A fast, flat, course — cool weather and a 12-mph tail wind. Why not shoot for a low time? I picked up a pace wristband for a 3:20 marathon at the expo the day before. I looked at the splits to accomplish this and I laughed. I needed to average 7:38 a mile for 26.2 miles. Sure, I had run 3:18 in Chicago last October but I had dubbed that run The Miracle on Michigan Avenue. My training runs are paced at closer to 8:40 per mile. And I feel pretty darn stressed when running that pace every morning.
But you don’t get a low time in the marathon by being hesitant. I lined up with the 3:15 pace group at the start and figured I would hold on until I couldn’t.
Lake Superior isn’t much farther from Highway 61 for much of the early miles than I can hit a sand wedge. But the omnipresent fog was so thick on the North Shore that I never got a peek at the great lake until after mile six.
Great bodies of water are just completely foreign to Nebraska-born and Kansas City-placed yokels like me. The massive expansiveness of Lake Superior rolling over itself just off to my left was a mesmerizing sight as I tooled down Highway 61. The lake looked dark, angry and not at all welcoming. But homes were tucked up against the coastline on both sides of the narrow highway to capture a view of the lake.
What kind of a person chooses to make their home here just a few feet from Lake Superior and a few miles from Canada? Are these people the remnants of generations of Minnesotans who have known no other life? What does this road look like in winter? These are the kinds of questions I pondered as I ran along with my 3:15 pace pack.
Running at a 7:20 pace did not seem too difficult through the first few miles. I held up with the 3:15 group without having to push myself. My plan was to see how long I could last and then back off once it got too quick. My fear was that I’d blow up and have to struggle to finish.
A chatty 40-year-old gent was talking up a group of us who were positioned just behind the sign-carrying 3:15 pace leader. He was explaining how he had just missed his Boston Qualifying time by a mere 14 seconds in his last marathon. He needed to go under 3:15 here to BQ today.
“The secret to qualifying for Boston is to get old,” he flatly stated. Inferring that the easier qualifying times as you age made it easier to BQ. This brought a chuckle from a number of the other runners in the 3:15 group. Being a tad older than most in this pace group, I was not one of the chucklers.
“I disagree with that,” I not-so-timidly stated. “While the qualifying standards are definitely easier once you hit 50, one of the unfortunate byproducts of aging is slowing down. You can’t run as fast at 60 as you did at 40.”
An older guy piped up and answered me with his own opinion on the subject. “That’s not true,” he offered. “You don’t have to slow down as you get older.”
“So you’re as fast now as you were when you were 30?” I queried. He did not answer my rhetorical question.
“The trick to it is to not start until you’re 50,” said another runner. “Then you don’t remember when you were fast!” This guy I could relate to.
The 40-year-old who wanted to be 50 – let’s call him Bizarro Peter Pan – also was urging the crowds to cheer at every intersection where people stood. He would drop both hands to his side and then raising them together with his palms upward – kind of a Jesus gesture if you will. These kinds of guys are more than a bit annoying during a race. I have been guilty of raising my fist and acknowledging the cheering crowds in Chicago and Boston – but there are hundreds and hundreds of fans along the route of these big-city marathons. Bizarro was trying to whip up a roar from three guys in camouflage jackets and two hunting dogs.
While Grandma’s is promoted as having great crowds along the 26-mile course, this was not the case over much the first half on this cool, foggy morning. The crowds were remarkable considering so few people live along this route and access by vehicle (due to the marathon) was almost impossible. What the crowds lacked in numbers they made up in creativity.
One hunter stood in front of his small home with his dog dressed from neck to tail in a bright orange hunting vest. Neither hunter nor dog barely moved as our pack strolled by. One couple dressed as skinny and fat Elvis – the husband played the role of Thin Elvis – or at least relative to his short portly wife’s Fat Elvis. One local spectator was dressed as Yeti (chained to a stump in his front yard). Across the street from the Abominable Snowman was a black bear who looked far more real in his costume that the Yeti.
In Chicago you see yuppies on the sidewalk sipping Starbucks and dressed in flannel PJs. In Duluth you see people wearing flannels but it’s the kind you get from LL Bean and wear in November. Guys with plaid hunting jackets and ear-flapped hats. Women wearing fur-lined boots to keep their feet warm, not score fashion points.
These folks are just an entirely different breed of Americans. I got the feeling they saw us marathoners more as a curiosity than a reason to cheer. They are a practical bunch up here on the North Shore and running 26.2 miles along a perfectly good paved road didn’t make a lot of sense to them. I could see them asking themselves, “Why not take the bus?”
The names of the towns, rivers, parks, roads and just about anything else that required a sign here are a great part of Americana. I loved reading these signs as we continued our march south. Hawk Ridge, French River, Flood Bay, Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, Pine Bay, Knife River, Gitchee Gumee, Moose Hill Park, Lemon Drop Hill… This is why you need to cover a new road on foot or by bike. The romance of a community is just lost from the other side of a windshield.
Still feeling fine at the 10-mile mark, I was approached from the rear by a tall, angular, older gent. “How old are you,” he spat out gruffly.
I turned to my right and saw that my new running companion was of a similar age. “I’m 58,” I smiled.
“Okay,” he answered in a crusty businesslike tone. “I’m 61. I just wanted to check to see if you were in my age group and if I was going to have to beat you.”
Most road races and almost all marathons award age-group awards in increments of five years. My current age division is 55-59. Crusty’s age division is 60-64.
“I placed second in this age group last year,” Crusty informed me. “I ran 3:19 and beat the guy in third place by only second.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me,” I assured him. “I’m a bit out of my league up here with the 3;15 pace group. I’m just trying to see how long I can hang with them.”
“You know, some people don’t like it when I ask them how old they are,” Crusty offered. “They get offended.”
“Well, isn’t that kind of one of society’s norms?” I countered.
Crusty cocked his head and looked at me like I was a bit touched in the head. We then debated whether or not all runners should wear their age division on their backs. I was adamantly against this practice while Crusty was all for it.
“The one way you can be sure to win your age is to beat everybody,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to let you go and drop back now.”
I checked Crusty’s finishing time after the race and he came in at 3:35. He may have expended too much early energy chasing down old-looking 58-year-olds.
The fog had lifted between miles six and 11 but it was back heavy as ever by mile 14. This is also the point in the race where I lost view of the 3:15 pace group. I had been playing visual tag with them since the 11-mile mark and their steady pace finally took its toll on my legs.
I spent about four seconds contemplating chasing them down one last time but rational thought quickly squashed that thought. I took comfort in knowing I had stayed with them through the first half of the race and hoped those early quick miles would help my finishing time as I tired over the last few miles.
The rain began about mile 20. The humidity was so high – as you would imagine running through a cloud – that I was sweat-soaked after the first three miles. By 20 I was drenched from sweat and from pouring cups of water over my head and neck. Even with temps in the low 50s, I was warm. The rain didn’t bother me a twit. Rather, it refreshed and distracted me.
While this cool foggy weather was a godsend for the marathoners, the locals were tired of never seeing the sun. One local who was weary of the London weather was St. Scholastica College’s volleyball coach, Dana Moore. I met her at UMD where she was hosting a spectacular hospitality room for us runners the day before the race.
Dana was born in California, but had graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, MO. She married a guy who was then transferred to Duluth. This will be her 17th season at the Jesuit College. As I was commenting on how the weather was perfect for the next day’s marathon, she interjected how much she was ready for it to end.
“We hate it!” Dana exclaimed. “We are so sick of this weather! We had snow piles around until just a few weeks ago and now this fog.”
The weatherman was holding out some hope for next week, though. “It’s supposed to burn off on Monday,” she added. I checked my weather app Monday and saw that Duluth had clear skies with a high in the mid-70s. You can bet Dana was smiling.
Saw Bizarro again about the 22-mile mark. He wasn’t raising his arms to elicit cheers from anyone – and he was barely raising his two feet as he shuffled along still four miles from the finish. The runners had thinned out considerably at this point and it was just him and me on the road.
I passed him on his right side way too closely – especially since no one else was near us at the time. I know he got a good look at this old man who only needs a 3:40 to get into Boston. I didn’t even glanced his way as I used much of my remaining composure to look as comfortable as possible. I never saw him again. I have a feeling I won’t see him in Boston either.
When I hit the brick-paved streets of old downtown Duluth, I knew I was in decent shape to break 3:20. I wasn’t having any major issues and the cool rain kept my core temp down enough to where I was comfortable.
My Garmin Forerunner 10 watch had stopped recording my location at some point and gave me a bit of a start when I saw 23.5 miles on its face when I expected 25.5. Few things are more disconcerting to a marathoner than to discover they haven’t run as far as they thought.
I glanced at my Garmin watch again as we closed in on the finish and saw my time at 3:16. I wasn’t sure how much further to the finish but I pumped my arms to try and get under 3:20. I made it in 3:18:06 to post a new PR. Not long after, Yael and Ken came in at 3:29 – a PR for Yael and a new low for Ken as a 60-year-old.
Peter had beaten us all with a 3:14:03 – good enough for his BQ – by almost a minute this time! Paris may have stricken his nickname for good by posting a 3:37:36 – a PR by 19 minutes! Dan Hall finished off the day by finally getting his first BQ with a 3:53:24. “And that included a 90-second bathroom break,” Dan added. Six BRR runners and five BQs with Paris knocking 19 minutes off his PR. Not a bad run through the North Country.
Shortly after stopping and posing for post-race pictures my body temp started to drop. I didn’t notice the cold while I was running. I noticed it big time standing and walking to retrieve my bag of clothes. With teeth chattering, I headed for the large white changing tent. I entered the side that was segregated for male runners.
The stench that seared my nostrils upon entering the men’s changing tent was a rare mix of body odor and diarrhea. Not the happy smell of a fart but rather the pungent, bitter, cheesy smell of a sick green dump. And the guy who was sitting next to the only open chair in the changing tent smelled like he was the source of much of this aroma. I gingerly sat in the open seat and checked it for brown streaks.
My plan was to change as quickly as possible and exit this tent of hellacious odors. But nothing happens quickly after a marathon. I dropped my dry shorts on the rain-soaked asphalt and then spilled by bag of dry clothing onto the wet street as well. Chucky Cheese was not looking up and he was not talking. He was too busy stinking.
“This is exactly what it smells like in a hockey locker room,” the big guy to my right said to his tall friend who had not been “lucky” enough to grab a seat. I struck up a conversation with these two 30-something guys from D.C. Both were fairly new to the marathon but had obviously been athletes all their lives. I remember thinking how glad I was for my nose that I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball in Nebraska rather than hockey in Minnesota.
Just as I was gathering my wet clothes, my bag and checking for my keys and wallet, a new voice with an Irish brogue entered the tent and cracked the place up. “Ohhhhhh!” he exclaimed with all the passion of a climaxing moose. “This place smells like ROSES!”
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