Race Day: Saturday, June 17, 2017 – 6:15am

It was fun to go back to the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon after running Grandma’s Marathon the past three years (2014, 2015, and 2016). Leading up to the infamous Grandma’s weekend in Duluth, my training was pretty good. I was running faster and stronger than ever, had a huge bank of running volume from the Zumbro ramp-up in March, and had done a pretty nice job of sharpening up and running fast on top of big miles.

I set a 50 mile PR and a 5k PR both in April, but took a few weeks nearly entirely off shortly thereafter with an achilles tendon scare. Luckily, I nipped any injuries at the bud and felt pretty decent with my half marathon training. My workouts, tempo runs (NMTC spring race series), and long runs were consistent and I felt pretty spry on race week. Long ago, my goal was 1:15. I thought I could break 1:15, but barely, while plotting my racing calendar in January. I thought 1:14:59 would be a great goal time, but started to think I had a sub-73 minute run in me. High expectations.

I felt like an idiot going to sleep on Friday night because I had a huge burrito and was really full. Why did I overstuff myself?? I woke up at 4:25am the next morning and nailed my morning routine. Cereal, Mt. Dew, and the bathroom stop was perfectly according to plan. I jogged down to the corner and met Savannah and a few other of her running buddies. We walked to Fitger’s, about a mile from my house, to catch the bus. This was the first time in 9 consecutive years not taking the bus from University of Minnesota-Duluth. I nibbled a few caffeinated jelly beans and drank some Mt. Dew and felt good. Ready to roll.

My legs felt OK once we got to the start line. Maybe a little heavy. I waited in line for the bathrooms and the final step of my pre-race routine was executed. I had plenty of time to find my way to the start line and do some warm ups. With around 7,500 people starting the race, it’s always an anxiety-provoking thought to get caught behind thousands of 2-hour half-marathoners.

It felt like no time before the race organizers corralled us behind the line and got the race start sequence underway. National anthem, equipment check, everyone is lined up, flags up, checking watches, and nervous energy of the fast runners all around me at the front. I could only image the throngs of people behind me.

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

Without further ado, the horns blasted and we were off. I had talked to Gregg before the start and he wanted to go sub-1:15. I had my sights set on Gregg right away. He’s a seasoned racer and knows exactly what to do, so if I could pace off of him I’d probably get my goal.

Otherwise, my pacing strategy was to go out at 5:40-5:45 pace and hope to feel good through mile 6. If the first six miles didn’t feel smooth, I’d have to reassess, but I figured they’d click right off given my fitness level. In training, 5:30’s felt easy to hold for a couple of miles, which is a good sign.

I couldn’t believe how fast the first mile went by. My watch beeped 5:30 and I remembered Savannah saying I’m an idiot if my first mile is the fastest one and there is no way I can do a 5:40 first mile. Well, what does that say about how my race will go, I thought? The second mile seemed to come and go in a flash and I was worried that the race would go by too quickly!

I saw Gregg and passed him. Another local runner, Adam Swank, latched on to my heels. We were with a little pack of people, a few elite women that came and went, but Swank did not waver from his place right beside me. My pace was right on track, in the low 5:40 range, and I was pleased to have a little buffer with the fast first mile. I was doing great mile after mile as they whizzed by until Brighton Beach.

I wasn’t super comfortable, but managing the pace really nicely. I felt a few stomach pangs. Nothing serious, really, but my systems felt a little off. I thought how I have to pee. No, that is a non-factor. Whatever. I have to poop. No, not this in a half marathon… My thoughts were a bit negative as we crossed the Lester River, and Adam ran away from me. Should I stop? Nah. But running was hard and getting slower. I lost my fluid rhythm. I didn’t feel right, to run at my pace was labored and it was because of some general discomfort with my systems. Then, I felt the unquestionable quench of the bowels around 4oth Avenue East, after a couple of slower miles. I still had the buffer, but truly could not decide if I’d be best to stop and get it out. I knew I could do my business quickly, and it would likely make the remaining five or six miles much more comfortable. Or could I gut it out and save the stop? OR would I poop my pants in front of hundreds of spectators on Superior Street and Lake Avenue? I’d have to move away from Duluth and never do Grandma’s again!

My pace slowed further by a few seconds, and I knew I was in the 6:00 per mile range. My legs felt OK, my breathing was fine, but it was some heaviness slowing me down. A heaviness that I could leave in a port-a-pottie. I didn’t know if it would help or hurt, but ate my one gel at the Glensheen Mansion. It went down fine.

I crested Lemon Drop Hill and did a few calculations. 4.1 miles left. I was slowing to about 20 seconds below my race pace. I was maybe 20 seconds down from my goal time of 1:14:59. Gregg had passed me, looking really good with a rock-solid group. I couldn’t latch on.

Lemon Drop Hill felt OK, actually, but I have run and raced enough in my life to know my body. And once you feel “The Clench”, it never gets better, it only gets worse, despite sometimes coming in waves. At 21st Avenue East, I couldn’t focus on the cheering fans everywhere. It was a terrible feeling, and I made the decision to stop at the john. Terrible. How do I have to make an emergency dump stop at a half marathon? At Zumbro 50 mile in March I’d run with less stops!! Crap!

Photo credit: Tone Coughlin – Endurance Kennels LLC

Photo credit: Tone Coughlin – Endurance Kennels LLC

Luckily, it was in and out, and I was determined to let ‘er rip on the final 5k with no mental (or physical) blocks. I sprinted out of the capsule feeling great, and with something to prove. I had to justify and offset the stop.

It was just what I needed to completely change the tone of the race. Shortly thereafter, my watch beeped to signify I was 10 miles into the race. The time it took to run the previous mile was 6:38. A full minute slower than what that mile should have been. Or could have been. That’d take a fast 5k to make it up! I couldn’t do the math, and figured I’d put that mental energy into finishing the race as fast as I could, without questioning what may have happened down that final stretch down Superior Street. With huge volume in my legs, and a decent threshold speed built up, it was time to shred.

Photo credit: Grant Johnson

I was finally able to soak in the crowd support, and I felt like I was flying. It was still a bit painful, but I could hold on and felt like I was running at a good clip. My watch’s mile splits confirmed that, and I was back on track with high 5:30’s/low 5:40’s per mile coming into Downtown Duluth. Duluth Running Company is always a welcome boost of adrenaline, and I ripped down that block. All downhill from here, I thought…

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

All I could do was hold it together through Lake Avenue, and I was passing people, which fueled the fire. I sped up. I glanced at my watch to see the mileage and time, and did some quick guesstimates. A fine consolation to sub 1:15 would be a finish time IN the 1:15’s, and I was going to be very close. So I picked it up. I bashed my quads on the up-and-down across 5th Avenue West, and passed a couple more struggling elites.

My face started to form a grimace, and my stride lengthened considerably as I dug deep to find higher gear. I remembered the Superior NMTC race where I consciously increased my cadence and pulled away from Nate (who was about to start the marathon at the moment the thought crossed my mind). I tried that method for a second but reverted back to overstriding. It was ugly but who cares. Another glance at my watch and I was disheartened to see that I missed my primary goal of 1:14:59. However, I was past the William A. Irvin and just had a few more seconds of pain left. I was breathing really heavy, and started to feel a drag while running under the Lake Avenue bridge. Around the hotels and the finish line was in sight. One final glance at my watch and I knew I had to kick it in in a major way to at least get a 1:15. I sprinted, my eyes on the clock perched high above the finish line.I knew I was close enough to the start line for that time shown to be accurate.

I passed the announcer line and heard my name. The adrenaline was pumping so hard at this point it would be impossible to slow down. My field of vision narrowed as I lunged across the finish. I remembered to stop my watch shortly after the finish, and and was happy to see 1:15:XX as my run slowed to a jog then to a walk. Good for a solid PR by nearly two minutes, but I hadn’t run a half marathon outright in over two years!

I was pissed as I finished. My immediate emotion was frustration. How could I dump during a stupid hour-long race? Weak! I blame the burrito! No, no, I can’t stay mad at burritos. My frustration changed to happiness and elation as I had a medal hung around my neck, and collected my shirt, beer ticket and chocolate milk. If anything, I was eager to find another half marathon to race soon while I have the fitness. Adam came in in the 1:13’s, and Gregg finished in 1:14:50. Double crap! I knew if I could stick with Gregg, I’d be right on the money. I figured that if I didn’t stop for the e-dump, my pace would have stayed around the 6:00 per mile region and my time would be much worse. Strategically, perhaps it was the right move. But a flub in race execution no doubt.

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

With Grandma’s Weekend over with, I am super excited to revert back to long trail training and racing. I think having a fast half marathon under my belt is a good base to pile trail mileage onto.

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 68/7,337
Time: 1:15:54
Pace: 5:48

Shoes: Saucony Freedom ISO
Food: Gu Roctane Tutti Frutti

Race Day: Friday, April 7, 2017 – 11:59pm

Never in my life have I had such a perfect training block leading up to a race. I guess that is a bold statement to make, but I feel like there is always some sort of question or apprehension, some little nagging injury or training fall-out that makes you question the pending performance. This year, this race, and with race week taper in full force, I was so content with every single mile I had put in and the output of fitness it produced. I was running faster and stronger than ever.

With a second-place finish last year at Zumbro, and no Kurt Keiser (2016 winner and course record holder), no definite slam dunk winner on the start list, I had one thing on my mind. One goal, one mission, a singular reason to toe the line. I wanted to win. Bad. It’s a tough thought to have, and an impossible one to wash out of your mind once it creeps in. As fit as you are, you can’t control who else is on that start line and what sort of shape they are in. Well, if you’re Tonya Harding you have that control, but I don’t own a baton. Either way, I was racing for the top spot.

12 months prior, I ran 8:32 while pacing for 9 hours. I hit just under my goal of 8 hours at Voyageur 50 with less-than-ideal training, and so I figured that 8 hours would be a good benchmark or time to pace off of. Then again, Zumbro is a hard course. The midnight start adds a different level of complexity, but 2:40 each 16.7-mile loop works out so nicely! My plan was to try to hit a tad under 10 minute pace for two loops and then let ‘er rip.

The weather was looking simply perfect for the run. Low 40s and dry for the whole night. I drove from Duluth Friday morning after getting a solid 11 hours of sleep, plus took a nap. It’s such a weird day just milling about, waiting for midnight. I left from Minneapolis around 8:30pm for bluffs country and got there in a breeze, but didn’t have much time to take a nap. I got my packet and hung out around the bustling start/finish/lap area and drank Mountain Dew until the start.

I saw a few friendly faces from last year, Jeff Vander Kooi and Bennett Isabella, and before long the countdown began. Watch on, headlamp on, “GO!”, start watch, start running.

I got swallowed up by a pack of guys, which was perfect. It’s a little freaky starting out the run in the pitch dark and not knowing exactly where the trail goes. This is race is so incredibly marked with reflective ribbons and a clear trail that’d truly be difficult to get lost on, but you don’t remember that in the anxiety-provoking first minute of the race! So we started towards the woods. It is not long before the trail turns onto some technical singletrack that goes up, up, up. It is comical how the first mile or two of the race is so incredibly challenging!

We were trucking pretty well, everyone was on the same page of walking up hills, and we were making good time. Jeff and I were up front and chatting away, which was nice. Bennett chimed in, and I talked to fellow Duluth resident Ryan Braun a bit. With the first aid station in sight, someone sprinted out from the group into the night. We looked around to each other and Jeff even asked, “who was that??”, almost offended that he’d run away like that this early in the race. I was offended because I wanted to win. It is way, way, way too early in a race like this to go after him. So either this guy is the real deal or he’s a clown and will blow up. It’s not like we were going slow, but this guy blasted way out in front and sprinted out of sight.

I made a point to eat something at the first aid station, as was my goal and plan for every aid station. The pretzels were not appetizing whatsoever, and I was the only one in the group to stop. I had to pee so bad, and lost my spot up front after the stops. There was a group of perhaps eight guys in one big pack, and I weeded my way back up. I didn’t recognize half of them, but started talking to TJ Jeannette, who chimed in when he mentioned he was from Duluth. I recognized his name from ‘Superior’, a book I read about the 100 mile race with the same title. We were all chatting away and running well–nice and fast but manageable–so the miles clicked away in the night. I peed at least twice before the third aid station.

For some reason, I felt like I had to break from the pack. I was good on water, and certainly not hungry, so deviated from my plan and skipped the third aid station of four per lap. Jeff was the first one out of the aid station and could have hung with me, but probably saw what I was doing and let me go. I was pushing the pace at that moment anyways, and kind of felt the time for chit chat was over. We hadn’t reeled the other mystery dude in at all, and it was time to focus.

After that third aid station, it’s relatively easy running until the next lap. I was getting a little carried away all alone, running fast and breathing hard. My watch didn’t seem to be splitting every three miles like I set it to, or I couldn’t hear it and was missing it. I was frustrated about that. Either way, my pace was on point for a 2:40 loop and I felt pretty decent. My fueling was going good. Perfect, really. I got some varied feedback from 100 milers and volunteers from the fourth aid station, and the guy in front of me was probably 5-10 minutes ahead. A lot of race left to run, I thought.

The moon was great, the temperature ideal, and trail in pristine condition. I sprinted across the finish line, grabbed some goodies from the finish aid station, got a fresh couple of gels from my stash, and ran out onto my second lap exactly at 2:40. I even said “two more of those and I’ll be all smiles”. I forgot to put my extra batteries in my waterbottle pouch. Do I turn around? No.

It was a bit harder to pace the start of the second lap without the big group to pace. I tried to hit an intensity that was mild but deliberate, especially on the uphills. You don’t want to really run or push it too hard, because that is where you blow up. There are plenty of hills that will destroy you at Zumbro. I had fun running in the night going into the first aid station on lap two, and was feeling spry and energetic. I altered my gel-and-hour plan, which pretty much threw my whole nutrition plan out the window after I’d skipped one aid station already. Oh, well, it’s better than trying to stick to a stupid plan just because, and throwing up or pooping my pants or getting terrible stomach pains.

Across the Zumbro River bridge, left into the flats, and I started to feel the first signs of fatigue. 20 miles in and that’s expected! I was pretty baffled that I was almost half way through already. Then, I felt bummed. Dang, it’s so fun running out here. Just me and the trail, the beautiful night. The conditions were so ripe that I wanted to keep going. Well, still not at the half way mark yet…

Between the first and third aid stations is hard. The sand couloir section was really terrible, and I got a little frustrated with that and the unrelenting hills. My legs were definitely starting to feel it, and time slowed down. 21 miles. 22 miles. 22.5 miles. 22.6 miles. Gah, just get to half way!! Things could be much, much worse, though, and I was still running well. I figured that I was breathing too heavy on the second part of that first lap and paying for it now.

At the second and perhaps third aid station (as they are the same physical aid station), I talked to my cousin-in-law Dan, who was volunteering once again. He said that the guy in front of me was at least 17 minutes up, and how he sprinted up the steep hill out of aid station two, and how he’s twice my age. Well, CRAP! So the win is unreachable. No way, no how. I did some quick math, but didn’t have to do any calculations to know that either I’d have to speed up quite a bit, or he’d have to slow down a lot, for me to have a chance at this stage in the race. But second place is still great. That’s better than third, and I can still race the clock for the sub-8, which had only been done once in race history, last year when Kurt said the course record at 7:49.

After the third station, I put the crank on. I wanted to get another perfect 2:40 lap, and for that I’d have to run really consistent down Ant Hill and back to the finish. I was breathing really pretty heavy, and blasted through the fourth aid station in a hurry. My legs were pretty weary running the winding singletrack and fast horse trail into the finish line and start of the third lap. My stomach was feeling good, and it was nice to see Ryan Saline at the start of the third lap with my drop bag held open for me to grab away. I quickly snatched the last gels I’d need, kept my half-open bag of caffeinated chews with me, and sprinted off with about 5:21 on the clock. A 2:41 lap is not bad at all! Just one more of those…

I made a point to let ‘er rip right out of the gate. I was pushing up the big first hill and passed a few hundreds and even some 50 milers. There is still plenty of race left to completely explode, I reminded myself, but felt good cresting the peak and looking down at the mini-village of the start/finish area still in the dark of night. I was running hard.

I put the lap on quite a few 50 milers, and we were all exchanging nice words of encouragement. I noticed in the warmth (compared to 2016), the 100 milers were in much better spirits. My pace was really good and I wasn’t giving up a second. However, the pain was nearly overwhelming and I couldn’t help but grunt, especially bombing down the technical descents. I was dreading the stupid sand cooler (as I called it in my mind), but knew once I hit daylight and that third aid station, it was time to really push it.

I saw Dan again when I was coming through the second aid station, and he said it’s a lost cause. This old guy in the lead was still far up–15 minutes or so. I said to him that it’s no matter, and asked that he at least time the person behind me and let me know how comfortable I should be in second when I come back through. I pushed and pushed, daylight came and it was wonderful. That in itself made my pace increase even more. I wanted to just run, and felt my fitness in that. Every hill I’d have to stop and walk, then start running at the top. My hamstrings throbbed on those first few running strides over every hill. Then, my brain told them that this is how it’s gonna be and the pain subsided. Weird how that is…

When I got back to the aid station, they told me Dan left. Well, crap!! I didn’t stick around to chit chat, or eat food or drink, and just ran off. I didn’t care about much except the clock. I wanted to win but that’s out. I wanted under 8 and that’s totally feasible. I had timed out from the fourth aid station to the finish to be around 20 minutes if I’m running well. So that was my goal, to hit that fourth station by at least 7:40. I did not feel good down Ant Hill, but was cruising well on the road below. This is where time is made up, I thought, and was passing other racers like they were standing still. I was breathing really heavy and making strange noises. I saw a photographer ahead and tried to look smooth and strong despite the discomfort.

Photo Credit: Zach Pierce

I hit the last aid station at 7:35 and skipped it. Two in a row! That is risky, but I wasn’t hungry, wasn’t thirsty, and had some water. I knew I needed to eat a bit, so had a couple of chews to blast me off. It worked, and I was really moving on the trail section before the final road stretch. It was a lot longer than I’d remembered on the previous two loops. Finally, the trail snaked down to the gravel road and I knew I was close.

With minutes to spare, I caught a glimpse of the gate, then campers and cars, and then the finish line. I ran up, feeling pretty well. My time was well under my goal of 8, but it was hard not to be bummed about second place once again. It was a hell of a race, though, and truly perfectly executed. What can you say when you believe there is no way to run even a minute faster? It was even harder, though, to see the results and know that Jason won by barely over two minutes. HOW?? He came up to me and congratulated me, but I was in a daze and didn’t get much time to pick his brain.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Despite a few fleeting thoughts during the race of how running is terrible, immediately after finishing I acknowledged how fun the night run was and my excitement to do it all over again. Weird how that is.

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 2/148
Time: 7:54:57
Pace: 9:30

Lap 1: 2:38:21
Lap 2: 2:42:27
Lap 3: 2:34:09

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 11 Gore-Tex size 11
Food: Too much to count/remember


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