Ottawa is a great destination for a race and long weekend trip because it lines up with our Memorial Day weekend in the US, and as Canada's national capital, it's a showcase of Canadian history, government, and culture, with numerous museums, parks, and activities for the whole family. For those who want to run a race abroad, Ottawa is an excellent choice given its relative proximity, English-speaking population, favorable exchange rate, and the numerous race distances available. Ottawa Race Weekend is an inclusive event with 6 race options: 2K, 5K, 10K, half marathon, kid's marathon, and marathon, so anyone can participate. This made it ideal for a family running weekend. There are also Voyageur and Lumberjack Challenge options for those who want to run multiple events. The race courses are scenic and fair (from a difficulty perspective). However, as with any race at the end of May, there is a significant risk that it will be hot, so if you're looking at the Ottawa Marathon as your "goal race" then you need to be prepared for the possibility of the weather wrecking your time goal. I'd recommend Ottawa to anyone who wants to try racing in a foreign country and looking for a pleasant long weekend getaway.
The marathon and the 10K are both IAAF gold label events and attract a strong elite field of runners from around the globe. As such, the race organization is top-notch, and that's true for each race of the weekend. Pre-race communication was excellent, especially if you follow the Ottawa Marathon on Facebook or Instagram. Even if you don't, you will receive timely email communications, and the race website is routinely updated. We were notified weeks in advance about route changes that had to be made due to flooding and construction, and they prepared interactive maps where you could see the km markers, aid stations, porta-potty locations etc. There is a free bus tour of the marathon route available on Saturday morning. Each race went off on time, which is really impressive given that there are 6 events over 2 days. There are corrals at the start line based on predicted finishing times, but it's an honor system. The 5K, 10K, and half marathons have wave starts that go off approximately every 2-4 minutes. Since the waves are close in time, there isn't a big incentive to start your race in a faster corral since you're just going to get run down by the faster runners coming up from behind you.
Great course. A scenic loop that starts by City Hall and takes runners around the War Memorial and both sides of the Rideau Canal, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s an easy course without a lot of turns, and very doable for a first 5K. The course goes uphill for the first 1K, declines and then flattens out along the banks of the canal, and then finishes on an incline for the final 400m. With over 7,000 runners, it was very crowded for about 1-2 km but then it spread out after that. From what I could tell, there are a lot of first-timers and less experienced runners who sign up for this race, as well as families running together, so you may have to do a lot of dodging and weaving. If you’re looking to run a fast time here, you need to start as far up in the corrals and wave starts as you can.
A scenic tour of Canada's capital, with a crossing into Gatineau, Québec. If you don't have any familiarity with Ottawa, I highly recommend taking a bus tour of the city the day before the race. Then you'll be able to recognize and better appreciate the sites that you'll run past on marathon day.
What does "scenic" mean here, in the context of a city marathon? My general impression of Ottawa: downtown Ottawa looks like any major city with commercial office buildings, but it's punctuated with buildings that look like European castles (e.g., Parliament Hill, Fairmont Chateau Laurier), as well as more modern and sleek edifices surrounded by public works of art (e.g., National Gallery of Canada, Canadian War Museum). The Rideau Canal is a beautiful artery that runs through the city, which is lined with bike paths and flowers, and the course also takes runners by several parks and green neighborhoods, including Dow's Lake, Commissioner's Park, and Rockcliffe Park. Ottawa Race Weekend takes place the weekend after the Canadian Tulip Festival, so there are still thousands of blooming tulips all over the city on race day.
The Ottawa Marathon is one of the top qualifying races for Boston. They capped the race at 3,500 participants this year so it's not a large or crowded race. The course is fair, and it is possible to run fast here but I wouldn't characterize it as flat. I'd say first half is mostly flat, there are hills in the middle, and then it flattens out again until the 400m incline to the finish.
In sum, I thought the course itself was enjoyable and fair. I think I could have made my time goal if I had had better weather. I'd be willing to do it again, but I would only plan this as a back-up marathon and not a goal race, given the risk of hot weather.
Fluid stations were located approximately every 2-3 km - further apart in the first half of the race and closer together in the second half, thankfully. Water and Nuun, the official sports drink of the race, are served. On a cool day, it probably would have been enough, but on a hot day, I found it impossible to run at goal pace and get enough fluids without slowing down or walking. So carry your own water and gels. At certain stations, gels, bananas, oranges, or gummy fruit chews were available but I don't remember at what intervals. Misting stations and sponges are located at strategic points throughout the race. Porta-potties were plentiful; I didn't see anyone jumping into the woods.
The volunteers were amazing! Numerous, helpful, and enthusiastic. Pace bunnies are available for runners with a goal time of 3 hours and for every 5-minute increment after that until 4 hours; 10- to 15-minute increments after 4 hours; and a 6-hour walking pacer. For those with a goal time of 4 hours or more, there are also pace groups that do the run-walk method. If you see a pace bunny with golden ears, instead of the standard pink, it means that the pacer was the best pacer in a prior year (closest to goal time). However, what impressed me the most is that the marathon provides an "Extra Mile Crew" in the last 10K -- volunteers who will run you if you're having a rough day and need extra help getting to the finish line. I've never seen this in a race before, and it gave me the warm fuzzies.
The medals were BEAUTIFUL and scream CANADA! The medals for the other race distances were similar but smaller than the marathon medals. I really liked that they took the time to design special-looking medals so that every participant could feel that they had achieved something significant, no matter the distance. The finisher shirts were awesome short-sleeve tech shirts with a silhouette of Parliament on the back. Most of my race finisher shirts end up in the throwaway pile but I'm actually going to wear my Ottawa shirts. The drawstring bag was standard fare.
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"Marathoning is just another form of insanity." John J. Kelly, winner of the 1952 Boston Marathon