Cynthia O’Halloran: Juggling Balls and Running Fast

Balls in The Air is the a blog relays Cynthia O’Halloran’s experiences at juggling life’s many priorities. Cynthia completed the Goodlife Marathon last year in Toronto, and despite the dreadful weather conditions, she qualified her for the Boston Marathon. Read more about her remarkable training and race experiences below. Congratulations and I look forward to meeting you in the Bean Town this April! When did you decided to run a marathon? Which marathon? I’ve had this burning desire to return to the marathon scene about 4 years ago.  After child #2, I started running again and surprised myself at a few local races to see that my speed was about the same as it was 10 years earlier.  Like any junkie, I wanted more and more.  I was running and racing and comfortable with the half-marathon distance.   Two summers ago (2010), I decided that I needed to get that marathon bug out of my system and went for it. What hiccups did you experience along the way? Confidence.  I was running well and was exactly where I wanted to be until about 2 months before the Hamilton Road2Hope Marathon in November.   My family was busy, work was crazy and I was worried about having the time that I needed to commit to meet my goal.  I didn’t just want to run; I wanted to run well. So, I bailed on Hamilton.  I wanted more time to experience the long runs.  I looked at the marathon schedule for spring and picked The Goodlife Marathon (Toronto, May 2011) because it was close to home and the timing was right. Even then, I waivered off and on all through the spring.  In fact, I didn’t even register until 2 weeks before Marathon Sunday.  I had a good long run on that Saturday before, patted myself on the back and registered that afternoon. What were your low points during training? What did it take to overcome them? I thought I was being really careful to stay injury-free; I was stretching all of the time and having a monthly massage.  One Friday morning, though, I woke up with a really sore ankle and I was certain that it was from my ankle muscles being overworked the day before. Two days later, I joined my running mates (read male) on their long runs alone. My ankle was still tender but I went with them anyway and sucked it up. By Mile 17, my already tight ankle was hurting and, a mile later, I had to let them leave me. That Monday, I started physiotherapy — 2x a week — to heal, not sure whether or not I’d be able to finish my training.  That was the lowest point. During your training, did you have any special “tricks of the trade” that helped – including gadgets you used, journal you might have kept, meals/snacks that helped you on long runs? I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to running – no Garmin, just an old, non GPS, Nike sports watch.  My mates carried Gatorade and I’d use that if I was with them; otherwise, I fueled with water only and stayed away from gels and supplements. I did invest in an iPod shuffle — nothing fancy — in March and used that through the last month (perhaps just 2 or 3 long runs). When Marathon Day came, I ran without it for the first 23K and plugged myself in for the last 18K.  It was exactly what I needed. How did you manage to juggle training with your work and family responsibilities? I got everyone on board.  My sons, then 5 and 10, were involved in planning my runs so that they wouldn’t be upset when I went out on my own.  In warmer weather, my oldest always rode with me (he was a great camel during summer heat) and I had my youngest in a baby jogger during spring, summer and most of the fall.  Running was a part of our family life, so much so that there were many days that I didn’t feel like running and they’d take me out. Wednesday night was (and still is) my run night with my running partner, Shawn.  He and I would do a tempo or intervals together.  This was a consistent part of my training and my boys never complained when I left with him and leave them behind. Having that accountability to someone else was great for me and it helped deal with the trials of leaving the family. I was fortunate at work in that I had very supportive administration.  Twice a week, I’d run during lunch and get back with just enough time to stop sweating, wipe down (love Baby Wipes — if NASA can use them, so can I), and get back to business.  Running during daylight hours, away from family and “escaping” from work made a huge difference. Tell us about race day. What was the experience like? In mid-May, we sometimes have to worry about heat.  Not that Sunday.  It was a high of 6C, rainy and windy — absolutely miserable…. At the 6K mark, when I was already wet and cold, I revamped my goal: have fun. I decided to thank the volunteers, show appreciation for the spectators (and there weren’t a lot, due to the weather, so they really needed to be appreciated) and smile for the camera guys. During the second half-marathon, it was much colder and windier, so I kept reminding myself that it was all about having fun. At about the 23K mark, I pulled over to the edge and pulled out my iPod, sensing that I was probably going to need a distraction soon. “Start listening early,” I told myself. “If you get into the music, you may not notice the rain.” Well, I did notice the rain, and the wind, and every kilometre mark from there to the finish but the tunes did help keep me going. I hit 30K at 2:31 –still on pace — when The Boomtown Rats started I Don’t Like Mondays, my favorite song from high school. My pace picked up significantly and I heard Garmin Graham, my running buddy, pulling me back to my 5 minute kilometer pace, and he held me there for the next 12K. At 32K, Dr. Randy told me the race was just starting and, at 33K, my arms were starting to feel numb; the cold was starting to get to me. When I next stopped for Gatorade, my forearms and fingers were tingling. “Keep running,” I said, “so that you’ll generate more heat.” By the time I got to University Avenue, 4K from the finish, I couldn’t feel my forearms; I could barely hold onto a water cup.” To make things worse, the last 4K were uphill – not greatly so, but uphill enough to be intimidating. Then, at 40K, it happened: I stopped and walked — not while drinking to make sure that Gatorade went into me instead of on me – but walked for the sake of walking. But my tunes continued to play, I was urged on by a stranger and I caught a glimpse of Queen’s Park — the sign that the end was near. To Garmin Graham’s dismay, I picked up my pace and propelled myself towards the finish line. I crossed the finish line at 3:35:40, almost 25 minutes better than my BQ time. What did you learn about yourself through this marathon experience? The Goodlife Marathon represented the changes that I’ve gone through as an individual in the past year. I’ve learned to make time for myself, which also means that I’ve learned to ask for help and to accept offers of help from friends. I’ve learned to accept that things may not go according to plan but staying focused will keep my goals in sight. And I learned that by digging deep, I had the courage that I needed to keep going with my training when, most simply put, life just got in the way. The marathon is not just a 42.2k race. It is the reward of months of hard work and determination; it is the fun that puts things back in perspective and gives us balance. Have your running habits rubbed off on your little ones? Both of my sons are very supportive of my running.  This coming summer is going to be a challenge as my youngest can now ride on two wheels and has gone as far as 5 miles when I run.  Those are 5 slow, frustrating miles for me.  I really hope that he can pick up the pace this summer and let me chase him; it’s a great speed session for me and fun for both of us.  My goal is have him riding 8 miles at a good pace for me by the end of summer 2012; he’s the kind of kid who will probably be able to do it.

Melinda Hinson