Grandma’s Marathon Report

Okay, so this is a pretty sharp detour from my usual studio news and history reports, but newsworthy nonetheless, at least in my world! In June I ran Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN. It was a pretty amazing experience, and I thought I’d share it with my running community and anyone else who cares to read. — Heather j


On June 21, 2008, I completed my third marathon and my first since December 2003—Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. There’s a reason that even veteran marathoners respect the distance. No matter how well you train, eat, drink, and sleep, you just can’t control everything that happens on race day.

I arrived at the Duluth airport at 4:18 p.m. the day before the race. Marshall Kelly, the man who, along with his wife, Anne Marie, gave me a place to stay, was waiting at the airport holding a yellow piece of paper with “Heather” written on it. He drove me back to their house so that I could drop off my bags before making my way to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC, pronounced “Deck”) to pick up my race number. Marshall gave me a brief summary of Duluth: the weather (It gets really, really cold and stays that way for a long time), local politics, and the economy. He said some people liken the city to San Francisco (!!). It’s a port town, with the city running lengthwise along Lake Superior and houses up in the hills. Apparently Duluth used to be a very busy port, but gradually lost a lot of that business. Today, Grandma’s Marathon is one of the city’s biggest commercial weekends, bolstered by Duluth hotels that like to raise their rates to $500 a night. Thank God I found the Land Trust.

Marshall and Anne Marie, the day after Grandma's in Oulou, Wisc.

Marshall and Anne Marie, the day after Grandma's in Oulou, Wisc.

The Northern Communities Land Trust, a non-profit that provides affordable housing in Duluth, holds a fundraiser where local homeowners like the Kelleys can offer up their spare bedrooms, a portion of their house, or even their entire house to Grandma’s Marathon runners for a minimum of $75 a night, and all proceeds to go the Land Trust. Since I was traveling solo, staying in a home seemed much more cozy than a boring hotel room, and without the hassle and the uber-inflated prices. Plus my money goes to a good cause instead of some hotel corporation.

The Kelley’s home was about a mile from the DECC; five blocks from where I wanted to eat (Pizza Lucé; spaghetti with “veggie balls”), and about seven blocks from a Holiday Inn where I could catch a bus to the start. Marshall described their neighborhood as “the hood” of Duluth. Oh, now you tell me. He also said they’re making a strong effort to clean it up though. Oh, good. But even after we turned the corner to Sixth Street and pulled up to their house, I was still looking for this ‘hood. I sure didn’t see one! The houses were mostly modest, two-story homes with small front yards and fences. Kids played outside and rode their bikes on the sidewalk. Neighbors walked across the street to say hello to the other neighbors. It was quiet most of the time, except for a Native American woman chanting the night before the race, a party that I slept through the night after the race, and the bells. An old school nearby has a large clocktower with a bell that chimes every 15 minutes. 24 hours a day. It’s a pretty chime. But the night before the marathon, I woke up every 15 minutes to the bell. Then the alarm. Then the bell. Oh God. It’s 4 a.m. It’s time.

The school with the bells. Every. 15. Minutes.

The school with the bells. Every. 15. Minutes.

I got dressed, number already pinned on my shirt, and packed my sweat check bag full of “just in case” items: rain jacket, hat, extra socks, gloves, towel, a banana. It was warm in Duluth, with reported highs in the high 70s, with occasional showers. So I prepared for cool, warm, rainy, and anything in between. My eyes were puffy, probably from waking up every 15 minutes by the bell. I ate my pre-long run/race staples: an apple and a small bowl of oatmeal. I was ready to go before 5 a.m.

Anne Marie drove me to the DECC at 5:15 a.m. to catch a bus to the start. Ate the banana, hopped on a bus. I got to the starting area by 6:15 for a 7:30 a.m. race. It seemed like it was going to get warm later, so I kept up my hydration practice with a cup each of water and Ultima. Just as I was coming out of the port-o-pottie, I hear the announcer tell all 7,800 of us (out of 9,800 that registered) to start making our way to our “corral.” The 3:30 group seemed way far up front…until I got there and saw the huge mass of people in front of us. Shifting around, antsy, listening to Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy” over the loudspeakers before the “gun” went off, I remembered that 3:30 is the Boston qualifying time for men 45-49. I was surrounded by masters men, a few other 30-something women, and a pace group leader with a big red balloon.

The starting area

The Starting Area

I felt good. No aches, no tweaks, I felt strong. I had trained well, ate and drank well. My stomach was cooperating. I was as prepared as I could be. It felt like a good day. I worked through a lot of stuff in 2007 just to get healthy enough to train successfully for this marathon. Darnit, I deserved a good day! It was almost 7:30. We had a moment of silence for Wesley Ngetich, the two-time Grandma’s Marathon winner who was killed in the midst of the violence in Kenya. And we were off! I never did hear a gun, all of a sudden people just started moving. Oh, we’re running now?! Okay, here we go!

The first half was a breeze. I stayed with the 3:30 pace group at first, then gradually ended up slightly in front, but not far. For most of the first half, I chatted with man from the Twin Cities Track Club about running in our respected cities, past races, marathon tips, etc. (Critical mistake #1: too much talking! I should have saved my energy for the race and zipped it. Plus, I wasn’t paying attention. I lost focus and forgot to take the tangents.)

Most of the marathon course winds along scenic Old Highway 61 with Lake Superior on the left and tall, green trees and the occasional house on each side. The lake looked more inviting with each mile. As it got warmer—and it warmed up fast into the high 70s—I imagined myself on a boat in that large body of water, happily floating and pleasantly cool. At one point we passed a shack-looking restaurant touting smoked salmon. Again, I was distracted.

My Twin Cities buddy and I hit the first 10k right on target, maybe slightly ahead considering chip time, but still not too fast. To the left of us, a woman yelled “Only 20 miles to go!” Is that supposed to make me feel better?

Water stations appeared every two miles. I took a swig of Ultima at mile 5, then another swig at every water station until the bitter end. Since I can barely walk and drink, much less run and drink, at the same time, all I could manage was a swallow or two at each stop. Later in the race, I somehow got Ultima on my sunglasses once and up my nose twice. (Note to self: Do not snort the Ultima)

I had to pee. Dang! From mile 3 to 11, I kept hoping that urge would disappear, but it did not. I could either risk feeling really miserable later in the race, or stop. I opted to stop at mile 13 where there was a long line of empty port-o-potties, and took a Clif Shot (Espresso!) during the very speedy pit stop, so it was a somewhat efficient stop. And oddly cyclical.

I was still on target for sub-3:30 when I hit the half way mark, relieved. I lost my conversation partner, but caught up with the 3:30 pace group. I hung with them for the next 7 miles. By mile 17, the race definitely felt like work. I used every tool I had to ease my journey. I drafted off of others when the breeze kicked in, which it did through most of the race. I dutifully took the tangents (I was paying attention now). My right quad started to feel numb. Not sore, but numb. This can’t be good. In Dual in the Sun, the book about Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar’s epic Boston race, Beardsley couldn’t feel his legs for a while. Understandable for a 2:09 marathoner, but odd for a mere mortal like myself. Apparently the numbness was my body’s way of alluding of greater things to come, because the numbness gave way to a fatigue—equally distributed in both legs—that I have yet to experience in any long run, race or marathon.

Was this the wall? At mile 20 I could run, but my legs were lead. Were they even bending? I couldn’t tell. They sure did hurt though, and here I was with “only” a 10k to go. In my race preparation, I had told myself that this would be the point where I would pick up the pace a bit. Some of my long runs incorporated both marathon pace and LT-pace miles, so I was supposed to tell myself that this was no different than one of those long training runs. But my legs never felt like they would fall off the hinges in my training runs. There would be no picking up. Just keep moving. I started to forget what mile we were on. ‘Is this mile 19? I think this is 19. So when I get to the next balloon it will be 20. There’s the balloon. Why does it say 19? Didn’t I pass 19? ’ Somewhere near this point, we passed the trolls. Dozens of troll dolls on the side of the road. The pace group leader remembered them from the year before, so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. We also passed by Schrek, cheering us on from the side of the road. It looked like an alien, to me.

Between mile 21 and 22 we came into the town of Duluth, which began with a climb up “Lemon Drop Hill,” named after a restaurant that used to be there but wasn’t anymore. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull this off with my lead legs and all, but I kept going. I rummaged for another Clif Shot. I lost it. I’m screwed. I’m going to fall on the ground. I’m going to fall apart. Surely I won’t be able to go any farther without those extra carbs. Oh, there it is. It’s wedged in my key pocket. I can’t get it open. I tear it open with my teeth. Strawberry. “Half shot” of caffeine. Great. Okay Clif, please help me move for five more miles. I took half of the gel, grabbed some water, or Ultima, I can’t remember, but not enough. A clock at mile 23 showed that I was still pretty much on target for a 3:30 finish, even though my pace group had drifted ahead. Then I got a side stitch. Damn. The usual tricks—deep breathing, stretching out my side—brought no relief. Running while holding on to my side seemed to help, but then I was running lopsided, which would not work over the long haul. So I endured a cycle of running until the stitch hurt too bad to run, then hobble a little, then run upright until the stitch hurt too bad, etc.

In the main drag of Duluth, the crowd looked like a rock concert. Seemingly the whole city was packed into a span of several blocks, all cheering nice things like “Go Girl!” (Nothing like that evil 20-miles-to-go woman) I really wished this side stitch could go away, because I felt mentally recharged and really wanted to run faster despite my wooden legs. At this point we were definitely off of Old Highway 61 and on streets made of brick. Brick. It felt odd, but not any worse than pavement by this point.

Around mile 24 or 25, the possibility of a sub-3:30 seemed dubious. I just wanted this thing to be over. I couldn’t see the finish. I knew we had to make a couple of hard turns near the end, but I couldn’t see where they were. At mile 25, it started to sprinkle, which became light rain, which became hard rain. It felt nice. Five minutes later, it was over and the sun came back. I still couldn’t see the finish but I knew it was close. It had to be close; I had been running mile 26 for the last hour, right? We made one final turn before the last 385 yards or so and I could see the finish. Finally. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I imagined myself finishing strong, smiling and triumphant. I’d cry when I got the medal. Today, I wasn’t smiling and there would be no tears of joy, but I did feel a big sense of relief and, admittedly, a pretty big sense of accomplishment. The side stitch went away, so I could give the illusion of finishing strong. The big clock said I was close enough to my goal that I could still consider it a good day. 3:32:23. A six-minute PR, and a ticket to Boston 2009.

the finish line

What a beautiful sight: the finish line

Me after the race, after the finish line craziness and before a turkey sandwich

Me after the race, after the finish line craziness and before a turkey sandwich

The volunteers were so nice! They put a medal around my neck and gave me a red carnation. The 3:30 pace group leader came up to congratulate me, and I thanked him for helping me along. I continued walking without bending my legs and got water and the free T-Shirt. Kept walking like Frankenstein to yogurt, fruit and—oh, what a beautiful sight—ice cream! I had been thinking of post-marathon ice cream for weeks. I thanked them warmly, wearily, and hobbled over to a curb to enjoy the best vanilla ice cream on the planet. I contemplated dipping my legs in Lake Superior—a natural ice bath—but as beneficial as that might have been, it involved bending over and taking off my shoes, and both of those things just did not sound possible. I opted for the massage tent instead.

Near the finish line at Lake Superior -- a good place for an ice bath

Near the finish line at Lake Superior -- a good place for an ice bath

Okay, so maybe I was pretty happy about my Grandma’s Marathon performance, and in many ways, I still felt triumphant. Just one year ago I could barely walk because of a stress fracture. One year later, I’ve got another marathon under my belt, and I’m happy to be healthy in body, mind and spirit.

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