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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

Casino Niagara International Marathon

I think there were cheerleaders around the 18 mile mark...

This year the old Skylon Marathon course (or something very close to it) was revived with the help of the Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Canada. What's cool is that you start with a 5 mile run through downtown Buffalo, NY, cross over the Peace Bridge into Canada and run North on the Niagara Parkway into Niagara Falls. What isn't cool is that Niagara Falls, Ontario is a city about the size of a typical mall parking lot and it now has a casino that draws in a crowd approximately equal to the population of Hong Kong. I exaggerate but a little: Driving across the bridge into Canada took 45 minutes. If the promoters really want to grow this into a 5000-runner event, they have some major logistical reorganization ahead of them.

All the extra people are presumably coming to Niagara Falls to gamble at the casino (although the Canadian immigration official at the border did mention that she'd noticed a lot of "skinny people" that day). I've never understood the appeal of gambling and this brief visit did nothing to change that. The first thing that happens when you arrive is that you have to park in the hotel/casino parking lot which charges $10.00 ($7.00 US) "per 24 hours or per exit". Why would even people who do like gambling want to do it at a place where they're fleeced before they even enter the casino?!

I suppose I shouldn't really be psychoanalyzing other people like this. Can you imagine the things the gamblers were saying about the marathoners behind our backs? "Look at them skinny bastards Marge. Who'd wanna run 26 miles? They gotta be nuts! Hey, lets go hock our car so we can afford to buy some deep fried pork parts for lunch." The scene at the casino was definitely a study in contrasts. Gamblers are not a group of people known for their physical fitness. Indeed, some of the clientele were large enough to have their own zip codes.

When I was a kid my family once came to Niagara Falls with my uncle Dave who was visiting from London. Dave was most astonished by the number of fat people, particularly the women, in America. He had a super-8 movie camera and he'd film the most alarming ones to show his friends back in the UK. "Cor! Look at that one! Gruesome! *whirrrrrrr...*" Dave is an interesting character.

Ok, back to the marathon...
We decided to stay in Buffalo rather than Niagara Falls because the casino party atmosphere didn't seem conducive to a restful night's sleep. This proved to be a good move. Buffalo (the Miami of the North) was experiencing a lull in tourism that weekend so we got a free room upgrade at the Best Western Inn on Delaware Ave. Then we enjoyed a magnificent dinner at a fine vegetarian restaurant called Preservation Hall.

Sunday dawned warm, sunny and clear (not good), but without the alarmingly strong winds of the day before (very good). At the starting line we got a pep talk from "Canada's fastest marathoner", who announced that we had "perfect, perfect weather for running a marathon". Well, considering that he was standing in bright sunshine, warm and comfortable in just jeans and a t-shirt, I suspect that he was the stunt double for Canada's fastest marathoner, but it's the thought that counts.

The run through downtown Buffalo was OK, but getting to run across the bridge into Canada was, as I have already mentioned, really cool. What a great view and what a great way to see it. The uphill side of the bridge crossing also helped make the sixth mile the first one that I actually ran as slow as my goal pace. The problem with marathons is that you always feel too good for the first few miles and the temptation to run too fast is very great. I ran for a while with Sven Buchheister, a German runner whose employer has sent him to Rochester for a year (no doubt as punishment for a heinous crime of some sort). A short loop before the Niagara Parkway gave us a little out-and-back section where everyone could see runners ahead of or behind them as they passed going in the opposite direction. I saw several Rochester-based runners here, including Joan Hoover, who was running her first marathon with an escort from Rauni "I'll just run along for the first 15 miles" English.

I passed the half way mark around 1:23:30, which is a minute and a half faster than I wanted. A few miles later I could already tell that my sub-2:50 wasn't going to happen with the warm conditions and my fast start. I notched back the pace and hung on. This was around the time I saw the cheerleaders. (You were wondering when I was going to get back to that, weren't you?) After the first six miles, there were water stops after every mile mark. One of the water stops somewhere in the teens was tended by a gaggle of cheerleaders (also in their teens). Nubile teenage girls in short skirts are just the thing to perk up marathon runners (the male ones anyway). If only they could have rounded up enough to line the last five miles I might have made my 2:50 goal. Actually, given the state I was in at the time I'm beginning to have some doubts. Someone tell me there really were cheerleaders on the course! PLEASE!

Some time after 20 miles I found myself gaining on another runner who, despite all laws of physics, was actually feeling worse than me. A bicycle rider came towards us and informed us that we were in 7th and 8th place. This is just the kind of information I needed: I try to make a mental note whenever a runner passes me or whenever I pass someone. Then I distract myself from the pain of marathon running by performing complex mathematics in my head: Like adding or subtracting "1" from whatever place I was in before and working out my new position. I passed the runner and moved into 7th place. A couple of miles later I passed someone else and got up to 6th. Then in the last mile two other runners passed me. (I remember the last one distinctly because he came by so strongly that I thought he must be a relay runner. We looked at each other as he went by and I'm sure each of us saw the same mixture of horror and amazement.) I therefore calculated that I finished in ninth place. So much for higher mathematics.

My 2:53:26 was good for eighth place and fourth in age group but Sven ran 2:50:07 and got second overall after a furious sprint to pass another runner in the final hundred meters or so. Amazingly, the race only gave overall awards to the male and female winners, not the top ten or even top three, so all Sven got for his trouble was a first in age group award (the runner he passed was in a different age group).

Joan and Rauni finished in 4:38 (The list of all Rochester-area finishers can be found at

I know it seems a bit cheesy to complain about my time when I have friends finishing considerably slower, but at least I have Sven to help me justify my pouting. Perhaps I'll never break that elusive 2:50 barrier but, as we say down at the casino: Don't bet on it!

Copyright © 1998 Mark Roberts

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