2022 Edit: Pretty much all of this generally remains true, and it’s helpful that Run Van has made a point to keep the course the same year over year. There are a couple of new bits three years after originally writing this, so I’ll sprinkle those in.
Outside of the Pacific Northwest, the Vancouver Marathon‘s not a huge deal, and a lot of people don’t know about it.
The marathon’s organizers are definitely are trying to grow out of that as evidenced by pushing hard to bring in 2018 Boston Marathon winner Yuki Kawauchi and other stars. As evidenced by the race selling out and setting an attendance record this year it appears the race’s popularity is indeed growing.
I’m among the few US outsiders outside of the PNW who has made the trek to run the race. In 2019 there were 17 of us from Chicago, all of us probably surprised that the other 16 even knew about this race let alone were there. There were 4 runners from nearby Indiana. There were 3 runners from nearby Wisconsin, and two were a couple running together. The great state of New York only had 24 finishers. (As of 2022 I’m now running out of Nevada, which in the race’s last edition in 2019 had a whopping FOUR finishers.)
It’s not a destination race yet. But as the secret gets out in the US about how challenging yet beautiful the race is, I think (to quote Jim Ross) business is about to pick up.
I’m going to throw out a few things to consider for people unfamiliar with but considering running the Vancouver Marathon.
If you’re not used to big hills, these will kill you.
I’m not talking about little 1/4 mile, 30 foot climb type of hills either. Vancouver has some slopes in the early miles that make Boston’s Heartbreak Hill look like a pile of laundry.
When I first got into running I was living in Seattle, a very hilly city and a good training ground for a beginning runner. To boot, I lived at the time on Queen Anne hill, among the hilliest of the bunch. I imagine Run-Vanners from Seattle don’t find Vancouver too troublesome since the topographies are similar.
Of course, I now (as of this writing in 2019) live in Chicago, famously devoid of hills. I run workouts on Cricket Hill because it’s the only real hill of any kind in the area (and only a 45 foot climb). Nothing in Chicago really prepares you for even the weaker hillclimbs on the course, let alone the monstrous climb up Camosun Street onto the UBC campus, let alone the two sizable descents you face in the first half of the race: The first one 5 miles in leading into the Camosun climb, the second being the obvious descent back down from UBC near the halfway mark.
To compare, the 2.5 mile climb from Camosun Street into UBC alone is a greater elevation climb than the entire Chicago Marathon COMBINED.
(Since moving back to Las Vegas I’ve rediscovered hill training, thanks to the entire Valley being a giant bowl. Camosun Street is still a bigger hill than most of what you can find in Vegas, but at least now I’m getting some regular uphill practice. Plus, along with training in the Valley’s dry and relatively warm conditions, I now have a small but meaningful bit of altitude training, as most of my training is done at 2400-3000′ above sea level.)
As many a coach or expert will tell you, it’s often not the uphills but the downhills that kill your legs. Many runners take downhills too hard, with faulty form, and end up destroying their quads in the process. That’s a problem when you still have a whole marathon to finish. It’s also a problem when you scale a sizable 200+ foot downhill in the early part of the race… right before 2+ miles of uphill climbing.
In a flat place like Chicago I’ve done some special workout planning for races like this. In Vegas I combine the hills of places like Summerlin and Seven Hills with adapted use of the treadmill in training runs. Whatever you do to prepare, be warned: To run this race well, you have got to be experienced in and ready for running big hills.
Any amount of heat at all makes this marathon super difficult.
I’ve written before about the effects of heat on running, that anything above a balmy 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15’C) feels much hotter when you’re running than it does if you’re walking or not moving.
Running in even mild heat can be a challenge. Run 26.2 miles (42.2K) on a challenging course, with clear sunshine that easily exacerbates the effect of any present heat, and now you’ve got a problem.
I initially felt a bit psychologically weak in hindsight at struggling with 65’F, until multiple BC locals (unsolicited, some of which weren’t running the race) confided to me that these conditions were rather warm.
The marine climate in Vancouver makes anything above 60’F feel a lot hotter than it would most anywhere else. It’s the combination of a general lack of a cooling breeze and the marine layer compounding the effect of the present humidity. Whether you’re running through pavement-rich neighborhoods or along the balmy shoreline… it does feel about 10 degrees warmer.
Bear in mind also the time of the year. While PNW weather is generally mild, and these conditions aren’t too much warmer than preceding weeks… many coming from the Midwest or the East probably just spent months dealing with extreme cold, with conditions that don’t warm up until right before the race. I need not go into any detail on how cold Chicago was, right up until my trips to Vancouver. (Vegas while it gets a bit cold in winter is obviously a lot warmer across the board, and running Vancouver from there should feel considerably cooler for the most part.)
You become acclimated to cold, and gradually acclimate to heat as summer approaches. Having to suddenly run long in warmth after months of cold can make the heat all that much more difficult to deal with. A shake-out run or two in the new climate isn’t enough to adjust, either.
(Of course, people visiting from perenially hot and humid Texas or Florida would find that laughable. They probably do very well in these conditions. A lot of runners visit from Mexico and seem to enjoy running the race with little trouble.)
In 2018 the temperature hit 70’F (21’C) once runners began. Anyone who (unlike me) didn’t drop out had to endure a brutally hot, sunny and humid marathon. 2019 was cooler, but not much different. Cloud cover helped bring in humidity ahead of the race, and go figure the clouds all cleared up in time for the race. Temperatures hit 60’F at the starting gun, and drifted up to 64-65’F once most runners had reached UBC, without a cloud in the sky.
Several hundred runners of the 5000 starters did not finish in 2019. The heat was almost certainly a factor in many of those DNFs, not to mention countless slower times.
The course is legitimately difficult.
While becoming a popular destination race is within reach, Vancouver’s challenging course might be the one thing that keeps it from becoming a major race that draws many top competitors.
The course’s steep descents and steep climb into UBC make it easy to burn runners out in the first 12-15 miles. Boston’s famous opening descent is at least its only true extended and sizable elevation grade on the course (even Heartbreak Hill is only about an 80 foot climb). Vancouver meanwhile gives its runners three large elevation changes in the first half of the race. Plus, the course’s later elevation shifts further add to the difficulty. (I’ll get into a key one later in this post)
Over the course’s final 10K, Stanley Park’s paths are fairly narrow with a variety of hidden lumps and divots in the pavement, along with the aforementioned sneaky effects of any heat on the race. Plus, the final incline on Pender Street leading to the finish line is rather long, far more so than the incline at the end of Chicago’s marathon.
If you’re looking for recent validation that the course is tough, look no further than the men’s winner of 2019’s Vancouver Marathon, the aforementioned Yuki Kawauchi, who admitted before the race “It’s not an easy course.”
You probably need to bring your own nutrition
Vancouver is one of those marathons that serves Nuun (low-sugar electrolyte fluid) instead of sugary Gatorade. This would not be a problem in any race shorter than the marathon.
However, because the human body does not contain enough glycogen to race an entire marathon, you need the fast acting carbohydrates in sugar to give a race-level effort.
Because the Nuun the aid stations serve has virtually no carbohydrates, you are almost on your own regarding nutrition. Three aid stations offered gels and bananas were available near mile 20. But that wasn’t going to be nearly enough for most runners, plus their nutrition would have come far too late in the race for most, who probably had already bonked before the banana station.
(This year in 2022, three stations will offer Xact Nutrtion, little sugar bars engineered for quick absorption, and there will not be any banana station nor to my knowledge any gels provided. I bought some Xact, a pricey proposition as it’s only sold in Canada and had to be internationally shipped… and used Xact during training. The little bars are easy to consume plus digest well, from my view, so as a glycogen source Xact Nutrition is sound. But the little bars are still only 100 calories each, so the point about the nutrition being too little and possibly too late still generally holds true.)
I brought a hydration pack full of Gatorade for 2019’s race, as well as a Larabar. These items were a life saver. I drank when I needed it, and 400 calories of sugar water plus the 190ish calories in the whole-food-based Larabar was enough to help me finish this race this time around.
You ought to pack some of your own nutrition for the race. If you do gels, bring your own. If you do Gatorade, you will want to do what I did.
If you can, you should absolutely get up early enough to have a small, easily digested meal before the race and give it time to digest.
Three specific notes about the hills:
1. The course begins with two small uphills that can compel excited runners to push too hard out of the chute. The smart runner holds back, lets people go by, and lets effort rather than pace guide them leading into the 1st big descent. The temptation to find and hold pace right away may be a prime poison pill that exacerbates any damage running the first big downhill, and snowballs many Vancouver efforts into disaster.
2. Camosun Street is a killer if you’re not prepared for it. A little over 5 miles (8K-9K) into the race, you’re already climbing a bit on Marine Drive by the time you hang a right onto the unimposing but dauntingly long incline of Camosun Street, which climbs unrelented for about 3/4 of a mile before you make a left onto West 29th, wind through some parkland and eventually finish a climb that by itself totals 190′ of elevation (with another 20 feet or so along Blanca Street). Camosun starts to feel like it will never end, and many middle/back of the pack runners give up and walk it.
3. The course elevation consistently undulates by about 30-60′ up and down between miles 15 and 25. These are actually substantial changes, but because the map’s elevation profile is dominated by the big early hills, you overlook the effect of the smaller elevation changes in the later miles. Since you’re beginning to tire once you hit them, they still matter a lot.
Point Grey and Kitsilano: The Toughest 5 Miles.
Once you finish the downhill descent from UBC and enter Point Grey, the terrain loses much of its tree-covered lining and you’re out in the open sun surrounded by heat-conducting buildings, dirt and concrete, not to mention nearby vehicles continuing to commute through the area.
You’ve often got a great view of the beaches, sure. But because it’s mostly buildings and pavement, the heat really conducts around this part of town. Plus, most runners get here around the time that the temperature begins its late morning, early afternoon surge. And, as hinted earlier, a lot of subtle middle-race hillclimbs are waiting for you in these two neighborhoods.
Every marathon is tough in the final 10K. But the combination of the above circumstances during Point Grey and Kitsilano makes this intermediary 8K beforehand feel even more brutal. I also imagine that knowing you still have another several miles to go after getting through it contributes as well.
If there’s no wind out of the north, you’re also going to feel hot and tired by this point. And you’ve got about 5 miles of this before crossing the Burrard Bridge into cooler climes.
Speaking of that bridge…
The Burrard Bridge: Vancouver’s Heartbreak Hill
There’s one other key hill later in the race, and it’s not really a hill.
The Burrard Bridge crosses False Creek (deceptively named: it’s more like a canal) on a slight but constant upward incline towards Downtown, as Kitsilano is closer to sea level while the bridge’s connecting roads on the south end of Downtown are higher up in elevation. Thus the bridge only peaks at its tower very close to the north end.
Guess which way the runners have to run? And that climb along the bridge from Kitsilano to Pacific Avenue is not a short one. From the turn onto the bridge to the turn off it onto Pacific Street, you travel about a kilometer.
Because runners have traveled over 18 miles prior to the bridge, most tired ones surrender and begin walking. Those who continue to run aren’t moving particularly fast. The trek up the Burrard Bridge feels like a constant, seemingly never ending uphill for a few minutes before you dip back down a bit for the turn onto Pacific.
It’s a good thing the next fuel station is shortly after that turn off the bridge. Most runners could certainly use a boost after that.
Watch for slow traffic in Stanley Park
I got used to this situation racing along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, which remains open to the public during races, but it’s a huge factor here:
Stanley Park remains open to the public during the marathon. The course is generally marshaled and cordoned off at key points elsewhere. But the City of Vancouver can’t practically close a peninsula housing one of Canada’s largest, most scenic parks.
So the alternative is to send the runners through along the pedestrian seawall path, string a few marshals along the way to try and (in classic Pacific Northwest style) passively suggest people avoid the course, then hope that good human nature wins out. Thankfully, that’s worked fine for all the years they’ve run this race along this route.
However, it means that not only are you contending with other runners, many of which have slowed to a defeated, bonk-induced walk… but you’re also sifting past random pedestrians, some of which are pushing strollers and/or traveling in groups. Thankfully, the bicycles have their own separated path.
Faster runners have less to worry about, as they run through the park around 10-11am, when most of the weekending denizens haven’t quite acted on their park plans yet.
It’s the slower runners struggling through after 12pm that contend more with the sightseers, hikers, and non-marathon-participating runners out for their Sunday run.
Thankfully, one key factor does thin out the pedestrian masses once you get past the accessible south end: The seawall trail is about six miles (9-10 km) long. Most casual visitors aren’t up for a hike that long, and the random pedestrian crowd thins out a lot once you’re a couple kilometers into the park.
By the time the crowds thicken up again near the more accessible course’s end, the trail thankfully widens somewhat. However, the’re still quite a few casual pedestrians and cyclists to contend with along the narrow passage of the south beach.
Note that much of the trail up to the lighthouse before 39K is not particularly wide. The sidewalks in Vancouver seem much wider in comparison. Any sort of traffic can create the risk of a bottleneck if people aren’t careful. As a runner you definitely want to stay to the right side as much as you can to let people pass, and not run in pairs unless you’re the only ones in sight. It makes me wonder how the pace groups get through here.
Cheers, The Marathon: Where Everybody Knows Your Name
As some races do, the Vancouver Marathon makes a point to put your first name on your bib. You can optionally have them change it or leave it out, but the default is to put it on there.
In most places, spectactors would pay this no mind. But Vancouver’s are an admittedly friendly and supportive bunch, not to mention the hard working volunteers.
If you run, expect people to cheer you on by name, as if they know you, dozens of times. It’s actually kind of neat. It’s as if everyone you see is your friend for 3-6 hours.
Finally, when it comes to eating, plan ahead
Vancouver is not a fun city to drive in. It can be a better city to walk or bike in. But to get anywhere, you do have to walk quite a bit. And this is coming from a guy who lives in Chicago, that has to walk quite a bit to do anything. Not only are many key businesses blocks from one another, but you’re walking up and down Vancouver’s rolling hills.
Depending on where you stay, food and other shopping may not be close by (if you’re near Downtown you’re possibly fine; anywhere else, and you may be some distance away). This is not much of a problem until about 24 hours before the marathon. Then it can become a problem, especially after you’ve run your race. Sure, you can order delivery until it’s time to go to the airport, but between your lodging and what you’re eating you’re already throwing around quite a bit of money.
Hopefully wherever you are staying provides you a fridge, perhaps an option for hot water or a coffee maker. I would strongly recommend seeking out well in advance a place to stay that has it.
Certainly go out and enjoy the city, but buy some basic nutrition for the day before and the days after the race. When you’re too beat up to want to walk several blocks, you’ll be thankful.
(Grocery tip if visiting and staying near the finish line: The Whole Foods in the West End is poor, due largely to very slow cashiers as well as a rather poor selection. The selection at the IGA on Burrard is almost-okay and it’s crowded as well. The Safeway in West End is decent. The Whole Foods on Cambie near Broadway is somewhat better than its West End counterpart.
Also, if American, be prepared for some grocery items being decidedly more expensive in Canada, even factoring in currency conversion. Milk and water gallons in particular are quite a bit more expensive. I drink distilled water and each 4L bottle, which is just a bit over a gallon, costed over $3 a bottle in 2019. Recent price inflation likely has boosted these prices as well.)
Vancouver was one of my favorite places to visit when I lived in Seattle and I still really enjoy it today. Since moving away from Seattle in 2014 (which allowed me to go north regularly), I miss Vancouver more than Seattle.
What to do and what you should do while here is a whole other can of worms, and given you’d essentially be visiting on business there’s probably not much else you’d be looking to do anyway.
Hopefully, if you ever consider traveling up to Van City to run this race, some of the above items can be helpful and better prepare you for one of the toughest, yet more enjoyable, major race experiences you can find.