Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon Race Report
Race Day: Saturday, June 18, 2022 – 6am
Another one. This is such a fun race and it was highly anticipated for me. It is crazy to think that this was the first race I really signed up for way back in 2008 (for the 2009 version). I thought many times during my training cycle how I’ve now been running for 14 years, and I don’t think there is a race that I’ve had bigger goals, bigger expectations, and more anticipation for over the years. The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon is just so epic! I don’t know why the half has been more, how do I say, anticipated, compared to even the full marathon.
This training cycle was interesting. After Wild Duluth last year, I knew I was able to still put together a good training program and race, but I was curious just how diligent I could be after practically two years of pandemic and issues with motivation and mileage. I tried a few times to get going with no real traction, but March came – crunch time – I put together a program of 12 weeks or so and started off. I started around 25 or 30 miles with the plan to increase mileage by a solid 10% percent per week and implement a long run and one or two speed work days per week. I’d be able to spice it up with NMTC Spring Trail Series starting at the end of April and ultimately peak two weeks before the race with a week over 70 miles. That would, to my determination, put me where I’d need to be to break my personal best set at the 2017 version of this race. That would be a stretch, but if I could execute my training plan and stay uninjured, it should work.
Training started off great. I was feeling good, it was feeling easy. By the time I got to NMTC, I found that even 40 to 50 miles per week was decently hard from a time perspective. With weekend stuff, work and other (some self-imposed) obligations, devoting 6 to 10 hours a week to strictly running felt hard. It was also hard, emotionally mainly, to run without the dogs. In their age, they just couldn’t go more than a few miles and degrade to 11:30 minute pace very quickly. Their sprints are a nice 7:15 pace… but being about 10 years old each was taking a toll on the speed and endurance for them. Despite that, I did lots of mileage with them, 3 miles at a time. Workouts were going unbelievably excellent, and long runs were fun. I’d kind of clump together my key workouts, like long run Friday night and Saturday morning speed work. I am not sure if that is optimal but it was almost a time implication more than anything else. NMTC was unfortunately spotty. I missed a few due to traveling, and the finale to plant my garden. Kind of a weak excuse but I felt very pressured to get plants and seeds in the ground!
As I zeroed in to race day, I became pretty skeptical that I’d be able to reach my goal of a PR. Mileage/volume was not a concern, but the sheer foot speed was. I was perhaps 5-10 pounds heavier than my historic race weight… probably that difference from 2017, not to mention 5 years older. But the tempo runs were not encouraging. I felt like 6 minutes was my half marathon effort. Running enough races, I can kind of gauge what the feel of different distances should be. For a half marathon, I want to feel like I’m sprinting BUT comfortable enough where I’m in control and can hold it with ease for one hour. Then, the last 15 minutes is all grit. Well, that feel or effort was not towards the 5:45 pace I was hoping for back in the spring. I dabbled between doing tempo runs and workouts at my half marathon effort or my goal 5:45 pace. Effort-based yielded slow running, and pace-based yielded one mile, then slower, slower, slower and I’d lock in at just under 6 minutes per mile. So, I wondered to myself on a weekly basis a month from race how I’d be able to run 13 of those in a row, when I couldn’t do two in a row during training. Either way, my body was holding up. I was doing tempo runs, speed work on the road and on the track, long runs with two 18 milers and one 20 miler on the road, and enough easy running to match my goal weekly mileage nearly 12 in a row except one down week where I was traveling. I had a really positive peak week, but nearly three weeks of taper. I just didn’t have the energy to get that last big week after a 68 mile week or so. So, I let it slide, neglected the long run and went for two last workouts. I crushed a track workout with 8-800 meter sprints at about 2:15 per interval 2 or 3 weeks out. Then, I remembered my ole pre-Garry Bjorklund workout about one week out on the course. I always said that if I could run 6 miles on course by myself and meet my goal pace and feel in control the whole time, with gas in the tank, then I’d make it on race day. I set out 8 days before the race, on a Friday after work, and once again had one good mile, a few slower ones, then locked in right around 6 minutes per mile. That won’t cut it. My expectations hit the floor. Oh well!
On race day, I was pretty mental. I kept going back and forth – I won’t hit my PR. Wait, I will be able to! My training was perfect! Nah, no way, how could I? Look at 2017! I was in absolutely prime fitness that is not matched. Tony and I did a podcast interview with Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon champion Kara Goucher, and that coupled with Tony’s pre-race shakedown talk really psyched me up. That was the day before the race, Friday, and I went to sleep that day with the confidence that I could in fact do it. I drew up a mile chart wristband, and got to bed a decent hour. I slept like crap that night and woke up extremely early.
Em dropped me off at UMD as dusk came. I got out and walked towards the bus line at Kirby Center, and had never seen a bus line so long. It was pretty extreme. And so I waited, and every 5 minutes the line would lurch forward. I noticed a storage locker looking thing with people putting their drop bags in there. Huh, that’s interesting. Then, when I got to the bins, there was a sign that read: “no bags allowed on the bus, drop off here”. WHAT?!? That is new! Should have read the race guide. I begrudgingly put my warm up shirt and phone in my bag and tied it up tight. I took with my a caffeinated fizzy water and caffeine energy gels and finally got onto the bus. I started getting nervous…. it was maybe 40 minutes from 6. How are we going to get all the way out to the start, evacuate the bus, walk to the start line, most importantly find a toilet, and get my starting spot all in 40 minutes? I was kind of nervous about that the whole bus ride, but told myself that everyone on this bus is in the same boat. Well, on the same bus. And they’re not going to drive any faster no matter how nervous I am or if I make a scene. So, I just need to be focused and diligent at the start line.
Once I got off the bus, I chugged my drink, tossed my one gel wrapper, and put my other gel in my pocket. I stopped in two different toilet lines, and bailed on both. I kept going towards the front, towards the front, and there was luckily a huge toilet bank very near the front, that seemed to be the shortest, actually. But, it was barely over 5 minutes to the race start at this point, and they were announcing the very last race details before the start. Yikes. The line moved right along, and I stayed true and got my spot. Wow, what a relief. I did my business, was pretty disappointed to have no hand sanitizer, but got to the start in perfect timing. Ready to roll. I saw spring NMTC competitor Andrew at the start line. He said he was looking for a 1:15 or lower. I’d probably see him during the race, I thought. Or he’d run away right away, never to be seen again. That’d be fun to run together, though. Although he had a stellar 10k time recently and was generally crushing me at the trail series races. Way faster than me. As fast as the pre-race went up to this point, the final minutes took forever. Finally, I could see the horn guy talking to the announcer, making their plans. Then, the countdown, blaring horns, and the 10 courses of people in front of me sprinted forward, sucking me along.
Ah… it is go time, baby!! I went with the flow of the crowd, and couldn’t help check my watch just to see. 5:30 or so, looks good. The first mile came by in a flash. 5:53. Good… The second mile took no time at all, either. 5:45. Better. I was in a big group of very fast women that seemed to be pacing really well. The matching race kits were encouraging, because I figured they all had a specific plan and would stick to it better as a group. So, if I could hang with this group, and we’re on pace through 5k, I’d be in good shape. I tried to focus on my efficiency and cadence, keeping that high turnover. I was feeling good, and essentially right on track to beat my record by one second a few miles in. I kept chugging.
I could sense the threshold pace and exactly when I was overstepping, and exactly when I was locked in. That was a testament to my consistent training. I made it through the north shore sections feeling pretty good about my body, my time, and the rest of the race. I find this race is easiest to break up in three or four sections: north shore, lakeside, and then the home stretch past Lemon Drop Hill, which is about a 4 mile run to the finish. Halfway, and my pace started slipping. It was very gradual. A few miles just bit off pace, a couple more miles, and handful more seconds off, and then halfway through lakeside, the pain started increasing and I realized it’d be a stretch to meet my goal. Just like that, I was a minute off pace with not a lot of real estate to make it up, and the pain setting in. The miles clicked off so fast that I barely realized how I was slipping. I was checking my watch every mile but a few seconds seems trivial until they add up. I saw Em’s mom Joan right where she said she’d be, at 60th Ave East, and friends Garrett, Rachel, Brent, Angela, Axel and Lily. I missed Axel’s high-five but got a nice sweaty one for Angela and Garrett, and had to chuckle a bit after that. I consciously knew that my friends gave me boosts, and tried to capitalize on that.
At the historically hardest part of the race for me, up to 40th Ave East to Lemon Drop Hill, I actually felt great. Mentally, I was a bit disappointed because I was really trying to hold on to my pace, the pain was getting harder to ignore, but I was more than a minute off pace heading up to Lemon Drop. Nothing to see here, there was plenty of race left. But running some quick math, I’d need four 5:30 miles to close it out compared to my average of 5:50+ on the first 9. That’s a tall order. But up and over Lemon Drop and I let it rip. I ran as hard as I could down London Road on the nice downhill. It was all downhill from here. I could crank. I wasn’t thinking about efficiency, just raw speed and grit. That was perhaps a bad strategy, because my next mile was over 6 minutes. It was terrible. I saw some cheering squads at Duluth Running Co. and straightened my back and picked up my pace. I saw my mom and Em and the dogs, which was a boost, but I couldn’t muster anything. Two strides past, my neighbors Pete, Susan, Clarence and Eleanor were cheering and I yelled “THIS IS WHAT WE WORK FOR!”. That had been my mantra all day, and despite being a little bummed, I kept reminding myself that I worked really hard to get here, and I should finish it off strong. My next mile was even slower, and people started passing me. But, I held on. I kept it going and tried to keep my grimace down through downtown Duluth. I knew it was just a few miles, and even thought the final miles through Duluth seemed so long, I tried to tell myself that it was a brief sprint on to the finish line. But despite feeling like I could have increased my pace in the early miles of the race, at this point I couldn’t accelerate. There was no way to increase my speed by 10 seconds per mile even for a quarter mile.
It had been just perfect, optimal weather all day. Cool, a nice low sun and tailwind. But, that meant turning at the DECC would give me a headwind. I attacked it, and led out a nice pack of people. I wanted to generate some late adrenaline by trying to beat these people. They had more than me, and I got passed. I peeked at my watch, and 1:16 came a went. I tried to bring it home as strong as I could, but just knew my form was crap and the low cadence, hard running style that I had adopted was not at all efficient or fast, really. At the turn under the Lake Ave bridge, I saw Em and my mom and the dogs again and again kind of ignored them. I didn’t know what to say. The final sprint in was a little disheartening. I put in all this time. I was really pretty close and let it slip. I saw 1:17 on the clock. What crap. I sprinted across the finish line and heard very loud yelling and my name. It was Emily, Michaela, Cheryl and Lacey from work. That was cool! I stopped running, stopped my watch and moseyed on over. I think I just muttered “FUUUCK”, and they didn’t say anything, just looked at me like I was a zoo animal from the other side of the barricades that I’d helped banner the day before. I said something broken like “I … can’t” and just walked away. It was a funny interaction in hindsight.
As I walked through the finish chute, I shook my head, hung it down, and was pretty angry. Then, very suddenly, my mood changed. What the hell, Mike?? I just put together a stellar race. I had been able to run just 4 or 6 miles in training at the pace I just ran 13 miles at. I had a super solid race, probably the best paced road race I’ve run. I had zero issues, and was extremely close to a personal best after a perfect training cycle and while 5 years older and a bit heavier. A big goofy smile adorned my face and I reflected on how much fun that race just was. Hell yeah. A person looking very familiar flagged me down and asked if I was Mike Ward. Yep, It was Alex Richardson, a speedy runner that I raced against at the NMTC series. I hadn’t talked to him at all, or seen him before this year. He said he’d lived in Duluth for a little while but just getting back into racing after a college career. He said The Duluth Rundown podcast motivated him to show up to the NMTC runs. Cool! I chatted with Eric Nordgren and it was fun to hear his story… although not an optimal lead-up with covid causing him to miss a big gravel bike race and some vital training time.
I met up with Em, mom and the dogs and continued to reflect on the race. I think they sensed my disappointment but I put it behind me. I felt proud, accomplished, but more motivated than anything. I was motivated to get back to Garry Bjorkland. I was motivated to tweak my training, put more time and effort into conditioning, and give my record a shot. I’m not done with this race.
Shoes: Mizuno Rebellion
Food: 1 Gu Roctane Vanilla Orange