18 months. That’s how long it’s been since my last marathon. I’ve battled many an injury: shin splints, back issues, and IT band, the last of which sidelined me since last January. It’s been a long struggle back, and fortunately I have many friends who’ve given me more love and support than I could possible ask for.
Grandma’s Marathon, a race which I’ve run in the past, a race which I love, and a race to which I have a connection, as my wife and I went to college at University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), seemed like the perfect race for my triumphant return. Well, at least it seemed that way.
First up, let’s talk a little bit about the race itself. It’s called [Grandmas][Grandma’s Marathon] because the title sponsor is a local restaurant/bar named, fittingly enough, Grandma’s. They’ve been the title sponsor since the second year the race has been held, which was 39 years ago. That made the 2016 running the 40th annual event, which also meant there was a cool medal. It’s all about the cool medals when you’re a runner.
Because it’s based in Duluth, MN, a town of 100,000 people, and sees a minimum of 15,000 people combined running the half or the full, it takes over the town. The hotels are in full gouge mode over the weekend, with even the Bates Motel asking for no less than $300/night, but they open up all of the local college campuses for the runners. There are signs up all over town referencing the runners. And everyone you talk to just assumes you’re there for the race. It’s a wonderful atmosphere.
Grandma’s is a mini-Boston. Granted, I’ve never run Boston, and probably won’t ever be fast enough to do so, but there are striking similarities. It’s a point to point, starting from a small town and running into the city. It’s a net downhill, with hills throughout, and a good climb at mile 22, called Lemon Drop Hill, although none of the hills are as bad as the ones you’d seen in Boston. And, until the end, there isn’t much in the way of turns, as it follows an old highway into town, meaning all of the turns are sweeping curves.
Our 2016 experience started with my wife, Karin, our good friend, Susan, and myself all flying into Minneapolis, with intentions to drive to Duluth, on Thursday. We all happened to be flying in from different places, Karin from our house in Seattle, Susan from her house in Ottawa, and I from a conference in Boston. Originally we were all supposed to land within about 5 minutes of one another, but in what would set the tone for the weekend, things didn’t go as planned - my flight out of Boston was delayed a good couple of hours. Fortunately, Karin and Susan were able to find dinner, and I was able to eat on the plane, so we were able to grab the car and just start driving to Duluth. We avoided rush hour, and made good time into Duluth. We checked into the dorms and fell fast asleep.
Because Karin and I attended college in Duluth, and lived there for 4 years, we wanted to share a little bit of our past with Susan. This meant starting Friday morning, the day before the race, with breakfast at the Perkin’s we all would hang out at as college kids. We showed Susan a couple of neat views of Lake Superior, the lake we’d all be running along the following day.
The race finishes around the DECC, which is where the race expo is, and the last mile is where the race organizers “make you work for it”. You wind up running past the finishing line twice, before finally making the last turn towards it. There’s also a quick, but steep, hill to cross a bridge to get over to the DECC, and a couple of tight turns you want to be aware of in advance. We took the opportunity to walk the last mile and familiarize ourselves, particularly Susan, with the finish. This was the best 30 minutes we’d spend that day, and it’d pay dividends during the race. If you decide to do Grandma’s, I can’t suggest checking out that last mile enough, otherwise it will bite you - I promise.
The expo itself was your stock expo, with all of the various tchotchkes you might want to find. What made this unique was Dick Beardsley, a Minnesota boy who set the course record at 2:09:36, a record which stood for over 30 years, was signing autographs. I needed an autograph! I can tell you Dick is probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, and a great ambassador for the sport. He would talk to everyone for as long as they wanted, and truly relished the time to meet with fellow runners.
After the expo, and realizing we’d walked about 10K, we decided it was time to find lunch and get off our feet. Lunch location? Erbert’s & Gerbert’s, a Duluth institution. We roamed back to campus to take over one of the lounges and watch Spirit of the Marathon, because you have to. We found dinner at a great little Italian restaurant to complete our carbo-loading. Then it was time for sleep, with visions of PRs dancing in our heads.
Now, let me back up just a little bit to talk about the weather obsessing that is standard for any race. When we first started looking it looked like it might be a touch warm (highs right around 70F), but otherwise OK. Then it looked like it’d be hot. And then rain. The night before it looked like the rain was going to miss us, and we were back to a little warm, no wind. We thought everything would be good.
So we thought…
Grandma’s Marathon uses a flag system to indicate the weather risk - green, yellow, red, and then black, with black meaning “extremely high risk”.
Karin boarded her 4:45 bus for the half marathon, which starts at 6:15a. Her race temps were a bit warm, but she finished the race just as they put out the yellow flag. She had a great race, even if it was a bit slower than her previous race here.
As for me and Susan, well… Things started out looking promising. We boarded the bus nice and early, and were among the first to arrive at the starting space, a car dealership. We got a picture by the starting corrals, took pictures of the green (yes, green) flag, indicating good race conditions, and found a nice spot on the grass to chill before the race. Because we were among the first to arrive, we had first crack at the portapotties, which is every runner’s dream. We went through our normal pre-race routines, and chatted about strategy and expectations.
We waited for about as long as we could before fighting our way down to gear check, and then into the corral area. As we pushed our way towards our areas in the corral, we heard the announcer, who clearly wasn’t a runner, talk about how beautiful the day was, at a pleasant 68 degrees. 68 degrees is about 20 degrees too warm for most runners I know. About 10 minutes later, he announced it was 72. What he didn’t add was the fact the humidity was around 80%. It was going to be a slog, and I was beginning to sweat just standing there. I didn’t know that heat that was ahead of me.
A bit of background on me. I’ve run 3 marathons in the past, and I’ve yet to run what I’d call a good race. In each race I had some form of a collapse, at varying spots along the race. I know I have a 3:59 in me, but I’ve yet to coax it out of my body. Going into the race, this was my goal. This was my race. This was my time. Mother Nature, unfortunately, had other ideas.
The first 10K
I bid Susan farewell at the 4:00 “corral”(1), and let her fight the rest of the way to her 3:45 area. When I got there I started looking around for the 4:00 pacer, along with the rest of the runners in the area, to no avail. I discovered later that all pacers under 4:15 were towards the front of the starter’s chute, which did nothing to help those of us who lined up where we were supposed to line up. Grandma’s gets nearly everything right during race weekend, but this was a huge blunder on their part. It was at this point I realized I wasn’t going to have a pacer, and thus wasn’t going to have a pack to run with.
It was the latter part that really bothered me. I’m a social runner. I like to chat, to have comradery, to share the experience with those around me. When there’s a pacer, there’s automatically a pack and a sense of community. Without a pacer, well, it’s every runner for themselves. So while I did chat with a few runners at the start, once the gun went off and we reached the start line, everyone went off by themselves.
I have to say I’m rather proud of myself. I have a history of going out too fast, which is easy to do on this course, as the first couple of miles are downhill. Plus, considering the lack of a community, I could have easily latched on to a runner who was going too fast. But, when the one woman I was talking with took off a bit faster than the 9:09 pace I wanted, I let her go off and do her own thing, and settled into my pace.
And find my pace I did. I went through the first 10K at about 17 total seconds fast, or about a 9:06 pace. My overall pace from mile to mile didn’t vary by more than 8 seconds. I could not be happier with how that first 10K went. And while that green flag was a yellow flag at the first water station, I was still feeling good.
But… When I saw that yellow flag at 5K I knew this was a sign of things to come. I knew at some point we were going to see that red flag. It was too early in the day, the sun was bright overhead, and it was only going to get warmer. My body, however, felt great at the 10K mark. I was going to ride this wave for as long as I could.
The second 10K
Around that 10K mark I passed the 4:15 pace group, which I thought was rather strange. I didn’t know what had happened with the pace groups until after the race, but passing a pace group of any sort does give you a bit of a burst of energy, which I took. I did give a thought to falling in with the group, knowing the heat was only going to continue to beat me down over the course of the day, but again - my body was feeling good.
I mentioned earlier I’d run 3 marathons, and during each marathon you learn different lessons. My last marathon, Carlsbad, was an unmitigated disaster, with me having to push to finish under the 5:00 mark.(2) At mile 10 of that race my quads were shredded and I didn’t have anything. But I decided to push it, and when I hit mile 16 I had nothing left. I walked about 8 of those last 10 miles.
With that lesson in mind, I’d already made the decision to do check-ins with my body at every 10K, and adjust as needed. I cruised through that first 10K, and was settled in for a good race. I found my pace, my stride, and knew the effort that was needed to maintain right around that 9:09 pace. My watch showed me at 9:06, and all was good.
Then things started to change. I went through mile 7 and 8 a touch slow, but nothing that had me overly concerned. I noticed the overall pace on my watch start to creep up to 9:07. Then 9:08. And then I went through mile 10, at the same effort I’d done the previous 9 miles, at a 9:21 pace. It was at this point when I realized it just wasn’t going to be there. Now, yes, 12 seconds off pace isn’t much. But with the temperature starting to rise, and the sun still beating down, I decided to just settle in and enjoy the run rather than shooting for a PR. In the end this turned out to be a good decision, as the 11-mile water station flew what I was expecting to see: red flag. Yes, it was that hot.
From here forward it was all about keeping cool, staying positive, and enjoying the race as best as I could. I was going to listen to my body, try to run from balloon to balloon (mile to mile), and walk through the water stations. Unfortunately, I did wind up walking more than I’d hoped, but I was able to run a lot more than I could at Carlsbad, further reinforcing my decision to bag the PR at mile 11.
At this point I’d like to thank the race organizers for doing an amazing job with the aid stations, and the good people of Duluth, MN for helping keep us cool. The aid stations are easily the best I’ve ever seen at a race, and I’ve experienced many races in my time. Every single station was well staffed and supplied. You had plenty of time to get your water or PowerAde. The layout was water, PowerAde, ice, sponge, water. Yes - two water tables at each station, and PowerAde at each station. I don’t know of another race that does that. And the sponges and ice were plentiful as we all tried to keep ourselves cool, or as cool as we could.
The good people of Duluth did their best as well, setting out cooling showers, or just simply hanging outside of their house with a hose. They all understood to not simply douse the runners, but rather let the runners come to them. One of my highlights was around mile 22, when I went running towards a guy with a hose and said “HIT ME!”, which he did with about 4 gallons of water. It was amazing!
But, back to the race. I hit the halfway mark at 2:02, which made me smile, knowing I had a good time until then, but also knowing what was ahead of me time wise. At mile 15, there was a loud BANG. Turned out the blue balloons, indicating the half marathon miles, exploded from the heat. The explosions were repeated by many of the balloons, although this was the only one I witnessed. My running partner in crime, Susan, also said she heard one. See the explosions or not, you noticed the aftermath as there were few blue balloons left on the course as the day wore on.
The turn into the city was welcomed by everyone, as the fans really start to pick up during that stretch, carrying you through to the finish. The mile through downtown Duluth is amazing, with an energy that can’t be described, as the fans, three to four deep, cheer you through towards that last mile.
Remember that last mile? Boy was I glad we walked through it the day before, as I knew exactly what to expect when we turned left on 5th to cross the bridge towards the DECC. I focused on doing the loop behind the DECC, past the USS Irvin, past the finish line for the second time, and then around one last little loop to head into the finish - at 4:41, and in 79-degree heat. I’ve never been so happy to see 4:41 on my watch, as I had to fight to get it below 4:45.
I crossed the finish line in full celebration mode, knowing what I’d overcome that day. I was decorated with my medal, found my finisher’s shirt, and was then embraced by Susan, with a very knowing expression of “we survived!” As it turned out Susan was about 25 minutes off the time she was hoping for, and battled to get there as well. Susan then led me to Karin, and another wonderful embrace.
After the obligatory post-race photos, the two of them had been in the area for a while, and had already found their first round of post-race refreshments. They helped me find what I needed (a chocolate milk and banana to start), and my gear. Grandma’s offers changing tents, which both Susan and I took advantage of, getting out of our clothes which were soaking wet. Next stop: beer tent, for a well- earned cold one. Karin, who’d been hanging out in the finishing area the longest, then declared she was hungy, which sent us off on a search for food. Needless to say Canal Park, where the race finishes, was absolutely packed. But with a little bit of a walk we were able to find a restaurant that had immediate seating. We settled in, had a couple of bites, and beer number two. :-) We swapped stories, commiserated, and slowly started to recover from a long, hot, but successful day.
Grandma’s remains my favorite marathon, and the heat does nothing to change my opinion of this great race. Yeah, it was hot, but the organizers handled it with aplomb. The only issue was the pacers, which I mentioned above. If you are going to run this race, book your hotel, and your pre-race meal, nice and early.
And pray for rain.
(1) There aren’t corrals, just signs denoting the expected finishing times
(2) Speed is relative. For some, 4:00 is slow. To me, 5:00 is slow. To each their own strengths, etc.