I thought I was in mid-2:30 shape which makes sense.
“I knew if I went out with them it would be too hard, plus I could feel the effort was hard right from the start because we were starting on an uphill so I wanted to do my first mile or two kilometres slower so I decided to stick back a bit. Lanni (Marchant, a Canadian Olympian) was beside me, but I thought this wasn't so bad because the pack had pulled ahead. At least I could run with somebody.”
The Canadian pair ran together for a while until Hannah decided to hold back a bit to make sure she could finish.
“I ran maybe three or four K with her,” Hannah said. “I checked one of my Ks (kilometre times) and it was quite fast. We might have been going down a bit of a downhill, but all of a sudden the effort just felt too hard. I'm only 4K in and I can't be pushing the pace 4K in. Seeing what she ended up running, I'm glad I didn't hang on to her because I couldn't have ran close to my PB on that day.
"I decided to just run my own race because the worst thing you can do at the start of a marathon is try to go too hard. My mentality is always I have to get to halfway before I feel like there's an effort and at least 30K before I feel like I'm truly racing otherwise it's just really hard to hang on, especially if there's hills.”
Marchant finished as top Canadian, 52nd overall and 11th among the women with a clocking of 2:32:54. Hannah’s personal best was the 2:32:09 she set in the Houston marathon in 2016.
The NYC marathon sends a challenge to the runners right off the start as they begin in Staten Island and immediately run across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn. That makes the start an uphill run. It also led to one of the highlights of the race for Hannah.
“The bridges were really cool. I've never started a race on such a large bridge like that,” she said. “You could see the whole city on the other side. That was one of my favourite moments just because it's so memorable, the sites. Obviously coming off the bridge is more fun than going up it, but the view at the top is good.”
The crowd support also helped, something that marathon runners need.
“It was similar crowd support to Boston – just people everywhere,” said Hannah who ran the Boston marathon four years ago. “It was so loud in spots cheering that you can't almost hear your breathing. That was one part that stood out for me. There might have been one strip that wasn't that busy, but that was the same as Boston.
“You kind of finish and you have a lot of good, high energy which is helpful because we were running with a smaller field. It's not like you're starting with everybody. We weren't starting with the guys either so there were parts of the race where I was completely by myself until a couple of girls caught up to me because I was back from the lead pack. It was just helpful to have that many people out cheering. It can be hard at the start of the race if you don't have a pack to run with. That made a big difference.”
The start also had a different atmosphere as each time a wave of runners was sent off, Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York was played.
“We heard it when we were warming up. That part of it was really cool,” Hannah said. “The energy at the start – people were kind of dancing, even the elite athletes. It was a very relaxed start I think because they had all the music and kind of that party atmosphere that made you feel better because generally you can feel super nervous before you're about to start a marathon. The energy felt really good.”
Hannah had a very successful start to marathon racing and she also learned a valuable lesson then, too. Among her first was the women’s marathon in the Pan-Am Games in Toronto in 2015 where she finished as the bronze medalist.
“My first one was Ottawa 2015, then I did a lot within a year,” she said. “I did that, Pan-Ams and then I did Houston where I set my PB (personal best) and then I got injured a bunch. Note to younger runners not to do three marathons within your first year of doing marathons. That's just the way it worked out, but looking back I wouldn't have done that many. I think two a year max is good for what you can take on your body and the training cycle.”
This year’s NYC marathon was one of the races on her bucket list as she hopes to do all the major marathons. It also confirmed that she still had the will to run the 42-kilometre races.
“There's always that question when you're doing anything hard. It definitely left me feeling like I wanted to do more which was the goal in terms of that, too.”