Christine Appel grew up in Ontario but is now resident in the UK where she's an enthusiastic club runner. The chance to return to North America and run in a cross-border half marathon was one she couldn't resist ...
I was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Canada just across the river from Detroit, Michigan, and the Free Press Marathon has been run between the two cities for 33 years. The half-marathon course takes runners from downtown Detroit, over the international bridge, along the Canadian waterfront, through the international tunnel and back into downtown Detroit.
I don't think it's the hardest course in North America, but it's Boston-certified, and three people died in the cold conditions of last year. The run has some amazing urban scenery, and runners experience sunrise while over the bridge. It's also pretty much the only time a respectable married mother of two can stand around downtown Detroit half-naked at 5:30 in the morning.
I knew it was going to be a long day from the moment I signed up. Runners had to be gathered in their pens at 6:45am for wave starts beginning at 7am. Given that I was starting out on the Canadian side of the border and didn't want to have to negotiate pot-holed Detroit streets in the dark my only option was to get up at 4:30am for the 5:30am tunnel bus.
Despite the early start, taking the bus was a good idea. Plenty of chat with racers old and new helped to disperse pre-event nerves. A gear check manned by uniformed National Guardsmen (this was downtown Detroit after all), more toilets than a B&Q Superstore and all the rest of the pre-race bits and bobs went smoothly.
I was in my pen with five minutes to spare. The wait for the start was tense, but good fun. 20,000 of us were packed into the dark caverns between the skyscrapers of what was once one of America's biggest cities - now only a shadow of its former self. A giant soundsystem blared tunes from local heroes like Eminem, and in case you weren't quite awake enough yet, that old Kiss favourite, Detroit Rock City. Aviemore Highland Half, this ain't!
With the line from Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' in my head ('You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime ...') my wave started and I was off. My race plan was to run a steady 7:50 pace to get me in line with what I achieved in a half the year before. Although this hasn't been a great year for health, training or racing for me, I thought it was do-able. I also got quite cocky about the idea of it being a 'flat' race, considering the environment I live and train in normally. '35 metre gain over the mile-long bridge - Bah! I eat that for breakfast,' I thought to myself.
Never mind that everyone I spoke to at the previous day's race expo, as well as the seasoned course runners on the tunnel bus, told me that the bridge and climb out of the tunnel were total killers. Both were deceptively tough, and needed to be treated with respect. 'Don't crank up the pace until you have them behind you,' they warned. Did I listen or revise my race plan? What do you think?
So, after a couple-mile dash to the bridge that was admittedly a little too quick, I started my climb. Construction work made the bridge a bit of a pinch point, but I held my pace. I admired the pink skies over early-morning Detroit then - disaster. My familiar foe, the downhill stitch, struck and signalled the beginning of my doom. I also began to think that my last-minute decision not to take my own water, but rather to rely on a quick gulp at the fluid stations, might not have been the greatest idea after all.
Cramped up all the way down the bridge to the river and mile five, I struggled to regain form. I held my pace along the Canadian waterfront ¬- and my cheering family - to the tunnel entrance at mile seven. On the way down into the depths under the Detroit River - as sure as day follows night - another stitch. Running in the tunnel was a surprisingly unnerving experience, with no fresh air or daylight. The eerie silence of the enclosed space only added to my general sense of unease.
On the way up out of the tunnel to mile 8, I started being overtaken. With my stomach in knots and my confidence in shreds, I limped along until mile 9. As expected, my Garmin cut out in the tunnel. I had assumed that it would pick me up once I was out of the tunnel and just recalculate my pace and distance. It didn't. 'Never mind,' I thought to myself. 'I'll use the trusty pace bands which I lovingly prepared the night before.' That is, I would have done if they hadn't been safely stashed in my kit bag at the gear check.
Yet to develop a reliable sense of race pacing, I had no idea of just how well or badly I was doing. I was adrift, and feeling miserable. And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I was overtaken by the 8.01 pace team, the same group I rejected following earlier for being 'too slow'. They frolicked past me like a bunch of gazelles on crack. And at mile 10, it got much worse. The 8:35 pace group slid past me breathlessly, as if they were on rollerskates. By mile 11 I just wanted it all to go away. I reasoned with myself that the best way to do that was to pull myself together and find that finish line. When it came into sight, I raised a slight cheer, but crossing the mat didn't feel in any way triumphant ¬- even if the foil blanket did make me feel like a bizarre cross between a proper athlete and a defeated superhero.
So, what did I learn from my Motor City experience? (1) that 'flat' does not mean 'easy'; (2) that I need to show the distance, and the experience of local runners, a bit more respect; it may be a flat 'half' marathon, but it's still a full uphill effort; (3) that I need to work on my mental toughness when things go a bit pear-shaped; and (4) that a race isn't just the sum of its parts; you can tempo and interval your behookie off, but it just may not come together on the day.
In all, though, it's a testament to the organisers of the race and the coolness of the course itself that despite a disappointing personal performance, I still have good memories of the day. It may have hurt like hell, but I have now run a mile underwater. The views aboveground were amazing, and if I'm honest, even a bit distracting, having not been 'home' for the best part of a year. The support along the route was fantastic, especially as we slithered, blinking, out of the tunnel into the Detroit daylight. Conditions were absolutely perfect, with a cool but not cold start and sunny skies; I think we may even have had a tailwind along the Canadian riverfront. The route was dotted with water stations, first aid and, unsurprisingly for Motown, bands every other mile. I won't soon forget the unfairly cheerful mariachi band that soundtracked my mile 10 misery in Mexicantown for what seemed like an eternity, or the huge afterparty amongst the post-apocalyptic ruins of downtown Detroit.
Looking back now, with sore stomach and hurt pride, I may not have achieved my target time by a long chalk, but my result still put me in the top 10% of all the day's half-marathon runners (840/8816); I was also the 181st female across the line (of 5219) and 31st of 844 for half-marathon females in my age group. This year's course may also be slower than last, with the slowest-ever male marathon winner, in 2:28 - so maybe my target time was too ambitious after all. I'd like to think so!
The motto for the Free Press Marathon is 'You can do this'. I can do this. I did do this. But I will also do it better next time. Maybe I'll even be the one giving out advice on the pre-dawn bus ride. But will anyone listen?