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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.