The rumblings of a cold-weather marathon started ten days out, approximately about as far out as weather groups predict. This is in no way a coincidence. As has already been discussed, a group of my pals decided to forgo Chicago Marathon for Twin Cities in search of cooler temperatures. With weather threatening to dip into the 40′s, it seemed as if both Chicago and Twin Cities runners were facing ideal race temps.
I was a nervous wreck about this race. I had spent most of Thursday poring over running forums, over-analyzing the race course, googling “Oh my god. Can I really do this??” I was almost in tears in my office. “Is my goal overly ambitious,” I asked Penguin over email. “How do I make up the time that I *know* I’ll lose on the hills?” “Do I bank time?” I felt completely overwhelmed. He told me to stop reading things on the internet, that I was only wasting valuable energy by freaking out, and that we’d talk about my race strategy in MN.
I boarded an incredibly early flight to Minneapolis Friday morning, meeting fellow runner Kris for the first time on the plane (both of us barely made the flight — oops). Our hotel was an old train depot, and a few blocks walk from Minneapolis’s light rail system. We grabbed lunch and waited for the others to land. I ran a five-mile shake-out in the fitness center while I waited. It was an awful run, and I was even more nervous about my readiness. Dinner #1 was Potbelly’s, followed by dinner #2 at the Old Spaghetti Factory.
Saturday morning, we walked to a nearby breakfast place called Moose & Sadie’s and then met back at the hotel for a quick run to loosen things up. The weather was comparable to what race conditions would be like, so it was good to ready ourselves. With the blazing summer temps, a cold-weather race would be a dramatic change.
After the run, we readied ourselves for the Race Expo. A few of us piled into a cab and headed towards St. Paul (a mere 10 miles separates Minneapolis from St. Paul — hence, Twin Cities). The expo was SIGNIFICANTLY smaller than the Chicago Marathon’s, which was a bit of a shock. Chicago holds its expo at McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the country, and we joked that the Twin Cities expo was in the equivalent of conference room B. The size difference was expected, however, as Twin Cities’ 8,500 runners pales in comparison to Chicago’s 45,000. Different, too, were the vendors. The Green Bay Marathon booth was giving away brats, while other booths were handing out sausage and hamburger samples. Thankfully, American Family Insurance was handing out free throwaway gloves. This meant that I could save the pair I brought for the finish line, and toss the new gloves somewhere along the race route. It was here that we first met up with another group member, Jenny P. We braved Minnesota’s bus system to get back to our hotel – which turned out to be a pretty pleasant experience – and laughed at the “favorite cheers” suggestions in the race spectator guide.
Our pre-race meal was pretty spectacular. Social chair CT had made reservations at D’Amico Kitchen. As the waiter rattled off menu favorites, all of us looked at each other in amused frustration. Everything sounded spectacular, but with a race staring us in the face, spicy, fatty, greasy, cheesy, veggie, and generally “yummy” things were all off of the table. That being said, I shared a spectacular beet salad (surprised?), ricotta gnocchi, and papperdelle that were all unbelievably tasty. After dinner, we raced over to the nearby Target so that we could get some breakfast provisions and cheap throwaway sweats. The predicted gun-time temperature was around 30 degrees (yowsa!). We prepped our race clothes and bags and crawled into bed around 10. I slept pretty well after tossing around a bit.
The alarm went off at 5:45 (Ok, whatever. I pressed snooze for a bit longer.), and we were down in the lobby by 6:15. The start line was outside of the Metrodome (home of the Minnesota Vikings), which was a 10 minute walk from our hotel. On the way, a group of ninjas ran past us and we all groaned and cat-called loudly. As they passed, we realized that they were members of the kind of famous Oregon Track Club. Whoops. The staging area was actually inside the dome, so we were able to stay warm and use real bathrooms prior to the race. If you’ve ever had to brave the porta-potties before a race, you know how much of a treat this actually was. At about 7:30a.m., we all left the warmth of the dome and headed outside to the starting corrals. My race outfit consisted of my spandex, knee-high compression socks, a singlet, a headband, and my throwaway gloves. I anticipated wearing a throwaway long-sleeved t-shirt in the corral, but I quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to pull it over my watch and remove it as needed mid-race. Luckily, Penguin had some government-issued, wool socks (that he wore to death in Antarctica and had the holes to prove it) that he intended on using but no longer needed. I pulled the knee-high socks over my arms, grateful for the warmth. As such, I started the race looking like some sort of deranged muppet.
The entrance to Corral 1, where the rest of the group was positioned, ran next to Corral 2. I ran along the fence after Penguin, Kris, and CT in an effort to sneak a few more seconds of camaraderie. As they left me at my starting point, I looked down and realized that I had dropped my pre-race gel in the process (stupid sock hands). I sipped some more Gatorade and turned on my shuffle. It had been giving me problems since getting caught in a torrential downpour a few weeks earlier, and I was nervous that it wouldn’t work. I held my breath for a few seconds as I played with the buttons and heard only silence. I was just about ready to toss it to the side (I wasn’t about to carry a dead/dying shuffle on the course if I would have to replace it post-race anyway) when the music kicked in. Sweet relief. In front of me, shirts, pants, and jackets all sailed over the crowd as runners tossed off their warmer layers. It’s one of my all-time favorite race sights.
Clif Bar provided pacing groups (designated runners that run at a target pace to keep you on track during the race), and I had every intention of sticking with them. I had consistently been running my pacing runs too fast, and the last thing I wanted to do was burn out too quickly on the course. As the gun went off, and we crept toward the start line, more and more people crowded around the pacer, and I realized that I might not be able to keep as closely as I wanted to. Coach and I had talked about keeping the first two miles of the race slower than pace – 9:20 and 9:15, respectively – and settling into my 9:05-9:10 goal pace by mile three. Keeping that first mile of a marathon under pace is probably one of the most difficult things you can do. The adrenaline is coursing through your veins, the crowd of runners is buzzing around you, and you’re literally staring your goal in the face. As my feet crossed the mat, I started my watch and kept my eye on the pacer. Penguin had recommended that I turn off the “auto-lap” function of my watch, which shows your time at every mile marker, but you can’t change the settings on a Nike+ watch unless it’s plugged into a computer. Because… of course. As such, I was stuck with auto-lap, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to rely on it as much as I had hoped. The first mile of the course took us out of the city, and a few steps into the race, my emotions got the best of me and I started to tear up. I shook myself and focused on falling into my planned pace. About a half a mile in, I glanced at my watch. 9:20. Perfect. A few seconds later, it showed 10:00. WHAT?! This was clearly a watch issue (not a “me running slower” issue), but I didn’t want to risk it. At that point, I had managed to stay fairly close to the pacer, but I kicked it up a notch, and quickly left him behind. (Sorry, Darris.)
The first hill comes around mile two where you leave the city and head into the surrounding residential areas, which comprised 95% of the course. It wasn’t as crazy as I had made it out to be, I knew it was coming, and I focused on my feet. Just after I came off of the hill, I found myself running behind a girl wearing a shirt that featured a giant photo of her grandmother. “May all your dreams come true. – Grandma,” it said. Real tears came down my cheeks this time, and I started choking up again… this time literally. I was a hot mess. I calmed myself down, and chugged away. I was still wearing the giant wool socks on my hands, and my entire body felt numb. The first half of the race was beautiful – rolling hills with fast downhill portions, colored leaves littered the course, and spectators of all ages lined the streets. I couldn’t run more than twenty ft without seeing a small child holding a sign saying “Go, Daddy!” or “Run Mommy! We love you!”, although my all-time favorite was a sign that was clearly ACTUALLY written by the child him/herself (see my version, left). Not gonna lie, there were other times along the course that these kids and their signs made me tear up a bit.
The spectators were truly fantastic – from the stoic senior citizens holding signs that simply stated a person’s name to the tailgate-style parties on front lawns to the Native Americans playing the drums. I felt like a million bucks, and I was grinning ear to ear for most of the race (except for when I was choke-crying, obviously). As predicted, my lap times became increasingly less accurate, and after a few miles, I just stopped looking at it. I felt strong, and I felt like I was on pace. I put complete trust in myself and didn’t look at my watch until the halfway point. Trying to quickly do basic math in my head, I realized that I was about 5-6 minutes ahead of schedule. To say I was shocked wouldn’t be entirely accurate. While I had been training with a goal of sub-4, I had secretly hoped to finish in 3:55 or better. I wanted nothing more than for Coach to be shaking his head and smiling at the finish line. I was high-fiving children, singing along to my music, and taking the time to soak in my surroundings (something I’ve never done in a marathon before).
I hit mile 20 and glanced at my watch, I realized that I was almost ten minutes ahead of schedule. The true test, I thought, would come around mile 22, when the dreaded two-mile, uphill battle with Summit Ave would begin. I couldn’t remember exactly where the hill started, so every little hill had me checking street signs and bracing. As I finally turned onto Summit, I realized that it wasn’t as awful as I had heard. I focused on the people, the street ahead of me, and made every attempt to avoid looking too far into the distance. At the time, I felt like I was maintaining easily and barely felt the hills. Looking at my splits, it seems that my pace dropped about 10sec/mi, but I feel pretty good about that.
As I hit the top of the hill (around mile 24), I turned my watch to “elapsed time” and saw that I had 30 min to cover the last 2.2 miles and still finish under four hours. I knew there was another final kick of a hill at mile 25, so I pushed myself into gear. I wanted that 3:50 now more than ever. Every race report had warned me that a giant cathedral would appear out of nowhere, indicating the final stretch. As predicted, there it was. I turned a corner and stared downhill at an enormous American flag hung over the middle of the course, the finish line a welcome red beacon. I remember being terrified that my legs wouldn’t hold as I went screaming down the hill into the finishing chute, and I had to dodge a few people along the way. The crowd was pretty deafening and my eyes started tearing up again. I glanced quickly at my watch and saw that I had less than a minute to cross the finish line at 3:49. I was so focused that I almost forgot to throw my hands up for the camera as I crossed, but I had done it. I had finished the Twin Cities Marathon in 3:49:52.
I wandered slowly out of the finishing area, gratefully accepting my medal, a blanket, and some chicken broth. “Do you want a picture of you crying?” Coach asked. “You PR’d by 83 minutes! Do you know how RIDICULOUS that is??” I couldn’t wait to see the rest of the group and learn how everyone did. Of the eight, two qualified for (and got accepted into) their first Boston Marathons, and I couldn’t be happier for them. The times ranged from 2:38 (what????) to my 3:49. Penguin finished exactly an hour ahead of me at 2:49.
“Well, you know what this means, don’t you?” he asked with a smile. “Time to chase Boston!”
We piled onto the school bus that would take us back to our hotel. Jenny’s boyfriend was kind enough to supply us with post-race libations, as Minnesota’s Blue Laws prohibit alcohol sales on Sundays. We celebrated with pizza and beer in CT’s hotel room that night, excitedly sharing silly stories from the day. The sousaphone-playing MN Supreme Court Justice at mile 3 that was absolutely terrible, the inexplicably shirtless guys in 30-degree weather, the stuffed chicken wearing a race medal around mile 10, Penguin’s unfortunate 90-second porta-potty stop at the halfway point, the guy Kris almost pushed off of a bridge for following too closely. I couldn’t have asked for a better group with which to race. This week has been unbelievably great to me – between passing the Bar and PR’ing, I haven’t stopped smiling in quite some time.