Cory Kawa - 2020 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Virtual Marathon Route

2020 Toronto Waterfront Marathon Recap

As I pulled off the DVP, I felt that familiar feeling, a strange mix of nervous stomach, some race day jitters, and the energy of knowing that no matter what, I was going to be a part of something special today.

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon was where, for me, it all began when I completed my first half in 2012. It’s the race where I ran my fastest marathon in 2019, just a few minutes shy of the Boston qualifying standard, and ultimately the race that’s twice made me realize that I can accomplish more then I’ve ever dreamed.

Finishing my first half at the 2012 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
The Race Where It All Began – Finishing My First Half at the 2012 Waterfront Marathon

As much as I felt the energy growing inside, I knew today would also be different.  

Over the past eight years, I’ve participated in many of the best events that Ontario has to offer including the Niagara Falls Barrelman 70.3, the Tannenbaum 10k, the Around the Bay 30k, and countless Multisport Canada Events. As good as those events are, and they are all very good events, nothing has ever come close to comparing to the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

For me, two things make Scotiabank special.  

It starts with my fellow participants. There is something incredible about lining up alongside 15,000 other racers. Being able to look them in the eye, and knowing as I do, that every one of them going to do something magical today, and I have the honour of doing it with them.

More importantly, it’s the city itself. If I have one memory from my first half in 2012, it was the cheer stations spread every 2km along the course, with bands playing, people singing, people dancing, and beyond that the people of Toronto lining the entire route from top to bottom.  

A marathon is not easy, but when you feel the collective energy of a whole city propelling you forward, it becomes that much easier.  

Looking back to 2019

After training hard for, and setting a PB at the Niagara Falls Barrelman half-ironman last September, I was mentally and physically exhausted.

Victory Pose After PBing at the 2019 Niagara Falls Barrleman Half Ironman
Victory Pose After PBing at the 2019 Niagara Falls Barrleman Half Ironman

After the half-ironman, a month before race day, I lost the drive.  

I ran a bit, I biked a bit, but I wasn’t training, or even attempting to replicate the behaviours of someone who wanted to succeed.

By the time race week arrived, I didn’t even want to run. With my lack of dedicated training, all I could think was, what’s the point? I was flip-flopping back and forth, ultimately deciding to at least get the shirt, and pick up my kit. Then while picking up my kit, I asked to switch to the half, only to discover it was too late.

Not wanting to do the full, and not wanting to waste the day, I came up with a plan, line up for the full, then short turn, and call it a day with an unofficial half.  

Instead, by the turn, I was flying, well on pace for my second fastest half ever, with still more to give. By that point, I didn’t care. My singular thought was, today I came in expecting nothing, so even if I fall apart at 30k what would it matter. I had no expectations and nothing to lose, so I ran on.

To my surprise, I didn’t fall apart. Instead, I went on to PB with a time of 3:17:09, destroying my previous marathon time of 3:39:04, even setting my second fastest half in the process at 1:35:19.

An Unexpected PB at the 2019 Scotiabank Watefront Marathon

Signing up for the Toronto Waterfront Marathon

It was only two days after my surprise performance in 2019, while feeling the high of unexpected success, that I signed up for 2020 with the intent to train hard, and do everything I could to qualify for, and run, the Boston Marathon in 2021.

Then, just this past March, on my final ski run of the season, I hit a jump, came down hard, and broke my heel. With that, I was on the shelf until July.  

It’s incredible how quickly I lost all the fitness I once had, where I was running fast, and effortless training runs in February, by the end of July I could barely run 10km. 

By the end of August, running was not easy or fun. Two months back from injury, I was unmotivated and struggling.

It was while feeling this way that two things happened. First I made the call to defer Scotia to 2021, then, late one night, a new video by Lionel Sanders popped up on my Youtube feed about his attempt to set a 5k PB in 2020.  

That was it, my motivation, to set a 5k PB in 2020. I last set my PB of 19:46 way back in 2016. What better way to turn 2020 around then by hitting a new all-time best?

Since that day, I’ve been all in, training hard, analyzing everything, even purchasing 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald. In it, Matt preaches the importance of not only an 80/20 split between easy and hard runs, but also the importance of high training volumes to build endurance.

It was while digesting this concept that an email arrived from Canada Running Series promoting the virtual edition of the 2020 Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon.

And with that email, I thought, why not? Why not run my third marathon in three years? Why not add my first virtual race medal to the collection that hangs over my desk? Why not see what I have left, and how far away a BQ is?

Am I ready for this?

On the one hand, definitely not, considering that it was only eight short weeks ago that I ran 10k for the first time since March.  

On the other hand, it has been the summer of the bike, with many a bikepacking adventure, and the all-day rides they entail.  

The big question, could the endurance I’ve developed in the saddle, combined with the hard 5k training I’ve been putting in, carry me through a marathon? 

I surprised myself last year, so why not this year?

Race Day

As I drove down Richmond, I knew today would be different. There were no road closures, no crowds, no collective energy ready to propel me forward.

I could have raced anywhere, but I chose here, I chose Toronto, I decided to run something heavily inspired by the actual course itself. I planned to closely follow the first half of the original route, before detouring into the Port Lands for the second half.

As I planned the route, I hoped to mentally leverage the sights and the sounds of the city, to access memories, memories of cheer stations and the thousands of people lining the streets, cheering me on to the finish.

As I walked out of the car park below Nathan Phillip’s Square, I felt the silence, the absolute silence of a city gone quiet by COVID. I felt a newfound appreciation for these crazy times. I felt the realization of how many peoples hopes and dreams were shattered this year, and how lucky I am to be here.  

Unlike Last Year, University Ave. Was Empty As I Lined up for the 2020 Toronto Waterfront Marathon
The Corrals and the 15,000 Other Participants Were Gone As I Lined Up for the 2020 Toronto Waterfront Marathon

I called my family, for one last pep talk, and with that, I was off.

1-7km – Parliament – University of Toronto – The Ex

Running up University, I felt it. I felt the magic. Sure it wasn’t a shared experience, but in a way, when I think of the thousands of other runners out running their first solo, or small group, marathon this month, it was.  

I remembered the crowds of people. The traffic jam at the start, the pace quickening as I rounded Parliament, and the pace-setting by Bloor.  

By the time I hit Bloor I was right where I wanted to be with a low HR under 130, and a pace just below 5:00.  

The city was slowly starting to come alive, instead of crowds cheering me on, people were lining up for the ROM, walking their dog, or sitting at a patio for breakfast. Not the same as last year, but a distraction all the same.

As I passed by Fort York, I had high hopes. I was nearly 7km in and keeping an effortless pace just below 5 min/km.  

Today was going to be a good day.

7-17km – Lakeshore to Mimico 

If I had one fear coming into today, it was the wind. I hate wind.  

With forecasted winds of 20km from the SW and gusts up to 40km, I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy stretch. It’s safe to say I feared the turn east onto the Martin Goodman Trail, perhaps more than anything today.

Then as I turned off Fort York, I was pleasantly surprised to see Lakeshore closed for yet another ActiveTO weekend.  Mayor Tory, and the City of Toronto, thank you, being able to run Lakeshore beside hundreds of other bikers and runners was incredibly uplifting. It turned this section I feared into something wonderful, with the memories of 2019 both alive and well.

As I approached the Humber, I decided to alter course and push on, to be excited about exploring somewhere new.

The side benefit was knowing that no matter what, the hard effort with the wind in my face now, would soon be rewarded with the wind at my back later.

As I approached Mimico, and the trail end, I was slowing. Where I had been just below a five-minute pace for the first 7km, I was now slightly over five, my dreams of 3:30 were slowly fading away, but considering everything, that was okay.  

My new plan, to leverage the wind for the next 17km, to let it drive me forward, and help me maintain a pace around five minutes a km, and break 3:40.

17-35km Mimico to Tommy Thompson Park 

The funny thing about wind is that it is an undeniable, and punishing force as you run into it, but no matter how strong, you barely notice it at your back. I should know this, but of course, often as I run into it I forget, and with that as I turned east, my dreams of being propelled forward quickly died. 

The run west had been hard but was fueled by knowing that when I made the turn back, what was once hard, would get easier. It didn’t.

At least I still felt fine. My HR was low, my breathing was effortless, and I still had my legs. 

After the turn I came out strong for the next 3k, then out of nowhere, my legs started to feel the collective shock of each footfall, my feet hurt, and my pace began to falter.  

Where I was averaging just over five minutes a km, I was now down to five and a half, followed quickly by six.

By 27k the dream of a sub 3:40 was gone, the new goal, simply to finish. I came into the day with hubris, with the hubris that I, with no training, and only having returned to running eight weeks prior, could pick up and run a marathon out of nowhere, and do it well.  

As I said before, I had hoped that my fitness from the long bike rides this summer would carry forward, and it did, but not enough. Cardio wise I was great, physically I was a disaster, as good as the bike was, it just didn’t prepare for the 42km worth of pounding my legs were taking today.

Perhaps in previous versions of the race, this is where the crowds would come in, where the collective energy of the city could distract me from the pain. Today, it was just me and the shocking pain of each step, radiating from the soles of my feet, up through my entire body. The pain that was begging me to quit, to save myself from this agony, and go home.  

I was now 27k in with 15k to go. All I wanted to do was stop, and walk it home. Would that be so bad I thought?

My goalposts continued to change, what was once 3:30, turned into 3:40, and was now to simply finish, and uninjured at that. The new goal, to make it to 30k, then transition to a walk/run split of 100/900m. To see how that goes, and adapt and adjust. It took all my willpower to get me there.  

By 30k, my legs were toast, the first walk began, and everything about it was AMAZING. Within seconds my feet, my knees, my legs, my mind, were all thanking me for the glorious change.

I can’t remember the last time I had to walk a race, or for that matter if there was a last time, by 32km I was feeling low and defeated. It was at this mental low that the text from my wife came in, screaming “you can do it!!!”. A quick exchange, and a few more motivating words later, I was feeling the love and the will continue.   

Where I was feeling defeated, I began to realize that I had just a bit more to give. 

With 10km to go, and a new pace just below 7min a km, I was now on pace to finish just a few minutes over four hours.  

According to my math, If I managed to dig deep and run the final 5km, I’d finish just under.

37-42.2 – The Final Push

As I said before, today was different, there were no crowds, no cheer stations, no one lining the street calling my name, propelling me to the finish.

Instead, it was just me, and my knowledge, that today I was doing something awesome. 

As I came into today, I had high hopes, high hopes of a sub 3:30, or worst case 3:40, which both proved unrealistic.

I could have felt angry and defeated, but instead, I knew that despite a broken heel, despite COVID, despite a world of closures, I was running, and despite everything, I was running strong to the finish, for the final 5km of my third marathon in three years.

I firmly believe that your perceptions shape your view of the world, that as easy as it is to be negative, that if you focus on the good, the positives, and the small blessings in life, you and everyone around you will be that much happier.

And with that, I’m pleased to say that, today I ran my third fastest lifetime marathon, where I dug deep at the end, to pull off an amazing finish of 3:58:47.

Selfie after finishing the 2020 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Thank you to my family for your support, and to the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon committee for inspiring me to do something great today.

Thanks for reading,

Cory

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