In all my years of running marathons and all sorts of other distances, I had never run the Niagara Falls International Marathon. It's been on my radar ever since high school when back in my graduating year of 1981, my cross country and track coach Dave Knox ran a 2:23 in what was then called the Niagara Skyline Marathon. So when race directors Diane Chesla and Henri Ragetlie asked me to come down and run it there was no way i was saying no thanks!
The concept is pretty awesome because it highlights our long lasting friendship with our American neighbours to the south. The race starts in the USA in Buffalo and ends on the Canadian side in Niagara Falls directly in front of the Horseshoe Falls. When else do you get to cross the border on foot without stopping, no questions asked?
As much as Niagara Falls itself has dramatically changed since the mini vacations I took there with my parents as a youth, some things remain the same. The crazy haunted house carnival they call Clifton Hill has not changed much with it's flashing lights, barrel over the falls, believe it or not atmosphere! It's a Vegas like carnival with rolller coasters, go carts, mixed with restaurants, hotels, everything you can think of on one crazy strip.
As far as what changed is concerned, the skyline which used to be dominated by two observation towers is now rows of hotel towers of a similar height. Gone are most of the low to the ground motels with pools, replaced by casino hotel towers. It's the Vegas of Canada.
It's a beautiful city where the business is tourism centred around one of the natural wonders of the world, the falls!
Many races feature expos. These are usually quite similar from city to city and you could walk into the expo in one city and not be able to tell which city you are in! They typically consist of vendors of everything running related and of course other races have a booth as well.
Where Niagara Falls International's expo differs is in the ideas that go beyond the basic vendor booth format. Yes there are vendors of many things and races, but race director Diane Chesla added workshops, speakers and interactive yoga and massage to the mix.
I attended some of the speaking sessions which gave wonderful advice on injury prevention, a debate on various diets and running, conditioning, and the amazing keynote speaker Ray Zahab! Ray has traveled the world running every desert on the planet, Siberia, Antarctica, and all the cold deserts too. His hour flashed by quickly and at the end I found myself compelled to join him on one of these extreme adventure.
As a vegan ultra runner I was very happy with some of the food options at the expo and then I discovered a vegan food expo right next door! Awesome!
Another feature you might not see at other ones was clearing customs! When I picked up my bib I had to pre-clear Canadian customs to allow the continuous non-stop run back into Canada from the USA. This was efficient and friendly.
To sum up the expo, great mix of vendors of running products and some not exclusive to running such as organic jams, and CBD oil! The added workshops, speakers, debates and art pieces present gave it a flavour unique to this event. Well done Diane!
After a weekend well spent so far, it was race day! I had laid out my flat runner in the hotel the night before and all I had to do was stagger out of bed and put it on bib and all! I'm not a morning person.
I ate a small carb loaded breakfast, got my coffee and drank a litre of water. The time had come to jump on the bus and shuffle off to Buffalo!
At the border the busses stopped at a processing centre because although we were pre-cleared back into Canada, we still hadn't cleared our way into the USA! After quickly showing our passport, no questions asked we were ushered back onto the bus to continue to Buffalo.
My seat mate on the bus was a woman named Mercedes who was looking for a marathon finish for it's inspiration as well as it's ability to take you to new heights emotionally, physically and mentally. I really enjoyed the conversation and when we arrived in Buffalo at the starting line I vowed to wait for her and see how she made out. I told her to run as fast as a Mercedes!
At the starting line we reached our assigned time corrals and yet more conversations ensued in the friendly mix of Canadians and Americans. After the anthem was sung, some energizing music began and the gun went! Just like that we were off.
The course at first was a tour of some nice residential areas in Buffalo. The crowds were cheering us on and I felt that not too many people were annoyed with any sort of delay caused by our passing by.
We ran out onto a parkway and headed for the bridge! Look out Fort Erie here we come! I had never crossed without a visit to the customs booth and at least stopping to answer one or two questions. We ran the bridge which presented one of the only "hills" in the entire course. It certainly has potential to be a super fast course.
Soon after we took a turnaround that later afforded us a great view of the Buffalo skyline across the lake. After doubling back on our path we were able to cheer the outbound runners on as we returned.
This led to parkway section which parallels the Niagara river which ultimately leads to a plunge over the falls! This is a long section, but very pretty with the river view, nice neighbourhoods and several tiny bridges that cross the small rivers and canals that feed the Niagara River.
The aid stations along this section are staffed with the most amazing supportive people. I never felt in the middle of nowhere. It was like every few km I got another cheering section!
After this long river following section came a downhill to the finish.
My Race Report Video
After a wonderful downhill that lasted for over a mile, you round the bend to the sound of thunderous water from the Horseshoe Falls as well as a lot of cheering and music!
I had not really gone into the race with goals but can comfortably run a 3:40 just on residual fitness from running ultras. However I was propelled along by the enthusiasm and taking photos and videos to the point where I lost all sense of pace and ran far too fast for the first three quarters of the race. I ran 1:44 half, 2:58 for 35 km then realized how hot and exhausted I was and dialled that back in a hurry. I would highly recommend that anyone running this race stick to their goal pace because it is a fast course that propels you along!
At the finish there was a good amount of bananas, oranges, muffins, electrolyte and water drinks, massage and of course the cooling mist from the falls descending and cooling! What an atmosphere!
I recovered and hung our with my friend David Wise who had really done well with a 3:28. It was really great hanging out with a fellow plant based athlete and always an interesting conversation.
After some time had passed I moved over to the finish line to wait for my new friend Mercedes whom I had met on the bus to Buffalo. I began to get concerned then heard "Mercedes Martinez" come over the PA system and there the was! So good to see people complete a marathon. Everyone is really only racing themselves. So many reasons and so many goals and I give full kudos to all who undertake the distance. She was emotional in a positive way and I was honoured to be part of the experience Congratulations Mercedes!
The medal was quite nicely designed and the results and photos were available not too long after. This is a really well organized event with lots of scenery, positive encouraging crowds, art installations along the course, all the nutrition and hydration products you ever need and you finish in a cooling mist from one of the largest waterfalls in the world!
The expo was engaging with more than just swag and products. It had useful presentations, speakers, debates and interactive things like yoga and massage. Oh and it's very own customs clearance department!
I will be back for sure.