Growing up, before I’d even run 5 miles in one stretch, Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth had a special meaning to me.
My biggest running influence has always been my Uncle Craig, who married into the family about 20 years ago when he got hitched to my Aunt Helen. His running credentials are impressive: he holds a marathon PR around 2:33, and Athlinks.com credits him with at least 7 sub-3:00 marathons going only back to 1996, which is 3 years after he ran that 2:33 PR in 1993. He says he’s run more sub-3:00 marathons than that, which aren’t listed, and I believe him. At age 39, Craig Yotter ran the 2000 Twin Cities Marathon in 2:39:49. Dude is faaaast.
Back in junior high, when the longest run of my life was still just a 5K, Uncle Craig was throwing down full marathons at a 6:00/mile pace. Whenever I had a running question that my cross-country coach couldn’t answer to my satisfaction, I would wait until the next extended family gathering at Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, where I could ask The Man himself for his take on things.
Uncle Craig made his bones as a distance runner at Grandma’s and the Twin Cities Marathon, and he passed down fond memories of each race to me, but talking about Grandma’s Marathon always brought out that extra twinkle in his eye. He used to joke that if I ever thought about running a marathon (Ha! What a nut, right?), then Grandma’s Marathon would be the ideal place to make my debut. I’ve gone on to run other marathons elsewhere, but for as long as Uncle Craig and the rest of his family have lived in Minnesota, Grandma’s Marathon has always been in the back of my mind…
…and then, at a family gathering during the 2012 holiday season, I convinced him to sign up and go back. My Grandma’s Marathon dream would be fulfilled in 2013.
Sadly, Uncle Craig doesn’t run all that much anymore, due to a health condition that he describes as, “old and fat.” C-Bone hasn’t run a full marathon since he ran 3:14:49 at the Mount Rushmore Marathon in 2006 at the age of 45, so he would “only” agree to register for the 2013 Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon that weekend (the Gary Bjorklund half starts at the halfway point of the Grandma’s Marathon course, and it gets underway about an hour before the start of the full marathon).
However, he then skipped the 5-6 months of training that some would argue to be important. With a heavy heart but a clear conscience, Uncle Craig decided about a month before the race that he wouldn’t be running, but he would still be in Duluth in a supporting capacity.
Uncle Craig picked me up from the Minneapolis airport on the Friday morning before the race, and we set our compass for Silver Bay, MN, where we would be staying for the weekend at his college friend Cathy’s lake house. On the way, we picked up Masters Division ace John VanDanacker, one of Uncle Craig’s running buddies from college. John would go on to win his age division in Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon the next day with a time of 1:16:24, because fuck him, that’s why.
Before making it all the way up to Silver Bay, we stopped through Duluth to pick up our packets and enjoy a beer at the original Grandma’s Restaurant, the marathon’s namesake. The marathon got its name when the Grandma’s Restaurant became the race’s first major sponsor when it was founded in 1977, and while the level of sponsorship with the restaurant has changed since then, the race hasn’t changed its name in 30+ years. John told me that Grandma’s Restaurant used to be a bordello at the turn of the century, and I believe him.
With packet pickup and my daily beer out of the way, we drove the final miles to Silver Bay to meet Cathy at the lake house, where I then went to sleep the earliest I’ve ever turned in the night before a race.
Thankfully I was staying with someone who knew what time I needed to wake up, because in my groggy state the night before, I had set my alarm to go off in the afternoon instead of the morning. A polite knock from Cathy at 5:20am aroused me from my deep slumber, and within 15 minutes, Cathy and I were on the road from Silver Bay down to Two Harbors, MN in advance of the marathon’s 7:30am start time. Uncle Craig and John had left the house an hour earlier to get John to the starting line in time for the 6:30am start time of the half (yuck), and so if I didn’t have Cathy, I would have missed the race entirely.
Cathy dropped me off at a supermarket parking lot where I could board one of the race buses, which would shuttle us runners the remaining distance from the town of Two Harbors to the (closed-off) starting line a few miles down the road. Upon arrival, I hopped off the bus and was greeted with one of the most beautiful sights mine eyes have ever seen – seemingly hundreds of port-o-potties awaited the arriving runners, their white roofs shimmering in the early-morning sunlight like beacons of individual freedom and comfort. After taking care of business, I dropped off my gear check bag and made my way to the start corral, to find my friend Regan and everyone else running along with the 3:25 pace group**.
(**More on that pacing “strategy” below)
I don’t really remember a horn sounding or a gun going off, but shortly after 7:30am, as a parked locomotive next to us blared its whistle, we took off. It was on!
**AUTHOR’S ASIDE — I’m going to level with you, my “strategy” for running this marathon was pretty damn shambly. With zero marathon-specific training under my belt, since my training all spring had been geared toward a 50K trail ultramarathon in May, I decided to pace myself for a 3:25 for as long as I could, just to see what happened. It feels important to mention that my PR going into this race was in the 3:42-range. What could go wrong?
For a race that ends in small-town Duluth (population: 86,265) and starts in even podunkier Two Harbors (population: 3,745), I’ll admit that I was surprised by the congested feel of the start of the marathon. There were a lot of people packed into a small start area, which largely had to do with the fact that this point-to-point marathon runs along a 2-way highway for the majority of the race, including the starting line. There wasn’t much room to move around, but Regan and I kept our 3:25 pacer in our sights, and the congestion eased shortly past the first aid station.
The opening miles passed quickly; or, at least, as quickly as the opening miles of a marathon can pass. This was partly because I had Regan to talk to, but the pace itself also had something to do with it – I was running faster than I’d ever run before in a marathon. I was certain that I would NOT be able to keep up this pace for the whole race, but with somewhat-realistic hopes of finishing in the 3:30-3:35 range, I figured it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to bank a little time before dropping back to a more reasonable pace.
(Yes, I realize that it rarely works that way — after all, when was the last time you heard a coach say “For your best race, go out and run the first half of your race about 45 seconds/mile faster than you think you’ll finish it,” anyway? Never. But, it seemed like an okay idea at the time.)
For the first 8 miles, Regan and I ranged just ahead of the 3:25 pace group, which was a large bunch of 25-30 runners tucked in behind the official pacer. We had a light tailwind for virtually the entire race, but there were times when the wind would change directions and come at us from the front or the side. This initial course took us through rolling countryside, with very little spectator support, and I’m sure the scenery would have been lovelier under non-marathoning circumstances.
It was after about 8 miles that I told Regan that I was going to drop back and tuck in behind the pace group peloton so as to avoid the headwinds completely, and I assumed he would follow suit. Instead, he gave me a thumbs-up and effortlessly upped his pace; within seconds, he had opened up a large gap on the chasing back. I hope I don’t see you again this race, friend, I thought to myself as he sped away. This was Regan’s first full marathon, and he was killing it.
The weather was ideal for running, 50-degrees and overcast, but the low clouds and fog in places obscured the views of the rolling, rural countryside on either side of the road. I was able to catch glimpses of Lake Superior here and there, but for the most part my gaze remained ever-forward. It felt like I was flying, but this also concerned me.
I crossed the halfway timing mat in 1:41:56, which would have been good enough for my 2nd-fastest half-marathon ever if those first 13.1 miles were a standalone race. This was a problem. It was around this point that my legs first started to rebel, and while I resolved to stay with the 3:25 pacer for as long as I could, I knew that sooner or later I would need to drop back if I wanted to avoid a repeat of my crazy bonk at the Martian Marathon back in April.
That breaking point came at the aid station just past Mile 15, when I simply couldn’t carry on at a sub-8:00/mile pace anymore. Without a word, I waved goodbye to my pace group and took a long, leisurely walk break as I collected my Powerade, water, and ice-water sponge at the aid station. (BONUS: I counted at least 5 aid stations after Mile 13 that had ice-water sponges available, and there may have been more. It wasn’t hot out, but I loved the planning. Good looks, Grandma’s Marathon. I see you.) This prolonged rest break felt incredible, and I threw my head back and smiled when I decided that I wouldn’t try to catch up to the 3:25 group. Maybe I could have caught them, maybe not…but the important thing was that I didn’t want to find out.
It was here where I turned off the visual display on my GPS watch, content to let it run in the background without actually looking at my pace & distance. I focused on running at a comfortable pace, not caring about time anymore. And it felt great.
Making the conscious decision to reel in my pace before my legs were completely wasted was the best decision I could have made, and it’s the reason that I was able to run all the way to the finish line.
The course continued a series of lazy, gradual ascents & descents as the miles rolled on. I had some more views of Lake Superior on my left at times, but the soupy fog continued to limit visibility to just a few hundred feet, if that. As we runners steamed into the outskirts of Duluth somewhere around Mile 19, crowds appeared out of nowhere to lend their full voice in support of the race. This was actually a bit startling, as I’d grown accustomed to running in silence, hearing nothing but my own breathing and the pitter-patter of footsteps around me.
One particularly bubbly girl, amidst a crowd of boozy college-age spectators, pointed straight at me and shouted, “SHOW ME YOUR BOOBS!!!” I laughed and began to oblige her request, and then I looked down and saw that my left nipple was bleeding through my shirt.
I grabbed a large handful of petroleum jelly at the Mile 20 aid station and slathered up both halves of my chest, all the while cursing the fact that evolution had not yet robbed men of our nipples. Why do I need nipples? What purpose do nipples serve on men, other than to be pierced if some guy wants to let everyone know that nothing is out of play psychologically? Anyway, I digress.
Thankfully, the petroleum jelly did the trick, and I was able to run the rest of the race (mostly) pain-free. Perhaps more importantly, I was keeping up my pace: the mile where I stopped to apply petroleum jelly was the only mile of my marathon that took more than 9 minutes, and I was able to keep the pace in the low-to-mid-8s for the rest of the way. Somehow, my pre-race strategy was actually working. Running sub-3:30 was no longer in play, but going sub-3:35 was a real possibility. EXCITING.
At Mile 21, some gracious bros offered me my choice of Miller Lite, Bud Heavy (WHY?!), or Coors Light, and I slowed down to grab a Silver Bullet before continuing my journey. Every marathon PR that I’ve set since Fall 2011 has involved drinking some beer during the race, and I wasn’t about to jeopardize that streak. I had promised my Uncle Craig that I wouldn’t drink a FULL beer during the race if offered one (yes, he asked), but I sucked down a good 2/3 of the can before dumping the rest and tossing it in a trash can.
Uncle Craig had warned me to watch out for Lemondrop Hill shortly after Mile 22, which is the only extended uphill stretch of note during the entire marathon. To put it in perspective to fellow Chicagoans, Lemondrop Hill is of about the same length and incline as “Mount Roosevelt” at the end of the Chicago Marathon; it’s nothing too crazy, but it feels steeper and longer than it really is, simply because you’ve been running on flat terrain for so long.
As I reached the base of Lemondrop Hill, though, “Written In the Stars” by Tinie Tempah began blaring from a nearby DJ station, and it was game on. With one of the great workout songs reverberating around me, I OWNED Lemondrop Hill. I dare you to try to listen to this song and this beat and not want to run through a brick wall:
As I reached the top of Lemondrop Hill, I allowed myself a small fist-pump before putting my game face back on. I had 3-4 miles to go, and in my mind, I was home-free.
Somewhere around Mile 23 or 24, we entered downtown Duluth and started running over cobblestone streets. Cobblestone. Whoever decided that it was a good idea to run the final 3 miles of a popular marathon over cobblestones should be drawn and quartered. I thought my legs were aching before I hit this stretch, but they cried out in pain as I ran over these thousands of tiny, uniquely-shaped bricks. For shame, Grandma’s Marathon — you’re better than that.
But the crowds were out in force now, and I’m a vain bastard who feeds off of that shit, so the consistent cheering and attention made things feel a whole lot easier. After a final mile that included AT LEAST 90-95 twists and turns which made you think that the finish line was juuuust around the next corner, I finally crossed the line with a chip time of 3:33:26. With a light rain falling around me, I had shaved 8 minutes & 8 seconds off of my previous marathon PR.
As I tried to wipe a combination of sweat and light mist off of my face, I made a mental note that it was time to get rid of that horrendous beard. As I picked up my marathon finisher’s shirt, which they only gave out AFTER the race (I liked that part), I made my way to the finish line party to rejoin Uncle Craig, Cathy, and John, and bask in my PR glory.
I’ll be blunt and up front — Grandma’s Marathon knows how to throw a post-race party. The weather was legitimately cold by this point (I think I would have died without my jacket), but it was warmer inside the tent where the band was playing, and thankfully we were never in danger of running out of beer.
As the band played on, and as Uncle Craig was busy making sure that I never saw the bottom of my glass, a table next to us starting stacking all of their empty cups. It was strangely riveting to see how high they could go:
After a minimum of one beer too many, we finally left to drive back north to Silver Bay. After a wonderful power nap, I woke up to join Uncle Craig, John, and Cathy again for some pizza and beer as we all watched the Twins game.
The next morning, as I went for a short 2-3 mile shake-out run with John and Uncle Craig, I heard the words from my uncle that I’d been waiting to hear all weekend:
“You know…I think I could do this next year.”
To that, I say BRING IT ON!