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.

1 comment: