12 Apr 2020
Trip Plan: Bike the Grandma’s Marathon course in reverse, from the finish line to the start line. Drop the bike, change to running gear and run the Grandma’s Marathon course back.
Start Time: Saturday, April 11, 2020 – 6:09am
- Bike: 1:12:55
- Transition: 0:03:00
- Run: 3:29:46
- Total Time: 4:45:41
In the months leading up to this day, I had been training hard for the Zumbro Midnight 50. I was in really good shape to try and beat my other two times running Zumbro, in 2016 and 2017. With the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, Zumbro was canceled along with thousands, if not millions, of other events worldwide. I knew I wanted to do something on this day, not to mention continue training for the thing. As expected, trail conditions in Duluth had been deteriorating and the annual blanket trail closure in city limits was imposed in early April, leaving any training grounds and adventure route options to road or pavement only.
As my passion project website www.duluthadventures.com was taking off very slowly, I was eager to think of another multisport adventure loop to do, if nothing else to pad the website. Then, as I brainstormed a loop that could be done in early April (when trails are closed; my favorite inline skating route, Munger Trail, was mostly covered in snow; water not open, too cold, and/and too dangerous to paddle), a Grandma’s Marathon course blitz was the idea that stuck in my head more and more often. It seemed like such a raw challenge… 26.2 miles on the time trial bike, the speed machine, max aero. Then, run the marathon course that so many people have run in 3 hours or 2:48 (my PR from 2015) or 2:09 on. I became excited about the route, and even posted my thoughts on social media, pondering if 4 hours for the bike-run combination was outrageous. Yep! Outrageous, and the response was more of: “you can do it Mike!”. Yeah right! I felt in great shape for Zumbro, yes, but the speed and fitness that it takes to run a fast marathon is not an easy thing to develop. That takes serious time and dedication. Was I there? Maybe… but what about the bike portion? How much fitness does that take? I thought that 4:30 would not be out of the question, under 4 hours would be extraordinary. Either way, I thought that this loop could be widely attempted, especially once news broke of Grandma’s Marathon 2020 being canceled due to the pandemic. Who would try this feat?
I set the date. Zumbro day, of course. What other day would it be? Then I happened to talk to a news reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He, I think, wanted a story about Duluth Timing and Events and how the business was affected by races being canceled, and what the deal is with all of these races being canceled. Well, I kind of steered the topic to Duluth Adventures. Hey, any way to get the word out and more submissions to the site is my main angle! But he seemed to be interested, especially when I mentioned this Saturday being my day to do the next Duluth Adventure. He seemed to be so interested, in fact, that he requested what time I was planning to start the whole deal so he could send a photographer down! Cool! However, it presented a unique twist in the whole setup of this trip, because just like a race, there now had to be a specific time to start. I had a scheduled meeting for Saturday at noon. So, as that Saturday drew near, I looked at the weather forecast for guidance. Sunday looked bad all around. Saturday morning looked to have a better wind direction for going fast on the bike. The wind was predicted to shift by the afternoon. So either start at 2pm and finish around 6 or 7pm, or starting brutally early (relative to my month-long routine of sleeping until 8 or 9am) and finishing with enough time to get home, eat and recover for the virtual meeting at noon. I chose 6am.
I wouldn’t say I trained specifically for the fast bike-run, but I would say I was in great shape leading into April. I toyed with another aggressive run mileage build-up, which worked in my favor 6 months prior. I dreamt about a 60-70-80-90 four week peak. On the third week, I stalled at 75 miles, then decided to take a down week instead of 90 or 100 miles. Then I totally scrapped the plan and started from scratch. Either way, it was an aggressive build and I made it out unscathed. After that run-up in mid- to late-March, I decided to focus on running faster and cross-training with a myriad of sports. I figured this would help me with any multisport adventure I wanted to try. And I felt confident for a 4:30 outing on the revered Grandma’s course.
The night before, I barely squeezed my shoes into my small hydration vest. My running shorts and second water bottle made the pack bulge. The first bottle would go with me on the bike. I was very paranoid to lock my triathlon bike to a tree near Two Harbors when I wouldn’t be back to retrieve it for several hours, and not willing to leave my expensive aerodynamic race wheels out of sight for any reason! I got stuck on the unsupported style of this excursion, and recruiting my roommate Jack to pick up my bike kind of blurred the lines. I decided the line was that I had to bring everything I needed, so no pick-up from Jack, but I could essentially drop anything I wanted at the Grandma’s start line, my turn-around point, for Jack to take back home. Meh, I figured it was unsupported enough to be called unsupported. At least self-supported.
When I woke up, I almost called it off. Ugh, too early. It was 4:57am, and dark. The photographer had mentioned the sunrise in the email, and I didn’t even consider that I’d be starting in the dark at 6am! But the familiar race day excitement roused me and the doubts and regret washed away quickly to be replaced by excitement and nervous dread. The good nervous dread, though.
I was down to Canal Park pretty much right at 6am, and started to get ready. I saw the News vehicle far away from the start line and didn’t take action. The photographer Tyler texted me, then I saw her run up and introduce herself. She snapped a few pics of me getting ready and pumping my tires up. I was kind of muttering to her… “I guess I’m almost ready here, what else do I need? That’s it I think”, but it was really just muttering to myself, really. It was kind of awkward… do I acknowledge her at all or just act like I am alone like normal? Whatever, time to rip. I put on my aero helmet, locked my car and put the key in the pack, put the pack on, bike shoes on, and rode up to the start line. Watch at zero, I almost went. Wait! I took a look at the time before setting off: 6:09 and maybe 30 seconds. I hit the start button and started cranking in the dawn light of Canal Park towards the photographer kneeling in the empty street. Nobody else in sight.
It was cold. My fingers became uncomfortably cold within minutes. It was fun to zing around Duluth, but I knew I was losing time by dodging gaping potholes, sand and gravel on the roadway, and navigating the several turns until getting out of town. The sunrise at Brighton Beach was incredible, but I whipped my head around the other way when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Oh! The photographer girl. Gah, don’t look right at the camera Mike!! So I put my head back down and cranked towards the Scenic Highway 61.
Once onto the highway, I finally felt like I was going fast and could get comfortable in the aero bars. My stupid aero helmet with the long tail in the back was not conducive with my bulging pack. The helmet was hitting the pack, and to see just a few feet in front of me required my eyes to be looking up as far as I could. That wasn’t a great view, and I was most comfortable by looking down at my front wheel, which was darting back and forth on the white lane line. I had to look up, for the sake of safety, and that pack was definitely a source of frustration the entire ride. However, the miles clicked off fast.
My fingers actually warmed up enough once I got going, but my feet had become very cold. It wasn’t really that uncomfortable, but I could feel the numbness creep in. Otherwise, I was actually a pretty nice temperature. When I took a swig of water, it felt like ice water in my mouth. I though there was actually ice forming at one point. I didn’t want to spend the time to eat or drink, though, and became focused on staying aero and cranking away. I tried to maintain a steady effort, but nothing too crazy. In hindsight, I didn’t push hard enough, and I didn’t have the bike mileage in my legs (or really, in my head), to accurately gauge how much effort I was putting forth. Also, it was too cold to check my 5 mile splits, which I’d hoped were in the 12 minute range. It was too cold and I was too focused on maintaining a good speed, to do anything besides sit in the aero bars and crank away.
My photographer Tyler was taking a ton of pictures. She seemed to meet me at the next sweet view every five miles or so. Oh man, I thought, these photos will be gold on my blog site. What a treat. I didn’t see her after Knife River, and I certainly starting noticing the Grandma’s Marathon mile markers with more anticipation, counting down from five to four to three. Couple more minutes here… I spent excess energy looking up in hopes to see the big clearing of Sonju in the distance, or two cars parked on the side of the road. In what seemed like a very short ride, there it was! I saw the two cars, and it was a relief. I had been a little anxious about what to do if Jack wasn’t there, for whatever reason. I wasn’t spending the time to drink water, let alone try to call or text him on the ride. A few peeks of my watch and I was super jacked about my time. I thought I’d averaged 24 mph or faster on the ride, based on my quick math after a quick glance. WOW.
When I got to Jack and Tyler, I first noticed how numb my feet were. I mean, numb. Can’t feel them. Yikes. I forewarned them both that I was going to get naked now. I tried to strip off my tights and bike shorts, which was reminiscent of a triathlon’s T1, struggling with a wetsuit. My shorts went on quick, then my shoes. It was definitely uncomfortable to deal with my frozen feet! Jack luckily just grabbed my bike and tossed it in his vehicle, so I could readjust my pack setup and prepare to run. I was working with a sense of urgency, and after tossing my additional drop-off items in Jack’s car, lined up at the Grandma’s Marathon start line like an elite runner ready to compete. No starting gun, though, just my own preference on the exact moment when to start. My watch is the starting gun, so when I hit the start button, I jumped off the line.
Oof, my first few strides were the classic jelly legs of transitioning from bike to run. The frozen feet added another element. Gah, that was a weird feeling. Jack sped by and honked his horn. Tyler drove by next, soon out of sight. The frozen feet had transitioned to pins and needles, ouch. However, the sun was rising higher in the sky and I could feel its rays. The rest of my body was the perfect temperature. And it was very quick for the jelly legs feeling to vanish and the feeling of strength to replace. Oooo yeah. Let’s get it.
After only a mile my feet warmed up and I was really the perfect temperature. It was probably 34 degrees… a tough temperature to plan for. I saw Tyler down the road a bit and focused on running as if she wasn’t there as I heard her camera click away. Another mile and I felt a slight jostling in my stomach. Darn. I saw a portable toilet at the Mocha Moose and figured it’d be a good insurance policy to stop. I did, and felt better despite a mid-9 minute mile split. Time to settle in at 7:30, I told myself. And that’s what I did. The miles started to click off. I saw my personal photographer about every mile, it seemed. It was kind of fun to see where my watch was at when I crossed each mile marker. I wasn’t running the tangent of the road, that’s for sure. Tyler jumped out of her car and ran to my side of the road for when I crossed the Mile 4 marker. When I hit mile 6 I thought about how this is kind of like halfway to halfway. 13.1. Wait, that’s like 6.5 miles. When I got to the Mile 7 marker, which was 7.08 on my watch, I said I was halfway to halfway. Nice. My splits were good and I was feeling great. I figured this pace would give me a 1:40 half split, which is a 3:20 marathon. I thought my bike was around 1:10… how long was that transition? I was kind of fumbling around… maybe 5 minutes? I remembered 6:09am. I tried to do math. I figured a 3:20 marathon would be damn close to 4 and a half hours for the whole trip. I can do it.
The miles kept clicking off, and I got tired. Oof, this is going to a long, long day, I told myself. With a handful of miles until halfway still, I remembered the first miles. Those were the golden miles, I told myself. I felt good back then… But I kept trucking along in a great rhythm and fairly consistent mile splits in the 7:30 range. I hadn’t seen Tyler in a long time. That was probably the end of her assignment. Darn. Just me and the road out here. I tried to run the tangents when it looked like a big curve in the road, which was not the least dangerous thing I could have done. The curves always end up being pretty tame, anyways. I was just looking longingly ahead, always. It kind of felt like running the actual marathon, except the water stops are definitely a highlight of each mile. There is energy at each water stop. No extra energy on this day, except the other solo exercises, the animals and nature, and the traffic. Traffic may be an energy suck, actually.
I hit halfway right a tad slower than 1 hour and 40 minutes in. I’d have to dig deep to finish this thing out in a negative split. But I was feeling good. It was kind of the feeling in a 50 miler, like I’d been training for. My body seemed to be self limiting to a pace that was sustainable. I felt tired, yes. My legs were starting to get a little sore, perhaps. But I knew at halfway that I was on track to finish strong. However, my time was not exactly a motivating factor. I seemed to be slipping from 7:30 pace, and to be a little slower than 1:40 for the half was slightly discouraging. Then, upon a second calculation, I would need a 3:10 marathon or so to hit 4:30! I must have been wrong about my bike split and transition… it was hard to find a definite calculation to know how long my bike and transition were, but I could tell that it’d take a big negative split to hit my goal. Oh well… finish ‘er out Mike!
My next target was Brighton Beach. Getting off this stinkin’ highway would be a nice change of scenery. Any change of scenery… and the Lakeside section of the Grandma’s course just makes you feel like you’re into town finally. Thinking back to the ride, the portion getting out of Duluth and onto the Scenic went by in a blip! Plus, mile 20 is always a good milestone to hit in the marathon. So I looked forward to Brighton Beach in an attempt to help time fly by a little bit faster. The miles continued to click off, and I felt another swash of the stomach. Darn. It wasn’t an emergency situation, but the swash was enough of a discomfort to notice my mile splits. I pondered the likelihood of a portable restroom at Brighton Beach, or at one of the rest stops between here and there. Eh, probably not. And then the slightly uneasy swash because an emergency real quick. I felt “the clench”. So I ran off into the woods. Actually, the break was nice on the ole churning leggies. There are only probably 2,500 more portable toilets on this route during a certain weekend in June. Today, one. And no matter how unpleasant the e-dump in the woods was, I ran off feeling much springier and more fresh. In no time, I ran across Lester River and into the Lakeside neighborhood. I was feeling pretty good. Strong, speedy again (well, speedy enough), and in control. Usually during Grandma’s Marathon, or even the Garry Bjorklund Half, Lakeside is a death march. Usually I am hanging on by a thread, having gone out way too hard for the first bunch of miles. That being said, each step through Lakeside today was still tedious.
The next milestone was Glensheen Mansion. Glensheen has always been the toughest part of the course. Maybe it’s simply a landmark to remember the suffering. This time, I was moving well. My mile splits continued to be consistent. Consistent enough, at least, to not feel like I was falling apart. I was excited to run past Glensheen and try Lemon Drop Hill. The hill did reduce me to a shuffle, but I was up and over and on to London Road. I was getting real close, and getting excited. I knew that 4:30 was out of reach, so just focused on finishing strong. Each mental Grandma’s Marathon milestone clicked by: the turn up 12th Ave; crossing DRC, where I remembered all those years passing with many high-fives and a jolt of adrenaline; Fitger’s with the massive crowds at the Mile 24 water station. Today, just another day and I was running on the sidewalk. I probably looked like a maniac, some haggard dude running hard with a backpack and making audible grunts of pain. Oh well. I ran around a car pulling out and down to Michigan. Mile 25 came and went, and it was on to the final push. I was looking at my marathon time now. It’d be close, but a sure lock for 3:30. Around the DECC, past the Blue Bridge and the Irvin, and I could sniff the finish. Yes. However, all the sudden 3:30 was coming up real quick and I knew that I absolutely could not let up. Around by the hotels, across the marker for Mile 26, and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. There it was! That little hit of excitement, that little rush that you get near the finish line of a race… I got it.
Amidst the pain of the finishing stretch, I found it kind of funny that I was running down the middle of Canal Park Drive just like any other marathon day. Nobody was out, no cars, no businesses open… nothing. 11am on a Saturday and just me pushing as hard as I can. This coronavirus is bizarre shit!
I crossed the finish line with 3:29:XX on my watch, and yelled out right away. ARGHH! It was the same yell as one makes directly after finishing a speedy interval on the track, for instance. A smile came onto my face, and I laid down right next to the Grandma’s Marathon Finish Line plaque impressed into the nearby sidewalk.
It was without a doubt a fun trip. I found it incredibly interesting how little I could dip into the pain cave without a bib on. The next day, my legs felt pretty good, similar to any other long training day. The day after a Grandma’s Marathon, I am dead!! That takes many days to walk kind of normal again. It felt like I was pushing to my abilities during this solo effort, but I don’t think it was comparable to a race effort, in hindsight. Perhaps one is simply more risk averse in a non-race, unsupported situation.
My hope is that somebody else tries this route. I would love to hear the story about how they suffered greatly, as I did. Yet, it was all worth it.