TL;DR a long post of I had a good race but I can’t say exactly why it was so good after I finished. I finally put together various tips and my thoughts for this race. Enjoy!
What makes a race great? I guess everything just clicks in a good race. Many reasons have to do with the host organization but also on a personal level how I receive it (I could list out many external and the internal factors).
I think it is really about controlling one’s expectation. I just love running and so I see everything through that len. I could run a race without supports after doing ultras. We learn to do with very little (even with no bathrooms, food or sleep). I mean having good supports and cheers from family and friends is good and they motivate/enable me to run faster but they are not essential for me to enjoy a race. Even if it is one or two people, I think I can enjoy a race. I think what I like is the unique experience and the challenge of the course itself. For marathons, it is no longer an impossiblilty and there is never a risk (yet) of me not finishing a marathon as long as I am healthy.
That’s a long opening for what make Grandmas Marathon a good race. I could list many things how this race did it better than other races. Logistically it was a phenomenon. They were able to host 20,000+ athletes in the three events combined. It went smoothly. They are proud of their small town is able to deliver a top city size marathon. Personally, I think it is compatible or even better than the Marine Corps Marathon (one which I had a strong impression). They made my weekend so much more enjoyable.
Why I like it is not so much the mega marathon hype. In fact, because I live in a moderately big city, I try to avoid crowds. Usually crowds mean delay and scracity of stuff and restrictions (from crowd control measures). Sometimes you could lost yourselves in the sea of crowd and feel less validated (or fulfilled). I experienced some of those at Grandmas. However, they were not the race’s fault.
Grandmas Marathon held in Duluth, Minnesota, was my 9th state in my 50 states marathon quest. It was one of the reasons I went there. I could have chosen some other races in the state, but Grandmas attracted me because of the town Duluth. I first heard of it last year while going to the Eau Claire Marathon. Mostly why I run a race is to see new places and have new experiences, and plus I had not seen Lake Superior.
I did it as a runcation (vacation as an excuse to run). It is more expensive compares to doing a local marathon and to spend that much money for just a 2-3 day trip does not make sense to most people. I know I should and could have stayed a bit longer but I am one of those who is mission focused, fly in, run, get out.
It was not tough like the other races I recently did (ahem MMT 100, in which I failed to finish). In fact, it was comparable to the last two states I did, Carlsbad Marathon in California, in 2020 and Eau Claire Marathon, Wiscousin, in 2021. Each of those races is held in an awesome and beautiful town.
Training for marathons now requires very little effort, maybe a week of fear/anxiety prior to the event, but once I get going usually it becomes as easy as walking – I’d compare it as water flowing down the stream. Still of course, I wanted to do well.
I did two local marathons this year for comparison: Newport News Marathon and Salisbury. I use the word local loosely. They were great too but nothing compares to when you get to travel on an airplane. It makes the trip so much more memorable.
Performance wise, Newport News I finished a little beyond the 5 hour. Salisbury, I had an amazing time to run with a guy and (and other friends) I finished it around 4:52, an improvement. This race, I was not aiming for a particular finishing time, but I picked up a 4:35 pace band and I was kind of dreaming would it be nice to reach it, since ultra training makes me a very slow runner. I wrote how I became fat and unmotivated during my training. I finished (*spoiler alert*) around 4:20. It is not my fastest time, but it is the fastest in the recent years. It is just thrilling to finish fast. They say it is a fast course and indeed I felt happy to be able to reach that expectation.
With a big race like this, logistics is a bit of a challenge, especially with accomodations. I did not book my accommodation early so I did not have a room in Duluth. I stayed in Minneapolis which is two+ hours away. I thought making two and half hour drive to the race course is not too bad even if I have to drive it back and forth twice (first pick up the bib and second for the race itself).
Another slight hiccup was they overbooked my rental car. Though I got my car early after landing in Minneapolis, but my car was also claimed by another driver (he was going to Duluth to run in the marathon — we finished together). Instead of getting into an argument with the person, I yielded the car to him because it was totally the rental company’s fault that created this conflict. This costed me an extra 4 hr delay until they found another car for me.
Overall, I like their highways. While driving out to Duluth, there were not much to see. The land is flat. We have young pine trees on both sides and occasionally we have big fields. It is a boring drive if not for public reststops along the way. A few times, I needed to stop to refresh myself or take a nap. It was very boring and I was falling asleep. One of the trips was during the wee hours.
On my first trip out, I was stuck in traffic with all other runners. It was trafficky when 20,000 athletes not including their friends and families and volunteers driving to Duluth using the same two lane road and going into the same parking lot at the same time! There were bounded some contruction delays added in couple of accidents that made the road impassible for the afternoon, plus it was a Friday weekend, and first weekend after the school is out for a lot of families, and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. I arrived at Duluth when the 5K was about to start. Road closures were already happening around the event area. One can imagine the traffic. The nightmare. Bad things kept compounding and spiraling out of control. All this could have been prevented if I had planned better or had better luck.
So I said now what? Knowing I would face the same traffic the next day for the marathon do I drive back to Minneapolis or do I stay in Duluth for the evening? I felt I had no choice but to take on this ordeal one more.
I was hungry and I was late getting back to my hotel, which was still 2-3 hours away. I had been out all day in the car. I landed 8 am in the morning and was up since 4 am (3 am local time), the convention hall was packed, they had all you can eat spagetti dinner hapenning. Gosh, if I had planned it better, it would have been a blast. There I was tired and exhausted, knowing I had a marathon still to run the next morning.
The place I stayed in Minneapolis was not in a “nice” neighborhood, though it might have been nice by their standard. I did not do sufficient research before booking. It might have looked good from thousand feet above but once on the street level, it was not that great. I didn’t spend too much time there to make a generalization but from the feeling of it, I wish I stayed in a better neighborhood, maybe by paying a bit more. Maybe I am just naive that any places where the hotel had to lock their front door as an indicator that it was not a good place. Our hotels back home do not need to lock their front entrances. However, they might have lock the door maybe to prevent beggars other desireable guests from coming it. The two nights I stayed there, some kind of loud arguments were happening outside the hotel’s parking lot. I was like what!? Why are people shouting. It makes me wonder why the city is so bad. A few times I had to stop in the city to buy gas for my car, my experience was the same, to quickly fill it up and get me out of there. Unlike in DC, there is no revitalization or gentrification I can see. Maybe there is, but their city is just huge! I can’t see an obvious break from the city proper and the surounding suburbs. I lived like on the 97th st or something and still felt I was in the city and that is like 5 miles from the city center. But I think it is better than Baltimore or Richmond, at least some other bad places I stayed at.
Remember how handling the logistics ruined my experience at the Worlds End event a couple weeks back (one of my favorite races to go to and aspiring to run it), I wanted to focus on just the positive. I needed a good sleep. Luckily I did, though maybe for about 3 hours before leaving for the race.
Was the race good? It was out of this world. How can I say? I ran almost 40 “big” races so far in my last six years. I can say I’ve seen it all, the good, bad, and ugly. Most if not all of my races were A+ good. Actually any organization that is able to hold a big race year after year usually puts up a good race. I avoid those that can’t seem to able to measure the course correctly but wanted to make money off you (names unsaid) and I am not talking about trail races. I do my research.
If I compare this race to my other 40 races, I got to say this one is maybe at the top 3 or higher. Not that other races are bad, they are sometimes different. The pampering of a 100 mile race is different from the pampering from a marathon. But if I want to compare apple to apple, this was a very good race.
What went well? A lot! We had a perfect racing weather. It was cold around 50F (45 F at night), but sunny. The temperature went up a bit during the race, I think might have gotten to near 60F or higher. They were offering ice to cool is off. Heck, in 60 degree temp! They said we have tail winds coming in from the Lake of North-North-East, and it helped a lot whatever that means. By late afternoon the temperature dropped to 45 F, and that is winter temperature where I live. I was already in my car on my way back to Minneapolis where it was a balmy 80 F.
The race was well organized. We had water stations at every two miles ish and well managed. It was more than enough. I was in the end of the pack after 15000 runners had gone through them and the volunteers were just as enthusiastic and crowds were just as excited to see us. I saw how quickly they cleaned up the cups dropped. 15,000+ cups tossed at each station and they still managed to keep the road / running lane clear of them. This is one of my irritations after doing trail racing of why people need to toss their cups on the ground after drinking! Not cool. Throw them in the bins and save the volunteers the trouble! And it is why I found running in mega merathons undesireable.
It was well stock with water and gatorade, plus sponges and ice. The course was well marked and roads were blocked off completely for us. There was a high security presence. The course was flat but some would disagree with me and call it rolling hills. For me, the couple of inclines we had were nothing at all to be considered as hills.
The half marathon started an hour before us, unlike some of marathons I did, where they started the Half either concurrently or an hour or two later (e.g. Baltimore or Morgantown). They were finished by the time we went out the starting line. The race organization did well to transport all the runners to their respective start locations and it was a challenge because this was a point to point course (ending is different from the start). 9000+ runners for marathons and another 9000 for the Half marathoners. There are 6000 marathon finishers and 7000 half marathon finishers. I have been in marathons where the runners from the Half just cleaned out the table and nothing (water) was left for us who were running the Full (e.g., The Moonlight Marathon, given that was their inaugural year)
To get to the start, I took the train rather than the bus for the experience. The train ride took longer to get to the start, but to me it was the calm before the storm and worth the ride. It is like playing the violin on the sinking Titanic. Weird metaphor but I like the relaxation as well as the nervousness. To the people who were sitting with me, on the train, I enjoyed your company even though I forgot your names by now! Maybe some did not like the restlessness and chose the bus instead. I recommend the train and feel it is an integral experience of this race. This was free. If I had to pay for the train ride, maybe I would have taken the bus instead.
We had a lot of bathrooms at the start. Note, I ran the Marine Corps marathon before, which had maybe twice as many runners but I felt Grandmas Marathon had more bathrooms than the Marine Corps Marathon.
I started about 7-8 minutes after the official gun time because I had to use the bathroom at the last minute. It was bib timed so, it was not a big deal not to start exactly at the gun time. It was actually better to let the crowd go first and let them spread out before I give chase. Some may want to follow me with this strategy of delaying the start so as to be able to run faster after the crowd disperses (because as usual a lot of slower people put themselves further up at the line up, and I don’t blame them, I did that too when I was young/imexperienced).
Another strategy which might be obvious to many seasoned runners, but I did not see many people do in this marathon (maybe because I was in the tail end of the pack, and many might be their first marathon), is running the tangent, which is to run the shortest distance possible around a curve, so it requires looking up and get yourself into position. In many smaller marathons, the race path is narrow (like two person wide) and roads are straight, running the tangent doesn’t matter much, but for this race, we had both sides of a wide road (like a four lane wide), plus wide shoulders, and it is winding left and right for most of the race course along the Lake, heck, run the tangent! However, most people (including the front runners, I rewatched the race on youtube, the commentators were commenting on this) stuck to one side or the other the whole time. Well maybe they thought it was too curvy to do a tangent. I don’t know. I felt it saved me some extra miles. Don’t do it early on, I understand that, when the crowd is on the left, right, front and back, all around because you could trip someone when weaving in and out, but take advantage of the tangent whenever you can. It might save half a mile to a mile on this course and this could mean saving 20-30 minutes or more for the walkers! Imagine if I had to walk the last mile, the saving from running the tangent would have made a big difference!
I used the same strategy as in my last half marathon race a week before, that is, to imagine myself in a desperate situation. I told myself I was back at the MMT 100 race, the morning had dawned, I just descended from Kern Mountain, and now this would be the last stretch and some serious running required to seal the race as long as I could run a marathon by 1 pm (of course, I couldn’t do it during the MMT and so I DNF). Since MMT was fresh on my mind, all the desperation to do one more marathon after just running 70 miles unleashed, when everything is on the line, the world on your shoulders, the raw emotions of being defeated by the course, the feeling of impossibility of the task but I still needed to try. It was a weird mixed of emotions of exactly how I felt at a point in time with the emotion afterward overlapped and layered on top because now I have a perspective of the past as well as the future of running the MMT. It may be why I love running, is for the insanity. I felt like I was a time traveller. I think this is what is like standing between the living and the dead (I like to be dramatic). I wanted that win/finish of the MMT so bad, if only I can redo it. At least treated it as a training run so I can do it in the actual MMT. I told myself I can redo it at this race. All I had to do was to run it again and let my feet fall where they needed to fall. Of course I could do it, but I imagined I can’t and needed to struggle for it. It was a controlled panic.
Going back a bit, the first several miles were crowded. I learned not to be frustrated by that from the Rock n Roll Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon, but just be patience. I took my time to take some pictures, and enjoyed the race. I found someone who did the 50 states thing like me (he was in his 70) and also someone came from near my state (MD). We were happy to see each other. I chatted with a lady in a raccoon/fox outfit. They posed for me to take their pictures.
By mile 4, it was still crowded but I could run now and I could weave in and out the crowd. Everyone was now a few strides apart. I told myself to get serious and put away my phone.
Also by now I felt a bit exhausted, maybe from the lack of sleep, I felt a bit out of breath because I pushed a bit too early to escape from the crowd and my legs were dragging, so I decided to take my first gel early. I only had three packages on me. Note, I did not see aid stations offering gels. Gels are expensive. Eating them so early might get me into trouble later when I definitely needed them. From experience, I usually need all the gels I can get my hand on around mile 20 and onward. Normally, I save them till that point. I chose to risk it this time by taking it early so to get myself into a good early pace. I didn’t have time for breakfast earlier as I was driving and no shops were in sight and so I was a little hungry now. I had been up since 2 am. Also no restaurants open at that time unlike back home. Now as the race was underway, my body started reminding me various things, such as I was actually hungry. Note, some experienced runners packed sandwiches for the morning and ate them before the start.
I reached halfway, mile 13, without further trouble. The gel carried me. If I remember correctly, I ingested my second gel of sugar here at this point. My pace did hamper a bit even after having the gel, but I believe I passed the 4:35 pace group and the 4:20 pace group. It was hard keeping up with the 4:20 group because they kept escaping from me. I followed them for a few miles. I remember the pace leader shouted out we are in “single digit” – meaning we have less than 9 miles to go (at mile 17 marker). We are in the single digit territory! Woohoo! I think that gave me a boost to pass the pace group. Here my memory is a bit cloudy. I’m not sure if the group passed me back or I kept in front of them. They probably passed me back at some point. I was at a breaking point.
A little afterward, I struggled with a big bonk maybe around mile 18 ish or even be at mile 19. They say the worse is to come at mile 20 because of the “hill”. They called this the lemon drop.
I ingested my last gel package, trying to keep my legs in motion. Still I knew the gels I had were not enough for me and I was sputtering. There was nothing I could do. I ate all my gels. Apparently I put a big package of gummy bears in my pack the night before but I have forgotten about them — I was angry at myself hours later when I open the pack and saw them and found out why my pack was heavier than normal during the race. Stupid gummies. It was my first time carrying them in a race. I was a noob.
I knew I needed supports from the crowd. As we got near the city more and more people cheered us on. Not only cheers, but also the citizens set up their own “fun” aid stations. The official stations were plenty and enough but there were special menu items you only could get at a private support station. I appreciated the grapes and strawberries and oranges offered me at several of the private stations. These are items ultra runners need and familiar with. I was given pancakes too. Jolly ranchers and lollypops were a big help to me in this race because they were long lasting, slowly releasing the sugar. What got me going again was at one of the private stops, someone offered me a jello shot and a beer! Usually and maybe never do I drink and run but this shot of jello, whatever in it (tongue in cheek), made all my pain go away and I was reborn as new, so it was time for me chase the 4:20 pace group again!
I pressed the Lemon Drop. It is not the last hill but it is the most famous one with 4.1 mile from the finish. Most people walked this hill but no way would I be walking this. Full speed ahead! I told myself I ran a 18,000 ft race (elevation) not long ago, this tiny 50 ft (guessing here) was nothing to me.
Three miles later, we were in the city. I was sputtering again. Now I was out of gel and had no more jello shots, only way to get to the finish was to endure.
I tucked my chin in (they say don’t do that), put my chin down and digged deep. I stopped counting the miles. Many people passed me but I also passed all the walkers. I told myself I can’t let the 4:35 pace group pass me. Not sure if I ever caught back up with the 4:20 pace team, but I felt the devil was on my back. At the last mile, I could hear the finish line music. Unlike at a lot of races, this one set up loud speakers miles out. So we could kind of know what was going on at the finish of who is coming in as well as having rave music beats going. It gave me a bit more motivation to stay on pace.
Many people walked in the last couple miles and many surged on ahead. About 65 runners (a lot) passed me on this stretch (and think the most during the whole race). My pace was somewhat in between. I was not strong enough to surge but I held onto my pace. I don’t know how I did it looking back, yet I crossed the finish line. I had my tempo back at the final hundred of feet and kind of coasted in nicely. I did not need to be fast, I just needed not to stop or slow down. You know many times I had the kick, a final burst of energy that allows me to run fast at the end. This time I just coasted in. They say near the city, the run is tricky because you know the finish is near but you can’t see it. Having done Newport News where you could see the last two miles ahead compares to this one, where the finish is unknown, I think I prefer this.
One thing I like about this race was they gave us wet sponges and ice at many of the aid stations. Having learned from MMT 100, I put ice inside my hat and put it over my head and let the slowly melt over me. I probably one of the few who used ice this way. I think many put them in their mouth. In ultras, I would pour ice in my hydration pack too, but I felt this was not needed. I used the sponges to clean my face, neck and arms (I hate having salt on my face and body during running, but in many races, I just have to ignore the salt on me). The sponges were a godsent. I like my skin being smooth. Sponges were nice. The temperature was 50 F and I was sweating a lot! The ice was also so good.
Finish line food. I did not feel hungry after finishing. They offered us bagels and granola bars. I took a chocolate milk. I understand feeding 20000 runners is a hard task and I appreciate any food for us. There was no free food at the Baltimore Marathon if I remembered right. This race was above and beyond my expectation. For comparison, Newport News Marathon had the best finishing food (I wrote about that)! Bagels and bananas are nice too, can’t complain.
Then it got very cold in the afternoon. Luckily I had a jacket and a long sleeve. Yes, put a jacket in your drop bag! Though the parking lot is not too far away. Prepare for the stair climb though! I put on my shirts and I stayed at the race to cheer other runners until near closing time. I stayed till 7.5 hour mark. I think the race closed at either 7.75 or by 8 hour. A couple of us tried to stir up the runners who were near finishing to encourage them to surge. It was fun to see runners actually responded to our cheers. During that three hours, a lot of runners came through. If readers recalled I did the same at the Newport News Marathon. This was way better, because the crowd stayed.
I was really strong in this race and ran beyond my own expectation. Of the three marathons I did this year, this was the fastest. I beat last year time (Eau Claire Marathon) too by a hair. Not bad after doing the MMT. I guess the strategy worked. Also I think my spring training got me to a peak condition.
How do I close this? After running so many races, do I get tired of doing the same thing? To me sometimes yes. I can see how similar it is to my previous races, and yes I do get tired of doing the same thing. I have been asking myself why I do it again and again. But as to why I like it, is I sometimes learn new things unexpectedly. Who would have thought jello shots helped? Also each time, my feeling while running is different. This time, it was so good, I was completely speechless after the race. I don’t remember if any races where I was speechless like this time. My mind was silence for a few days. Completely quiet! It was so good to have nothing to say. And so much so I could not find the ability to write this report. I got back to Minneapolis in the evening. At first I wanted to go to the pool at my hotel. It seemed to be a decent pool, but I was too tired. I slept not long after. The next morning I had an early flight back, so I woke up at around 5:30. I slept some more once I landed. Monday, I was still very much tired. This race, unlike previous races, I couldn’t bounce back after a nice sleep. The race sapped everything from me in a good way. I also mentally spent, also in a good way, not like when I ran a 100 miler, and I couldn’t find words to say why this race was so good. I only know I was satisfied with it. It was my A-goal race and I was able to run it as I envisioned and in the end, I surprised myself of having done it. It is the feeling after each marathon, you did it.