Friday, March 23, 2018

Race Report: Mad Half Marathon

Summer Fridays for my office begin in July, and in that first month I get to leave at 2pm (an hour earlier in August.)  My coworker provided me a ride to Harlem, and I caught the Metro North train up to North White Plains to pick up my rental car from there (for some reason, it was MUCH cheaper to rent here than in the city).  I had an approximately 5 hour drive in front of me, so I let my friends Erika and John (who I met at the Vermont City Marathon in May) know I would be arriving at their cabin by about 9:30pm or so, providing a stop en route for food.

The drive up was LONG, and it took me along the Taconic State Parkway all the way up to where it meets I-90, then took county roads near the New York/Massachusetts border to the town of Hoosick (due northeast of Albany.)  From here, we transitioned into Vermont, taking US-7 north from Bennington to Rutland (with an unsuccessful food detour through the towns of Arlington, Sunderland, and Manchester), a short segment along US-4 to Killington, and then quiet state routes through the forest up to Moretown and the Mad River Valley.  The weather was great all the way up, until the last fifteen minutes of the drive, when the skies opened up, and it was a mad downpour.  Along with the rain was thick fog, so I drove whiteknuckled from Middlesex to Erika and John's cabin in Moretown.

Bringing home all of the food from VT.
The next morning, I had a lot planned.  First, I had to pick up my bib at the Waitsfield Inn, as well as visit with Marathon Maniac friends who had a tent there.  I also went across the street to the Waitsfield Farmers' Market, and got some things at the Taste Place, a brand new store specializing in Vermont-made cheeses, chocolate, beers, ciders, and the like.  I then headed up Route 100 to Waterbury to get some cider doughnuts at Cold Hollow Cider Mill (they were absolutely delicious when I tried them back in May), and then up to Stowe to try and buy some of the much-lauded "Heady Topper" beer from The Alchemist Brewery.  This beer is a uniquely balanced 8-percent alcohol IPA and is considered to be one of the most coveted beers in America.  While it is available year-round, it's scarcity is due to the fact that they brew only 180 barrels (360 kegs worth) per week in twelve 15-barrel batches at their closed-to-the-public facility.  Additionally, only certain stores and bars within the facility's 25-mile distribution area receive shipments, and they are a specific amount only on certain days.  Lines at The Alchemist Brewery can stretch for over an hour, and I happened to get there on a slow day, as there was virtually no line.  I purchased a four-pack of the beer, as well as the "Pappy's Porter."

The views from our Airbnb
As soon as I left The Alchemist, the rains started again, and I made my way back through Waterbury, making a stop at the Cabot Cheese Annex for some bricks of delicious cheddar cheese - horseradish, everything bagel, and bacon!  I then headed to Burlington to pick up a bakers' dozen of some delicious Montreal Spice bagels from Myer's Bagels to bring back home.  All of these food items I had sampled in some way or form during my May trip to Vermont.  I headed back toward Waitsfield and to the town of Warren, where I'd meet my friend Seth, who I would room with at an Airbnb on Saturday night before the race.  We then joined other Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics at the Tucker Hill Inn for a great pre-race dinner, organized by the inimitable Angie Pace.

Maniacs and Fanatics group photo at the start!

The start...
The following morning, we woke up at 5:30am to get dressed and were out the door by 6.  It was a 15 minute drive to Waitsfield and we found parking easily in the parking lot of the Mad River Shoppes, before meeting up with the many Maniacs and Fanatics who had assembled for this race, the third of the brand new "Signature Series."  Maniacs and Fanatics who signed up on the website calendar would get a commemorative pin and a special additional medal after the race that joined up to four other medals for other "Signature Series" races held within the calendar year.  After running into several friends headed to the picture at the finish line at 6:30 (including Black Sheepers Sherry, Zack, Leny, Lynne, and Juan), I headed up to the microphone stand at 6:45, and treated everyone to a rendition of "God Bless America."  We then went up the street to the start line, and after the national anthem, we were off.. and a little early!

Singing a little God Bless America...

Our first covered bridge.
We took off down Main Street, headed north, and immediately hit our first downhill section, as we proceeded to the corner of Bridge Street and Main Street. We turned right and encountered our first of two covered bridges that we would run through on the route.  I hit my first mile in roughly 9:18.  And then the first tough hill came.  And boy, was it a doozy...  as we turned onto Joslin Hill Road, we began to climb from roughly 726 feet to 1,083 feet, an elevation change of 357 feet, at the 2.2 mile mark. Needless to say, my second mile split was much worse - a 14:54 mile!

What the hill.
Covered bridge #2
Thankfully, we were treated to a nice downhill as we reached the smalltown intersection in Waitsfield Common, following North Road.  We would end up dropping us over 400 feet by the time along this stretch of course, all the way until we hit the 4 mile mark.  Along the way, we'd see faster runners heading back in our direction (including a couple early starters, like my friend JC), as they climbed upward.  I enjoyed those downhills though, finishing a 9:47 and 9:35 third and fourth mile, and running alongside my Maniac friend Carol, before the course flattened out a bit.  But as the course flattened out, a repugnant smell began to fill the air, which followed us for the next ten minutes.  Alongside the course was a beautiful Holstein cow, and many of us took selfies with the beautiful, but nauseatingly smelly creature.  And in the distance, the half marathoners got to do a quick turnaround; alas, we got to smell the nasty-ass cow again.

Pretty Carol and the nasty-ass cow.

An out-and-back on the course!
The turnaround point, though, was great, as we were able to see a few friends along the course on the out-and-back.  I was able to see my Black Sheep friends, as well as my hosts from the night before, John and Erika, who opted to do the half.  I took advantage of the flatness of this section of the course, but knew that just after the 5 mile mark, we'd be ascending again.  The course began to go uphill, and I slowed to a walk, as we climbed past the high elevation point we had hit earlier after the second mile.  After the 6.5 mile mark, we were directed to turn left, and took a short .15 mile out-and-back on East Road, which gave us a short 20 foot loss, but we gained it right back, and then climbed even more.

Deceiving downhill...
We came off of East Road, and then turned onto Common Road, where we were treated to an absolutely beautiful view.  The course was a straight shot, but in the distance, you could see that this was a deceiving dip, and what comes down, comes right straight up.  We dropped 80 feet, but then climbed right back up again.  My mile splits were consistent... consistently slow... as I labored along the uphills.  The road curved but still continued on an uphill trend, and finally reached its highest point when we were about 9 miles into the race.  It wasn't until about 9.75 miles in that the half marathoners made a turn while the marathoners continued on.

A quintessential red barn

Surrounded by so much beautiful nature. And hills. So many hills.

Almost to the finish!
Finally, the course began a nice descent, as we took East Warren Road all the way back to Bridge Street, and over the first covered bridge we had initially run through.  Save for a couple very slight rises, I coasted back, posting 9:56 and 9:04 miles at miles 11 and 12.   That included a stop at the Round Barn Farm at around the 10.6 mile mark, where we were treated to some tasty 14th Star Brewery beers... and I even stopped to play flip cup!

I continued to make good time as I traced my steps back up Bridge Street over the covered bridge, and back to Main Street, where we had less than a mile to go.  Cones had been set up along the south side of the road to keep us on the shoulder as well as on the sidewalk, as needed.  We had a little bit of a climb, roughly 90 feet of elevation change, as we ascended Main Street to the finish line.  We passed where the start line was, and also the town's cemetery.  Finally, the turn right into the Mad River Green awaited us, and there was the finish line, with race director Dori Ingalls waiting to hand us our medal and give every finisher a hug.

BLING! (Photo by Juan Aguilar)

Despite the hills, I managed a sub 2:30 - I had expected something closer to 2:40 for this race... and I finished in 2:28:25!  The downhill of the last 5K was definitely a help in gaining back some time.  I gorged on the cider and cider doughnuts available at the finish, retrieved my Maniacs Signature Series medal, and then hung out with friends as they came in!  We took lots of photos, and I got a chance to have a full can of the delicious 14th Star Brewery beer in the beer garden across the street, before Seth came in to finish his marathon.  With not too much time to spare before he had to head back out to fly out of Boston, we headed back toward the covered bridge and got my headstand shot, grabbed some much needed fro-yo/soft serve (in Vermont, they call it a creamee!) and then headed back to Warren to freshen up.  I headed out myself for the long drive back to NYC, stopping in Rutland to rest for a little bit (a 5.5 hour drive can get tiring!) and got back to drop off my car around 8pm, taking the train back down to the city and getting home before 10pm, with all of my Vermont food and drink in tow!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Race Report: Bay of Fundy International Marathon

It's the last weekend of June - which in New York City, is Pride Weekend! Saturday morning is the NYRR Pride Run, put on by my running club, Front Runners New York, which for this year, I have the great honor of singing the national anthem at!  At 5:45am, I wake up and am out the door by 6:15am while it's pouring rain outside to head to Central Park, as I'm requested by my friend Ryan, the race director, to be there by 7:00am.  I take the 7 train to Bryant Park, running into fellow FRNY member and Jackson Heights resident Marcus, as we head uptown along the B to the 102nd Street transverse.  We emerge from the subway and now the rain is coming down quite steadily, as we follow Cheer New York into the park.  The race is still about 40 minutes away, but we're all a little worried about how the rain will affect the numbers for this race - or if thunderstorms could cancel it altogether - but the show still goes on, and 102nd Street is abuzz with runners arriving to get bags checked and legs ready for one of the year's most popular 5-mile races in the park... in whatever weather ends up blessing us.  I find other Front Runners and hide from the rain under the FRNY, and don a transparent plastic rain poncho, waiting until I'm needed to head to the start.

With Shuga Cain and
FRNY President Dan Ferguson
At about 25 minutes til 8, I make my way to the start stage and luckily there's a tent covering the announcers and the sound equipment, so I get to stay a little dry.  I remark to the announcers about my plans for the weekend, and they work into their introductions about me that the Pride Run would be the start of a busy running weekend, as I'm heading to the airport that afternoon to fly to Maine for a marathon I'm running the next day. NYRR's President and CEO Michael Capiraso and I chat real quick, before he and Events Director Peter Ciaccia make some remarks on the microphone, and then up I go to sing the anthem.  It's still raining, but as I go through the 72 seconds of the song, the rain gradually begins to die down.  I finish and head deep into the corrals to get started with the race, and the race begins - within the first mile, the rain stops altogether, and the blue sky begins to peek out from underneath the clouds.

NYRR President Michael Capiraso
Instagrams this photo of me singing
before the Pride Run

I take it VERY easy during the race, walking every five minutes, as I'm hoping to see friends pass as we make our way counterclockwise around Central Park.  The rain from earlier, as well as the high humidity, soaks everyone through their shirts, but eventually the sun pops out, and by 40 minutes in, it's actually blazing.  I run solidly the rest of the race as soon as we get past Cat Hill, and finish in around 55 minutes, eagerly awaiting my popsicle.  I end up finishing near Michael Capiraso, so we take a selfie quickly before I head down to the festival stage on the transverse, as everyone gathers on the hill.  I manage to find friends after the finish, and gather for pictures, before heading off to the big FRNY group picture.  It was great being able to run the Pride Run again after not having done so the last two years as assistant race director, and partake in some of the activities other members had been able to do!

With the Welcome to Lubec sign!
It was getting close to 11, and I had a flight at 2pm out of JFK. After a quick shower at my friend David's hotel, I head to the airport for the direct flight from JFK to Bangor, Maine.  Upon arrival, I have a two hour drive from Bangor to Lubec, the easternmost point of the entire United States, and the site of the Bay of Fundy International Marathon.  State Route 9 was a really shitty road as it left Bangor; it seemed like I was driving on a constant rumble strip for some twenty miles.  It finally dissipated, but I had to deal with slow drivers and a single lane of traffic going in each direction.  Truck lanes were my saving grace, as I was able to pass.  Additionally, there were some hilly roads though as I made my way further east; taking US Route 1 from Machias to State Route 189 proved that those coastal roads don't get taken care of much either, and were even more worse off than than I had to deal with on State Route 9.

I arrived in Lubec at around 5:30pm, shaving some 15 minutes off of my projected arrival time, and managed to check in at the Lubec School to get my shirt, and then drive across the border into Canada to pick up my bib at the Campobello Island Visitors Center just on the other side of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge. Runners in the ultramarathon, marathon, and half-marathon do not have to stop at the border as they cross between Canada and the USA, but they are still subject to the normal entry requirements of both countries and must be pre-cleared by both border agencies ahead of time. The border guards on the Canadian side checked my passport as I drove over, as they would do for everyone, but they also checked my name and bib number off of a list provided to them by the race officials. 

Trying a whole lobster for the first time
After picking up my bib, I have some time to kill so I decide to hike around the nearby Friars' Bay area, before heading back across the bridge into the US, where the wait times were a little longer as border patrol scrutinized passports a little harder. Just like when I crossed over to Canada, the same methods were in place for crossing back over to the US, with the border agent checking my name and bib number off of a pre-provided list.  I headed to the Bed and Breakfast I was sharing with my friend Jessica to drop off my things, and was just about to leave when I run into her pulling up, having just arrived from the race's lobster bake.  With nothing else to do, she accompanied me to what seemed like the only restaurant in the city that was still open that evening - The Wharf, which was only a ten minute walk away.

The restaurant was quite the experience.  I decided that I needed to go big or go home with this Maine experience, and get a whole lobster... which I've actually never done in my life until that point. The photos Jessica was able to capture of me shelling a lobster for the first time were priceless. We had a neighboring table that helped me with the task, while also reading the provided directions printed on my placemat.  It was kind of a shitshow.... somehow, I got pieces of lobster on the window. And I was grossed out by the green stuff inside the lobster. By the time I was done, the table was a mess, and my hands and fingers smelled like lobster for the rest of the night.  We retired for the night early, as we were both pretty tired, me particularly after the early wake up, five mile run, and long travel day.

Photo op at the
West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
The next morning, I had another early wake up, heading out the door to walk to the Lubec School, about 0.6 miles away, to catch the shuttle to the start. I end up being on the FIRST shuttle out. While on the bus, I notice another wearing a FRNY singlet - and it happens to be a fellow FRNY member named Zinon who lives in Baltimore, but is still a member of the NYC club.  I was a bundle of nerves, as this is was going to be a HILLY race. While the course does not climb more than 200 feet above sea level, it goes up and down quite a bit in between. In fact, per the race director, the total course elevation gain is approximately 2,400 feet.

Our startline
The bus arrives at Quoddy Head State Park, and we wait around for awhile for the other busload of runners.  People take advantage of the extra time to take pictures of the beautiful West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, a 159-year-old active lighthouse that has served as an inspiration for many photographs and paintings and is also the actual easternmost landmark of the US, and of the Bay of Fundy - since this is pretty much one of only two times we're actually seeing the bay during the entire race (we either see Lubec Channel, Johnson Bay, Cobscook Bay or Friars Bay, not seeing the Bay of Fundy again until we get to the turnaround point at Mile 16 at the northern tip of the island)  Gradually, other marathoners come in on other shuttles, and we cheer the ultra-marathoners as they run in, making a turnaround at the lighthouse.  Meanwhile, it's a little buggy in the area, and I immediately notice that I have two mosquito bites on my forehead.  Great.

Running along S. Lubec Road
Our start time ends up beginning a little late, but I get up there and sing the national anthems for both Canada (just as the final two ultra runners end up coming in unbeknownst to the starting coordinator) and the USA. And then we take off.  It's 63°, sunny, and a bit humid, the mercury measuring at 83% humidity. A drone buzzes overhead as we take off, heading into town along S. Lubec Road.  The road, which gradually rolls through the town's hills, makes its way around the Lubec Channel, which at this time of the day seemed to be at low tide. But it wouldn't be for long - the Bay of Fundy produces some of the world's highest tidal bores, coming in to flood the Lubec Channel at a fast rate but not when us marathoners would be able to see. Out in the water, we could see the Lubec Channel Light, also known as "The Sparkplug," in the distance.

First signs to Canada!
The official international boundary!
We made the turn into Lubec proper at about the 4.5 mile mark.  The city closed down the eastbound lane of traffic on State Route 189, and we continued eastward into town, proceeding directly for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge, a decked steel truss bridge, which is the only road connection for Campobello Island, New Brunswick, to the mainland of North America.  This would be our first real hill challenge, going over the span of the bridge. We had one lane of the bridge open to the runners, as vehicles going between the Canada and US sides had the other lane.  It was very cool going over the bridge, as the actual line that demarcates the two countries is marked on the bridge, something you wouldn't get to see if you were just nonchalantly driving over.  As soon as we made it over the crest, we took advantage of the downhill and ran past the border house on the Canadian side, then began to ascend up the steep hill taking us deeper into New Brunswick.

Entering Canada!

Welcome to New Brunswick - and the beginning of 20 miles of running in the Canadian province!

Fields of lupines
The road was a straight shot up, and we finally reached the crest of the first hill in Canada. On the right was the Adventure Centre/Tourist Information Centre for the island, where I had gone the day before to pick up my bib.  A nice gradual downhill followed, as we made our way past the entrance to Friars' Head Park and the Roosevelt Cottage and Visitors' Centre. The island has long been a popular summer destination for wealthy Canadians and Americans, among them the Roosevelt family - in fact, 32nd US President Frederick D. Roosevelt spent summers on Campobello through childhood.  His summer retreat, a 34-room cottage, was acquired when he was an adult, and it is notable for being the only official property considered a home of a former president located outside of the United States. Along the way, were beautiful fields of purple flowers, which I later found out were called lupines.  They seemed to be everywhere on this island!

The road rolled variably as it met the shoreline.  We approached the 8 mile mark in the community of Welshpool, before turning right, and taking the course through a tough uphill section, with not much around us on either side.  We passed a motel or two, and peeking through the trees, the Herring Cove Provincial Park Golf Club, but otherwise, this section of the course was quite lonely, with few homes along our path.  By the time we reached the 10 mile mark, some of the fastest half marathoners were making their way toward us on the "back" portion of the course, as we were headed "out."  One of the first sights of something other than trees was Campobello Island's only school.

Running into Jessica near mile 11
Just past the 11 mile mark for the marathoners was the 10k mark for the half marathoners, and approximately where I found Jessica.  We took a quick selfie, and then I continued on.  Thankfully, the scenery began to change, as we ran past homes along the main road.  We went up a particularly difficult hill right after passing a small cove on the left that was only about 1/4 mile of distance.  A group of four who had been running together passed me, and became a little motivation for me, as two of the men in their group were running shirtless with particularly short shorts, and well toned bodies.  I picked up the pace as best as I could from there, and kept them within eyesight for the next mile.

Santa lives on New Brunswick?!
We reached the halfway point, and the rolling hills continued, as we made our way past Wilsons Beach.  This also happened to be where the half marathons had started their day, but in an area that was off of the main road.  We continued our way northward, along a stretch of road that continued all the way to the northernmost tip of the island, where the Head Harbor Lighthouse was situated.  A man who looked uncannily like Santa Claus sat near the 15 mile mark of the course, with a makeshift sign giving us approximate miles/kilometers to the turnaround point. As we got closer, we were treated to beautiful unencumbered views of the Bay, and likely some movements of whales coming up to the surface.  The turnaround mark was a relief, but then I basically had to go back through what I just ran - the tough uphills and screaming downhills... and for the next ten miles.

The tip of Campobello Island and Head Harbor Lighthouse in the distance.

In action along the course!
(Photo by Campobello
Whale Watch Motel)
Heading back down our path was tougher, as the temperatures had most definitely climbed, and the flies were bothersome and seemingly blind, as they relentlessly kept smacking into my hat and forehead.  It was also much more quiet, with fewer folks to share the road with, and a lot of us reduced to walking, having spent all of our energy going up and down, up and down. I saw Santa again as we headed southward, and he actually had more writing on the other side of his sign, giving us a glimmer of hope that we were down to single digits left... 9 MILES... before the border crossing back to the US.   I got to yell out a few words of encouragement to marathoners and ultramarathoners who were still making their way to the turnaround point as I headed back.  And I also made a couple new friends along the way, helping to encourage each other a little further through small talk and common distaste of the amount of hills we've been running.  The wind picked up a bit by the time we reached the 20 mile mark, something I had wished we had a couple hours earlier... but thankful it actually came to pass.

Lubec back in view with a few miles left

Views from the FDR Bridge
Looking down toward the US Border Patrol station

Victory Headstand!
The border houses were finally in view after one last natural hill on Campobello Island, and then there was the crest of the bridge to get over, before passing back into the United States and making the right turn to the finish line along Lubec's Water Street.  I pulled my phone out and jokingly yelled out to the border guards as I ran by, "I have lactic acid, sweat, and salt to declare!" to their laughs, and hustled on to the finish.  I crossed the finish line, with an exclamation of "41 marathons!" to the delight of the announcer, in 5:30:00 exactly.  I received my handcrafted pewter local marine species inspired medal, engraved with the race information on the back, designed by local artist Richard Klyver. My Garmin measured the temperature at the finish to be 77°, less humid, but the sun out and blazing.  It definitely was a bit warmer than that in the hour prior to my finish.  I quickly found Jessica, grabbed a small cup of soup, as I scrambled to get my headstand photo done (with the FDR bridge in the background, of course!), and then rushed back to the bed and breakfast to shower, and get on the road, as I was running a tiny bit late to get back to Bangor for the last flight back to NYC.  I made it back in record time, and was the last to get on the plane due to long lines at security (of course, Bangor does NOT have a separate TSA pre-check lane, as it is so small... and I still had my hands swabbed and my backpack filled with sweaty clothes inspected, to the chagrin of the TSA officer).  I was exhausted to get back home, but happy to be done with a 31.2 mile weekend!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Race Report: Grandma's Marathon

Grandma's Marathon in Duluth has a storied history that goes back 40 years.  First run in 1977 by a mere 100 runners, the race was named after the newly opened Grandma's Restaurant - the only local business that would sponsor the then-fledgling event.  Today in its 41st running, over 13,000 runners participate over both the main event Grandma's Marathon and the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.  The marathon course runs point-to-point from the town of Two Harbors and continues along Scenic Route 61 next to Lake Superior into the city of Duluth. The finish is located in Canal Park, near Grandma's Restaurant, which is next to the highly visible Aerial Lift Bridge.  Many people consider Grandma's to be THE race to do in Minnesota, for those aiming to finish marathons in all 50 states (of course, Twin Cities Marathon may digress...)  And lucky for me, I secured the national anthem gig in March, after initially emailing the Executive Director back in October 2016, allowing me to check off the state of Minnesota in my national anthems challenge.

Being a Saturday race, I needed to get into Duluth the night before, and I only had so much time to work with because of work.  I had been set up by my friend Pretty to stay with her friend Julius and his wife Kirsten in their hotel, and they were going to get my bib for me at the race expo.  I set into motion a Plan A and Plan B, when upon realization that my layover in Minneapolis (MSP) was a quick 62 minutes long before flying off to Duluth (DLH).  New York City flights automatically tack on a considerable amount of padding to make up for the sometimes extensive taxiing before take off, but even then, I didn't trust my flight to get into MSP with enough time. I continued to check my flight status while in the air, and unfortunately, bad weather passing over central Wisconsin forced us to divert from our original route.  The inbound aircraft for my connecting flight coming from Chicago was also diverted, rather extremely over Lake Michigan (which, if you know geography, is completely in the wrong direction).

Somewhere in the middle of my flight to MSP, my connecting flight to DLH changed from arriving on time to half an hour late (which would've been fine with me, landing at approximately the same time as my delayed LGA to MSP flight), to being TWO HOURS delayed, and then eventually 2 1/2 hours.  Due to weather, operations switched out the original inbound plane (coming from Chicago) to a plane coming in from Omaha.  However, due to weather, that plane ended up being diverted too, to Kansas City, and then ended up going back to Omaha.  By the time we landed and I made my way to the connecting flight's gate, my Duluth flight was scheduled to leave at 1am.  Not going to happen.

I realized my friend Seth was coming in from Florida to Minneapolis via Charlotte on American, and was due to arrive at around 10:30pm. His plan was to drive the 2 1/2 hours from Minneapolis to Duluth, arriving there by 2am.  So, rather than stay at the airport, I decided to join him (and another friend Sandra, also from south Florida, and who also had a horrific day of travel) at their gate coming in from Charlotte and then we were off to Duluth.

All aboard the North Shore!
During our drive I called up Delta to arrange for a refund for the MSP-DLH leg of the trip, since the weather delay was enough to call for one; and while I waited for awhile, I was treated to an amazing "gift," instead; because I chose to get to my final destination by car, they refunded the money from my entire one way flight - meaning BOTH segments - AND allowed me to keep all of the frequent flier mileage and elite status miles that I banked from the LGA to MSP leg.  I basically got mileage for FREE!  Score!  I pretty much slept the entire drive up to Duluth, and after dropping off Sandra at the dorms at UW-Superior (where she would sleep for maybe one hour before joining her friends at the startline for the half), Seth and I headed to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC) parking lot, and decided to sleep in the car for the next two hours until we woke up to change into our race clothes.  We would then board the North Shore Scenic Rail up to Two Harbors.  Another unique element of this race, runners have the option to take an antique steam locomotive along the scenic heritage rail all the way up to the startline, with a beautiful view of Lake Superior as the sun began to rise.

The sun rising over Lake Superior
Maniacs heading up to the start
(Photo by Larry Wasson)
When we were all set to go, I met up with Julius near the trains, who brought my bib for me as well as a goody bag that was dropped off at their hotel by the race directors. It took about 40 minutes to get to Two Harbors, and I pretty much slept the entire way, sitting with a group of maniac friends old and new.  We got off the train in Two Harbors, with tons of runners already having arrived from the buses.  It was slightly muggy, but comfortable; but the air damp from rains that came the night before. I could see lots of large mosquitoes (endearingly referred to as Minnesota's state bird) preying on unsuspecting runners.  I took care of my pre-race rituals before heading to the PA tent to get ready to sing the national anthem. The tent was located in an elevated area overlooking the street, next to a row of port-a-potties.  Fragrant, yes.  As 7:30 rolled around, I sang the anthem to nearly 7000+ attentive runners, their family and friends, and race volunteers and personnel.  Notably, as I sang "and the rockets red glare!" I could feel a mosquito crawling up my right leg.  GAH!  Thankfully, it did not do any damage to my revered marathon running gams... and they were safe before we took off for the 26.2 miles at 7:45pm.

...and the rockets red glare

The startline!
Lots of trees, lots of runners...
The race started a few minutes late, but when we did, we took off to "Chariots of Fire" blaring over the speakers.  It was warm - my Garmin measured the temperature to be 64°F that morning with 83% humidity, though a bit cloudy. Alongside fellow maniacs Donni and Carol, who I ran into at the start, we crossed the start mats and off we went along Old Highway 61, aka the North Shore Scenic Drive.  The NSAIDs I took before the race (yes, I know.. not recommended before a marathon... my legs and right hip were still a little sore from last week's downhill debacle!) hadn't kicked in, but I carried on, notching nice-and-easy 10-minute miles, with an occasional 9:30 or 9:40 sprung in.   These first few miles were a very gradual downhill, with an occasional hill in the distance that allowed us to see the true breadth of the number of runners running this race.
And now the sun has come up!

Lake Superior, a lakeside home, and a bunch of ducks

One of the parts of the race right up against the lakeshore.

What a back tattoo!
For much of the race, especially from the start til around mile 18, your views are pretty simple... trees to the right, and the occasional house.  Trees to the left with several lovely views of Lake Superior, and the occasional lakeside house.  It's beautiful, but in all honesty, it can get monotonous if you rely on views to make the race for you.  Occasionally, runners will see some interesting sights along the way - in terms of other runners.  Apparently, in this part of the country, running in cargo shorts is a thing; I saw three separate runners running in them (Who knew?!)  And with the heat and humidity being quite a factor, several male runners were running shirtless, which showed off some nicely sculpted shoulders, and in some cases, some artful back tattoos.  However, what makes this race a favorite for so many people is the crowd support.  While it isn't everywhere, when and where there are people cheering on the side of the road, they are there IN DROVES, and are reveling in your amazing feat of running 26.2, putting one foot in front of another as an inspirational accomplishment.  Lots of cowbells can be heard pushing you right along, and some folks even put their sprinklers out on toward the road, a benefit to the runners needing the cool-down as best as we could.

Refreshing. Especially since it wouldn't rain til later!

About 17 miles in...
The race is advertised as a relatively flat race, but in all honesty, the race is not as flat as it may seem.  There are a decent amount of rolling hills in the race, as the race has a minimum elevation of 604 feet and a maximum elevation of 736 feet, with a total of 388 feet of gain and 504 feet of loss.  The biggest uphills come at 5.25 miles, 8.4 miles, 9.1 miles, 21 miles, and then the biggest just after 22 miles (the infamous "Lemon Drop Hill").

Photo by Julius Mabandos
My lack of sleep and adequate preparation was a big factor in me slowing down significantly by the 11 mile mark of the race.  By the time I reached the halfway point, I knew I was not going to be able to break 5 hours like I hoped.  I reached the halfway mark in about 2:23, nearly 13 minutes slower than what has been my average halfway point of races in recent memory.  Near the 15 mile mark, Seth caught up with me, after having started near the back of the pack and running with some friends along the way.  Shortly after running with him for a mile, the 5 hour pacers passed by, and he took off with them while I continued to slog on.

Duluth city limits. 8 miles to go!
We reached the Duluth city limits at the 18 mile mark, and almost immediately the surroundings changed to more of the leafy suburban type residential areas I have been used to running in - and on London Road, as it was now called as we started to run within the city.  Lake Superior was still mere hundreds of feet away (those lucky homeowners right along the lakeshore!) but on either side were single family homes eager to greet the runners less than eight miles away from the finish of the marathon, easily seen as a celebrated event in the area.  Families were parked outside on their front lawns and driveways cheering runners on and offering support in various ways - be it the aforementioned sprinkler, or additional water.  But at mile 19, I found a simple tent on the left side of the road, where a woman was grilling hot dogs.  Starving at this point, I stopped to have her make me one, and for the entire next mile, I happily devoured that hot dog.  Along the way, another spectator offered cans of beer to runners, and I gladly took one as well.  Needless to say, my split for that mile of the race was nearly 20 minutes long.  Oh well.
A Mile 19 hot dog and beer.  My food stop gave me a 20 minute mile.  Oops.
A parade of trolls.  A yearly tradition!
At around mile 21, I spotted dozens of troll dolls on the side of the road. Homeowner Barb Collett has for several years displayed troll dolls on the curb in front of her home. The first year she did this, her idea started with ten troll dolls, set up to look like they were offering high-fives of encouragement to runners. Nowadays, the collections has grown to over 150 troll dolls, serving two purposes: providing an unexpected sight for runners to respond well to late in the race, and allowing young marathon watchers to take the trolls home for a year as long as they promise to return them at the following year's Grandma's Marathon.

The dreaded "Lemon Drop Hill"

A gloomy looking raincloud approaches.
Not far in the distance, as we continued into Duluth proper, we could see a bit of an incline under skies that were beginning to look a bit ominous. That was the race's notorious “Lemon Drop Hill,” named after a restaurant that used to be located there but closed down in 1990.  It actually used to be much more of a hill, but the incline was decreased during an expansion of Interstate 35 around the same time the restaurant had closed. Placed so late in the race at mile 22, the climb is a marked difference compared to the general flatness of the rest of the race -- it could be considered a steep but short hill, and after it, there's a nice gradual downhill along the next mile that allowed me to recover and push through the final 5K of the race.

Maybe ten minutes after this photo, the skies opened up.
With two awesome marathoner
friends Rhonda and Dee Dee!
The last 5K included passing the Duluth Rose Garden, and then turning slightly onto East Superior Street as we raced through downtown Duluth.  One of the last few aid stations had Spice Girls, playing "Wannabe" which I rather gleefully joined in on lipsynching and actual singing to as I walked by.  The skies were turning very grey by that point, and it was only a matter of time before the clouds would unleash their rains on the runners.  Still, there were many spectators out along the course cheering the 5 hour+ runners on, as well as entertainment -- I spotted a belly dance troupe performing on the side of the road!

Victory Headstand!
By mile 25, the rain started.  And it came down heavily.  With just a little over a mile to go, me and the runners around me were DRENCHED.  It was a slight bit of a pick me up though; those clouds could also mean lightning, and the race could very well be cancelled if it was spotted.  We made the left turn on 5th Avenue, a slight incline as we went over I-35, and took Harbor Drive all the way around the convention center in Canal Park.  I spotted my friend Jamie Ryder as I made one of my last few turns.  We turned right onto Railroad Street, then made our way around Lake Place Drive and Canal Park Drive before, lo and behold, there was the finish line.  I picked up my speed and crossed the finish line in 5:31:25.  And just my luck... the rain actually decides to stop over those last hundred meters as I cross the mat.

With Grandma's Marathon race director  - and fellow Michigan alum - Greg Haapala

Post race celebration
(Photo by Pretty Soelaiman)
The race was my slowest finish since March, but considering the temperature at the finish was 73°, (with slightly less humidity at 57%), and definitely a good five degrees warmer than at the start, the sun bearing down on us, and my travelling issues the night before, I was happy.  I got to see a few friends as they crossed the line as well, before boarding the buses and heading to Pretty's hotel to grab a shower -- I was staying with her and her friends for Saturday night.  We all headed into town for a late lunch before Seth and Sandra headed back down to Minneapolis for their flights home.  The rest of the day was spent exploring around the city of Duluth, and checking out the mechanics of the famous Aerial Lift Bridge, Duluth's most famous landmark, and the background of my victory headstand photo.

With Sandra at a local distillery!
It was later that evening that I found out that I got pretty sunburned over the course of the race. In the hubbub of the travel issues the night before, I forgot to apply sunscreen that morning before the race.  Stupid me... so I spent the remainder of the weekend, being very conscious of the sunburn on my shoulders and arms.  Sunday morning, our crew drove back down to Minneapolis, stopping at the Mall of America, before heading to the airport for our flights home.  Another race and state, check!

The aftereffects of forgetting to wear sunscreen...  OUCH.