Monday, June 22, 2009

To Grandmother's House I Go...

Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go....The sad but honest truth is that phrase kept reverberating through my head over the weekend--that tune I probably picked up as an nine-year-old playing my first notes on the piano or reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books. But as much as I try to whisk that thought out of my head, I know I can't because it's so true for the weekend I had. I drove over the St. Croix River and through the North Woods (well, partially at least) to get to Grandma's house outside Duluth, Minn. But I wasn't just going to visit Grandma--Grandma Lutter, pictured with me at left, is actually my husband's maternal grandmother but I consider her my grandma as well especially considering that all of my grandparents are deceased--I was also running Grandma's Marathon, a 33-year-old 26.2-mile classic that runs from Two Harbors to Duluth along Lake Superior. I'll spare you all the other grandmotherly references that popped into my head while running or thinking about what to write, but the one that stuck with me was running to grandma's house as I ran from Two Harbors south to Duluth--and if I kept running south I'd hit grandma's in nearby Cloquet.

But anyway, for years, Grandma suggested I run the Grandma's Marathon held each June. And contrary to my belief, it's not named after all the grandmas in Duluth or any other random association you can think of with grandmothers and running--I was asked if my grandma was running the race and if there was some local legend associated with the name--but it received it's name from Grandma's, a restaurant chain local to Duluth and one-time major sponsor of the race that also happens to have a location steps from the finish line. However, each year I'd have a different excuse for why I couldn't run. Once was that the race was already filled--people would request mail-in entries in January and send them back the same day they appeared in their mailboxes to snag an elusive spot into this 9,500-runner race. Another time I ran the Boston Marathon in April and knew my legs couldn't handle another 26.2 miles only two months later. Another time I have to admit I was discouraged by the strict adherence to the USATF no headphone rule, which thankfully was repealed in December by the USATF. And then last year I was at my brother-in-law's wedding so even if I wanted to run, Grandma wouldn't be home either. But when Grandma reminded me about running the race this year, I didn't have an excuse, and the idea of running was all too appealing. I hadn't run a marathon since December and basically took a break from running altogether until a training run with Liz in early April, entries were still available in April thanks in part to the race embracing online registration, I needed a challenge to get me back on my feet, and the idea of running along Lake Superior sounded way too pretty. So after dragging my feet, I finally signed up for the race at the beginning of May and gave myself an event to look forward to come June 20. Little did I know at the time--or maybe I was too excited to sign up and have a late spring marathon on the calendar that I didn't really factor in other events on my event schedule--that I'd be giving myself an interesting taper for this race with a 100-mile bike ride less than two weeks before (June 7's Udder Century) and an Olympic-distance triathlon (June 14's Motor City Triathlon). Then when spring, or the lack thereof, threw us for a loop in the Windy City, I found my training compromised because I simply didn't want to run in the cold and rain or I was too pooped from other activities to hit the trail for a distance run.

Was I crazy to be running this race with only a 10-mile race under my belt, a bonked 12-miler, a 6.6-mile run at the end of a triathlon, and my only endurance hours spent on a bike and an elliptical? Yes! But I gave myself the goal of being conservative while running, not going too hard, listening to my body when I had enough and all of the things I probably ignored any other time I was marathoning. And away I went, driving up to Minnesota two days before the race and then arriving at the expo to pick up my packet on Friday afternoon. As for how I would feel, I was trying not to think negative thoughts although they continued to pop into my head. Think back to Liz's rundown before Boston and all the phantom pains and weather woes. Will my left heel quit hurting me? How are my legs going to feel Saturday and did I rest enough? Am I going to survive to mile 20 after little training and more cross-training? Is it going to rain or will it be too hot? Was I going to get blisters again (I ran more than half the California International Marathon in December with blisters covering my feet)?

By the time race morning arrived, the weather was my only concern. It was bright and sunny--pointing to a great day for a race--but one look at the thermostat and this runner was wishing she was going to the beach and not to a marathon. The start was in the mid-60s and listed the high at 80-something in Two Harbors and 75 degrees in Duluth. The fleece jacket that was a mainstay in my wardrobe all spring came with me to the start but I quickly stuffed it into my sweat bag and hung out in my race clothes--tank and compression shorts--before the start.

I managed to miss the starting announcement but we were off before long. It's never a good sign when you've already cracked a sweat one mile into a race and still have 25 miles left to run. Or when you can start to feel a blister halfway through and hope it doesn't pop while you're running. Or knowing that you can't continue to hold the pace you had kept because it's just too darn hot. But at least that crowds are Knife River around mile five, mile 16, the Lester River, along Superior Street and in the Canal Park area. I got to see my cheer team at mile 16--a total surprise to me since I expected to see them in the later miles in Duluth--and made sure I was running past, but my energy fizzled shortly after and all I wanted was to walk and get fluids. As rough as it might sound, I was definitely in love with the scenery. Green countryside, a clear blue lake, the bright blue sky--you couldn't ask for better race conditions aside from a cooler temperature.

I sound like a broken record harping on the heat, but when I recount the race, that's about the only thing that stands out in my mind because it really was that hot. I think I must be jinxed when it comes to marathons: Chicago 07, Chicago 08, Grandma's 09, and even Boston 08 was a little on the warm side at least for my comfort. But the black flag at mile 21, warning to slow down and drink plenty of fluids, was a little too reminiscent of Chicago 07 when runners were being pulled off the course and the marathon was canceled. Granted there were no buses and we could continue running but I knew that black flag wasn't good for those of us still plodding along.

The last five miles clicked by. Running past the mansions along Lake Superior, refueling at every water station, climbing the infamous Lemon Drop Hill while rocking out to what I consider motivation by The Killers, before I knew it I was at mile 25. But ugh, that last 1.2 miles was rough and felt like the longest march to the finish ever. It also doesn't help when your Garmin reads 26.2 and you don't even see a finish line banner. Yet at 26.32 by my watch's calculations, I crossed the finish line. Slower than I would have liked but faster under the conditions I endured. I just wish I could have sprinted a little faster at the finish or skipped a walking break earlier so my time was a pinch faster--I'm really good at finishing just seconds into the next minute.

Greeted with a finisher's medal, carnation and T-shirt shortly after crossing the finish, I now can say I ran and survived the 33rd running of Grandma's Marathon. It was a day that even Grandma called one of the hottest Duluth will see all year. As she said about her first marathon-watching experience, "Been there. Done that." I echo the sentiments although I think I'll be back to this race again. And maybe next time it'll be a little cooler. Pictured about is me and Grandma Lutter after cleaning up after the race. Posted by Kate

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