State 23: Minnesota (2012 Grandma’s Marathon)
June 18, 2012 18 Comments
1. Good Times, Past and Present
Joe Filipas and I met peripherally in college as most people do, by converging groups of friends like overlapping Venn Diagrams. However, it wasn’t until we graduated that our circles began mingling more often. As a film major, he was a staple at movie nights and as a cool person, he was a regular at our apartment, routinely engaging in deep conversation while playing Alanis Morrisette on RockBand. His post-college time in Chicago was a serpentine journey where he explored various interests and jobs, but he ultimately decided to make his way back to the land of ten thousand lakes in the summer of 2010. So naturally, I gave him a ring when I began planning out my Minnesota race, the 36th annual running of Grandma’s Marathon.
As I have learned in the last two years, I have been blessed with kind, hospitable friends. Many have let me stay with them in their apartments, some have even let me borrow their car for the insultingly early drive to races. But every now and then, I get doubly lucky by getting to meet their parents, who are usually the most doting and generous people out there. The Filipas (Filipiases?) were no exception. In fact, they seem to have written the book on magnanimity. After Joe picked me up at the airport, he asked me in the car what my general plan was. I usually do the ritual pasta gorge as a lunch the day before a race, so I suggested we go eat pasta somewhere.
I didn’t expect that his mom would make us an excellent homecooked meal, complete with fresh fruit, a spinach and walnut salad, and homemade pasta with the family sugo recipe. As you will read here, the Filipas (Filipi?) don’t make a sauce for their pasta, they make a carefully seasoned blanket of delicious flavors from scratch that they affectionately call “sugo” (see also: “gravy”). Joe has even named his freelance video production company after it and after one bite, I instantly understood why. With that meal, the Filipas (Filipopodes?) got me several steps closer to success at Grandma’s.
Before we could leave for the race, I wanted to make a special, nostalgic stop. I was amused early on by this race’s name because my grandparents lived in Minnesota for about five years. When we lived in Atlanta, we would fly out to Minneapolis to visit Tuto and Aby for Thanksgiving. I remember watching as the lake in their backyard froze, allowing us to skate on it; riding tandem bikes along the outside of Pleasant Lake with my brother in a little baby hatchback; watching as groups of deer lithely crossed the backyard. So on our way north, we stopped in North Oaks to see her house in hopes of taking a fun stroll down memory lane.
I rang the doorbell and tried to not look like a total creep or Jehova’s Witness. The lady who opened the door was probably in her early 40s and looked like she had just finished a workout. After I told who I was, that I just wanted to get some pictures of the house, she thanked me for explaining myself and said it was fine. Then she closed the door and retreated inside. Maybe I had gotten used to Joe’s affable parents, but I was a bit disappointed that she wasn’t even a tiny bit interested in her house’s previous owners. No bother. I don’t ask that everyone find me fascinating. So after taking a few pictures of times gone by, we made our way to cooler climes.
2. Grandma’s Marathon
Grandma’s Marathon is one of those races that has attracted a lot of international attention since its inception in 1977. Named after a restaurant located at the finish, it ends its 26.2-mile course on Duluth, a coastal town in northeast Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. It’s about a 3-hour drive from Minneapolis and an interesting city, whose sights combine beautiful homes atop green hills with a large swath of industrial complexes, smoke towers and pockets of acrid, sulfuric stenches. But once you drive past that, the city is quite pretty. We made it to the Health and Fitness Expo around 8 PM, where I got my race packet and bought a zip-up hoodie to wear as a finishers prize. We didn’t stick around long before driving a few miles west to Cloquet to crash for the night.
We were up the next morning at 4:45. Joe dropped me off at a hotel just outside of Duluth, where I sat on the curb for a few minutes while waiting for the buses to load. Race organizers implore racers to use their buses to get to the start because the race is almost a straight line point to point, so driving up to Two Harbors would mean driving back once finished. Fortunately, the race sends buses to virtually every hotel in a 4-mile radius of the finish line and hauls thousands of racers to the start with plenty of time to spare. It’s an impressive system considering there are about 14,000 racers between the marathon and the Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon, which starts halfway through.
By 7:30 I was at the start, huddled by a pace group. I picked the 3:35 group but I did not join them, instead designating them as a wall, a dangerous line behind which I could not run. The race began on time, with a pair of fighter jets soaring above the field during the closing notes of the national anthem. I was barely a mile into it when I decided conditions definitely weren’t ideal. It wasn’t warm, but the sun was beating down on us and the air was very sticky. It was another glowing example of weather forecasters not knowing anything. They have a great life where they get paid to make seemingly random guesses. Early morning thunderstorms? Nope. Cloudy? Also wrong. There wasn’t a single meaningful cloud in sight.
The course was a two-lane road with thin shoulders and a tiny trail on both sides, rolling up and down a few hills alongside Lake Superior (though runners don’t see the actual lake until later in the race). Both sides of the road were flanked by large trees … and that’s largely what I saw for the first twelve or so miles. It didn’t take long for the field to thin out to the point where I wasn’t weaving in and out of people. Each mile was marked with a large yellow balloon that floated about thirty feet in the air, so you could sometimes spot them a half mile out. This was completely new to me, which I liked.
At mile 5, a young man who had also surged a little ahead of the 3:35 pace group turned to me and said “I think this is my last mile.” Turns out he sprained his knee earlier in the week and had shown up to the race hoping it would cooperate with the help of a brace. I told him there would be other races and continued on my way. I’m not sure if he ended up dropping out.
Shortly after the 10k mark, the course rounded an uphill turn and runners beheld Lake Superior. Even as someone who does all of his runs on the shores of Lake Michigan, this was a very cool sight to see. Small cabins would pop up every hundred feet or so, some with docks and piers spilling into the lake. It was a very tranquil sight, one that reminded me a lot of the Bayshore Marathon (except with more people, a wider road and a more insistent sun). I kept plodding forward at an 8-minute pace, remembering what one of the 3:35 pacers yelled to the crowd like a cheerleader at a pep rally:
“The first ten miles should feel EASY! The second ten miles should feel like A WORKOUT! The last 6.2 miles should be A CHALLENGE!”
I couldn’t help but feel like these first ten miles weren’t as easy as I wanted them to be. I reached the 12th mile marker without much complaint from my legs or back (which had been hurting all week, thanks to jostling it mercilessly at Cedar Point last weekend), but I had lost a lot of fluid from sweating. It was definitely humid and the lack of cloud coverage was doing us no favors. There were times on the course when I had to pick between running the tangent in the sun or staying on the outside of the course in the shade. I suppose each one of those moments would reveal a lot about your character. Do you go for the more comfortable route and add a few seconds to your time or take the fastest course under the burning sun? I’ll let you guess what path I took.
It wasn’t until the halfway mark that the size of spectator crowds began to increase. I crossed the 13.1-mile mark at around 1:45, which was, in retrospect, quite silly. It’s about five minutes faster than my fastest first half in any marathon, which should have flashed warning bells in my head. I would later check my phone after the race to find a text message from Otter that read: “Holy shit, 1:45:14?? SLOW DOWN (or not).” It was at this point that I sprouted a cartoonish angel and devil on my shoulders, each giving me advice on what to do.
Slow down, you’re going to hate yourself later.
Don’t listen to that guy, you’re good. You can keep this up.
You’re at 13.1 miles. You’re barely at 20 and this is already starting to suck. Slow it down.
You’re thinking of 2011 Dan Solera, he was much slower. He’s got this now.
It’s humid as all hell.
Yeah it is!
Look at your shirt, you look like you showered with clothes on.
True, but you’ve been going at this pace for a while now, you can’t just “slow down.”
That’s what I thought.
With these conflicting emotions going through my head, I managed to continue running problem-free for another five miles. Every now and then I looked back to see if I could see the 3:35 pace group. It was a huge group of runners led by a pacer carrying a big sign covered in balloons, so it was tough to miss. At one point, I had lost sight of them and I was proud of the gap I put between us. If I could finish ahead of them, it would be a huge PR. It was this confidence that was keeping me going during those miles. The course had yet to change character, but I do remember seeing a house with life-sized metal dinosaur skeletons in their front yard. It was a fun, albeit brief distraction from the sun. So around mile 15 I decided, screw it, I’m going shirtless. As if I were in control of the cosmos, right as I went barechested, large clouds swept in and covered the sun, cooling me down by several degrees. Everything seemed to be going well … until we reached Lester Park.
Running at my pace was no longer easy by mile 19. I had shifted much earlier than usual to my last gear and was doing everything possible to keep it together. But then I heard a spectator point out to someone in a very nonchalant voice, “there’s 3:35.” I thought I had heard wrong, so I turned around to see what she meant. Sure enough, just ten paces behind me, was the large herd of 3:35 runners, quickly gaining on me. I didn’t realize how much I had slowed down in the last three miles until they cruised past me, slamming me hard and unexpectedly with the dreaded wall. It was a huge psychological blow and in a matter of seconds, I suddenly couldn’t run anymore. For the first time in the race, I stopped to walk for no other reason than pure exhaustion.
And I was not even at mile 19.
Somehow the mental became physical. Being shamed by the pace group sent a shockwave into my legs that made them feel like they were dragging sandbags. But I eventually put myself together and began shuffling forward. The next mile would characterize much of the race to come: slow, teeming with people, and oddly chilly. That’s right, this was the first time that a race’s weather conditions were noticeably worse in the first half. The weather was much more suitable for long-distance running at this point, but the first half of the race had already done big damage. It was officially a struggle to continue. I was doing my best to keep my head up because you don’t get as much oxygen if you hunch over from fatigue. But try doing that when you’re sapped and just want to stop. Sometime around mile 21, I suddenly felt like I had to throw up, like I had swallowed a pencil and it was poking my throat. Not wanting this to be the first race where I “leave it all on the course,” I stopped to walk again and tried to shove that nausea back down.
Okay, you’re fine. Let’s keep going. At least your legs are alright.
Wrong. At the exact point where I hit my Garmin to record my 35k split, my right hamstring seized up on me and I had to come to a dead halt to stretch it. I limped to the curb and waited for the pain to dissipate. I tried more than once to get back on the road, but the pain would start to flare back up. Maybe it was just teasing me. I started running, the tiny hint of a spasm threatening me to stop. But it didn’t come back. Instead, I was faced with Lemon Drop Hill, the course’s biggest ascent. Though it was the steepest climb of the day, it was short-lived and didn’t do much to my overall pace. But once at the top, I was once again anticipating the next aid station. The second half of the race appeared to have well-stocked aid stations at every single mile, manned by friendly and disciplined volunteers who had ample stores of water, ice, Powerade and sponges. I was thankful for their frequency because I was getting through the rest of the race by reaching the next station as fast as possible.
I reached mile 24 with great difficulty. My form was suffering and I was losing in the battle to keep my head up. But by this point we were almost in downtown Duluth and the crowds were out in full force. I ran past a restaurant called Sir Benedict’s, where spectators were handing out bacon. That was a first for me. I’ve seen races hand out bananas, oranges, beer, energy gels, jello shots and even lipstick. But a bacon station was new. Granted, it was unsanctioned station, but still, it was worth noting.
Once in downtown Duluth, the energy and excitement was even higher. As I clocked in my 40k split, I suddenly realized I had a secret well of untapped energy. I somehow managed to speed up back to the low 8s, knowing the finish line was just 1.4 miles away. Most people call it “digging deep,” where you pump yourself up after hours of intense running and somehow rally back to form. I was just drying to “dig” myself out of the hole I had gotten into from starting too fast. Call it what you will, but I was miraculously running faster for that last mile than I had been for the last six. Is it adrenaline? A prehistoric drive to finish the hunt? An inner magnet drawn towards the stacks of finisher medals?
Regardless, I was amped once again. In that final stretch, which winds around Duluth’s harbors and a large steel ship, I was finally passing people again. I had to be careful though, for one false step and something would seize up. I was tempting fate by accelerating this much so far into the race, teetering on the edge of a muscle spasm with every step. As I rounded the final corner, the finishing banner within sight, my face lit up. The last seven grueling miles were coming to an end under that banner, just 1,000 glorious feet away. The race announcer’s voice sounded like Charlie Brown’s parents, a drowned-out murmur amidst the thrill of ending this race.
But 200 feet short of it, my left calf tightened up, giving me a sudden peg leg, my right calf on the verge of following suit. I didn’t want to look like a stumbling fool crossing the finish line, so I just bit my lip, sucked it up, and forced myself to run with a hint of grace and purpose. With this last torturous stomp, I stopped the clock in 3:45:46, and shaded the great state of Minnesota with marathon blue. Though it was much slower than my ambitions, it was my third fastest date with 26.2 miles and my twenty-third state. I deliriously dragged myself through the finishing chute and towards gear check, where I met up with Joe. “Man, you were out of it,” he would later say to me. I had lost so much water weight in the last four hours that even talking felt like a chore.
And yet, like any crazed runner, it wasn’t long before my body recovered from the shock. I was able to enjoy the post-race food, which included such delightful surprises as strawberries and (believe it) ice cream sandwiches. After a revitalizing and charitable shower at the local YMCA, we were back in the car driving to Minneapolis, my brain swimming with lessons learned. I knew I couldn’t just tear off from the marathon gates and expect to keep it up. But I thought that my recent success at the half marathon would just naturally translate to the full distance. I was wrong. The worst part is, I know that I can’t rely on my half times to predict marathon success. There are just too many additional variables at the marathon, not the least of which is the distance. But part of me hoped that I could do it – defy the odds and earn an eye-popping time.
Alas, today was not that day and that was fine. There will be other races.
But my performance aside, it’s no wonder why Grandma’s Marathon has become legendary over the years. Not only is it superbly well organized, but the course is a beautiful stroll alongside Lake Superior and then through pleasant hillside towns. I definitely felt like the organizers wanted to cater directly to the runner and provide a solid race experience, as opposed to just luring you to their event to inflate their numbers. If anyone is considering a Minnesota race, I’d definitely say Grandma’s is worth the extra 2-3 hour drive from Minneapolis.
Back in Minneapolis, my delayed hunger frenzy kicked in and Joe answered the hunter’s call by taking me to the Blue Door Pub, home of the Blucy, which is a portmanteau of “Blue Door” and “Juicy Lucy,” the latter being a burger whose patty is cooked with cheese inside. I ordered the Luau Blucy, which is stuffed with mozzarella cheese, Canadian bacon and topped with two thick slices of pineapple and a sweet pepper lime sauce. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, you’re either vegan or a dumb robot. After washing it down with a Surly Furious IPA, we took the evening to Tuggs Tavern, where I met a few of Joe’s hometown friends.
I left Minnesota the next day having learned many lessons, but two in particular standing out: 1.) I need to work on my long distances. 2.) Joe’s parents are the best. Seriously, if you are friends with him and haven’t visited his childhood home in Apple Valley, do yourself a favor and book a flight now. You will be treated and fed like a king. And so, with aching legs, a full stomach and my lower back at about 80%, I’m taking a break for a bit. Maybe I’ll do some more cross training and finally check out the gym in our new neighborhood (after all, I’m paying for it). The next two months are going to bring some interesting challenges, made apparent if you take a look at my race schedule. Time will tell if I prepare properly for those upcoming races, but before I can even start thinking about that, I need a nap.