Grandma’s Marathon Race Report
Race Date: Saturday, June 17, 2023 – 7:45am
My path to Grandma’s Marathon started in a painful state on the ride home from Twin Cities Marathon 8 months prior. I finished with a personal worst of 3:47 at the marathon, unless you include winter trail versions of the race distance… in which case I finished one faster and one slower. Although I expected a pretty poor result at TC, finishing the race left me so hungry to put together a solid running program. And there is no better race to train for to get super fit than a road marathon. Grandma’s Marathon registration opened that very day, and so it seemed too perfect not to sign up on the spot. I had immediate buyer’s remorse because the pain and immense challenge of a road marathon was so very fresh in my mind and legs, but I also knew what it’d take to train well and satisfy my desire to get in a really good running shape again. I knew I’d have to be extremely diligent and focused to even get close to my personal best.
Another factor was my brother Andrew, a burgeoning road marathon specialist. He had just set another personal best at the marathon distance with a 3:10, and I just didn’t feel right about him crushing me at the race that we started and ran 7 miles of together. I knew I wasn’t in good shape and he was in prime shape, I knew I shouldn’t beat him, and I was truly happy and proud of his impressive accomplishment. But, it strengthened my identity crisis and conflicted state. I say I’m a runner, but to run a bunch of miles in the 7’s then drop way, WAY down to walking and the minimum amount of running to barely stave off a 12 minutes per mile pace… That is not me and I had to change it.
A couple months later, more or less on New Year’s Day as I visualized all the stuff I wanted to accomplish in the following 365 days or so, getting to work on a training plan was the focus. I started off with a 5 miler on a Saturday in the snow – a nice long run to kick things off. It took an hour, and without any consistent running for many months, my hamstring was shocked by the effort. In fact, the tweak never went away. But, I put together an absolutely prime build phase into the spring to when the NMTC spring trail race series started up and I had planned to transition to a more speed focus. I had the rust-busting classic Fitger’s 5k in April, then Maple Grove Half Marathon on my radar as a marathon tune-up in my hometown, the Grandma’s Marathon a month later. As my training plan shifted, I felt that I made a crucial mistake while staying out of town for work. I stayed up a little too late for a couple nights, didn’t prioritize my routine, maybe a few other small slips here and there but got to Fitger’s 5k weekend in mid-April ready to race. The 5k race went well and I was pleased with my time on a windy day. I did a 20-miler with Kyle the next day. Kyle and I ran lots of miles together in this training block, since we were both registered for Grandma’s Marathon and the Superior Fall 50 Miler way off in September. The 20 mile training run went well as well, especially having run 9 miles with a hard 5k in the middle just the day before. But I could tell my right leg was feeling the stress. My left hamstring from day 1 had slowly phased into a strange tight spot at the top of my iliac crest. It never changed much, though. Never much worse, but definitely not ever better depending on mileage and effort. The right groin/thigh, however, was suddenly a major concern when the next morning I hobbled to start my 5:30am run. The next morning, right on the routine at 5:30, it was quite a bit worse and more painful. With the first NMTC race in a week and a day, I had to get real smart real quick. I went through all the options and scenarios I could think of, and decided that my best bet was to completely sideline training mileage and prioritize recovery and racing. I had a big bank of miles in the bag. If I could drop down my mileage and strictly focus on the trail race series and Maple Grove Half, and phase to gravel biking a bit, that could potentially allow my legs to heal while still making improvements to my marathon aspirations. Or, at least enable a start at the dang race.
So, every Wednesday night race went well but I paid for it every Thursday with a very tight thigh from my right groin to the inside of my right knee. The Maple Grove Half Marathon was stress inducing. The lack of training and in general just feeling like my tight, diligent routine was down the crapper did not bode well for my confidence or expectations. I figured I could shoot for 6 minutes each mile, 13 in a row, and just see how it goes. Hold on. The race went great. I led the from the start and ended up winning in 1:21. My pace fell off a bit, but it was a solid, even effort and to win is always a confidence booster. So, despite feeling physically injured, things were not going bad. My main frustration was that the build went so good, that I felt like I had the potential for a very special Grandma’s, and messed it up. In my mind I could pinpoint where it all fell apart. Where my hat blew off the bridge into the Missouri, so to speak.
The next stressful race before the big, looming, scary Grandma’s Marathon was Le Grand Du Nord 100 mile gravel bike race. I had very, very little bike mileage although my time to rack it up became very accessible after running training fell off. I squandered my chance to log a solid build-up to the Memorial Day weekend event. Plus, getting my bike tuned to perfection was a time-consuming struggle to the very last minute. However, the miles that I was able to spend on my bike, the race itself and the really solid outcome only further bolstered my confidence that I could actually put together an acceptable Grandma’s. So, as race week got closer I was able to justify a 3-hour goal time. That was my brother’s long time goal as well, especially after his breakthrough TC Marathon race. I felt that a PR was completely out of the cards for me (although I had hope into April), but that a 3-hour race was probably feasible. But ALSO that the goal would be a serious challenge and a serious accomplishment. Since running 2:48 at Grandma’s in 2015, I hadn’t achieved the 3-hour threshold in 4 subsequent attempts. To get there, I couldn’t have a bad race with bad decisions made. I had to be on mentally, physically and emotionally.
Even at a Grandma’s race expo booth where I saw my pal Kyle Sather stationed, who was pacing the 3:40 group, my confidence was shaky. He handed me a 3:00 pacing wristband with 26 times listed. The first time, denoting the first mile split of 6:52, put things into perspective. Holy crap, 26 miles in a row in the 6’s. I didn’t really, truly believe it was possible but decided that going out with the 3:00 group led by Duluth running legend-in-the-making David Hyopponen would be a viable strategy.
Race morning was pristine. Chilly, light winds, sunshine and thousands of smiling, nervous, excited runners ready to give the pain cave a shot. Andrew, myself and my childhood friend Matt (who was set to try his first marathon) rode to UMD then a bus to the start line and waited around. Eventually I situated myself within clear eyeshot of David and his pace group sign. One side read “3:00” and the other read “6:52”. Oof. F-16 jets flew overhead in bright blue skies. I started the race right next to Andrew. With a blaring horn denoting the race start, we patiently waited for the couple hundred elite runners ahead to clear the line. Then, slowly, the crowd lurched forward until we could run across and start on our way from Two Harbors to Duluth.
I felt smooth running right out of the gate. Phew. I didn’t do any type of warm-up at all. I had one gel in my hand, ready to eat at 45 minutes, and two more in my shorts for precise 45-minute intervals of 1:30 and 2:15. My shorts were bouncing and I didn’t like it, so immediately struggled to fish one out of my pocket for my other hand. It got caught in the micro pocket. Ugh, not the way to start the race! Don’t drop this whatever you do, I told myself. The stampede of people would make retrieval impossible. I heard then saw a person behind to my left get tripped or trip or otherwise fall flat on their front. Yikes. It was a hectic start with people all around me across the entire road on all sides all within a forearm’s reach. Thousands of us! But, the miles clicked off in the gentle morning light just like that. We did 6:46, 6:41, 6:43, and I was a little surprised to be right with David and his 3-hour group after a few speedy miles. We were moving! Andrew was right beside me for the first hour, although I tried to run my own race and my own feel within reason. My training partner Kyle was out front, completely out of sight from the start, and I wanted to keep Dave in sight. He’d know how to pace me to 3. Then, why are we going sub-6:50 pace mile after mile?? In Knife River, there were people packed in the roads. I saw a kid’s hand stick out so loudly from the crowd and had to high-five it. I ran right past with my hand flexed wide and smacked the kid’s hand. Ow! I could feel that one! Sorry kid!
I recalled Grandma’s Marathon 2019 where I split from Sather and Ian at mile 7 or so, under the railroad bridge just past Knife River. I kind of had to pee again at this spot… But I didn’t peel off. I can hold it, I told myself. Through 10 miles, I was trying really, really hard to not pay attention to the pace group, or Andrew, or my watch, but to first focus on feel. I wanted to ensure at all costs, including but not limited to walking, that I was feeling comfortable. I felt like I knew what that really truly felt like… that I could sense with accuracy if I was pushing just a little to hard and breathing too heavily, or if my consistent 6:48 pace was actually smooth and sustainable. It seemed easy… enough. I tried to use hard data with my watch’s heart rate reading to confirm that, and felt like in the green Zone 3 was good. Zone 4 was acceptable. I tried to focus on my form and being calm.
Through the halfway mark, Andrew was running right besides me. I visualized us running like this, more or less stride for stride, the whole way until the end then laying it all down on the home stretch. How cool would that be? I got goosebumps just thinking about it. We went through the half-way mark just under 1:30. Perfect. With a couple minute buffer, if I really felt good then I think a 3-hour race was actually in the cards. It was almost unbelievable at the time. I just have to hold it together and keep it easy, I told myself. And the miles kept clicking by. There were lots of people with similar 3-hour marathon aspirations, and it was pretty busy down the entire Scenic 61 section with many runners and the popular pace group around me the whole time. Closer to Brighton Beach and the departure of Scenic 61 onto London Road, I didn’t pay attention to where the pace group was, where Andrew was, or really anything besides keeping my running smooth and controlled. I never saw either of them again as I logged a 6:33 mile feeling extremely good coming across the Lester River. This was the hardest part of the course, though, I told myself. Why would you run a 6:33? I was excited to see my friends at 43rd Avenue and get into Duluth.
I was feeling amazing, somehow, but knew that the pain would be soon to come. I could feel my form deteriorate and my running get more caveman-like. So, I utilized some mantras. I kept saying “smooth and steady, calm and collected, easy running” over and over and over. One time, I mixed up my phrase and said “easy money” to myself. What?? Whoops. But then, I felt that that saying was actually very relevant, although not super motivational. Andrew and I had laid down a hefty $100 bet the night before on the winner of this race. I was pretty confident… I had beat him at the Maple Grove Half after all, and was surprised by his unflinching confidence when he shook my hand and the bet was on. Now that I was pretty sure I was leading the race of two, it was true that with smooth and steady running, by keeping calm and collected, and by focusing on the fact that this is easy running, I’d make easy money! The bet, and my robust goal of 3 hours was mine to lose at this point. I had done an excellent job, with the help of David’s steady 6:45 pace in the 3-hour pace group, of setting myself up for a sub-3 finish. I’d eaten my second gel right at the half mark, at the aid station right there, and then my last one right on cue at 2:15. Like clockwork, and I was feeling good from a stomach standpoint. I was dunking water on my head and down my back at almost every aid station through London Road and drinking Powerade and water at most of them. I splashed the sticky blue drink in my eye twice in a row. How the heck does that happen? I thought the temperature was great and appreciated the nice weather even if perhaps a little warmer than perfect, because the fans are more excited when it’s nice out. I saw some of my fans: Jack, Angela, Brent and their kids Axel and Lily. I came over to them and Axel stood out for a high-five. Angela took a cool split shot of the 2019 race and the 2023 race, four years apart for my little supporter.
I yelled at them: “THIS IS WHAT WE WORK FOR!!”. It gave me a big boost of speed, but soon thereafter I felt a large weight holding me back. The effort of the day, perhaps paired with my lack of long runs since mid-April, was catching up with me. I tried to hold that back with self-talk and the mental game. I repeated my mantra out loud, and probably looked like a sheer maniac talking to myself with under-the-breath mumbles: “smooth and steady, calm and collected, easy running”, “smooth and steady, easy running”, “smooth and steady, easy running”. Over and over. With each stanza I was reminded to keep my legs churning, keep my posture strong, to drive forward with my knees. I felt the muscle tension in my hamstrings, quads, and calves. I started to struggle mentally and physically with 5 miles to go. I could tell my pace was slipping. I didn’t have much to play with if I wanted a time that started with 2, but I had a little bit. I absolutely had to keep it together. My brother chasing me was a fleeting visualization that was quickly replaced by “easy running”. I felt good attacking Lemon Drop Hill from Glensheen, which was historically been a very challenging part of the race course for me.
Up Lemon Drop, perhaps the crux of the race, I felt some real leg pains. Oof. The uphill was dreadful as my screaming calves and hamstrings begged for mercy. Nope, keep them moving!! Faster! Up and over and I felt better. I was passing people. I spotted my training partner Kyle ahead and caught him quickly. I yelled at him to stick with me. To make the pass gave me a small boost, but that quickly faded. I was very excited to pass Duluth Running Co., where I’ve never not received a massive boost. In years past, many friends have been there. I focused on that and repairing my failing form. It’s easy running, I told myself. I no longer had to remind myself to keep the running easy, but rather convince myself that the pace and effort was such that it could be considered easy running and therefore I could maintain it.
As my watch beeped at Mile 23 in 6:59, I realized that I hadn’t run a mile over 7 minutes the entire race, unless I missed one, which was unlikely. I knew I was slowing down, but suddenly had a new goal in mind. How cool would it be to keep every mile under 7? It is in reach! But I realized while climbing up the avenue to Superior Street that it was not in reach. I slogged up and turned the corner, then puffed my chest out and churned my legs fast to zoom past DRC. I saw my friends Alisha and Kelcie screaming at me. That was a major motivation. They were going crazy! I also saw my neighbors Pete, Susan and Clarence six blocks down from our homes and yelled a familiar line at them: “THIS IS WHAT WE WORK FOR!” I was jacked to get a sub-3 finish. Go get it baby, I told myself. However, a block later and through Mile 24, my energy slingshotted the other way and I felt completely depleted.
I saw a few other familiar faces getting into Downtown Duluth but I was pretty beat up at this point in all ways and had no boosts. I didn’t have the mental fortitude to keep it up. My body was wasted. I’m done. I was so excited to stop running and thought about the post-race beer. How much better would that taste with a finish time under 3 hours? So, so much better. I couldn’t let up, so I relied on my mantra again. I said it louder than ever, out loud to myself, right down Superior Street. Smooth and steady. Easy running. Smooth and steady. Easy running. It was working. I was all over the place, feeling strong and good for a fleeting couple of seconds, then immense pain and fatigue washing over me seconds later. Yet, I could recover. I skipped the 25th mile aid station completely to keep every second on my side for the finish stretch. I tried to convince myself that it’d be worth it to push really hard because it’s been nearly three hours and if I could just push a bit harder and run fast like I know I can for just five minutes, it’d pay off so much. I started checking my watch and trying to run math as I got to the DECC. A wind gust hit me and it felt refreshing. I rounded the corner with lots of runners still right around me. They were passing me. I had no kick. I wasn’t going to make it. I checked my watch. 2:54. Would I make it? Of course I would. I ran a few more strides, struggling to push around the Irvin. 2:56. Crap. I missed it. I couldn’t run any faster no matter what. It was a death march. No, I could do it. Pick it up, pick it up. Easy money or whatever. DO IT. I could just tell my form was terrible but I didn’t care. One foot in front of the other and push. Push!! I looked at my watch. 2:57. I was right there though.
Under the bridge, hard turn, little uphill, anticipation builds, then the sweet view of the finish. All pain subsides once we get to Canal Park Drive. The finish stretch is the boost of boosts. I looked at my watch yet again to see 2:58. Yikes. I picked it up one last time, finally pain free as I could envision stopping this terribly stupid running. One last check of the watch was unnecessary because I could see the race clocks with lots of 2’s. I stopped my watch at 2:59 after crossing the finish line. I was happy to not immediately cramp up because I had figured that’d happen from miles out. Instead, I yelled “YEAH” and pumped my fists a few times. Then, yep, there’s the pain again. I was extremely excited, although extremely fatigued.
Kyle came in right after me with a strong finish. I had to stay in the chute despite the volunteers’ strong recommendation to keep walking and clear the chute for collapsing and/or vomiting finishers. Andrew came in a few minutes back with yet another hefty PR, but over 3 hours. Unprompted, he paid his end of the bet shortly thereafter. Matt was 90 minutes later with a very gritty finish after experiencing extreme cramping for a solid 6 miles to close out a 4:29 on his debut. Two PRs, three very sore dudes, and lots of fun memories. In analyzing and reflecting, Grandma’s Marathon 2023 was not my fastest marathon effort, but it was perhaps one of the most solid and mentally strong races I’ve completed. My splits were all within 34 seconds of each other. After a training block that kind of fell apart, but now four solid races on the season and some highly-anticipated trail running races on the horizon, I couldn’t be more excited for how the day went. Grandma’s Marathon is very special to me and I will be back next year (welllllll, at least the half) and hopefully many, many more from there.