The Around The Bay running road race started in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1894…3 years BEFORE the Boston Marathon, making it the oldest of its kind in North America.
Beyond that, I will hazard a guess that it is also the MOST CHALLENGING 30 kilometre running road race in North America! Those who decide to take it on do so at heir own peril…it is that difficult. It is only 30 kilometre running race that I have encountered where you MUST prepare SPECIFICALLY if you want to survive.
As you could imagine, a race of over 100 years old has its traditions and, more to the point of my blog, LEGENDS. As a coach who has run the Bay 8 times since 1985, coached 100s to race it as part of my Team Over The Top clinic AND designed a specific training programme for the race , I have become accustomed to what makes the Bay so special.
Here are a few of my TRADITIONS and LEGENDS:
- Tin Pan Alley – it stretches along Beach Blvd. as the runners approach the 1/2 way point. A number of residents take up posts along the route and clang pots, pans, mettle pipes and the like. The incessant ‘racket’ helps to break up the monotony of the Beach strip.
- The Cow Bells – these are a tradition dating back to the original Hamilton Tigers’ football team. The spectators rattle the bells in no organized fashion from about the 10 kilometre mark sporadically through to the 27 kilometre mark of the race. Again, the noise gives the runners a boost and helps to ease some of the pain.
- Orange Slices – just past the 25 kilometre mark as the runners start their decent into the Valley Of Death, there appears a lone table laden with freshly cut, juicy orange slices. No sign, no people ‘guarding the gate’, nobody looking for accolades – just a local family on the race route trying to help out. This is about the toughest point in the race and the orange slices provide a wonderful ‘natural’ sugar boost for the final 5 kilometres.
- Mark and Amanda Collis – they just completed their 9th consecutive Bay race. Why is that so special and considered a tradition, you ask? Well, Amanda has suffered from myriad physical and mental challenges since birth. She is confined to a wheelchair and, now in her late 20s, finds incredible joy racing with her dad. Mark pushes Amanda in a specially adapted running stroller year after year. His enthusiasm, commitment and mental toughness are over the top, to say the least. Mark & Amanda also happen to be fast…very fast! They routinely run the Bay in under 3 hours – 2:52:48 this year – (in the early days, well under 3 hours!) and have run the Boston Marathon. They inspire everyone who is privileged enough to run with them – Mark always encouraging Amanda and all other runners with ongoing banter as he runs at a sub 5 minute per kilometre pace! This is a tradition that I pray continues for many more years.
- The Grim Reaper – for at least the past 20 years, the Grim Reaper has taken up his post at the 27.5 kilometre mark (or thereabouts). Dressed in full regalia, he stands at the entrance to one of the 10 graveyards that line the course. He sets up a series of signs with cations such as “enter here”. “welcome to Heaven” and so on. As if it isn’t tough enough to finish the final few kilometres, mentally, you must work your way past the Grim Reaper. Over the years, many have simply pulled off the course, sat down on the curb and said “take me, I’m done”! I’ve actually gotten the know the Grim Reaper over the years…and he’s a rather pleasant fellow.
- Stan the Man – last but definitely not least, I present to you the motivator extraordinaire. He’s been sitting at the bend before the final decent into the Valley of Death for the past 25 years. His team of friends set him up as the racers fly down the steepest section of the race and just before they climb the toughest section. This is approximately the 25.75 kilometre mark. Stan wears the original blue Around The Bay baseball cap (I have never seen one like it), given to him by the race organizers. waves a full length Canada scarf and cheers everyone on! All this whilst Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blares out on a loop from a boom box beside Stan. I asked Stan years ago how many hours he stays at the site – he says from the official start (9:30 a.m.) till the final participant (about 5 hours later!). Of course, it’s a good luck tradition to high five, hug, kiss and simply acknowledge the legend as you push through the final (and most difficult) section. If you can’t get pumped up seeing Stan, you don’t have a pulse.
On a personal note, I present to you Randy Swanson, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met on the planet. Randy was a high-flying senior executive in the mortgage insurance business happily married with 2 children…basically, living the Canadian dream. About 12 years ago, he suffered a major stroke, rendering him slightly paralyzed among other challenges. Randy fought back, taught himself to ride a bike, went back to work part time and simply pushed forward. About 5 years ago, whilst doing the 200 kilometre Ride For Cancer, he was hit by a car, suffered severe brain damage, underwent brain surgery and, somehow, survived. Randy refused to quit on life – he now works 2 days a week, practices Tai Chi 3 times per week, does bicycle spin classes 3 times per week and volunteers at a Rehabilitation center. On Sunday, Randy did the 5 kilometre Around The Bay walk with his brother and a few close friends. I had the pleasure of walking a few 100 metres at the start and finish with Randy. He had me so pumped up I could have run across Burlington Bay! He finished dead last – and could have cared less! I had tears in my eyes as I left him to chase down my runners. As I said to a few spectators who were cheering Randy on, DON’T EVER FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF!
It’s taken me till today to come back down to earth. I’m exhausted but energized by the events of yet another amazing Around The Bay race. Here’s to another 100+ years of it!
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