The following is a running commentary on my first marathon experience, which was the 2008 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota.
Friday, June 20
Finishing up a busy week of getting back from fishing in Canada and packing for Grandma’s weekend, and then 3 weeks at the lake with the boys. I had drank some Gatorade during the day to start hydrating, no real plan just mixed up a few glasses throughout the day. I had originally thought about getting some Chinese for dinner along the way, but ended up leaving later than planned (about 6:30 pm), so just had a quick sandwich with Kelly before leaving.
Drive and Packet Pickup
The drive up was uneventful. I left a message for Brian to see how the preview runs went, but never heard back. I snacked a bit more in the car and had a Clif Bar, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a couple small Milky Ways. Pulled into DECC at about 8:45 pm. The pasta dinner was wrapping up – it didn’t appeal to me when I first heard about it, and it was kind of a large, cafeteria atmosphere, but when I got there I was thinking it might have been nice to carbo load at that dinner. Maybe another time. The Expo seemed incredibly small, maybe Twin Cities is that much bigger or maybe I’m remembering wrong. But there were basically 2 rows of booths, and people were already shutting down as it was late. Picked up my packet and verified my chip. I bought the boys some T-shirts and Kelly a beer cozy, and they were surprisingly reasonable. Lots of families around taking pictures by Grandma’s signs.
I then drove over the Bong bridge to Superior, Wisconsin and checked into my dorm. The dorm seemed kind of dumpy compared to what I remember of my dorm in college. Very minimalist rooms. Called Kelly to check in, replied to a few text messages (Dave Palma, Deb, Kerri) and traded some texts with Brian about getting ready for the race. Had a Corona and a banana before bed. I tried getting to bed by about 10:15 but had to read for a bit. The dorm was seriously noisy – all concrete walls and I was right across from the bathroom. I first woke up to toilets and the hand dryer, and wondered if my alarm was about to go off. I dozed for a bit and then checked my phone and it was only 1 am!! People literally used the bathroom all night long. It was so bad I had dreams about being in a bathroom!
Saturday, June 21
I woke up to showers at 4:00am. I had my alarm set for 4:30 and tried getting a bit more sleep, but only made it to 4:15. So I got up and had part of a Frappucino for caffeine and then drank some Gatorade and water. I went into the bathroom to put my contacts in, and people were already brushing their teeth and had race numbers on! I was wondering if I had the schedule wrong or something, but maybe they were half marathoners (that race started at 6:30 and had no shuttle service from UWS). I showered, and found that I had picked the stall with the common drain, so everyone else’s water was running over my feet – nice! Then a bit more breakfast – a banana, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and some more Gatorade. I had gotten a lot of my sweats stuff organized back in town in a small plastic bag, and had made a list of things I wanted to tuck in on race morning (which was a nice idea). So my sweats bag was: loose t-shirt, baggy basketball shorts, underwear, socks, slides (sandals), sunscreen, a little cash, ID, credit card, cell phone, a small Gatorade and a small water. It seemed kind of bulky, but there was nothing I wanted to leave out. I put on sunscreen and all my race gear (wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt), and then wore a long sleeve hooded pullover on top to stay warm before the race. The morning temp was forecast to be 53, I think it was actually closer to 60 when I got outside. Later I realized it might have been nice to have sweat pants on too, but not a big deal. I wasn’t really planning to use gels and I hadn’t used them at all in training. I used 2 in the Frozen Half Marathon in January and felt like I kind of crashed after them, and I didn’t use them at all during the Trail Mix 25k. But I put 2 in my pockets just in case.
At checkin, the dorm attendant made a really big deal about getting to the busses early. Pickup at UWS was between 5:30 and 6, and I got out there about 5:20 and got on the first bus. It was almost full, so we left less than 5 minutes after I grabbed a seat! The ride up was nice – the sun was just coming up over the lake and only a few clouds. I sat next to Dan, who had run 26 marathons and Grandma’s 9 times. He had some great thoughts on racing in general and walked me through the course as we drove it. It really didn’t look that intimidating – no huge hills, just a lot of small rolling hills. There was a guy on the bus I had seen in the dorm that caught my attention. He was stocky and built like a refridgerator – had short hair and was covered with tattoos. When I first saw him he looked like an Ultimate Fighter or something. He boarded the bus with just shorts on, no sweats bag, and declared that he had forgotten his shoes so had to run to Walmart the night before to buy new ones! Talk about tough, that cracked me up – I would probably have blown a ton of money at the Expo to at least buy nice shoes.
I think we were literally the 2nd bus to arrive at the start – it was like 5:45 or something – almost 2 full hours before the start! At first I was thinking it was kind of a drag to have arrived that early. At any rate, I found where the sweats drop off was, then found a spot to sit down behind a Ford dealer building so I was a bit out of the wind.
It was just a bit chilly, but not too bad. A lot of people were eating, and I was wishing I had put some snacks in my sweats bag. There were a million Portapotties and no lines – I should have used one. I have a bit of pre-race anxiety about hydration. I like to hydrate before but end up peeing a ton before the race due to nerves; I should have gotten in an early one!
I sat for just a few minutes kind of watching for anyone I knew. There were really only 4 people I knew to look for – Diego Ramallo, Tim Altmann, Brian Crotteau, and Rick Skube. The space was filling up seriously fast with busses constantly dumping off new runners. Amazingly enough, after only about 5 minutes I saw Tim picking up water at a nearby tent, so I chatted with him and sat down with him and his friend Dan. It was a beautiful morning, and it was nice to pass the time with some friends since we were so early. We talked a bit about hydration and gels, and Tim showed me that he was carrying honey packets which seemed like an interesting alternative.
As it got towards 6:45 I decided to use the bathroom, so I walked to one of the nearby clusters. The lines were HUGE. I headed over to a separate cluster and ran into Neil Klein on the way – that was really cool, I didn’t expect to see him. We only chatted for a minute and I made my way over only to discover that the lines were again huge. I went ahead and waited, and it ended up taking about 25 minutes to get in – I was feeling really bad that I had left my sweats bag with Tim. I should have grabbed it and I was hoping he wouldn’t wait with it for me. I ended up jogging back to my sweats bag, and put on another layer of sunscreen. I had heard the course was really exposed, and I was worried about sunburn after being out for 3.5 to 4 hours. I polished the last of my Gatorade. Tim was off using the john somewhere, so I wished Dan good luck and headed off to sweats dropoff.
Sweats was a total cattle call. It took awhile to wade to the far end, drop my bag, then work my way back to the corral. I moved out of the crowd and re-tied my shoes twice to make sure they were loose enough to accomodate swelling. I found my way up to the 3:40 balloon and crossed a ditch and hopped the flex fence to get right up behind the pacer. My 22-mile run had paced out to a 3:48 finish. My previous experience has always been that I run faster in races than training. The weather forecast had been for a 53 degree start and 65 degree noon temp. So with those 2 factors in mind, I really thought the 3:40 group was doable for me even though it was a bit aggressive and my base goal entering the race was not to be time-focused but just focus on finishing and feeling good. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, but not a tragedy.
Start to 5
I don’t even remember hearing the gun or horn at the start – I don’t know if it was my nerves or all of the chatter. But the crowd just suddenly started moving forward and everyone was clapping and cheering. The start was the most crowded of any race I had ever run. Because I was really thinking of sticking with the pacer I was anxious to keep the balloons in sight and spent a lot of the first miles jockeying into holes to stay only a few deep behind him. This is where I love interval training – it makes it so easy to dial the pace up and down. But again, this probably wasn’t the best idea.
One thing that occupied my attention was checking out how everyone had prepared. A few people wore Camelbacks. Tons of people had gels, and I was surprised how many some people had. I didn’t count – but some people must have had around 10! A woman wore a hat with gel pockets stuffed all around her head. One of the Camelbacks had gel packets safety pinned up and down the straps – I wonder if it would actualy work to just tear them away? At least where I was running, gels seemed to be a staple.
There were aid stations at every odd mile starting at 3. That seemed like a lot and, again, not wanting to have to pee a ton during the race I had decided that I would only stop every 4 miles starting at 5. The crowd was still thick as ever at mile 3, but the pacer went over for aid so I decided to go anyhow. The aid stations had Ultima instead of Gatorade. I had tried it at the Expo the night before just to know what I was in for. It seemed fine and a bit tasteless. That seemed unappealing at the Expo but I think turned out to be a good thing. In high mile training runs I had found Gatorade to start tasting syrup-y and kind of unappealing. So at mile 3 I grabbed an Ultima but just had a few sips. As it turns out, I would visit every single aid station!
The route was beautiful, as was the morning. The road wound around by the lake and through trees. There were just a few small groups of fans for the first several miles, and lots of quiet sections. The weather was also great for running. The crowd was still tight up until about 5-6 miles. I had planned for a pee stop at mile 5, so I decided to get ahead of the pacer so that after I stopped I wouldn’t have long to catch up. I ended up running around 8:00 miles and even a couple sub-8. I knew it was fast but I was feeling great and the weather was nice. The 5 mile stop went fine, and I didn’t have long to catch up to the pacer. I again got ahead because I knew I had another pee stop up ahead.
5 to 10
I remember passing one of the small groups of fans and just barely heard someone cheering “Looking good Scott! Looking good Scott!” I hadn’t been expecting any fans of course, and a lot of people write their names on their arms to get people cheering for them, so I thought maybe it was another Scott. But I snapped my head over and there was Neil cheering me on! That was a huge boost, and I cheered back at him. I don’t remember miles, but I ended up seeing Neil and his kids about 4 times on the course, as they kept moving ahead to cheer on Stacey. That was really awesome!
I had also originally thought for hydration that I would alternate water and Gatorade. I had done that in the Spring at the Trail Mix 25k and it worked out great. But somewhere around 7-9 I decided that I would grab both water and Ultima and just have a few sips of each. I was starting to feel like I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast so I wanted to keep carbs in me. I stopped briefly to drink at 1 or 2 of the stops but otherwise just kept running, and found a good way of folding the top of the cup over twice to be able to sip the water without aspirating it.
10 to 16
I was still feeling great, and there were some spectacular lake views along the route. Not a lot of people were talking at the start – I made a couple of general comments that went unanswered. But at this stage people seemed to be casually chatting a bit more, about the lake and the scenery. I remember one house in particular that had a wraparound deck with glass instead of spindles for the railing – it was unbelievable. The crowds were getting to be a little bit closer together and a little larger. There were more people playing music – a bluegrass band and an accordion stand out in my memory.
I remember crossing a couple of the Verizon runner tracking pads – probably 10k and half marathon and thinking it was cool that my family would see my progress. I was still feeling great and was well ahead of the 3:40 pace group. I started to think about slowing down. I made another pee stop around the half, and when I came out saw the balloons ahead of me and decided to not get ahead of them this time. I could tell I was pushing it, but it still felt achievable. It did seem like it was getting a bit warmer. The aid stations had all of the following in order: water, Ultima, ice cups, iced sponges. The consistency was nice, and there were tons of volunteers. I remember not wanting to use the sponges because I didn’t want to wash away my sunscreen. There was less and less cover on the route as the sun got higher. I also didn’t get the ice cubes at first.
16 to 20
It started feeling warmer and warmer as the sun got higher. Somewhere in here there was also a very noticeable change in the road. For the first long while, the road had been blacktop asphalt. But we took a turn at some point and joined to another road and it became almost a silver asphalt. I don’t think it was just in my head but it got noticeably hotter – like running on a mirror. I started to take hydration more seriously, and was glad that I had dropped my original plan and been stopping at all of the stations to get both water and Ultima. I uppped that and started drinking water and Ultima during the station and then grabbed ice at the end. I just held some ice cubes in both hands while running for awhile to try to cool down. Getting towards 18-20 miles I also stopped caring as much about sunburn and grabbed a sponge to sponge my neck, head and face – that was heaven! I also started rubbing the back of my neck and head with the ice cubes after the station. I remember being stunned how quickly the ice melted in my hand – exactly how hot was it?
I gave up on the 3:40 around mile 17. I remember grabbing aid at the 17 mile station and slowing down quite a bit to drink. The balloon was well ahead of me, but I could tell my race was changing. I reminded myself that my goal was really to just finish feeling good and that 3:40 was a stretch not a base goal. It was kind of hard to let go and watch the balloons disappear, but I felt good that it was the right decision. I shifted my stretch goal to just being a sub-4 finish and also thought about the fact that my real goal was to run an Ultra where walking is actually important and a 10-12 minute pace is average.
Even though I had wanted to not use gels, I had done some pace math very early on in the race to decide when I would use them towards the end if needed. I had come up with miles 18 and 23 and the magic numbers. I was really glad I had thought ahead that way – for not being a purist and for giving myself an approximate place to use my limited supply. Somewhere around mile 18 I felt like my race really hit a defined turning point and I took my first gel.
By this time they had upped the heat exhaustion warning flag to Red. An announcer at one of the aid stations was warning runners that it had been upped, and encouraged everyone to keep hydrating. I felt really bizarre – with how much I had been drinking at the aid stations I would have expected to be peeing a ton, but I hadn’t since around 13. But weirdly my stomach also felt incredibly full – like I couldn’t just keep drinking because I couldn’t hold anymore. I also started thinking more about whether I had eaten enough last night and this morning and whether my electrolytes were getting out of whack with the heat. I ate my Gu and wondered whether it helps your electrolytes, or if it’s just carbs – I at least told myself it would help balance electrolytes.
One thing that some people don’t like about Grandma’s is that you can see the finish area (the aerial bridge specifically) several times from the route. I remember seeing the first time from single digit miles and was at first taken aback at just how far away it looked to be. But I found that inspiring at that point – I thought “Wow, it’s just awesome that I can run that far!” I saw it a few more times during the route, but didn’t obsess on it. Maybe if you run this race multiple times it gets to you.
I had been loving the lake views the whole run. Now the heat was getting to me and around mile 20 I started thinking about dipping in the lake when I was done. My legs were starting to feel pretty tired. I was a bit disappointed because they seemed more tired than on my training runs. But at any rate the thought of that cold lake water started to be one of my touchstones and would get to be more and more of one until the finish. I couldn’t wait to feel that frigid water.
20 to 25
You pass the Lester River somewhere around mile 19 and then you are pretty much in town. There are constant crowds through to the finish, and it’s really helpful. I had this marked as a point to start looking for 42nd Avenue, where the Skubes were going to be cheering. I think the gel was helping here but I was really starting to feel beat up. My quads had been a bit tired and sore for a few miles, but I started feeling some faint cramping. I ran through it, but unfortunately it quickly turned into serious cramping. I hadn’t really wanted to start walking breaks (outside of aid stations) but when I felt the cramps I knew I had to. So I started taking walking breaks whenever my legs got to the point of feeling like they were going to seize. I totally threw pace goals out the window and even distance goals. I had my first walk break about 20, and remember starting to run and thinking “just make it to 22 and then take another”, but I quickly changed that to “just make it to the Skubes” which was probably about 21!
They turned out to be a bit farther down than I thought, but again it was great to have something to occupy my attention while my physical race got more and more challenging. I finally saw them up ahead and waved and called to them. I saw one of the twins take my picture, but then quickly swung her camera forward to take some pictures ahead of me. I realized that Rick must be just right in front of me! I scanned the crowd and found him probably 50 yards up ahead. It took some pushing but I made it up to him and joked about why he didn’t tell me it was going to be so hot. He could barely respond, because at the same moment he was just turning for the curb looked like he was going to spit something up. I kept going and heard him shouting “Go! Just go! Good luck!” from behind. I couldn’t make it much farther and had to take another walk break. He and I ended up leapfrogging a few times. At one point I had visions of finishing together, but within a mile I new he was going to stay ahead of me.
I remember feeling a bit self-conscious of the fans the first couple times I took walk breaks, which is pretty ridiculous. I got over it quickly, though, and the cheering fans were still really supportive and helpful. I started running some really short segments – like quarter to half miles and couldn’t make it any farther due to serious cramping. I made it to Lemon Drop Hill, which is not a very big hill. I had even commented on that when Dan pointed it out from the bus. But when I saw it up ahead I decided to run the last quarter up to it and then walk it, which was an easy decision at the time.
These miles ended up being completely grueling. At every aid station I was rinsing and spitting water (I felt like I could barely hold more fluid), drinking Ultima, washing down with a sponge, and then grabbing ice to cool my head and hold. I was loving the crowd and even the Duluth scenery, but it was getting harder to find the mile markers given the crowd so I was depending on my GPS to know where I was at. I ate my last gel somewhere in here. I usually like to do it right before an aid station so I can water down right after but I didn’t even pay attention to that. I remember after my first one I recalculated when I should eat my second and instead of using mileage used time. My splits were going up to 11 and 12 minutes miles so I remember thinking that if I want to finish somewhere around 4 I should eat my gel around 3:10-3:15, so that’s what I did.
The course turns to brick pavers downtown. The crowds where thick and cheering. One of the grocery stores had volunteers handing out strawberries, oranges, and bananas. I ate some oranges and strawberries while walking and they were fantastic. I was feeling pretty beat up, but that actually perked me up a bit. I kept going just waiting for the big left turn that drops you down towards Canal Park. The other complaint that people have about Grandma’s is how much they wind you around at the very end, so I was anticipating that.
It finally had started clouding up, and even sprinkled a bit. I was feeling so overheated I remember just hoping that it would pour on us. I thought about all of the training runs I had done in the rain, and how pleasant that sounded right now. It only sprinkled a few times, and never as hard as I was hoping. But it helped a little.
25 to Finish
The last couple miles were incredibly demanding. My legs were cramping like crazy and I was taking more walk breaks than I ever imagined. But I was also excited that I had never run this far before, and I just did whatever I was able to. My GPS had auto-paused a couple of times due to my slower walking (mistake to not turn that feature off) so now I had no idea what the mileage was. Crossing the bridge and getting down towards Canal Park was really exciting and I kept telling myself that I was getting close. But now I saw what people were saying about the winding. I saw a tent about a quarter mile ahead and someone said “there’s the finish!” I thought it was literally that close. But we turned left and I saw the William Irvin ship ahead and realized that we had to run around that still! Yikes! We got around that I and I had to take another walk break. I had just come around the corner and tried to slow down safely with the other runners but felt like I cut someone off. I said “Sorry guys!” but the woman behind me said “No way – I’m with you!” and she also stopped to walk. We didn’t talk and she started running after a minute. I wasn’t quite ready but I thought we just had to be close and I really wanted this done so I picked it up and ran, even through some cramping. I remember thinking that I must be close to a sub-4 finish and I wanted to hold off if it was possible.
I kept pushing but still had to walk one more time. I remember a fan shouting “You can still make sub 4!” and right at that moment I had stopped to walk. Then they said “No problem – just walk it in and finish!” They were being positive and I appreciated that alot, but of course it just pointed out to me how I was really just right on the bubble. So I picked up and ran again. This winding seriously was insane! This would have been a good preview run just to know what was ahead.
I finally could tell that the finish was actually close. The crowd noise was insane and I could hear them announcing the finishers. I came around a hairpin turn and heard the announcer hype of the crowd by saying we had less than minute to a 4-hour finish. The crowd noise went up and I just kept wondering how much farther it was. I started passing people and picking up the pace. I caught sight of the finish clock and saw that I had about 45 seconds to beat 4 hours. I was hurting and I remember thinking that it just looked a bit too far to make it. But I thought there was no way I was going to be this close and miss it without a fight. So I poured it on and started passing people like crazy. My legs were screaming but I kept pushing. I didn’t catch the clock exactly but I passed the mat with seconds to spare under 4 – I was so happy that I had pushed it!
Some guy next to me who finished about the same time started shouting “We did it!” and I gave him a high five. My legs were almost useless! I got my medal and water and kept walking a bit to find a place to stretch and heard Rick call my name. We shook hands and I did a very brief ITB stretch before crashing on the curb next to him. He and I talked about the race, the heat, and the struggle and had laughs about the whole thing. He had been resting for several minutes so was already starting to talk about eating and where he was going to meet his family. I couldn’t stand the thought of eating yet. After a few more minutes we got shooed away and we picked up our shirts and beer ticket (you gotta love that!). He kept talking about these great turkey sandwiches, and I was thinking if I hear the word turkey one more time I’m going to barf! He went off to eat and I went off to the Lake.
I grabbed a yogurt and made sure that I could get back in to eat later before leaving the finish area for the water. I found the crowd down near a small beach and carefully climbed over the rocks. I had to be seriously careful as my legs where exhausted. I saw all kinds of people standing up to their waist in the water and thought it looked so great. It seemed like it took me 10 minutes to get over the rocks, get my shoes and socks off and get to the water. I stepped in and could not believe how cold it was. It was actually painfully cold, but I still walked deep enough to get my cramping thighs covered. I only lasted about 2 seconds and then went back to shore. I found a log to sit on where I could alternate my feet in and out of the water and it felt absolutely great. I also sat in the shallows a few times, and got cold enough that I needed my finisher’s blanket to get warm. What a difference from about an hour earlier! I soaked my water bottle and yogurt in the lake to cool them down, and finally managed to eat the yogurt. After I finally felt like my core temperature was in a normal range again, and headed back up onto the beach and laid down in the sun. I don’t think I dozed off but it was incredibly rejuvenating and was fun to just close my eyes and listen to everyone re-live the race.
When I got back into the finish area, the first tent I saw was for ice cream – now THAT sounded good! I ate some ice cream and then wandered around and picked up some more water, a banana, and another yogurt. I picked up my sweats bag and just changed my shirt and got my shoes off. The slides were a great idea, it was nice to wear those after the race give my feet a break. I checked my phone for emails and text updates on the other runners I was tracking and it looked like everyone was slower than planned, like me. I also got text messages from Deb and voicemails from Kelly and Brian – it was a lot of fun to have those waiting after the race. I poked around for a bit then finally found Renatta and Rick in the beer garden. I got a tap with my ticket and then just hung out with them for awhile. It was a blast – feeling great after a big achievement, having a beer in the sun, and listening to a live band. I made one more pass through the eating area and grabbed some fruit and a bag of chips, and then by that time they were giving away entire cases of yogurt so I grabbed one.
I tried getting ahold of Brian to see if we could catch up after the race but we missed each other. I took the shuttle back to the dorm and showered up there (THIS time I picked a shower upstream of the drain!). I was finally starting to feel more normal just at the exhausted stage. I still had not been able to eat much – I was famished but not feeling like eating anything substantial, just craving sugar. So on the way out of town I picked up a regular Coke (which I hardly ever drink), candy, trail mix, and pretzels. That Coke tasted awesome!
It felt fantastic to finish the race, and I was totally spent. Towards the end I was telling myself I would never come again if it was so hot, and I was hating the heat. But it’s a great feeling to finish, and I will definitely do more distance events. I think I will take my pace more seriously, start at the back so I’m passing people to get to where I want, and I will definitely plan walk segments. Grandma’s was a beatiful route and the crowd support was awesome. It’s too bad the logisitics are a drag, and accomodations are a bit expensive, but it was still a fantastic experience overall.
- The guy behind me only a few miles in that started shouting “Hey – it’s the weather guy! It’s the weather guy! It’s Sven Sungaard everybody!”
- The guy running barefoot.
- The guy running in combat boots.
- The guy running with a stuffed monkey on his back.
- The National Guardsmen holding out a Vaseline jar at an aid station.
- Al Franken cheering runners, and giving Al a high five.
- The college kids offering runners beer, and one guy holding out a Vodka bottle after an aid station and offering to spike cups.
- The tons of live music and people blasting stereos.