09 May, 2011

Around the Bay 30k - The Betrayal of the Bunny

2:32:15 (chip time) 102/452 AG, 819/2963 OA

After all was said & done, the bunny was only human.

This past winter felt like a long one, and when Sunday, March 27th, broke clear and cold - around -8C with a northerly windchill yanking it down to the double digits - I was resigned that today would be no different from so many other weekend morning runs in the last few months. Except this time I'd drive a short distance before starting, and there'd be about 6,000 others joining me. Luckily the race headquarters was open to us - Hamilton's cavernous Copps Coliseum was a giant hive of activity until the 9:30 start. By this point the sun was shining down on our horde of shivering souls. Piles of snow and ice skirted the sides of the route and made finding one's stride an exercise in patience.

A few zigs and zags brought us to neighbourhoods along the western edge of Lake Ontario, where winds picked up but not enough to halt the locals in their housecoats at the ends of their driveways intrepidly cheering us on, waving cowbells in one hand while cradling coffees in the other (with the occasional cigarette lending a distinct... texture to the atmosphere)

Passing the relay teams' first transfer zone about 10k in unleashed those fresh folks who clearly relished weaving between us in the manner of bike couriers threading their way through traffic jams. Good for them - haggardness would soon set in as they tried scaling the highway overpass without slowing down. From here we traversed the lift bridge that allows freighters access to the bay around which we were running. Its open metal grating was broad enough to give me nervous ankles so I backed off slightly to ensure stability. At about this point I realized I was inadvertently matching strides with the 2:30 pace bunny; he and his entourage had ebbed and flowed around me for the first 45 minutes or so. Until now in my brief running career I hadn't paid pace bunnies much heed, fancying myself as a lone wolf who only answered to himself. It's hard to pinpoint what made me fall under the spell of those large, undulating pink ears of his on this particular day. Perhaps it was my nervousness at tackling this new distance, it may have been the allure of simply trying something new, it certainly didn't hurt that his pace coincided with my best-pace goal. Regardless, somewhere before Burlington I resolved to hitch my star to this lapin rapide. If nothing else it would be a welcome diversion for the hills that defined Burlington's Northshore Boulevard when we turned west about 20k along the route.

My decision, mid-race, to latch onto a pace bunny was silent, invisible. I didn't need to declare my kinship with his panting disciples, there was no rule about swinging my hat around backwards, I didn't even break my stride. Nobody knew (much less cared) that now I was a follower. It felt like taking a bit of a vacation, even slipping back into childhood. Hey! I can relax now, Dad's in charge!
Alas, my hare-trigger resolve was sorely tested early on when after just a few kilometres of rollers I needed to drop off the rear of the 2:30 pack for a sudden heart-to-heart with my knees, which had begun sending hints that it might be prudent to stop immediately and cheer everyone else on. Luckily, by backing off a tad I was able to re-focus on my smoothness and pick up the pace again.
One bit of business before catching back up to the group was a quick stop and u-turn for a hug with my friend, Pat, who was manning an ad hoc aid station at the foot of her driveway. Also snuck in a low-five with another tri club friend, Margaret, telling her I needed to hustle to stay with my bunny because if I win they're paying $4000 for first place! I wonder now - recalling the tepid chuckles from those around us - if people thought I was seriously deluded, instead of purely kidding.

Before long we passed the 25k mark behind the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens, and I noticed not a leaf of it; I had begun slipping into that surreal state of perception that endurance folks sometimes experience (or is it just me?), where landmarks begin to lose some of their clarity and relevance as we hunker down for The Serious Work afoot. As we began our descent down Spring Gardens Road to cross Grindstone Creek - the gateway to our point of reckoning - I yanked off my glove and high-fived Stan Wakeman, a roadside icon for a number of years who braves the chill by playing Queen's We Will Rock You! at full volume on his boom box.

Seconds later, with no warning, just as we began ascending The Hill* on Valley Inn Road the ears came off. Literally, my bunny tore his pink ears off and clenched them in his fist as he slowed down to a walk. His day was done, as it was for so many others ascending The Hill like extras from a George Romero film. For one brief instant, in my naivete, I was incredulous. Can bunnies even do this? Aren't they the lop-eared cyborgs of running - able to stoically maintain their pace and banter effortlessly all without breaking a sweat? I watched our group of lemmings disperse in slow motion (I mean, really, how quickly can you get away from someone when you are running up a steep hill?) As I, too, slowly edged past him I think I whispered a thank you - not sure because I also had to cough to clear my dry throat. Unless I'm mistaken I heard him sigh in response. Regardless of this development he could take pride in having ushered us through the minefield of hills for the past 6k and delivering us to the cusp of the home stretch. Glancing back over my shoulder I saw him slowly cobble together the beginnings of a run, albeit with the spring sprung from his hop. Kudos to you, my furless friend… may your racedays be blown through by tailwinds and your burrow stay dry.

Suddenly I was high, but not from a runner's endorphin rush; I had reached the plateau of York Road, and it was all downhill from here. A slight descent eased our final kilometres toward the cheering throngs inside Copps Coliseum. We passed the Grim Reaper & his sidekick stationed beside a cemetery, urging us on with wisecracks like The end is near! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

A final cruel dramatic test was the steep short service ramp we had to descend to reach the coliseum's ice level and the waiting finish line. Baby steps baby steps don't blow it now and Check… we are clear for final approach! The cheers, the big screen coverage, it was all a blur. A nice volunteer told me I could stop running now. I agreed, and wandered off to claim the pita bread and orange juices that I felt I'd earned.

In retrospect, I am very happy with both my prep and my race-day execution, and my exploration of in-race pacing via bunny was a pleasant experience, cottontail calamities notwithstanding. I am certain I will be back to the Around the Bay, with the obvious goal of wanting to go sub-2:30 next time. If anyone is sitting on the fence about this event I highly recommend it; just come prepared by packing your own bunny if it's that important to you.

*(7.6% gradient rising nearly 30m over less than a 400m distance, compare to Boston's infamous Heartbreak Hill @ 4.5% over a slightly longer stretch)


  1. Hi Stephen,
    great description of ATB.

    Just got in from doing 24k long run along Northshore and The Hill. (30k this year :0) I was looking up pace bunnies and stumbled across this. Just read it outload to my running partner. It was hilarious, oh and I rethink the pace bunny:)

    Good luck to you in August.


  2. Thanks, Sam. Glad you enjoyed it. If you're doing ATB this year, all the best for a great run!