Sunday, June 20, 2021

Race report: Grandma's Marathon, June 19, 2021

I ran Grandma's Marathon yesterday, finishing in 3:18:54.  Which was a bit (about 15 minutes) off what I thought I was in shape to run.  But it was still great to be able to run a "real" marathon.


The trip up to Duluth on Thursday was much less eventful than I thought.  I was prepared for difficult passengers on my flight, but there were none. I was prepared for issues and delays in getting a rental car, but there were none (other than the exorbitant price).  By 10 am local I was on the road, first stopping at a Minneapolis Target, then a Minneapolis Chipotle, before heading up to Duluth.

[A side note:  Minnesota gave me some Covid culture shock, as compared to Northern Virginia/DC.  In NoVa/DC, though mask mandates have been lifted, many stores are still requiring them or strongly recommending them.  And even in stores where they are not requested, many people still wear them, and you may feel a bit self-conscious without one.  It's not rare to see people wear masks outside.  Even while exercising.  In contrast - very few people were wearing masks anywhere in either Duluth or Minneapolis.  Not at Target, not at the grocery store, not at the race expo, not in the dorms, not anywhere.  No social distancing; not much plexiglass either.

[I'm noting this without judgment (there's been WAY too much judgment about anything related to Covid).  It made no difference to me, it was just different - first jarring, and then relaxing.

[also worth noting - both Minneapolis and Duluth are about as politically blue as Northern Virginia, so this wasn't a matter of political tendencies.  Just cultural differences.]


Like always, I stayed in the University of Minnesota dorms.  I like the location, and $360 for 3 nights beats the heck out of several hundred dollars per night for a lousy Super 8 motel further from the start/finish.  The dorms do have several downsides, though - shared bathrooms (fine); no televisions (fine); no tiny shampoo bottles (fine); and no air conditioning.  

The lack of air conditioning was NOT so fine, given how hot it was on Thursday and Friday in Duluth, including overnight.  I bought a fan at Target on Thursday; after a lousy night's sleep on Thursday, I bought a cooling blanket from Target.  However I still slept lousy on Friday night.  The room was just way too hot.  Regretfully, I may need to splurge on a hotel room from now on whenever I do the full marathon at Grandma's.


Friday morning, I headed down to the expo - my first indoor race expo since Covid.  The only real difference was that the area had been expanded to use more space, so that the vendor booths were much further apart.  In years past, there was one big room that hosted the pre-race pasta dinner, and another just beyond for the expo.  This year, the expo had the same # of vendors, but spread out over both rooms, with the pasta dinner somewhere else.

There were two other changes - this year bag check was done at the expo rather than at the start of the race.  (in practicality this meant no checking your dorm room key at the start of the race to collect at the end).  Grandma's also broke from its tradition of handing out finisher t-shirts at the finish line, instead giving them when you collected your number.  Since most races give shirts at the expo, I didn't find this change strange at all.

After the expo and a short shakeout jog, I headed to Chipotle (of course).  Then back to my dorm to rest up for the next day.    The Chipotle did not sit at all well, and I had some bad bouts of nausea in the evening and overnight.  The last time I got nauseous the day before Grandma's, I set a 6 minute marathon PR the next morning.  So I decided not to worry about it.  I had consumed enough calories/carbs/salt/water, and I hadn't puked anything back up, so I'd be fine.


Race morning was done slightly differently this year.  It was advertised as a rolling start - 8 athletes at a time - you cross the start line when you are ready after arriving in the start area.  No bag check, no warming up.  You just get there, use the portajohns, and start when you feel like it.  With "faster athletes" requested to get on the earlier buses.  The buses started leaving at 6:30 am for the 7:45 marathon start.

Since I need a (very slight) warm-up before even a marathon, I left my dorm-room at 6 am for a quick shakeout of less than a mile.  Then back to my room, where I grabbed a stroopwafel to snack on and a water bottle, before heading down to get onto a bus to the start.

When I got to the start, I noted a few things.  a) There was indeed enough space to do a bit of jogging plus some strides.  (since I had already done a shakeout, I settled for a few strides plus some pre-planned glute activation stuff).  b) the sun was out and bright.  It wasn't necessarily hot, but it was warm enough to hang out comfortably in a t-shirt - not a great sign for a marathon.  Oh well.

I also noted the start line, with an array of cones.  The idea was that instead of starting the race as one unit, the elite field would start, and then runners could follow the cones when they felt ready to start.  However, that's not how it worked in practice.  Instead, with about 5 minutes to race start, crowds started gathering behind the start line. 


I had been wondering how and when exactly to start this race.  It's hard to know where to place yourself when a) you're not going to be one of the top finishers, b) people are starting at all different times, and c) there are no pace signs or other guidance.  

I know from past experience that starting ahead of faster people is demoralizing - you are literally passed from behind the entire race.  So I didn't want to do that.  At the same time, I didn't want to start behind tons of slower people.  Ideally I'd start with people slightly slower than I planned to run.  I would ease into the race, and then start chasing people down.

[I think this staggered start would have worked much better if they had given some basic guidance - i.e "sub-2:40 runners - plan to start asap after the gun goes off; sub-3 hour runners- plan to start around 7:47; etc.]

But without any such guidance, I just had to go off of my best instinct.   I decided that older men wearing Vaporflies would probably be reliable peers or close-to peers.  So I entered the crowd and worked my way up toward the front, stopping when I hit an acceptable concentration of older men in Vaporflies.


At 7:45, the elite race started and the corral started moving up towards the start.  The announcer reminded people to only start 8 at a time and to walk until they hit the start line, but by the time I reached the start nobody was listening.  It was a normal race start, just with cones in the way.  So I followed the crowd, started jogging, and then clicked my watch and started running as I crossed the mats.

Immediately I was presented with a large crowd of slower people to navigate through.  Oops.  The good news was that this was a marathon and I had plenty of time to navigate, so I weaved my way through (running a lot on the shoulder) for the first 2 miles before things cleared up.  

Mile marker 3 passed and with it the first water stop - a reminder to drink even though I wasn't thirsty.  I also pulled out my first gel (when marathoning I generally go through 9-10 gels - motto "always be slurping.").  I slurped and focused on my own effort - not too hard, not too easy.

Generally in marathons I like to ease into the pace over the first 3-6 miles.  But when it's warm or has the potential to get warm, I prefer to stay conservative for the first 16-20 miles, and then race the last 6-10.  Since this felt like it could be a hot day, I went with the latter plan.

But by mile 5-6, I was already starting to feel like I was going out a bit too hot.  One of the golden rules in marathoning is that you need to hit the half-marathon mark feeling in control and good.  I wasn't on schedule to do that, so I eased off slightly.  I was also getting thirsty, so I drained my water bottle so I could refill it at mile 7.  I decided that refilling it every 4 miles wouldn't be overkill today. ( At Grandma's the water stations are at every odd number mile from 3 to 19, and then every mile from 20-25.).  The good news was that the clouds had decided to move in, and we were no longer in bright sunshine.  There was also a slight cooling breeze.  All good things.


I cruised that way for the next miles.  There is a point where the marathon shuffle gait becomes mandatory and not optional, and it seemed like I hit that point very early in this race, before the half-marathon.  But hey, I was still moving, so whatever.  It never seemed like it got super hot, and yet I kept draining my water bottle.  I readjusted my plan to refilling my bottle every two miles.  After mile 19, water stations were every mile, and I decided that sounded great, since that was about the rate I was draining my bottle by then.

(I should mention that I don't stop or walk at water stations - I carry a handheld, and remove the top as I approach the water station and tuck it into my sports bra.  Then I slow my run to a jog, grab a cup of water and pour it into the bottle.  Repeat with a second cup, and then screw the cap back on and resume running.  I lose very little time this way while also getting a lot more fluids in.)

The last 5 miles were just mind over matter - trying to stay positive and stay in the present, rather then letting my mind go bad places.  The nice thing about racing without checking splits or pace on my watch is that it's much easier to stay positive and give my best effort since I'm not getting demoralizing information - it would have been very hard for me to finish my race yesterday if I had known just how slow I was running.  But since I didn't know, I kept on chugging.  Emptying the tank, which was now on its fumes.  

Finally, mercifully, we weaved our way through the waterfront and I counted down the turns of the last mile.  I had really just nothing left in my legs when I finished.  Which was comforting when I checked my watch and saw my time.  Not at all what I had thought I would run.  Very far from it in fact.  But at the same time, it was all I had to give today.


Splits were:

Mile 1: 7:32
Mile 2: 7:18
Mile 3: 7:17
Mile 4: 7:23
Mile 5: 7:18
Mile 6: 7:27
Mile 7-8: 14:52 (7:26 pace)
Mile 9: 7:44
Mile 10: 7:00
Mile 11: 7:39
Mile 12: 7:31
Mile 13: 7:58
Mile 14: 7:31
Mile 15: 7:39
Mile 16: 7:40
Mile 17: 7:43
Mile 18: 7:45
Mile 19: 7:24
Mile 20: 7:52
Mile 21: 7:53
Mile 22: 7:45
Mile 23: 7:41
Mile 24: 7:50
Mile 25: 7:45
Mile 26: 7:50
last bit: 1:36


Oddly, (or maybe not) I'm not that upset about the time.  For myself, when evaluating my running, I tend to focus first on execution, then on competitive placing, then on time (I think most runners put time at the top of the list).  I've run much faster marathons (I think this is one of my slowest marathons ever) where I was upset post-race because I screwed up somewhere.  This time, I think I honestly ran the best race I had in me today - a good balance of patience, smart choices, and staying positive and tough when things got hard.  I just didn't run very well. 

So...equally oddly, in many ways this race was a confidence boost.  I haven't finished a marathon since late 2019, and that one (Richmond) went poorly for reasons both in my control (bad pacing choices) and out of control (that whole being hit-by-a-truck thing).  And heck, though I was really happy with my time at CIM 2018, I also made some pacing mistakes there (too fast in the middle) that I was annoyed about after.

In contrast, this race reassured me that I still know how to get the best of myself out of 26.2 miles.  I just need to have more to offer than what I had yesterday.

As for why I had such an off day?  The whole nausea and lack of sleep thing could be an excuse.  Except that I've run great races in the past after such.  So I don't think those are good explanations.  

Nor is weather the explanation.  It was definitely warmer than optimal for marathoning (according to Weather Underground - it was 64 degrees/60 degrees dew point when I started in Two Harbors, and just about the same when I finished in Canal Park).  But that's "adjust your expectations by a few minutes" weather; not "congratulations for finishing" weather.

A better explanation might be how I've felt over the past two weeks - consistently warm and flushed, whether I'm indoors or outside.  Water and electrolyte consumption make no difference.  Something's been ever so slightly off, and my heat tolerance while running outside has been ridiculously poor.  (and no, I don't have a fever.)  I just haven't felt quite right.

Maybe it's just in my mind, maybe it's menopause kicking in (though menopause hot flashes are usually 3-5 minutes in duration, not two plus weeks).  Or it could be yet another malabsorption issue popping up to match the trouble I already have with absorbing folate, iron, and magnesium.  Because of the malabsorption issues I've had in the past year, my GI doctor suspects that what was diagnosed as ulcerative colitis may actually be Crohn's disease (while UC is limited to the large intestine, Crohn's affects the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed).  Lucky me has an appointment in the next few weeks to get all that checked out (for obvious reasons, I scheduled all the scoping for post-marathon).

One way or another, I'll figure it out.  In the meantime, I'm going to take my end of season break.

Other notes:

  • At the expo, there was a booth promoting pork, with a sign for "Pork Power."  In light of the recent Shelby Houlihan doping bust (she attributes her positive test to pork being included in her burrito) I found this hysterical.
  • My rental car ended up being a Buick Encore.  I am not a car person, and I don't generally advertise cars in my blog but wow - I really enjoyed driving that thing.  Of course it could also be that I've only owned three cars in my over three decades of driving, and my current car is a 2012 model.  I'm still awed by rear view cameras, so having little lights flash when I get too close to the car ahead is amazing.
  • I just got an email from MarathonFoto that included the link to my race photos and the statement "you crushed it."  It would be really nice if MarathonFoto first polled runners "how exactly did you feel about your race" and then structured the email with the photo links accordingly.  
  • On the flight home, I saw the coolest thing ever.  We flew just to the side of a massive active anvil thunderhead.  The cloud pulsed continually with active lightning inside - as good as any light show I've ever seen at a concert or club.  It's killing me that I couldn't access my cell phone to get a good video.  I'm really hoping someone else did, and it makes its way onto Youtube.
  • Post race, pretty much everyone I spoke to had the same impression about their race - not as fast as they had hoped to run, but wow it just felt so good to be running a real marathon again. Appreciate what you have.


  1. Wow- that's a really strong race. I wouldn't underestimate that 64 degree temp. For me that's non-starting marathon weather. I'll bet you many people were well off of their goal time because of that. Plus, you weren't acclimated. Sounds like you executed really well, rolled with the oddities of the start, and gave 100%. Congratulations!

  2. Good splits under the circumstances.