Friday, June 29, 2018

Race Report: Wild Hog Grand Forks Marathon

After a super early morning flight out of LaGuardia to Minneapolis (in First Class, no less... thanks Delta Platinum status!), I walked clear across the terminal from the F concourse to the A concourse to catch my connecting flight to Grand Forks, and arrived in town before 11am.  While a good portion of the northeast and midwest was experiencing the start of a strong heatwave, Grand Forks was overcast, cool, and windy.  It was nearly 25 degrees cooler in Grand Forks than it was in Minneapolis. Upon arriving, I considered booking a rental car with Enterprise at the last minute (if there were available vehicles) but quickly realized how expensive it would be for the short period of time I'd be there.  Uber had only started in Grand Forks in March, so it was very new, and there were not many drivers in the area, but I managed to book a vehicle that would arrive at the airport after a fifteen minute wait, and would cost me only about $16 to get to the race expo at Choice Health & Fitness, a fancy new fitness center on the southeast side of town, and near to where the start and finish line for the race would be.
Massive temperature change between Minneapolis and the entire state of North Dakota...
Upon arriving, I was directed toward the gymnasium of the fitness center, where the expo was being held. The expo had only opened about an hour earlier, and there was a little bit of a line to pick up bibs, but it moved pretty quickly.  While on line, I was able to check out a few of the booths on the way - purchasing a box of chocolate outrage GU to replenish my regular marathon stock and drinking a sample of locally roasted "Cowboy Coffee" from Bully Brew Coffee to wake me up a little! After picking up my bib, fleece, pint glass, and socks (so much race swag, nice job organizers!!!), I met with Rachel, the race director, to confirm logistics for the following morning.  I then got another Uber to take me to my hotel a few miles away.

I spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in the hotel and its vicinity, grabbing food close by (Olive Garden... there weren't many options), getting a pedicure at the Columbia Mall located behind the Fairfield Inn about a five minute walk away, and catching up on some much-needed sleep.  Some thunderstorms rolled in close by and brought in some strong winds to the area - being so flat and having no obstructions made it extra gusty.  I hoped and prayed that it wouldn't affect the race the next morning.

Early the next morning, I got myself dressed and ready for the race before walking over to the mall to pick up a shuttle to take me to the start. It was pretty early, and several folks were milling around but my friend Carrie was there, picking up her bib first thing, as she was driving in from Fargo an hour away. We sat in her car to bide the time and stay warm, as the winds had died down from the night before, but were still present... plus the temps were going to be in the low 50s anyway.

Marathoners at the startline
As the race start time approached, we noticed several people hovering around the inflatable arch positioned on South 11th Street, and in fact, a small group of Marathon Maniacs gathered to take our picture there; but that was not the startline, and it took a bit of time to realize it was a bit further up the street just north, and not even marked. Add to the fact that there weren't a ton of people there, it was a tiny bit disorganized trying to figure out where the actual startline was. The half marathon, which was going to have quite a few more runners, wouldn't start for another 45 minutes after our start, so the number of people out here doing double the distance (along with the relay runners) was pretty low.  This year was only the second year of the full marathon, after a successful inaugural in 2016, and about six years of putting on the half marathon as the main race.  Ultimately, we all found out where to go, and I found a race official who was directing everyone to a point in the street. We had the color guard present, but unfortunately, there was no amplification available for announcements and my anthem.  The hope was that my voice could carry, and thankfully it did.  Not only did I sing the "Star Spangled Banner," but I was also asked to do "O Canada," on a account of the small group of Canadians running the race driving in from points north of Grand Forks, just across the border in Manitoba - mostly from Winnipeg.  I even got an unexpected singer/runner to join in on "O Canada," who just so happened to be dressed in an Angry Birds costume.  North Dakota for ya.  Both renditions can be seen below.


Flat flat flat!
And then, we were off! It was a cool 52°, overcast, with a light wind. The course led us past the finish line arch southward as we ran past the fitness center where the expo was held as well as the ICON Sports Centre, a fairly new state-of-the-art ice hockey arena.  Notably, we also passed right by Wild Hog Smokehouse, one of the title sponsors for the marathon weekend.  We turned left onto 47th Avenue South, then right onto Cherry Street as we ran through a cookie cutter residential area, eventually re-emerging onto 47th Avenue South, before turning right onto Belmont Road, another largely residential street, but gradually moving further south to open land and fields of sugar beets growing on both sides (thankfully at this time of year, not in harvest, as I've heard from a North Dakotan friends that they can be quite pungent when in season.) Being so exposed, we definitely had a headwind on us, but it didn't affect me too much, as I maintained a pretty steady pace.  Carrie and I also leapfrogged one another throughout these first several miles.

Carrie runs with a banana in hand!
We turned left onto 62nd Avenue SE, before continuing further south along County Road 8, to areas even more exposed and open to the elements.  We were not even three miles into the race, and I was quickly realizing how most of this race would likely turn out - lots of open space, very similar to my race in Nebraska. My pace stayed around 10 minutes at the 3 mile, 4 mile, and 5 mile marks, as we continued along the course, eventually turning left onto County Road 6, then finally getting a slight change of scenery as we were essentially forced to turned left (since the road was ending!) onto the curvy driveway leading into the Grand Forks Country Club.  We then ran along a path that snaked its way through the country club, before emerging onto 16th Avenue SE, heading due northward, right up to the end of the road, where (once again) we were forced to turn, left this time onto County Road 17/62nd Avenue SE.  I didn't realize it, but we were actually only a few hundred feet away from the Red River, the natural border between the states of North Dakota and Minnesota.

After a one-mile loop through a residential area off of Lake Drive at the 10k mark, we began to continue northward, making our way up Adams Drive, before turning right onto Shadyridge Court. We had a somewhat pastoral setting we got to run around with some trees, thankfully different than the super flat sections we had run earlier.  It seemed that we had a Christmas Tree farm to our left as we ran around this curved street, running through an area with some nicer homes. 

Heading to the Greenway
The course veered north along Belmont Drive just after the mile 9 mark, before we began to follow a sidewalk path that made its way behind homes in this area, then hugging the large expanse of greenspace that abutted the Red River. We emerged back onto some residential streets (thankfully not having to run on the concrete, which I'm less inclined to run on for my knees' sake), then began to run right alongside the floodwall.  The southern trailhead of the Greater Grand Forks Greenway, a linear corridor of some 2,200 acres of open space areas, vegetation, and recreational features, begins here. As it relates to the Grand Forks area, it is the open space between the banks of the river and the constructed flood protection system (the floodwall). 

After the Red River crested at a record high level of 54 feet in in 1997, dramatically altering the landscape of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks (in Minnesota), the North Dakota congressional delegation and the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed the construction of a flood protection system, which included a massive greenway.  Its trees and greenery would be able to absorb floodwaters naturally. Dikes and floodwalls provide another level of protection to hold back river waters from the built-up city areas beyond.  Ultimately, the greenway is more than a device for flood mitigation; it is an enhancement to the quality of life for residents of the Greater Grand Forks area.

Entryway along the greenway
We continued to zig zag our way through the residential streets here, making our way northward, passing a few trail access points marked by clearly defined signage and gateway openings along the massive flood levee system. We were back onto Belmont Drive again, then turning right onto 32nd Avenue South, which turned into Elmwood Drive, continuing northward again onto Olson Drive before finally accessing the Greenway itself along the entrance on Elks Drive at the 12 mile mark of the race.

At this point, we were running along the path between the Red River and the Lincoln Golf Course, crossing the Pat Owens Pedestrian Bridge over the state border and the Red River into East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and the halfway point of the race.  I was maintaining a pretty good pace, as I reached that halfway point in just under 2:15.  Also, after running these first twelve miles leap frogging and running alongside Carrie from the start, we decided to start off the second half of the race at our own paces and I pushed ahead, but it wouldn't be for too long. Uniquely, the river flows northward through the Red River Valley, rather than southward, eventually crossing into the Canadian province of Manitoba and into Lake Winnipeg. While it is normally calm, as it was during the race, the massive floodwalls we ran by were a doting reminder of nature's potential, and how angry that river could become especially after snowmelt in this very flat part of the country.


Part of the greenway
in East Grand Forks
Now in Minnesota, we came off of the greenway and the course zigzagged us a bit through more residential areas in East Grand Forks, eventually spitting us out onto Bygland Road.  We headed northwest along this road, eventually making a severe turn onto 5th Avenue SE, and past a timing mat just before the 15 mile mark next to a Lutheran church. We ended up back on the pathways of  the greenway, crossing the Red Lake River over the Louis Murray Bridge (connecting the Point area to the North End of East Grand Forks) along one of the most exposed and windiest sections of the entire course.  At this point in time, the wind had picked up a bit, which wouldn't bode well for any more open sections. Thankfully, having looked at the course map before the race, there were sections that we'd run later right alongside the floodwall, which would act as a shield from any potential headwinds we'd encounter.  We ran through the LaFave Park Athletic Fields, and then under the Sorlie Memorial Bridge, a Parker through truss bridge and the oldest of its kind in the state.

The floodwall
We then began to weave along the concrete Greenway path within the Red River State Recreation Area, in East Grand Forks.  After passing an RV parking area, the path became pretty lonely as we continued on northward, finally reaching a pedestrian bridge at the 18 mile mark, as well as our last timing mat before the finish. The bridge crossed back over into North Dakota, taking us through Riverside Park, and past the Riverside Dam, a "rock-riffle" dam designed to hold back water and create deeper upstream pools, but descend down a gradual slope that resembles a natural set of rapids.  The greenway also took us past historic Riverside Manor, a low-income housing apartment building on the National Regsiter of Historic Places that was built in 1907 and survived the Red River flood. We followed a long straightaway segment right up next to the floodwall before we reached a section of the greenway next to Grand Forks' downtown historic district known as Town Square; there, we ran past a large stainless steel paddlewheel sculpture that frames the entrance to the gathering place, an area that was razed after the 1997 flood.  More notable was running past the flood memorial marker that commemorates the high point of the 1997 flood and other past floods, and the spot I decided would become my headstand background for this race.

Reeves Drive heading south
By the time we finally came off of the greenway near Kannowski Park, we were less than 10K from the finish.  After being apart for the last 7 miles, Carrie caught up to me, having only been 1.5 minutes behind me at the 18 mile timing mat.  We decided to run the last few miles together, as the course weaved its way back through residential Grand Forks headed to the start/finish area where we were at only three and a half hours earlier.  Carrie's pace quickened and she ran in front of me as we headed south along Reeves Drive just past the 21 mile mark. The road dead ended and we were to turn slightly right at 8th Avenue South, however an out-of-place barricade made it seem like we were supposed to turn left, which Carrie did; thankfully, when I realized the mistake, I yelled out to her, and she heard me, only back tracking a couple hundred feet as we kept on making our way south.

Belmont Drive; Carrie in pink just ahead of me
Entering Lincoln Drive Park
Eventually, Reeves Drive came to a dead end at Lincoln Drive just before the 22 mile mark, and we made our way east, with runners coming back in our direction.  This would be the large loop we'd make around Lincoln Drive Park, once a neighborhood that was created into a park after the flood.  Once a bustling historic neighborhood of 350 homes, it was the first segment of the Greater Grand Forks Greenway system that was completed on the Grand Forks side. After completing the tony 1.5 mile loop, we returned back on a southward route along Belmont Road (once again, but this time headed southward), where along the way, we encountered one of the last aid stations before the finish, but one that offered a little "kick" in the form of "Russian water," aka vodka, which I gladly partook in.


Russian Water.  Note the vodka bottles :D
The 25 mile mark!
Carrie was still in sight, but a good couple hundred meters in front of me.  At 24th Avenue South, we took a slight right turn, and ran down Chestnut Street up until it dead ended at Terrace Drive.  We veered right along this curvy street, hitting the 25 mile mark, and then headed left down Cherry Street, before reaching 40th Avenue South.  Soon, a familiar looking open space was immediately ahead as well as hearing faint music, and the turn along South 11th Street marked our final push to the finish.  I powered through, passing Choice Health and Fitness, making my way across the finish mat with Carrie there taking a photo of me crossing in 4:49:10, only a minute and a half behind her.  The temps by the end were only about 57°, meaning the temps stayed pretty steady the entire day.  The wind was a factor, but only when it became a headwind and when there was nothing to block it. But I was thrilled to be done with the race and ready to head home. Overall, it was a nice flat race, with an alright course that weaved through a lot of residential neighborhoods, but also offered a bit of local history running through areas (such as the greenway) that were affected and later mitigated by the 1997 flood. Before my afternoon flight, Carrie drove us back over to the downtown area to be able to pose with our finisher medals at the Flood Memorial Marker, and she dropped me off back at my hotel so I could shower before she drove back to her family waiting patiently back in Fargo.

Carrie's photo of me as I passed the finish line

An official photo by the Grand Forks Marathon


Victory Headstand at
the Flood Memorial
After a much needed shower and late check-out, I got an Uber to take me back to the airport (only $13 this time!) and grabbed a quick bite to eat in the airport before our flight began to board.  It was a very quick trip out to North Dakota, as I was heading back to New York City in time to run another race on Sunday morning -- the Bronx 10-mile race, one of New York Road Runners' borough series events, and one I hadn't done before.  The temps were markedly different, and sore legs and humidity meant slower times... but I finished that race too, to cap off an epic 36.2 mile weekend... and another state, my 36th, is completed - for both national anthems and marathons!

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