A few days ago, I had the great and long anticipated pleasure of running Grandma’s Marathon, in Duluth, Minnesota, one of the most popular marathons in the country.
It was a destination race for my local Run Tampa club. We took about 65 people; 38 did the marathon, 16 did the half, and the rest were our support crew.
Grandma’s Marathon had been on my bucket list since I first heard of it, and that was soon after my first marathon in 2007. Honestly, I think in the beginning, it was the name that attracted me. The connotation is just so warm and welcoming, and I never heard anything but good reports.
Then, a few years later, when I was at ZAP Fitness Running Camp in North Carolina, at dinner, I sat next to the weekend’s special guest speaker, Carolyn Mather, an incredible runner with a career that has taken her to all the well-known marathons, some of them, many times over.
I was excited to have the opportunity to pick her brain about all matters running, but my number 1 question was, “If a person was only ever going to do one marathon, which would you recommend?”
She said, “Grandma’s.”
Well, that cinched it.
Now that race is checked off my bucket list. It is still on my list of races ‘to do,’ though, because I know I will do it again. It’s that kind of race.
When it comes to marathons, in general, almost no one does just one marathon, despite the fact that most people will say that almost everyone will speak that catchy phrase,
“One and done”
on race day. By the next day, they’re always singing a different tune and talking about the next one.
The reason almost no one stops at just one is because there are so many variables. The more marathons you do, the closer you’ll get to a great race. Oh, there will be bad ones; that’s a given, but there will be more good ones – and in a sense, any marathon that you finish is a good one. Everyone makes you stronger, mentally and physically.
If you register on a whim and take an unsafe, cavalier attitude toward training, you are virtually guaranteed a bad and unsafe race experience at any marathon, but even with great training and careful attention to all the details, there is still quite a lot that can go wrong.
Shorter races are much more within the runner’s control. With the marathon, you can train perfectly, follow what you know, for you, is the most effective pre-race protocol, and stick to your race strategy like glue, but guess what, over the span of 26 miles and several hours, a lot can happen.
The wheels can fall off and often do. In fact, the steering wheel can crack, and you can run out of gas.
I’m actually still in the early stages of my marathon career. Grandma’s was my 15th. That may seem like a lot, but I know plenty of people who’ve done double or triple that. In fact, I know several people who’ve done a hundred marathons.
For most of my running career, half marathons were not even an option. They didn’t become commonplace until the late 90’s. Then, with the growing number of half marathons, that became a viable and extremely popular option.
Anymore, 5k’s and 10k’s are a stepping stone that leads to the inevitable half marathon, and I think one reason we see more people training for their first marathons is because more people are already half way there, doing halves,
And when you do your first half, while the thought of a marathon may seem incomprehensible, you also have the wisdom to realize that you once felt that way about the half. That fact causes you to have to admit that if you were to choose to do marathon, you actually could do it.
Does that mean anybody who can do a half marathon should do one? Absolutely not? Not necessarily. One of my favorite quotes is, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” and that absolutely applies here. You should do one only if it’s something you really – in your own heart – want to do, but you also have to be in a place in your life when you have the time to commit to the necessary training, and you, of course, need to be in excellent health.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think if a runner wants to get better at running halves, then one of the best ways is to do a full because then, the whole perspective changes; however, it still is a huge decision, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
There is much to consider, and if you’re giving it some thought, I highly recommend you listen to my three-episode series titled Your First Marathon. That series was episodes 55, 56, and 57. The first episode in that series was entirely devoted to the things you need to consider to make the decision of whether to do one. I’ve had people write to me after listening to those episodes, to say that after listening, they decided it wouldn’t be a smart thing for them at this time.
Anyway, my point is that for most of my running career, I didn’t even think about doing a marathon, and then when I finally did that first half, I didn’t give the marathon a second thought. Well, except to wonder how anyone could possibly run twice that far. It wasn’t even on my radar, but then I did the thing I talked about in last week’s Beginner Runner Village podcast. That’s the other podcast I do, and it’s geared to people at the very beginning of their running career.
That episode, #29, titled “Wanting More,” was about motivation, and I pointed out that one of the best things any runner can do to get motivated is to spend lots of time with accomplished, experienced runners.
After my first half marathon, I started hanging around with people who were doing marathons, regularly, and before long, it seemed like a natural progression. Seriously, if you’re hanging around with people doing 5k’s – and there’s nothing wrong with that – even the idea of doing a marathon may seem almost bizarre – but when you’re with people who’ve done a few, it just changes your perspective because you realize you’re pretty much exactly like them in other ways; you realize they’re really not superhuman. They’re just like you, except they’ve done marathons and you haven’t.
I am a huge believer in Jim Rohn’s quote: “You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Marathons are completely different from halves. Whatever the weather at the beginning of a half, it likely will be pretty much the same for the whole race; however, the average race time for a marathon is over 4 hours and longer for first-timers; A lot can happen in four or five hours, as it did, Saturday, in the 40th running of Grandma’s Marathon.
Going up there from Tampa, where we’ve done all our long runs in weather in the upper 70’s to low 80’s and very high humidity, we were all pumped up to run in temps in the 50’s or worst case scenario, in the 60’s, but that isn’t the way it happened. As it turns out, it was 74 at the start and reached 84 degrees by the time some people finished.
But that’s just the weather, you may also experience a whole host of physical occurrences from the unexpected need of a restroom to sudden pains, gastrointestinal issues, falls, wardrobe malfunctions, and more. Heck, you could even start coming down with the first symptoms of a non-running related illness, like the flu or a cold in a four-hour time span, and on a super-hot day, like that, because many runners ended up walking, it took 6 hours or more.
Every race brings surprises
Around mile 16, I felt a sudden intense sting and a movement of something small in the palm of my right fist. Not like something crawling, but like a vibration. Of course, I immediately looked, and it was a bee, in my hand – or, actually at that moment, exiting my hand. I was carrying my hand in a loose fist, like usual, thumb on top. So weird! Why would the bee fly into my hand, and how could it get into my fist?
Then I had this amazing thought. Maybe I had some traces of the gu I had been consuming every 45 minutes on the inside of my hand. That was likely what attracted the bee. Those foil gu packets are kind of sloppy. But here’s the crazy part. . . wait for it . . . what kind of gu do you think I was using?
You guessed it, Honey Stinger brand. Seriously. I am not kidding. I couldn’t even make that up. That’s the only kind I had with me that day.
Fortunately, I’m not allergic to bee stings, and it didn’t hurt for long. I soon forgot about it, in fact, didn’t think about it again until after the race. I was too preoccupied with coping with the heat and trying to maintain my pace.
Then there was the wardrobe malfuntion. Yep, that too. I wore my favorite black running skirt, but it turns out it was a little too old, and I guess I wore it one too many times because a few miles into the race, I could feel the bottom edge flopping against the front of my thighs at a spot that was definitely lower than usual. Nothing terrible, no over exposure, but it was unsettling, and I did have to pull it up every mile or so, and to keep it up I pulled my elastic number strap down over my abdomen.
Like I said, there are many variables, and many, like weather, are completely out of the runner’s control. The skirt problem? That’s on me. Since marathons require months of preparation and training; you can’t wait and register AFTER you know what the weather will be like.
You choose your race based on its reputation, location, elevation, typical weather, and more, but nothing is guaranteed. If the race normally has ideal marathon weather, all you can do is hope that you don’t catch it in an off year.
But, of course, that’s what happened at Grandma’s this year. No worries. Runners, especially, marathon runners, have to be prepared to make modifications on the fly. Some people get all worked up, but what is the point in that? I love this sport, all of it. I embrace it. If that weather is not what I hoped, then maybe it becomes a great training run, training me to deal with a more intense situation than I had expected, forcing me to test my mettle to get that medal.
The challenge of extreme weather conditions
This was a tough one, even for us; so, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for people who had not been training in the heat like we had. That completely explains the much higher than normal dnf rate of a full 20 percent. That’s incredible!
A marathon, on a day like that, with those conditions, tests far more than your fitness; it tests your spirit and your fortitude. Running forces you to be flexible, to roll with the punches, and the runners at Grandma’s, did get punched, but no one went down – well maybe a few actually did – but most crossed the finish line, even if it meant, for some, walking an hour or more, much more exhausted than usual, and maybe even with a bigger smile than they would have had in the relative comfort of more typical Minnesota weather.
Why would that be? Why a bigger smile? Well, you know the saying, “The harder the challenge, the more satisfying the accomplishment.” Many people did not finish with the expected – or hoped for – time, but it’s all relative.
Several people in my Run Tampa group were doing their first marathon, and several of our members, despite the brutal conditions, actually grabbed bright, beautiful, sparkling new PR’s, even in those conditions, and a couple of those PR’s were huge. All I can say is “Wow!”
Our group was well trained – thanks Coach Maria – and, being from Florida, we are certainly acclimated to the heat.
This was not the case for most of the runners; however, and that concerns me. I’m sure there were some who finished the race despite being in a dangerous physical state due to the heat. Many runners quit, and that was wise. It always bothers me that people are so worried about the stigma of quitting; they have such a severe aversion to the concept of quitting – at anything – that they continue even when it’s unsafe to do so; that’s just foolish.
People die in marathons, usually due to unknown heart conditions but sometimes because they try to do something they aren’t trained to do, and sometimes because they refuse to accept being defeated by Mother Nature. There is no shame in that. There just isn’t.
I don’t understand that. Everyone should train appropriately and have a reasonable, sensible, realistic race strategy, but – and that is a big but – they must be prepared to depart from that plan if conditions change. That race strategy, that plan, was for the predicted, expected conditions. When the conditions change, the strategy must be modified. In yesterday’s race, the conditions changed throughout the race.
Race condition flags
We started the race with green flag conditions. Let me explain those flags. The alert flags are color-coded to notify runners of racing conditions. We started under green which means conditions are good, but as the race progressed, the conditions – due to heat and humidity and no cloud cover – deteriorated, moving through the whole cycle, from green to yellow to red to black, which indicates extreme and dangerous conditions.
As conditions worsened, every runner needed to continually adjust their pace to avoid dangerous results. Unfortunately, no one could have foreseen how quickly conditions would worsen or how bad it would get. Ideally in that situation, everyone would have been better off to start off much slower, but no one could have guessed the conditions would get that extreme.
As for me, I was right where I wanted to be, at about the halfway point, timewise, but at that point, I realized it would not be a smart day to stick to my plan, and I’ll be honest; there was no way I could have done it. No way. It wasn’t even an option.
My first accommodation was that I started drinking at every aid station, something I never do, normally, but I knew proper hydration was going to be critical.
Early on, I started modifying my expectations and my running pace as conditions worsened, and by that I mean the heat and sun, every few miles. As a result, I was able to still be happy with my performance. My goal for that race was, literally, a moving target, and I continued to modify my behavior throughout the race. In the end, I was completely happy with how my body responded and how I felt, crossing the finish line, and post race.
It was a heat test, and I passed, but I did plenty of walking. Where early on, I only walked through aid stations, later, I decided I’d need to walk more; so, I came up with the plan of running five minutes and walking one. That worked for a while. Then, amazingly, I started to feel better, and was able to run a couple miles at a time, but later, I was relegated to the 5/1 run walk plan again.
Everybody is different. Some people find they just can’t stop and start again. If they’ve managed to pace adjust well in the heat, all systems healthy, then they can keep running and just slow their pace, but I prefer to do a walk run, and I find that I actually run faster during the running segments.
Only you know how you feel. What worries me is when someone has the symptoms of heat distress, and yet they keep running. My question is ‘Why?’ What is to be gained. I, personally, don’t feel like I have anything to prove. Running is an individual sport. If I were to become dangerously overheated and try to continue, then I’d be proving my foolishness.
I’ve known people who quit, and I respected them for it. Quitting is hard, harder than finishing, in a way, because it’s hard to cope with, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, then I have two past episodes of my podcast you might want to listen to, one is #18, titled, “What does dnf Mean to You?” and the other one is #52, titled, “Winners, Losers, and Quitters.”
Wisdom and quitting
Let me depart very briefly from my topic of Grandma’s Marathon to make one statement: Runners are not quitters if they set goals and work hard to achieve them. Those people are not quitters in the negative sense of the word – at – all. People who make the wise decision not to finish a race because they don’t think it’s smart – or the medical personnel advise against it – are not quitters. They will live to run another day, and they’ll be recovered and ready to race again, sooner. Those are anything BUT quitters.
Let’s call them ‘smarters’ or ‘wisers’ or ‘gutsers,’ – as in people with lots of guts – because it takes guts to quit if you think you might be able to go on.
Isn’t it better to quit when you get to the point when you think it might be dangerous that to push on until you collapse? I think so. Much, much better. So, if you’re listening and you dnfed, feel good about yourself and know that I respect you.
Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, but I don’t like to see people stumbling to move forward, falling, even crawling. To me, that’s just not smart, and that did happen on Saturday.
By the way, I was extremely glad I had applied sun screen and wore a hat and my sunglasses that day. All that really made a big difference.
The Grandma’s Marathon course
I loved Grandma’s Marathon. It’s been on my bucket list for years, and it didn’t disappoint. The whole city is all about the race; everybody seems completely supportive, and crowd support was great.
Grandma’s is a point to point course; so, we had to take a bus from our hotel to the race start. The bus was on time and comfortable. I did a point to point race from the top of a mountain a while back and I was disappointed because the race director didn’t have enough buses; we ended up getting to the start only a few minutes before the race started, a serious error, not so with Grandma’s. Everything went like clockwork. Our bus even had a bathroom, which was a super bonus.
The course was gorgeous. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to get out of my head and really look around, appreciate a few words shared with miscellaneous runners along the way, enjoy the cheers from the locals, take in the amazing vistas, and slap some outstretched hands.
I’ll never forget when I did the ING Miami Half Marathon many years ago. After the race someone asked me what I thought about running through South Beach. I said, “What?” I hadn’t even noticed. And that’s happened many other times over the years. I’m getting better at focusing on my surroundings.
Yesterday, early in the race, I could look to my left out over Lake Superior, and I could barely make out the horizon line, but I could see a lone boat, fishermen, I guess, everything like an eerie painting, all in hues of gray. If I hadn’t been racing – and if I had had my phone, I’d have stopped to snap a photo, but I’ll just have to keep referring to the saved mental image.
I loved that caring residents along the race course held hoses to spray people seeking to cool down, and I ran through every one I could get to. The water was ice cold, too. Water in a hose is never cold in Florida! Several residents stood along the course with buckets of ice cubes and some set up extra water stops in their driveways.
My very favorite entertainment along the way was two older men, probably in their late 70’s singing and playing guitar.
I read the signs. One I really liked was “If Trump can run, so can you.” Another said, “Worst parade – ever!” Another said, “Why do the cute ones always run away?” You’ve probably all seen those; I have, too, but I still enjoy seeing them.
My favorite signs, though, are the signs made by kids, cheering for their moms and dads. These always move me as I imagine growing up with a marathon parent, when I think of how this must affect the child’s view of fitness and goal-setting. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing, not in my mind because I do know of obsessed running parents, and I can imagine this is hard on the family. All things in moderation is my motto.
Some parents may resent the fact that family life can sometimes get in the way of optimal marathon preparation and performance. I wish these parents would be more relaxed about their racing and realize they’ll have plenty of time when the kids are older. I don’t want them to miss family time just to do marathons, or resent the times when family commitments interfere, either, but I’m happy to see that many families make it work and that it becomes the family’s project, which must be great.
I’ve said this before: Running should occupy the place in your life where it can be the most beneficial, the role of enriching your life, and that role will need to change over time.
Some of the time, if the other spouse is on board, and if the running parent is relaxed about the sport, then it can be a wonderful experience that makes the whole family proud and motivates the kids to follow in their parent’s footsteps. The whole process of goal-setting, completing process goals along the way, coping with setbacks, being flexible to accommodate family priorities and especially with a marathon, demonstrating the tenacity to work long and hard over a period of months, to achieve a long-term goal, is a great parenting opportunity, filled with infinite teachable moments.
It becomes a family adventure; every member shares in the satisfaction of a lofty goal reached, and everyone learns about themselves and their loved ones.
Grandma’s offered plenty of amenities, but one I especially appreciated was the careful placement of portapotties along the race course. There were plenty, and when I needed one, I just started checking the little green ‘available’ indicator until I ran past one that was open, which didn’t take long.
I did not even have to stand in line, saving me precious minutes. There were cold sponges, too, which were especially appreciated in the hot weather. I placed one on the back of my neck, tucked at the base in my running bra, and I left it there for the last ten miles, cooling me in the beginning and then protecting my neck from the sun.
Ironically, many in our group returned to Tampa with a pretty good sunburn, looking much like the tourists we often see, who come down for a few days of beach time but whose pale skin isn’t prepared for the intense sun.
One distinctive element of this race is that you don’t get your race shirt until after you cross the finish line. That’s a first for me. No complaints, here. The distribution of all the post race amenities was organized and efficient as was packet pickup and the expo.
I had no problem retrieving my gear bag, which they called ‘sweat bags’ in Minnesota. Again, ironic because we call them gear bags here in Florida where we do a lot more sweating.
Upon arriving in Duluth, we stopped in at the Deluth Grill, a place I found on Yelp when we were still a few miles out of town. Lots of home grown vegies, an option to get gluten-free toast, bison options, and a great, creative menu. The servers wear shirts that say, “Veggies from our lot.” And they mean it, there are, indeed, veggie gardens surrounding the perimeter of their parking lot.
We went back there after the race for a burger. I almost never eat hamburgers, but for some reason that’s what I crave after a marathon. Go figure. I think your body tells you what it needs, and I try to supply it.
Later, my Run Tampa group met at Fitger’s Ale House for a post race celebration, and we had a lot to celebrate. We had 38 Run Tampa members do the marathon, 16 did the Garry Bjorkland Half, and even more made the trip to support the runners.
All of our runners, finished, by the way. It was super tough, but our runners did train in the heat; so, I don’t feel like they were in any danger.
We celebrated great accomplishments. Amazing that anyone PR’d, but we had quite a few. Imagine that, and several first-time marathoners, too. What tough conditions for a first marathon!
Our leadership team
Dave Yancey, our event director extraordinaire, had every element of the trip planned well ahead of time from flights to meals to transportation and even lodging. He is truly amazing, and by the way, he flew straight from Minnesota to California where he’ll be doing the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run this weekend. So, as excited as we all were last weekend, we’ll be just as excited to be rooting for Dave this coming weekend.
Carla Nolan, our awesome, incredible president, provided hilarious live, on the spot reports and interviews throughout the weekend for the 400 Run Tampa members back home to see on Facebook.
Head Running Coach Maria Williams somehow managed to keep track of all her runners and provide just what they needed; it was clear that she had them properly prepared. I could never manage that number of runners, but she does it with the greatest skill, combining knowledge, experience, and an equal amount of therapy, which is especially valuable when runners are having to adjust to such challenging conditions.
My Run Tampa Leadership Team is the best, the best, amazing in every way.
So, kudos to those first-timers, those PR’s, Run Tampa’s and everyone else’s, and, kudos to all who ran a smart race, adjusting your goals based on the conditions, and to those who tried to adjust but learned that they needed to adjust a little more. Seriously, that’s why people keep doing marathons. Learning what your body needs in various situations is a huge part of the process. You can only get that personal feedback by getting out there and doing it.
Big kudos to the Grandma’s staff, and the City of Deluth for putting on such a great event. I’ll be back, for sure. You can bet on that. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Now, I want to share a quote from Deena Kastor. Kastor. Despite her petite 5 foot 4 inch frame, she is a running icon, holding the American record for the marathon, half marathon, and various other distances. Kastor won the bronze medal in the women’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
She said, “As an athlete I’ve found aside from hard work, the greatest tools for success are optimism and gratitude. These practices have led to happiness and the routine pause to realize I’m living the life I love and dreamed of.” – Deena Kastor
I love that! Much of what I heard from our runners, and others, after the race, Saturday, was optimism and gratitude, gratitude for being fortunate enough to be able to be there, gratitude to the volunteers and the race organization, and optimism that the next race won’t be so hot and that they were just happy to have been able to finish and to have the opportunity to see the amazing scenery, all seeming to realize that it’s certainly not just about the time. There’s so much more.