Archive for June, 2011

23
Jun
11

Race Report: 2011 Grandma’s Marathon (Part 2: The Race)

Back in February I signed up for my two primary marathons this year, Chicago and New York. I was in Minnesota when a friend, KL, mentioned she was going to run Grandma’s Marathon. Being the attention hog that I am I asked if I could go for the stroll along the North Shore with her, and she was cool about it. We agreed to run the race together and set our goal time to be 4 hours even. At the end of April we had a great time running the Get In Gear Half Marathon together but realized that our goal time might have been a bit too aggressive and backed off to 4:10 for a goal time. If you’re keeping score at home and read my post on the Brooklyn Half Marathon you’ll realize that in theory I can probably run something faster. Therefore, the goal of this race wasn’t to run as fast as I can and crash, but to enjoy the scenery, pace KL as long as I could keep up with her, and run a good race.

As usual the night before a race was brutal when it came to sleeping. Although the folks at the Holiday Inn were good enough to basically shut down all public areas at 9pm the night before. Sadly, the silence of the hotel didn’t go into my mind which was running on all sorts of things from worries about the weather to trying to figure out new graph traversal algorithms for my real job. I figure I probably got about five or six hours of solid sleep. Not the best, but certainly better than before Big Sur last year or the Brooklyn Half just a few weeks ago. At 4:45 my alarm went off and did my usual pre-race cleansing ritual, which is to say nothing. No face wash, no deodorant, no shaving. This ensures that I’m extra delicious at the finish of the race. The only change was that I liberally applied body glide — it was raining outside and I figured even if I used a whole stick it would be worth it. It would suck if 600 miles of training were for naught because of chafing.

Hypothermia risk banner at Grandma's Marathon

Yup, a Hypothermia Risk in a June Marathon.

KL met me in the hotel around 5:20am for our bus to the starting line which left promptly at 5:30am. Normally city buses make me want to hurl, but oddly when they’re moving along at 55 miles per hour they’re quite nice. I was surprised to see that we were amongst the first runners to arrive at the starting line. Unlike New York, being first to the starting line means only an hour early, rather than four or five hours early. Fortunately, by the time we arrived most of the rain had stopped and porta potties were plentiful. The race flag was green indicating great conditions for a race — well it was green. After about 20 minutes the flag was changed to white. That’s right, a race on June 18th was run under a white flag indicating the risk of hypothermia.

Ready to Go Before Grandma's Marathon! Look at that Awesome Stubble!

Around 7:10am we made our way toward the sweat check, which was now surrounded by a slow moving mob of people. Luckily, this being Northern Minnesota it was the nicest mob you’ve ever met. When I accidentally walked past the drop for my bib number a guy walking by helpfully pointed out the fact. No complaints there, although it was a little strange dropping my sweats into a trash can to check them. By the time we dropped our sweats the starting mob was taking shape, unfortunately, this meant we were back near the walkers and needed to sneak our way up between the 4:00 and 4:15 pace teams. Here’s where things became a little interesting. Just like my experiences at the Twin Cities in Motion 100% Irish for a Day 10M and the Valentine’s Day 5k there was once again no real notice of the starting gun. Maybe I’m just braindead when I do events in Minnesota, but it did remind me of how spoiled I am by the New York Road Runners’ consistently high quality events.

6500 Runners Ready to Go!

We set off at a moderate pace that put us between our two target pace groups. I was surprised by the number of fans early in the race, especially the wonderful fans around mile five in Knife River. I was expecting that the race would be much more like Big Sur, which was essentially barren for the first twenty miles. This was not the case, there was never a point that we were far removed from fans and we saw many fans several times during the race (huge props to the cheerleader chick in the Bemidji State sweatshirt who had amazing energy the four times I saw her along the course).

Somewhere around mile seven we both realized that nature was calling us. Unfortunately, the race was VERY short on restrooms. Luckily, we spied a couple with a very short line between mile nine and ten. This ended up costing us about two minutes, and perhaps more critically meant that we were on our own for pace as the 4:00 pace team was now out of sight. Oh well, at least I didn’t vomit from the stench of the restrooms like I did in New York.

If there was a bonus from losing the pace team it’s that I bumped into an older runner who introduced himself as John. John made the usual small talk asking me what other races I had done. I asked him and he told me that he had run all 35 Grandma’s Marathons and all 29 Twin Cities Marathons, and more than 150 in total. It turns out that John is one of three people who has completed every Grandma’s Marathon and the only one of the three who has also completed every Twin Cities Marathon. This is really remarkable and a huge inspiration. I felt pretty honored to have randomly bumped into him a couple of times during the race.

Somewhere around Mile 16 - We Both Still had Energy to Wave

We maintained a nice solid pace for the next eight or nine miles. The road followed the North Shore of Lake Superior, darting in and out of the woods, in front of homes, and by some small businesses. As we got closer to Duluth the fans became more dense and we started to see the most excellent bootleg rest stations. Lesson learned: Twizzlers are a bad idea. Not only are they more wax than anything else, but they shard in your throat and make it a pain to run while eating them.

Somewhere Around Mile 19 - I'm Holding a GU Packet That I Never Used

Around mile 15 or 16 we spotted my wife for the first time. She’s training for her first long triathlon and we had packed her road bike in the back of the car. As we continued along the path she rode ahead to meet us — well, most of the time. We actually beat her between two points which caused me to bellow “We’re beating you!” and got a few laughs from the crowd and other runners. I think this also made it apparent to many of the very tired runners around me that I still had way too much energy left relative to other runners.

Between mile 21 and 22 the 4:15 pace group was catching up to us. When KL and I discussed our pace we agreed that we’d go for a 4:14:36, as that would ensure a PR for me. At this point KL was still making good progress, but I think my energy was starting to annoy her and she told me to go away. I feel a little like an ass for abandoning my running partner, but I don’t think I could handle it if I didn’t manage below a 4:14 when I know I’m capable of it.

I was able to crank off the last four or five miles at a much faster pace than the runners around me. Somewhere around 8 minute miles. I had some fantasies about finishing under 4 hours, but I knew this wasn’t going to happen when I saw the gun clock hit 4:00 as I passed it at mile 25.

Look at Me Berating the Crowd for not Having Enough Energy at the Finish Line

The last mile of the marathon was incredibly painful. This wasn’t because I was tired, to the contrary I was feeling really good, but because the road twisted and turned as it made its way through Canal Park. Around each turn I thought we’d find the finish, but it never seemed to appear. Finally, the crowds grew and I knew I was near the finish. An arch of balloons popped into my view. Finish.

The crowd was much more dense than I expected as I approached the finish. But sadly, they didn’t seem all that excited. I was able to summon some energy in the final sprint to raise my hands and berate the crowd for not cheering. I apologize if I offended anyone, but come on, finishing a marathon is a big deal. Your cheering makes us go faster. Please cheer us on instead of staring into your smart phones. I was able to thunder through the finish line, go get my bags and meet my wonderful wife.

Pace and Elevation For Grandma's Marathon - The Spike Around Mile 17 is a Glitch

While waiting in line for my gear, which seemed like the slowest and coldest line in the history of man, I was able to check my mile splits. For the first time I was happy. I hadn’t realized it before, but up until this race I had never actually run a whole marathon. There’s a few anomalies in my splits — where we stopped to go to the bathroom and some weird stuff around mile 17, but over all we maintained a fairly steady pace and once I left KL I was able to really turn on the jets and finish strong.

Splits for Grandma's Marathon

By far the worst part of the marathon came at the end. This wasn’t because I was dead tired, but more because I get cold at the end of a marathon, and it was already a cold day. To make matters worse the spot to meet family was up on the berm that separated the finish area in Canal Park from Lake Superior. The wind coming off the lake was absolutely frigid. We quickly found a nice person to get a picture of me and my wife and then I donned my sweats, got my free ice cream and beer, and high tailed it back to the hotel. I knew I had PR’d and for the first time I had run an entire marathon.

Me and my Wife After the Marathon. It was FRIGIDLY COLD.

When the official results were available I was very pleased, a 4:07:43. Considering we stopped for 2:50 to use the restroom, I’m very happy with this result and can tell myself I did a 4:05ish. Also, I aid the day before that I wanted to finish around 4:10. KL, who I left behind around mile 22 also managed to run the entire way and rolled through around 4:16. Both of us were under the median time for the finishers and above a 50% for our age gender times (me 50%, KL 52%). Considering how bad NYC and Twin Cities were in 2009, you’ll hear no complaints here.

Official Time: 4:07:43 - a New PR

This is the first time that I’ve actually felt good after a marathon. Normally I go through these weird emotional roller coasters at the end. Not so this time. It probably helps that KL was next to me until mile 22 to keep me from going crazy. After a shower back at the hotel and an hour long nap I was good to go. My legs were a little sore, but in general I felt fine. Stairs didn’t hurt. I felt like I could run another marathon the next day. Instead, I’m resting this week and mentally prepping myself for Chicago. It’s going to be awesome.

Keep running.

Bib and Medal from Grandma's Marathon - Memoirs of a Great Race

23
Jun
11

Race Report: 2011 Grandma’s Marathon (Part 1: The Course)

I have a lot to say about Grandma’s Marathon, so this is broken into two parts. In part 1 I cover my perception of the course, expo, and other elements that shouldn’t change much from year to year. In part 2 I describe my performance in the marathon.


As a native Minnesotan I’ve taken some pride in the fact that my state is home to two of biggest and best marathons in the United States – the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (8197 finishers in 2010) and Grandma’s Marathon (5611 finishers in 2010). Clearly these numbers aren’t anywhere close to the experience of running Chicago or New York, but when you consider the size of Minnesota, and especially the size of Duluth, it’s pretty remarkable. What’s more remarkable is that this was the 35th running of Grandma’s Marathon. Going in I figured it was a safe bet that they had running this event down to a science, for the most part they do.

First stop after a drive up I-35 plagued with road construction was the expo. I have to be honest, I didn’t expect much from the expo, but was very surprised. The first thing that hit me, the ENORMOUS cavern used for the pasta dinner. Walking past this hit the actual expo which was phenomenal for the size race. Lots of local events and stores along with a smattering of national events too. If you forgot anything for the marathon you could certainly get it there at pretty reasonable prices. Although, as seems to be the norm, the deals for the women seemed to be much better than the deals for men. Picking up marathon swag bag was breeze too. No complaints about the expo at all.

Transportation to the starting line and back from the finish line was provided by Grandma’s Marathon. Starting line transportation is a necessity as the race starts in the parking lot of the Ford dealer outside of Two Harbors. For most people running the full marathon transportation was provided from their hotels by city buses. I was dreading this at first, I had flashbacks to slow-moving buses in the dark on the way to Big Sur and I also often get nauseated on city buses. Surprisingly, cruising down a straight road at 55 miles per hour with no stops makes a city bus pretty nice transportation. However, starting in 2009 they added a unique form of transportation. About 650 runners each year can take the train from the DECC to the stating line. The train is slower than buses, but it’s got some ambiance to it that a city bus just doesn’t. Sadly, taking the train requires you to arrive at the DECC really early. There was a bus stop at my hotel, so I just took that. This allowed me to see that by the time the train arrived most buses had already arrived. The prime locations to wait were occupied and the bathroom lines were quite long. For those who weren’t staying in downtown Duluth the marathon also provided transportation back after completion — it’s one of those really nice things that they didn’t have to do but certainly reflected the whole Minnesota Nice of Duluth.

The actual course is pretty straightforward. For the most part it is a jaunt down Old Highway 61 from Two Harbors, MN to Duluth, MN, ending at the original namesake sponsor, Grandma’s Restaurant. Over the course of the 26.2 miles the course loses about 130 feet. There are a few hills, enough to keep it interesting, but none are really substantial. Lemon Drop Hill, around mile 22 inside the city limits of Duluth is probably the biggest challenge, but it’s pretty short and comparable to going over the Queensboro bridge in NYC, the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh, or some of the smaller hills at the end of Big Sur.

Grandma's Marathon Course Map and Elevation

Aside from a small U-turn at the end Grandma's Marathon is a straight point-to-point course

After about 18 miles of scenic running down old Highway 61 the course finally enters Duluth, first in a pleasant residential area. This was a great spot to run because of all of the families and drunk UMD students cheering the runners on and offering beer (if it had been mile 25 I would have taken some). While it wasn’t Manhattan or Park Slope in terms of fan density, it was certainly a huge motivating factor. The locals really do seem to love the event. After about three miles in residential neighborhoods you hit Lemon Drop Hill which takes you into downtown Duluth. Some of the bars had really great cheering sections set up — although whatever bar had the fenced off area serving booze needs to use some cattle prods to liven up those fans.

Downtown Duluth was interesting to run through. Good support throughout the run, but the brick roads and the condition of some of the bricks made things a little difficult. When wet the bricks can be a little slippery and man of the bricks had broken corners which required you watch where your feet fell. At mile 25 the race hangs a left, goes over I-35 and heads toward the DECC and the finish line.

The last mile was the absolute worst part of the race. Not so much because it was the last mile, more because it follows a curvy road around Canal Park. If you don’t know where the race ends you think that it’s going to end at the next curve at least four or five times. You really have no idea. After what seems like a 3 mile run for the last mile the race finishes with excellent support and thousands of fans right by Grandma’s Restaurant in Canal Park. It’s great to know that even though Grandma’s isn’t the primary sponsor of the race anymore, they still get the name and the race still ends there — a wonderful touch of history and respect for a great marathon.

This isn’t to say that everything was awesome about the weekend. Duluth has a population of about 86,000 people. With 6400 people running the marathon and 6000 people running the half marathon, this was a strained city. Putting things in another perspective, if we kept the ratio of runners to citizens constant then the New York Road Runners would need to handle 640,000 people in the New York City Marathon. Even New York would have problems with traffic and hotel rooms if that many people were in a single event. Indeed, it seems as though every hotel within 20-30 miles of Duluth was booked full well in advance. Most hotels were charging the rack rate and required a 2-3 night stay, making this a very expensive marathon. The savvy pros realize you can get a room a UMD or UW Superior for significantly cheaper. Something to consider for next time.

There were two other downsides surrounding logistics. The first was restrooms during the course. Although there were plenty of portapotties at the start during the race there were very few. Every couple of miles we stumbled upon a pair of portapotties — often with a very long line. Most men took advantage of the wooded course and left the portapotties for the ladies in the race. Adding even an additional portapotty at each cluster could REALLY help out. The other issue was at the end of the race, getting checked bags was a bit of an ordeal, and being as it was very cold during the race, this forced runners to backtrack to get food after waiting in line to get their sweats back. Not a huge problem, but given the 48°F high on race day, this was really cold.

Is there a chance I’ll do Grandma’s again? Absolutely. It’s a great race with wonderful scenery that is masterfully run with great fans and great support. Except this time I’ll make sure to book my room and transportation early.

Keep running.

13
Jun
11

Waiting is the Hardest Part

Five days from right now I’ll be running down Lake Superior’s North Shore with thousands of other runners in the 35th running of Grandma’s Marathon. Between now and Saturday morning I’ve got an academic paper to write, a couple of presentations to deliver, two flights to catch, and very few miles on the road. Ah yes, tapering, it’s a little like being injured. You get to sleep in a bit later. You can run a bit slower. You don’t get your usual endorphins.

My runs for the past three days (Saturday, Sunday, Monday) were supposed to be 8 miles, 4 miles, 3 miles. Instead I did 10 miles, 5.5 miles, 5 miles. It may not seem like much to add in another 5.5 miles, but that’s another 33% over what I’m supposed to be running these days. The reality is that tapering sucks. It hardly seems worth it to get up at 6:00am to go for a run that’s only going to take me 20 minutes. I’ve got six miles to run over the next 4 four days. I think I’m going to go insane waiting. I just hope that all this pays off in the marathon.

I can’t wait for Saturday morning.

Keep Running.

06
Jun
11

It’s all about the rhythm

No blog post for the last couple of weekends because I didn’t have a race to write about. Memorial day weekend was the peak of my training for Grandma’s Marathon where I did 24, 11, and 9 miles over the three day weekend. Sadly, I had to get up incredibly early on Tuesday morning to catch a flight back to rather warm and humid New York, and that’s where stuff started to go downhill.

I fly often enough that I have no problem sleeping on planes. Put me on a plane at any time of day and I can nearly guarantee that I can fall asleep. Often times it’s a little like magic, I board the plane early, side down by the window, and just fall asleep — completely missing the announcements, takeoff, and landing. Air travel truly is some sort of magic teleportation device for me. Unfortunately, this is never “quality” sleep. No matter how much I sleep on a plane I’m still tired. Such was the case on Tuesday. Get into New York around 11am and drive to work and stick around there until 7pm. Drive home and go out for a planned eight mile run up to Valhalla and back. No problem. Ughh. About two miles in I was sore and felt like I was dying. Time to turn around and walk the two miles home. No reason to be stupid and hurt myself during my taper.

Wednesday and Thursday are usually running days too. Not last week. Work calls, and this week it meant busting my ass (and that of my co-author) to get a CSCW 2012 paper out the door. Sadly, this meant 18 hour work days on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I felt enough like I was going to puke without the bonus of going for a run.

Which brought me to Saturday. A medium distance run of about 12 miles was the plan. No problem, right? It was good weather, I was reasonably hydrated. I felt good. Unfortunately, my old bones hurt like hell doing it. I tried to tell my body that it had only been out of commission for three days, but it wasn’t going to listen. I finished the run at about my marathon pace, but I worked my ass off to do it. Sunday wasn’t much better.

Tomorrow is supposed to be rest. It’s under two weeks to Grandma’s Marathon. Right now I feel like I just need to get a decent run under my belt. Loosing your rhythm two weeks before the Marathon is not such a wonderful thing.

Until next time, keep running.




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Marathon Times

2011 NYC Marathon3:57:45
2011 Hartford Marathon3:58:17
2011 Chicago Marathon4:20:16
2011 Grandma's Marathon4:07:43
2010 Big Sur International Marathon4:22:49
2009 NYC Marathon4:37:05
2009 Twin Cities Marathon4:43:28
2009 Pittsburgh Marathon4:14:38
2008 Erie Marathon5:11:40

Upcoming Races

  • Nov 6 - New York City Marathon, New York, NY
For previous races, check out my Race Log