The weekend got off to a less than auspicious start when I woke at 5 am on Thursday morning to a text alert that my 8:45 am flight had been delayed by 75 minutes. When flights are delayed by over an hour with that much notice, it's a good indication that the flight might not leave at all. Additionally, since my teammate Juan (on a different flight) and I had planned to meet at MSP to drive up to Duluth together, and the car reservation was in my name, my late arrival was going to be mighty inconvenient.
Fortunately, a bit of scrambling got me onto one of the last seats on Juan's flight so that was a crisis averted. We landed with plenty of time to grab the car, eat Chipotle, and drive to Duluth.
This is why I never fly the day before a marathon.
(except for Hartford)
This is my fourth year in a row doing either Grandma's Marathon or the Garry Bjorklund Half, and so I've got the logistics down. Fly in Thursday to MSP, and drive up to Duluth; stay at the University of Minnesota - Duluth dorm rooms, race Saturday, fly out of MSP early Sunday morning. I've flown into Duluth before, but it's just too risky in terms of missed connections since there are no non-stop flights between DC and Duluth. It's far safer to fly into MSP. And the UMD dorms are a fantastic value for the weekend, if you can live with shared bathrooms, no air conditioning, and a lack of black-out curtains. The last point is the only real downside for me - sunset is late in Duluth in June, since it's so far north.
Once in Duluth, my world devolved to revolve around weather-checking and eating/drinking. Neither went smoothly.
I was nauseous on Thursday afternoon and it got worse the more I drank on Thursday night - enough so that it interfered with my sleep. I could barely eat or drink anything Friday morning - not good since I was 24 hours out. My stomach settled a bit later and I was able to eat a decent lunch (Chipotle) that sat well. But after drinking some more coconut water, the nausea returned. I couldn't eat without wanting to throw up, and plain water wasn't going to stay down either.
I don't get nauseous when I'm anxious, so I was fairly sure this wasn't was pre-race nerves. Perhaps just too many carbs?
Some quick googling confirmed that this had to be menopause kicking in at just the wrong time (since I'm in my mid-40s and on oral contraceptives, this was more likely than pregnancy).
And then I considered some more, and realized that the nausea was perfectly correlated with consumption of the coconut water I had bought at the local grocery store. I stopped sipping the coconut water and that evening my stomach settled for good. Just in time for tomorrow's race.
I skipped my normal pre-race "dinner" of Ucan and coconut water that night - the coconut water was obviously not going to work and unflavored Ucan mixed with tap water was too gross to stomach. I'd have to rely on my normal pre-long run breakfast and a multitude of gels, plus yesterday's lunch. However, I was able to down a massive bottle of Evian water (1.5 liters) over Friday night, and by the time I woke on Saturday my urine was the right color and I was literally cleared to run.
Not ideal, but it was where I was, so I went with it. The good news was that my legs had felt fantastic during my shakeout even after skipping breakfast, so there was that.
The weather forecast for race morning was as volatile as my digestive tract. Earlier in the week it had looked warm - starting in the low 60s and ending in the high 60s, and humid. Not great, but better than Boston (admittedly a really low bar). But the closer we got to race day, the more the likelihood of storms grew.
It rained on and off on Friday morning, and then impressive storms passed through in the afternoon, cancelling the children's race. Thunder boomed through the dorm, and parts of Duluth flooded. Some forecasts were for another round of storms on Saturday morning around 8 am - raising the question of whether the race start might be delayed, or in the absolute worst case cancelled.
Other than the storms, there was no consensus on the weather. Checking local media forecasts for race day weather in Duluth and Two Harbors (the race start) indicated a range of temperatures from the low 50s to the high 60s. It might rain, or it might be dry. And no one agreed on the wind direction. Oh well. At least it would be both warmer than the Boston Marathon and cooler than recent weather in DC, so there was that small comfort.
I went to bed planning for the worst.
I woke to cool misty temperatures. Like a dream, if you're the kind of person who dreams about spending a lot of money to get to Duluth so you can wake up early to get on a schoolbus while wearing a sportsbra.
After my long run breakfast (which sat well, thankfully) and some stretching, Juan and I met in front of our rooms at 5:45 am to get on the bus to Two Harbors. It was reminiscent of Boston two months ago. Except for the better weather and the fact that the UMD dorms, though nice, are not the Four Seasons.
I was fine with the tradeoff. (though I missed our Boston Wave 1 teammates Larry and Chris)
When we arrived in Two Harbors, I asked a race official if there were still storms in the forecast. She confirmed that they were out of the picture, though it might rain some. I gave it a bit of thought, and decided to go with sportsbra, arm-coolers, and my running rain cap.
In past marathons, I've generally started cold, with just one or two 50 meter jogs to confirm everything is snug and nothing will chafe. I've also generally started each marathon with an 8 minute mile.
This time, I decided to experiment a bit with a very short warm-up before this race - just half a mile, with a brief stride at the end. Followed by chewing a few shot bloks to top off any glycogen I had just burned. I didn't think this would take much out of me, and my hope was that if I was just slightly warmed up, I would be more limber and have a faster first mile for the same effort level. Basically bonus time off of my final marathon time.
So I did my warm-up, such as it was, and noted that the wind would be at our backs. Wow, this just got better and better.
Excited, I lined up for the start, about 5 rows back. Since I was competing for masters prize money (awarded on gun time), I needed to be at the front, even though that meant I was ahead of people targeting 2:30 or faster. Mindful of this, I lined up on the far left side - as soon as I cleared the start mat I'd duck over onto the far left shoulder of the road, where I'd hopefully be out of the way.
My pacing plan was by feel. I'd use the first 4 miles to ease into things, and then pick up something that felt conservative through 16. At 16, I'd start racing, with the intention of hammering the last 4 miles after Lemondrop Hill.
Like always, my Garmin screen was set to "heading" so that I couldn't see splits, HR, distance, etc, though I took manual splits for review later. I race best off of pure feel and instinct.
One big breath in, as I reminded myself to stay patient and calm and smooth and to trust my instincts. And then the horn blew.
I expected the sub-2:30 runners to surge past me, followed by a flow of 2:40 and 2:50-ites. But I was a bit surprised when the 3:05 pace group passed me as if I was jogging. Since they had started well behind me, I had expected that pace group to catch me a mile or so into the race - at that point I was going to consider whether to tuck in. But here they were, blasting past less than 30 seconds into the race. It wasn't hard to let them go.
I stayed patient and quiet over the first four miles - finding an easy rhythm before using a downhill to open up slightly into the pace that felt right.
The Grandma's course winds a fair bit, especially in the first half, and it's important to run the tangents. This was harder than one would expect. Dense fog enveloped everything, making it difficult to see where the road would wind next. Fortunately, the 3:05 pace group was visible in the distance ahead, and I could watch the balloons attached to the pace leader to forecast the next twist in the road.
It was surreal and oddly comfortable running in the mist. Almost like we were floating. We couldn't see the lake or much of the surrounding woods, which was fine with me. I don't really get into rural scenery - the renowned beauty of the Grandma's course has never meant much to me. But running in the mist, punctuated by the rhythm of our foot steps, was different and special.
I hit a comfortable rhythm and made friends with the guys around me. The next 16 miles were about cruising. Holding pace as efficiently as possible while taking in as much food and and water as I could stand.
Since my stomach was still slightly iffy, I carried a collection of lemonade rocktane (more salty and sour than sweeet), gingerade, and expresso gels. I could tell that any sweet flavored gels were risky today, so I avoided the sweeter flavored gels. I'd take the lemonade ones first, to keep salt topped off in case it got hotter. I'd swap to expresso (caffeinated) after the half, and use the gingerade ones whenever I couldn't stand the other two flavors. As for how many? As many as possible, especially given my digestive issues of the day before.
Hydration was a luxury. I was a masters elite for this race, and one of the perks was my own water bottles available at 10 different spots on the course (I wrote the locations on my hand with a sharpie). This was every bit as wonderful as one might expect. Even though I only drink plain water, not sports drink, it was still really convenient not to have to deal with water cups or carry a handheld.
At the start, I had been sure we would have a tailwind, but it seemed to shift throughout the course. Sometimes I felt a noticeable headwind, and at other times I felt no wind at all. The points where I felt no wind matched beautifully with the points where I felt fantastic, so those parts were probably a tailwind.
The headwind was most present in the second quarter of the course. I was still behind the 3:05 group, and closing in slowly, but I upped my effort ever so slightly, carefully, so I could tuck in.
I hung with the 3:05 group for a bit, but then it got too risky. The group was massive and packed tightly, with the occasional stumble by one that had a ripple effect on all others. So I worked my way carefully through to the front and then ahead of them, joining a small group just in front. A few moments later, I heard someone trip and go down, and I knew I had made the right choice.
Sometime after that Juan caught up to me (he had started about 30 seconds behind). He, another guy named Dave (henceforth known as Dave from Duluth) and I formed a cluster with some other guys and we ran onward. The breeze shifted from a headwind to a cross wind, resulting in a continuing flow of cool air from the lake. Like running with air conditioner. I still couldn't believe how lucky we were weather wise.
So I cruised, reminding myself to stay patient even as we crossed the half-marathon timing mat. I chatted with others and fist pumped at spectators, all in an focused effect to stay as relaxed and chill as possible, and to save as much mental energy as possible for the final miles.
At mile 16, per my plan, I started racing - picking out women ahead of me, including some masters runners that I recognized. Over the next few miles I'd work my way to and hopefully past them, though I didn't want to hammer until after Lemondrop Hill (mile 22). The last miles of this course can be extremely fast, and I wanted to be able to take full advantage of them.
Around mile 20, Juan felt a surge of energy and took off. I let him go - it was still a bit too early for me to really hammer. Again, save it until after Lemondrop.
A mile later, I was glad for my patience, as things suddenly got tough. It wasn't cramping or bonking or soreness, or legs too heavy to lift. Just a weakness and a lack of coordination. I've experienced this before, at CIM, so I knew what it was. This was the 26.2 miles of Boston, 9 weeks before, catching up to me.
My legs were angry, but they hadn't abandoned me, so I dug in. Over the next miles, I used every mental trick in my bag. I chanted to myself, rhythmically, "relax and flow forward." I forced myself to smile, in a joker-like grin, to keep my upper body relaxed so that all my energy could go to my legs. And I just kept going and eating and drinking, up and down Lemondrop and beyond. All I could do was my best, so I'd do that and be at peace with it.
I saw Juan in the distance and urged him forward. One reason I trained for and did Grandma's was so he could have a training partner for this, his redemption race after having to drop out of Boston due to hypothermia. Watching him pull ahead was a victory for me as well.
Just after the 24th mile marker, the race course detoured from Superior Street - a temporary course change for the next 3 years to allow for construction (you can see the detour here). The detour consisted of a fairly sharp left turn and then a drop down a concrete ramp to the street below. The concrete on the turn had a small bit of sand on it - just enough to mix badly with my Vaporflies (don't have the greatest traction) and my wobbly shaky legs. I came close to going down, but managed to stay on my feet. Thank you, yoga practice.
Then we rejoined the original course and ran over the bridge to the waterfront, winding towards the finish line. This is a tough part of the course mentally, since you don't know where the finish is, and you just keep turning and seeing more open road. The challenge was compounded by the fact that our crosswind had turned to a tailwind around mile 20, which meant a headwind when we doubled back to the north for the last mile.
Since I know this course well, I was able to count down turns to the finish, and that helped. More specifically, I knew that the turn just before the big boat was 1200m to go, the turn after the big boat was 800m to go, and the turn by the hotel was 400m to go. So I counted track laps.
This is the first year that I actually saw the last mile marker on the race course. In large part because there was a clock at the marker for 26. I glanced at the clock, and saw it had just ticked past 3:01:30. If I was able to cover the next .21 miles in under 90 seconds, I'd be able to break 3:03. I didn't know what pace that was, but it seemed like it might be feasible, so I gave it a shot - trying to kick like I was in a 5K race. Stretch up, elevate, lengthen your stride. Empty the tank. (Shut up legs)
As I crossed the finish mats, the clock overhead ticked just past 3:03. I had started a few seconds after the gun, so hopefully that was enough. Then a race official was handing me my gear bag (being an elite here was an amazing experience), Juan was fist-bumping me, and I was checking my Garmin. 3:02:58.
I was a 3:02 marathoner now.
Manual splits were:
Mile 1: 7:33
Mile 2: 7:12
Mile 3: 7:01
Mile 4: 7:03
Mile 5: 6:52
Mile 6: 6:56
Mile 7: 6:51
Mile 8: 6:57
Mile 9: 7:11 (a bit long)
Mile 10: 6:37 (a bit short)
Mile 11: 7:14
Mile 12: 6:58
Mile 13: 7:32 (long)
Mile 14: 6:57
Mile 15: 6:59
Mile 16: 6:54
Mile 17: 6:59
Mile 18: 7:02
Mile 19: 6:51
Mile 20: 6:55
Mile 21: 6:55
Mile 22: 6:50
Mile 23: 6:49
Mile 24: 6:54
Mile 25: 6:38 (short)
Mile 26: 6:57
last .21 - 1:22 (6:30 pace)
As one can see, the course rolling can result in a range of splits for an even effort, and some of the mile markers were a bit off. This is a very good race to run off of feel and ignore individual mile splits, because of those factors. Splits do not correspond closely to effort on this course.
My struggle after mile 21 is not obvious, but that's because of the very fast nature of those final miles, due to the downhill plus the tailwind.
I finished 5th in my age group, and 6th master overall. I had been hoping for top 3 masters and the nice check that came with that, but I'm not too upset. I ran the absolute fastest and best race I had in me on Saturday - I just got beaten by faster women.
And in case you can't tell, I'm absolutely tickled with the 3:02. It's a major PR (by 6 minutes), a sub-3:05, and my team's masters female record for the marathon.
3:02 also earned me a "moose mug" - an old tradition from the now-defunct Runnersworld online forums. A forumite named rbbmoose famously offered mugs to any runner who could best the standard of 2 hours plus age for men, or 2:20 plus age for women. At 44, my moose mug standard was 3:04, and 3:02 gets me there with room to spare. Moose is apparently still offering the mugs to old forumites, and I have access to his email address, so I'll ping him in the upcoming week.
Given the ideal conditions and how the race progressed, I think that I might have had a chance at sub-3 had I not had Boston on my legs. Even if that is the case (and there's no way to know, obviously), I don't regret finishing Boston. This spring, I got to experience the awesome and the awful of Boston 2018 AND I got to PR. Best of both worlds. Sub-3 will come.
As for the doubling of Boston back to Grandma's, I'm obviously happy we tried it, and thrilled with how it played out. It was tricky - balancing recovery from the first marathon with training for the second, but my coach and I pulled it off. Thoughts and lessons learned from this attempt at double marathons will be in an upcoming post.
- The weather on race day was mid-50s, with 100% humidity (all the fog). We really lucked out. As I noted above, the day before was not a great day for running, due to storms. Those same storms rolled back in on Saturday evening, and wreaked even more havoc in Duluth on Sunday. Amazingly, for once, a marathon was run on the only day of the 3 day period that had great weather.
- My other teammate, Lisa, also had a great race in Duluth - making Capital Area Runners three for three on that day. It's always wonderful when everybody has a great race - the celebrating is even sweeter after.
From left to right: Lisa, Juan, and myself
- This was my first time setting out water bottles out on course. My coach told me to attach gels to them, so I did, though I still carried gels anyway. After a few tries, I figured out the best approach. Tape the gel vertically to the water bottle, with the bottom of the gel flush with the bottom of the bottle. That way the gel serves as a kickstand for the bottle, and the bottle is very stable on the table. I taped the gels on the pull tab at the top, with the rest of the gel flopping. That way, I could easily pull the gel off the bottle and open it at the same time.
How I attached my gels
- Post-race, we celebrated for a few hours before going to bed in prep for a very early departure. Juan and I had the first flights out of MSP on Sunday morning (5:55 am for me, 7 am for him). I went to bed at 9 pm and then "woke" (the word in quotes because I never drifted off) at 1 am. We checked out of the dorms at 1:30 am to drive down to MSP, arriving there a bit after 4 am - an echo of returning home from the clubs in what seems like a previous life. Storms rolled through as Juan drove, with bands of torrential rain, broad flashes of lightning, and recurring flash flood alerts. Quite the experience, and a eerie reminder of what Boston felt like and what Grandmas could have been.
- Grandma's was another 9 gel race for me. And I needed every one, since I was only able to eat one meal the day before.
- This is a fantastic race, and everyone should do it at least once.
- What's next for me? A big break and then a shift in gears to miles and 5Ks for a few months to reestablish my speed.