This is the third year in a row that I've headed up to Duluth, so I know the drill and many of the tricks by now.
Point 1: Flying into MSP and driving to Duluth is far better than flying into Duluth. This is because there's a limited number of commuter flights to Duluth each day, resulting in a real headache if you miss your connection (been there, done that). Plus, MSP-Duluth can be driven in just over 2 hours if you avoid traffic, meaning that the total travel time nets out the same.
Point 2: Staying in the local university dorms is vastly preferable to any hotel in the area. Usually, I'm all for splurging on a hotel near the start/finish line of a goal race. But the dorms are a fantastic value - three nights in a dorm costs the same as one night in a Motel 6 that is no closer to the start/finish area. Plus the added convenience of easy transit via bus to and from the race.
The dorms do lack televisions, phones, and air conditioning. However, streaming video on a laptop and cell phones eliminate the need for the first two. And if Duluth is warm enough on race weekend that I need air conditioning in my room, then I'm probably not going to run to my full potential anyway. In that case, it's better to have spent as little money as possible on the trip.
I prefer to travel two days before a race if it's a marathon or if the travel involves flying. So I flew into MSP on Thursday morning, and then drove up, arriving in Duluth around 2 pm. Then I checked into U. Minnesota-Duluth, the same place I stayed in 2015 and 2016.
The last two years, I was assigned a room on one of the top floors. This year, they placed me on the ground floor instead. I was annoyed at first - my hall ended up being the one used for prospective student tours, resulting in enthusiastic (and noisy) chatter right outside my door at a time that I craved quiet and solitude. On the other hand, my room was also considerably less stuffy than my previous rooms - I'm fairly certain that's due to being on the first floor.
On Friday morning, I woke, stretched, played on the internet, and then met two other masters runners - Brenda and Alice - for a brief shakeout run near the finish line. Then I ducked into the expo to grab my bib. From there, it was on to the elite room to plead my case.
Why the need to beg? Well...I had registered for this race through the lottery some time ago, when my PRs and recent race times were significantly slower. At that time, I wasn't a contender for a masters award at this race, so I just entered the regular way, through the lottery. Fast forward a few months, and things were very different. But, since I had already paid the entry fee for this race, it never occurred to me that there would be other reasons to request elite status.
Well... that was until I was speaking with Brenda and Alice (both entered as elites), and remembered that if I wanted a shot at masters prize money, I needed to be able to start near the line, not 20-30 seconds back at the 6:30 pace area, since masters awards were based on gun time. Additionally, access to the shelter of the start line elite tent would sure be nice if it was raining on race morning.
So I (apologetically and nicely) crashed the elite room at the convention center, looking for the right people to plead my case. (Several of my past performances loaded up on my cell phone as evidence in case needed.). As it turned out, it was no issue at all - the staff at this race are really wonderful, and were happy to help. The start line was self-seeding anyway, so no need for a special bib to line up near the front. As for entry to the elite tent, that was easy - they knew me now, and would let me in on sight. Access to the bus in the morning and private bag check would be harder to coordinate this late in the game, but I didn't care about either of those, so it was a non-issue.
I have to admit that I was hoping for an elite badge like those that Alice and Brenda had. Getting one would allow me to live out my newly uncovered lifelong dream of wearing an elite athlete lanyard while chowing down in the front window of a Chipotle in Duluth, Minnesota. But no badge for me.
Dreams die hard, but I continued forward. Lanyard-less, my next stop was indeed Chipotle, where I plowed my way through 1.5 rice bowls per pre-race ritual. And then back to my dorm room for DIY yoga, tennis ball massaging, and reading (finished my book on Jeffrey Bezos and Amazon; started one about the founding and early days of Uber). Talked some with Brian, chatted some on Facebook, drank a lot of water and my UCan, and then hit bed in prep for a very early wake up.
My alarm went off at 3:15 am local. Which was 4:15 am east coast time, which is when I normally wake for track workouts anyway. So no big deal, once I emotionally moved on from the insult of the glaring "3" on my Garmin screen. I did my morning routine, including my pre-race stretching, and then headed down to hop on one of the first buses to the start (4:45 am departure).
Even leaving on the first bus, I arrived at the start a bit later than I would like. I barely had enough time to hit the portapottie, check my bag, and warm-up. For my warm-up, I stuck with 2 miles, including about 90 seconds at half-marathon feel, plus drills and strides. Then into the start area, lining myself up about 2 rows back from the start. I also placed myself at the very side edge of the field, so that all the faster people behind me could easily stream around me.
Though it wasn't yet super warm, the air was very thick and I was sweating while standing at the start - not a good sign. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. Unless you were hoping to run fast.
The start itself surprised me slightly. I had glanced at my watch and noted that it was 6:14. But I had heard nothing in terms of "one minute to start." I wondered if the start was delayed and debated reaching down to readjust my shoe. And then my watch turned to 6:15 and the gun went off and I was very glad I had left my shoe as is.
Since I had placed myself so close to the line, I knew that I was going to be constantly passed for the first few miles. Even so, I had to work hard to keep my focus and not get drawn out too fast as I was passed by women and men. Looking back at my splits, I think I still went out slightly fast, though some of the unevenness of my splits might be due to the rolling nature of the course.
It's hard to maintain your own pace and run your own race when being passed from behind, and the longer that period lasts, the more difficult it is to focus. Here, for the first four miles I was being constantly passed, which challenged my confidence. Was I holding back too much? No, it didn't feel like it. Plus I knew the humidity would make anyone who went out too aggressively pay a high price. So I focused on holding the effort that felt "just right," rather than chasing others. And nursing my hand held water bottle.
Around mile four or five, the tide of people passing me finally slowed, paused, and then reversed. Slowly, but surely runners started coming back to me, faster and faster. It was tempting to get aggressive, but I still had a way to go. So I held my effort at a hard cruise, remembering to nurse my water bottle.
Usually when I carry a water bottle in a half-marathon, I toss it at or just after the half-way point. However, I've found that in humid races, I prefer to carry (and drink from it) much further into the race. That held true on Saturday - at mile 7, tossing my bottle seemed like a bad idea. So I kept it, continuing to sip from it.
By mile 8, as we approached town, the trickle of those I was passing became a flow, including several women who had passed me previously. I was working hard, but in control, as I chugged up Lemon Drop Hill and then the unnamed-but-I-hate-it hill that hits between miles 10 and 11 when the course transitions from London Road to Superior Street.
I was feeling fine. And then I wasn't. In what seemed like moments, I went from controlled to struggling. In retrospect, I think that the humidity finally caught up with me, compounded by dehydration despite my best efforts. But at the time, I wasn't coherent enough to think about that. My world withered to a singular focus - relax and flow forward. Don't think, just do. Go.
Based on the splits, I managed to hold it together fairly well. Part of this was no doubt the slight downhill of the late miles of the course. Additionally, I normally close pretty hard in races, with my final miles substantially faster than the previous. Here, I was closing-while-cratering, and the two factors balanced out to a consistent pace.
At mile 12, we turned down into the water-front area, and commenced the maze-like route to the finish line. I was slogging, just trying to hold it together. And then another woman passed me. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I glanced at her, concluded that there was no way she was over 40 (in retrospect a risky chance to take - but I lucked out, since she was 23) and let her pass me. I then let her tow me in.
That's not like me - normally I have a lot of fight in me. But not then. In the immediate aftermath of the race, I was fairly upset at myself for not digging a bit deeper to pass her back. I'm not upset that she beat me to the line; I'm upset that I didn't fight more.
But as I reconsider, I think I just had nothing left. Physically, I was gassed. Mentally? I think one can only scrape the bottom of the well so many times in a season, and I had done it twice in quick succession at the Loudoun Street Mile and then last week's Purple Stride 5K.
I was done. And then I mercifully crossed the finish line, and I was truly done. I noted the finishing time of just under 87 minutes, but I didn't have much time to think about it. As they had done last year, my calves and feet spasmed painfully within about 30 seconds of finishing,and walking required my full focus. I had planned ahead, at least, and carried a heavily salted lemonade rocktane with me. I tossed the salty gel down, followed by a bottle of water, and then commenced the painful hobble out of the finishing area toward the bus back to my dorm. I was finished with the race, and finished for the season.
Mile 1: 6:36
Mile 2: 6:39
Mile 3: 6:37
Mile 4: 6:45
Mile 5. 6:49 (I think I clicked this one slightly late)
Mile 6: 6:29
Mile 7: 6:45
Mile 8: 6:40
Mile 9: 6:36
Mile 10: 6:39
Mile 11: 6:38
Mile 12: 6:39
Mile 13 plus last bit: 7:09 (6:26 pace)
Interesting how the splits don't reflect how the race felt. The splits look fairly even, with a solid finish. As described above, the race felt like a solid negative split, albeit with some struggling at the end.
My final time was 1:26:58 - just under 87. which didn't make much difference to me at the time. I had hoped to run sub-86 or better when I left for Duluth (I think a reasonable goal, based on my fitness), so I was bummed. Intellectually, I understood that the weather was a factor. But I think I've gotten really spoiled by all the recent PRs.
Post race, I returned to my dorm, showered, and then drove back down to the finish area to see the marathoners finish. The nice thing about running the half marathon is that I finish shortly before the marathoners start, which gives me a solid 2.5 to 3 hours to get "home," shower, and head back down. After catching up with several friends (Brenda, former DC resident Madeline, my teammate Jamie, and my "one-step-up-from-imaginary" online friend Kevin - sadly I couldn't find my other online friend Steve), I ended up at a Tex-Mex place with Brenda and Kevin for awesome nachos. Nothing satisfies the post-race munchies like salty chips and frozen fruity drinks.
Around that time, Brenda pointed out to me that it appeared I had won a masters award in the half. At the same time, texts and messages began to roll in from friends asking if I had won a masters award. I didn't dare respond - at the moment it looked like I was third master, but I also knew there had been some bib-reading problems, and the results were being reviewed and corrected. It was quite possible that another master had finished in front of me, but had a chip issue. I didn't want to get my hopes too high.
So we headed over to the awards ceremony. Where sure enough, I was third masters (and also third overall in the women's 40-44 age group). For my efforts, I got a glass tray, some flowers, and an envelope that purported to hold a check for $500 but actually held the forms I needed to complete and return to get the $500. Brenda was second master in the marathon, so it was a good day for us both.
- Weather was low to mid 60s, with very high humidity. We did get some respite, in that we had overcast skies and a slight headwind - enough to cool, but not enough to slow. The marathoners ended up with warmer temps and bright sunshine, but significantly less humidity as it warmed up.
- For those of you who were wondering, I can confirm that the 2016 weather was much tougher than this year. 2016 conditions were dangerous; this year's conditions were just pace-impeding. The one thing that both years had in common: the forecast weather for the day AFTER the race was superior to race morning. Sigh.
- At most races on the east coast, if there's an issue with your bib, you go to the "solutions" desk at the expo. At Grandma's, you go to the "problems" desk. I find this both illustrative of the honesty and charm of the race organization, and completely hilarious.
- Took one gel on course - a blueberry-pomegranate roctane around mile 7 - I knew Lemondrop hill was coming up at mile 9, and this gave just enough time for the sugar and caffeine of the gel to kick in.
- Booked a 12:50 pm flight home on Sunday, but ended up swapping to the 9 am. Note to future self - always book the early morning flight. You'll just end up swapping to it anyway if you don't.
- Major kudos to the race organization for taking masters and age groups awards seriously . Though the race starts quite early in the morning, the awards are not until late afternoon. That's so the organizers can review all the finish line photos, videos, and mid-race splits to confirm the validity of the results. Having lost results many times to bib-swappers, I really appreciate this.
- Despite the high humidity, my asthma was a complete non-issue. I can't forget just how awesome and amazing that is.
- And yes, in case you're wondering, once I realized I'd placed in the Masters division and won money, I felt much better about the race. Funny how that works.
- No Grandma's race report is complete without a picture with Grandma.
Brenda, Grandma, and myself at the awards ceremony.